A Voice from Heaven: Interview with Monica Queen
by Anna Battista
At a certain point of Dante's 'Divine Comedy', the bard witnesses the glory of Paradise and can finally contemplate a group of blessed spirits disposed in a circle and hear them singing "with voices sweeter than their looks were bright." It's really difficult to imagine how such a sweet and celestial melody might sound and yet, there are on earth a few human beings, gifted with special voices, that might even give us an idea of the angelic choirs Dante heard. One of them is called Monica Queen.
After a couple of years of hard work, singing and writing, Monica, who claims of having an all time hero, "Neil Young," a singer Monica lists among her favourite artists who influenced her music together with "Emmylou Harris, Elvis and Brian Eno," has finally released her first solo album. Ten Sorrowful Mysteries, out on Creeping Bent, which also released Monica's first single, "77X", seems to be ages away from Thrum, the band in which Monica used to sing. Ethereal melodies haunt each song, while Monica's voice proves to be an unbelievable experience for the listener.
"I've written pretty much just the songs recorded plus a couple of albums that never got released," Monica explains, "The first track I ever recorded was 'Lullaby 1' on the Thrum EP." And talking about Monica's releases we must remember that both are produced by Johnny Smillie, another member of Thrum, who also plays guitar on the album. Wonder if Monica misses being in a band? "To be honest no. The drum machine is willing to play the simple rhythms that we like. It actually frees you to be inspired, to paint without question. It's good to rely on your own judgement. We have very strong ideas about our art that we don't like to be diluted. We regret that some of the incredible music we made together with Thrum wasn't released. But we burned brightly while we existed, some of our shows were second to none. I believe Thrum will make another record - why not I'll not be restricted."
Ten Sorrowful Mysteries is an endless epiphany of enchanting melodies and pure hymns. Monica and Johnny co-wrote the lyrics to the whole album, how long does it take them to write tracks? "Oh we take a lot of time - sometimes you can go back to a song that is years old and finish it. As I mentioned earlier we don't write a lot of songs but we will spend a lot of time on one making it as good as we can. We wanted this album to be as beautiful as it possibly could. Incorporating all of the things that we find beautiful in music. We wanted that expansive element you hear in something like Sonic Youth's 'The Diamond Sea', but within the structure of a classic soul song. We had some of the basic idea's for years but it only took a few weeks to record the vocals and guitars. If there is to be a next single it would be '260'. 260 is a bus number, it goes from Glasgow to Coatbridge through some nostalgic sights, the song is about going to visit parents on a dreamy Sunday afternoon gazing out the window."
Apart from singing with Thrum, there is another experience which helped Monica to get known: Stuart Murdoch asked her to join the Glaswegian band Belle & Sebastian to feature on what was probably their best single, "Lazy Line Painter Jane." Will she ever collaborate once again with Belle & Sebastian or with any other Glaswegian band? "Who knows - it's always nice to be asked. I'd like to be like Emmylou Harris doing loads of BVs with cool people. I did a song on a poetry album recently, very dark like Nick Cave, that James Grant was putting together."
Monica also sang with other artists such as the Jayhawks, Grant Lee Buffalo and Shane McGowan, but there's only one who seems to have intrigued her. "Shane McGowan, he certainly lived up to his reputation. But he is a legend and a poet. I would like to play with Neil. And Crazy Horse. We've jammed with Ian McNabb and he's played with Crazy Horse so that's kinda close. I sang with Jimmie Dale Gilmore when he was over here from the States - I did the Emmylou Harris parts from his record - that was cool. I would also love to sing with Jonathan from Mercury Rev - he has so much soul - it kills me. Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips, Grandaddy are all putting a new twist on a traditional sound while retaining melody and soul. Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson have also been making very experimental records too. Low are taking my favourite slowcore sound to new levels also." A list of artists she loves to listen to follows: "Neil Young - always; Mario Lanza; this old Glasgow folk record I found in a market it's wonderful; Bob Dylan; Carter Family; Hank Williams - gospel; Gillian Welch's new one; Sleep Research Facility - electronic. I also love James McMillan - a very great Scottish classical composer."
In the past years, Monica had the chance to sing in the States during the gigs with Thrum. "The States aren't so influenced by the fashion mags like the NME so they tend to take your music at face value without prejudice. This is the same for mainland Europe, I think it's only the UK that stifles artistic expression."
At present Monica and Johnny are rather busy, as they seem to have quite a project. "Ten Sorrowful Mysteries is our immediate future," Monica states, adding "we want to turn the world on to it." Their plan might include playing at festivals all over Europe. "I want to play them all," she starts, "I love to travel, I love to sing. Spain would be good as I've never played there. Ten Sorrowful Mysteries is a concept. It must really be played in whole - like a symphony - supports don't really allow this so we are mainly doing one off special performances in interesting places. Having said that we may do a few songs at the Usher Hall with Belle and Sebastian." So, really soon Monica might have a new chance to prove that she's got an amazing voice, a voice that stirred many compliments and suggested many comparisons. "There have been so many incredible things said in the reviewing of Ten Sorrowful Mysteries, it has been quite overwhelming. To be compared to Emmy, Patsy Cline, Neil, Mary Margaret O'hara is almost too much responsibility."
Dante found divine grace in a vision. Some of us search for it throughout their lives and never find it. Others are just born with it and it manifests in some kind of special talent they have. It might be writing, painting, dancing or singing. Monica Queen's got the latter and it will be hers forever.