Sarah Martin reluctantly learned the violin at school. By the time she went to university, it seems that it had slipped into a case and out of her mind, replaced by the discordant cry of electric guitars.
“I hadn’t played for ages. It was only when I met Stuart that I said, ‘I got a violin, you know. I could dig that out.‘” This was 1996 and the Stuart in question is Stuart Murdoch, frontman of Scottish six-piece Belle and Sebastian. Sarah had, rather casually, joined one of the most prolific indie bands of the era - just before the recording of the cult album If You’re Feeling Sinister.
When Sarah mentions the first time she heard Stuart’s demo, her face lights up with excitement. “The tape was amazing. I had been listening to Love and Dog on Wheels. It didn’t remind me of anything. It felt otherworldly. Too good to exist.”
Since then, she has become one of their primary vocalists and made their subtly-detailed sound her own by writing a handful of songs, two of which are featured on the new record Girls in Peacetime Want To Dance.
The musician now perched at the end of the sofa, back straight and hands in lap, has turned forty. She looks at me curiously, with slightly narrowed eyes, as if unaccustomed to being the sole subject of attention. “I didn’t used to write music,” she begins. “When I was at school, I had to write a piece for my GCSEs, but it was a hoop to jump through. I’m in a situation I never thought I would find myself in.”
So how did she get there? She recollects being drawn to the flute in Swan Lake, but ultimately chose the violin at school because it looked like a proper instrument next to the plastic recorder. It wasn‘t until the unsettling screech of The Velvet Underground and eerie viola of 1980s group The Band of Holy Joy revealed more intriguing and subversive ways to play, that she saw it in a different light. “There were just little hints that maybe it wasn‘t quite as pointless as it had seemed. But I really wished I could play the guitar.”
At times I find it difficult to grasp the character of Sarah‘s evident talent and pick helplessly at her disarming modesty. Is she belittling her work or just refreshingly disinterested in marketing her own achievements? I quickly realise this is not a run-of-the-mill interview. Listening to music was always a vital part of Sarah’s world, whereas the idea of making it wasn’t.
Growing up in a countryside house miles away from her friends at school, Sarah immersed herself in The Smiths and Sonic Youth and longed to get away. She eventually moved to Glasgow to study philosophy and linguistics and more or less stumbled over a bustling indie scene alive with Tuesday night gigs and plus-one entries. Anyone could form a band and anyone did. At times, she found the casual DIY approach a little ridiculous. “A lot of guys are more interested in being in the band than doing anything original. That’s what I felt most of my friends were doing. They would book a rehearsal room and it seemed like a waste of time.” She smiles. “But every now and then you would hear something proper and you’d think, ‘They’re just people, like us.‘ People were my age and in bands. It had never crossed my mind before that you could do that or write music.”
Composing songs is now a craft she’s made her own. Does she find it helpful to write within the frame of the band? “I don’t think anything makes it easier to write,” she counters. “There are occasions when Stuart has said that a song appears in his head fully formed. That has never happened to me. Bastard!” She laughs. “Tunes do, but when it comes to writing and turning it into a song, I have to sit down and concentrate. Things come in tiny blocks for me, while they seem to come in whole song-shapes for Stuart.“ She pauses for a few seconds. “He’s very blessed.”
The new album is a continuation of Belle and Sebastian’s playful sound and cleverly-crafted lyrics, but the subject matter has matured alongside the members of the band. “I‘m too close to identify the themes, but some people think they are quite adult, without it being, you know, x-rated. Just things that happen when you‘re not a teenager anymore.”
One of Sarah’s songs, The Book of You, is about being stuck in a past relationship, going over the same scenes and memories like the lines in a far too familiar story. Her high-pitched vocals soar above a disconcertingly cheerful melody, painfully aware of its own blindness and inability to move on.
Girls In Peacetime sometimes gets a little bit stuck as well, sliding down familiar routes to a disco beat (apparently partly inspired by Eurovision). It first strikes me as uneven. But then I start noticing those little things that make Belle and Sebastian who they are: the tinkling clatter mixed with the guitar on The Party Line, the final melodramatic chorus of The Everlasting Muse, the soft vibrating sound of the violin on The Cat With The Cream. We meet a band that has managed to grow up and preserve their forceful innocence along the way. “Perfect couples, breaking up,“ goes the chorus to one song, while the aforementioned The Party Line drags you back to the muffled bass of once-carefree club nights. There is a tangible desire to escape, stifled by the inability to actually tie your shoes and head out the door, while references to the outside world remain distant and vague.
But Belle and Sebastian’s business is making room for daydreams within the dreariness. Their wandering melodies render the restlessness of the everyday bearable by disrupting, twisting and shaking the frames of language into unpredictable narratives. Dreaming is not essential for survival, but it’s the very point of being alive.
As promised by its title, escapism perpetuates on Girls in Peacetime Want To Dance. One of Sarah’s songs on the album, The Power of Three, addresses - wait for it - the metaphysical side of quantum theory. “There seemed to be an inherent threeness about it,” she begins, referring to the distinct synth melody and verse-verse-chorus song structure. “It became about the instability of three. You have two people and then a third. So for the last verse I took on time as the fourth dimension. If time is a line, then I just hang out in the bit where the drama never happened.” She smiles at the idea. “So in the end it‘s just a denial of reality.”
This interview was originally published in issue 24 of Oh Comely.