CQAF Artist-in-Residence: Isobel Anderson

Sound books, supporting acts and Glastonbury - Belfast has been good to the Brighton-born artist

Isobel Anderson, musician, composer and visual artist - who was recently announced as the 2011 Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival Artist-in-Residence - is blonde, unruffled and retro-chic. Bohemian is the word that springs to mind. It isn't surprising to find out that she is a graduate of the London music scene.

Yet, for Anderson, despite working for some prestigious arts organizations there such as the London College of Music and hip-hop theatre company Jonzi D Productions, her stint in London was a frustrating one, at least on a personal level. In the end, the city stifled her creativity. ‘Everything was about making ends meet,’ Anderson explains. ’There was no time for my own music.’

Belfast has been different. Anderson moved there to study for an MA at Queen’s University’s Sonic Arts Research Centre. ‘Ground down’ by her time in London, she was focused on academia – ‘it was ridiculous, I hardly went out at all during my MA’ – rather than entrance to the local music community. ‘But it felt like the minute I stopped trying, everything fell into place,’ she says. ‘The music scene here was just so welcoming and exciting.’

Better than London? According to Anderson, it is. The London scene might boast the best of the best, but it is also very established. Not easy to break into for an artist who is just starting out. By comparison, Anderson describes Belfast as being ‘hungry for things to happen’. And for the last six months, the city has also been hungry for more of Anderson’s music.

Cold Water Songs, her first album, recorded in the SARC studio whilst Anderson worked on her MA project, was released in August 2010. Anderson sent a copy to BBC Radio Ulster's Arts Extra. It was played on air and Anderson was invited in for an interview. Her eclectic style and confident vocals impressed the listeners and, in her own words, ‘the next six months went well’.

David Torrance, owner of No Alibis bookstore and general art aficionado, gave Anderson a slot in his tent during the 2010 Open House Festival; the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival noticed her and invited her to be their Artist-in-Residence for 2011, and she has just finished recording her second album. ‘It’s called I Don’t Know Yet,’ she laughs. ‘I just finished recording this weekend.’

The new album does have a different feel to her debut, with Anderson accompanied by multi-instrumentalist, Paddy McQueen and violinist, Gascia Ouzounian. Anderson met Ouzounian at a Black Box gig – she draws a blank on the name ‘Vibic? Sexy Vibes? Sexy Vibic?’ – and McQueen is an old friend from back home.

All three will perform at Anderson’s Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival supporting gigs for Kate Rusby, Fionn Regan, Doug Paisley and Polar Bear. Anderson says that the whole thing is still a ‘bit surreal’, but in a good way. ‘I saw Doug Paisley in concert when I was 16,’ she says. ‘I never thought I would end up here, about to share a stage with him and people like Kate Rusby.’

Anderson is evidently inspired by the amount of variety in the acts she will be supporting. The Artist-in-Residence post is something that she thinks her music is perfectly suited for. She cites jazz and soul as primary influences and mentions that McQueen’s playing is very influenced by hip-hop.

Anderson's isn’t quite an overnight success story, more the sort of long-awaited break that could easily go to an artist’s head. For the moment, however, she is careful to balance her artistic success with the academic work she came to Belfast for. With an MA already under her belt, she is currently working on her PhD at SARC. ‘It is about how sound art can explore our relationship to places and how we orient ourselves using stories,’ she explains.

At the moment she is working on a ‘sound-book’ also, about Belvoir Park Forest. The piece incorporates fact and fiction – newspaper stories and the old house that used to be there; poetry and ghost stories about the area – to create a sound-based walk through the forest.

Anderson's schedule for the rest of 2011 includes a residency in Curfew Tower in Cushendall – where she will be creating a work that resonates with the area – and playing at Glastonbury on the acoustic stage. One thing is clear, Anderson is never going to be an easy artist to pigeon-hole.

Listen to Anderson's 'An Hour With You' in the podcast, and watch a performance at No Alibis bookstore below, filmed by Paul McParland.

Check out What's On to find out more about the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival