Chloe Foy’s debut album, Where Shall We Begin, has been ten years in the making. The Gloucestershire-via-Manchester songwriter released her debut single, ‘In The Middle of the Night’, all the way back in 2013, followed by a series of tracks that found success on Spotify, including ‘Flaws’ and ‘Asylum’, several EPs, a tour with Jesca Hoop, and numerous festival appearances. But Foy’s first full-length sets out to present a fuller picture of her strengths as a musician and producer: influenced by her classical music education as well as songwriters like Gillian Welch and Edith Piaf and producers like Blake Mills and John Congleton, Foy worked on the record with her collaborator Harry Fausing Smith, who is also responsible for the beautiful and layered string arrangements that blossom throughout its 10 songs. Meditating on the loss of her father as well as her personal and creative journey over the past decade, Foy treats each song with tremendous care, infusing its sublime melodies and evocative lyrics with great warmth and intimacy. The mood ranges from quietly melancholic to empathetic, but as Foy coats each sentiment through her rich vocals and refined instrumentation, the result is both wonderfully cohesive and comforting.
We caught up with Chloe Foy for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her musical journey, the process of making Where Shall We Begin, and more.
This album closes out a formative ten-year period for you. What has your relationship with writing been like during that time?
I think, like anything over the course of 10 years, it’s developed quite a lot. 10 years is a formative time no matter where you place in somebody’s life – this for me was from my teenager years into my 20s, and that included the loss of my father, as well as moving out into a bigger city to university and meeting all the different people and musicians that I’ve met up in Manchester that created this melting pot of influences. Not just from new music that I was listening to, but from peers that I was going to see play or starting to play with. Plus, I was doing a classical music degree at university. I’d gone from writing songs in my bedroom as a teenager – I mean, I still very much write songs in my bedroom, but they were a lot simpler in tone. I suppose I was always trying to tackle difficult subjects in my own life, but I think as the 10 years have gone along, I have paid more attention to my lyrics and how I’m getting the subject across, and also have just been more ambitious, perhaps, in my arrangements of songs and the structure of songs.
What initially inspired you to start making music?
I’d always done music in one way or another. [My parents] both loved music, and they never had that opportunity, so they put any of their extra pennies into me going to have some lessons. So I’d always been doing classical music from about the age of eight. My influence from my dad was, although I was playing classical music as a kid, the music I was listening to either at home or with friends at school was all popular music, so really what I was going away consuming was anything from like Rolling Stones, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, which was from my dad, to whatever was currently on trend. I was big into indie bands, and also certainly had a very pop group phase from about the age of eight to 12. So I think putting those all together and then finally picking up the guitar around 13 or 14 – my dad was delighted I picked up the guitar because he could kind of relate to that a little more, perhaps. And then I think it was just my guitar teacher that said, you know, I’d learned the basic chords, “Why don’t you write a song?” And so I went away and did that, and then it just kind of spiraled from there.
You mentioned some traditional singer-songwriters, but I read that you’ve also cited producers like Blake Mills as having an influence on you. Were you always interested in that side of music – how things are produced – or was that something that came later on?
That’s been something that’s come a little later for me. It’s only been in recent years that I’ve truly appreciated the kind of curatorial role that [a producer] can play in a body of work. I think it was just one particular year, in 2017, when I suddenly caught on to Blake Mills, because that was the year that both Laura Marling released Semper Femina and Jesca Hoop released Memories Are Now. And it was drawing the line between those and going, “Wow, the same guy produced these.” What I love about that is that you can hear that he’s produced them, but at the same time, they’re very individual to the artists still. And having since gone on to work with Jesca Hoop, you know, they have a longstanding relationship, and so hearing about that producer-artist relationship has been really interesting.
On that note, you co-produced your debut album with Harry Fausing Smith, who also did the string arrangements for the record. What do you like about working with him? What’s that relationship like?
I mean, we go back a long way, so we’re old friends. And it’s been a project for both of us in a lot of ways. Although my name is on it, it’s been an opportunity for him too, because he had not produced a full record before, so really it was a chance for him to put his name to something and show what he could do in that capacity. Because really, he can play pretty much every instrument going, he’s got an excellent ear for arrangement and string work. He knows a lot of reference points that I was after and the place that I come from, so in that way it’s very representative of me.
Why did this feel like the right moment to produce your first full body of work?
Good question. I’d released a lot of singles and EPs prior to that and I was pretty ready to be more of an album-releasing artist. Although I’d had success on Spotify with singles, you know, it’s not totally quantifiable and it’s not totally real in some ways. And I felt I’d never got the chance so far to put out something that felt truly representative of me, because I think you can say so much with a single, and that’s great, but with an album you can say a diverse range of things within one sort of sound well. You can show people the true colors of yourself a bit more when you’ve got 10 songs to your name instead of two. So I was really keen to do that.
I feel that relates to the title of the album, because in my head, Where Shall We Begin is like, “Where do I begin telling this story? How do I put myself out there, and which parts or colours of myself do I show?” Does that sound right?
I think you’ve pretty much got it, yeah. Obviously, it’s quite nice that it neatly fits into it being a debut record. But there’s sort of that tongue-in-cheek question to it that’s a bit like, “Where on earth do we begin when it’s your first record and it’s a piece of you that’s going out into the world?” And obviously, it comes from that first song, which is probably the most existential song on the record, and which is kind of saying, “Where do we begin when we’re trying to examine the meaning of existence?” Because there’s not really a good place to start, so let’s just start here.
‘Shining Star’ is one of the most personal songs on the album, and you’ve talked about how it reflects on your father’s decision to not follow his passion in life, and how that gave you an early life lesson to pursue your own. I’m not sure how far back the origins of this song go, but I’m curious if your perspective on the subject has changed at all.
It’s something I’ve wrestled with over the last year, for sure, because COVID has come along and made it all the more challenging to continue to pursue a creative career. And I think a lot of creatives have felt hugely left out by society and by the government. So for me, I’ve wavered several times, having worked lots of different jobs whilst pursuing music for a long time, until the end of 2018 when I decided I would give it a go full time. And then 2019 I had this wonderful year that only seemed to get better, so I felt like I was just finding my place in the world. And then 2020 came along. I’ve had so many moments over the last year where I have wavered and thought, “Well, maybe I should do something else, because this is really, really hard.” Because I think all creatives enter into a creative pursuit knowing that it’s going to be hard in normal circumstances anyway, but then add a pandemic into the mix and that makes it a whole lot harder. So from that perspective, I have certainly thought about it a lot. And I understand the pressures that we have in society to conform to some sort of normality, primarily so that we get by financially. I understand how hard it is, but I think I’m still learning from my dad’s unhappiness. There’s still that root and fire in my belly that goes, “No, come on, keep trying.”
A song that resonated with me in a similar way is ‘And It Goes’, which is such a profoundly moving and empathetic track. Given its emotional weight, how much of a challenge was it to really get it right compared to the other songs?
Thank you, firstly. But it was really hard. I remember trying to sing that one and struggling quite a bit, because it’s a bit more choral as well so I think I was being overly self-critical about my vocal ability, especially towards the end. With that bit at the end of the layering of the vocals, that feels very much like a classically-inspired lullaby. But I think ultimately, you just put your heart and soul into it to try and get the emotional message across.
What did you want to channel with that kind of lullaby-like sound, and what was your headspace like when you were writing it?
I realized I had never really written a song about my mom – it had always been about the loss of my dad. And although this song is inspired by that, it has more of a positive background in that it’s sort of a dedication to my mom. And that ending with the “ohs”, it feels quite classical and choral to me, inspired by [how] classical composers go away and write a dedicated piece to someone, their beloved. I think that last bit came about towards the end of the process of writing, and in the first bit, I was just in the space of feeling a lot of love and feeling thankful for role that she has played in being there and being two parents. To me, it has always felt like a lullaby, because there’s parallels in there when I think about how she always makes me feel comforted, and always has done, and who was the person to sing lullabies to me as baby. So it’s trying to come full circle a bit.
There’s a certain vulnerability to these songs as well as compassion. There’s a line on ‘Work of Art’ specifically I wanted to mention, which is “made this for the weak of heart.” Do you have a certain audience in mind when you’re writing that will relate to that vulnerability?
When I write, I can say it’s not necessarily targeted at certain people, but I think by default it will end up in those who resonate with those lyrics. It’s funny because I struggle to be open about vulnerability in person and in speech, but when it comes to writing it down in song, I find it much more easy to be open about it. So I think hopefully the people that pay attention to those lyrics and find that something speaks to them there, they’ll probably find that they have something in common with the the next person who also feels the same about that. That’s why I like bringing lots of people together in a room, to find that commonality and vulnerability that we all have.
What do you hope those who listen to the album take away from it?
Just a sense of hope, ultimately. Because I think as I go through these songs and I pick things apart, there is that vulnerability there and there’s the loss that runs throughout, but there’s also, I would hope, this sense of possibility and resolve, despite these difficulties and these vulnerabilities, that ultimately we will survive, and that life is quite a wonderful thing.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Chloe Foy’s Where Shall We Begin is out now.