Place has always been important to Ailsa Tully, who grew up singing in a church choir in the Welsh countryside before moving to South London to study music. The singer-songwriter finds subtle ways of evoking elements from her childhood in her music, particularly on her new EP, Holy Isle, released last week via Dalliance Recordings (Gia Margaret, Francis of Delirium), which follows her 2018 EP Feuds as well as a string of promising singles. There’s a nostalgic, self-reflective quality to how she incorporates both lush vocal harmonies and field recordings into her brand of warm indie folk, whether capturing scenes of nature – gale-force winds, birdsong – or using the rumble of a washing machine to hint at a sense of domestic stress on ‘Sheets’. But even in this quietly mesmerizing, 17-minute project, everything in Tully’s work – from her vulnerable lyricism to her string arrangements and wonderful production flourishes – contributes not only to a distinct sense of atmosphere, but also serves to advance the emotional narrative that is woven throughout. Holy Isle is centered around a breakup, but it’s everything around it that gives the music its own sense of identity – one that can only grow with each subsequent release.
We caught up with Ailsa Tully for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her songwriting journey, how she approached Holy Isle, and more.
How do you look back on your upbringing?
I grew up in South Wales. My dad was a musician, and he was really successful – he played with John Martin and had lots of his own projects, and he won the Eurovision Song Contest and did the music for a film called Gregory’s Girl, which at the time was a big deal. I think having him as a parent completely made me want to do it – I wouldn’t have chosen to make music if it hadn’t been for him. We played a lot together, and that really shaped my childhood because it was so much music, all the time – him playing in different projects and kind of pushing me to make stuff and to be involved.
What kind of memories come to mind when you think of playing together or the kind of music that you were exposed to?
We played like all the time in the house. And he would sing a lot to me when I was growing up – my first memory is of him singing to me in a bath. I can remember it so clearly – I must have been about three. And I think I quickly realized it made me use my ear a lot to kind of form melodies and to remember melodies, because later on in my musical life, I went more through a classical system of reading music and stuff, and I was like, “No, I can just listen to my dad.” Like he’ll sing it to me and then I’ll go, “Oh, great.” So you kind of get around things if you’re bad at them, and that shaped a lot to do with how I then approached music and why I was so terrible at reading music. But yeah, a lot of my childhood I was just playing kind of naturally together with him, and then getting more involved in classical music in my A-level years, and then turning away from that, which, you know, had to happen [laughs].
How did you decide to venture out into your own songwriting?
I was doing classical music and it just wasn’t what I wanted to do at all. And one day my dad said, “I think you should start writing songs, because I was about your age when I started writing songs.” And I was like, “Okay!” So I just did. [laughs] I wrote my first song, and it was really complicated. It had like three different sections, and it was about Dido and Aeneas because I was studying classics at the time. It was the most pretentious thing I’ve possibly ever written. And that was my first song.
Why do you think that was the kind of song you wanted to write?
I don’t know, I think I didn’t really understand then about writing about personal stuff. I’d been very much in the classical world, I hadn’t done any singer-songwriter stuff when I was about 16. I kind of wanted to, but I didn’t really know how to approach it, and so I needed to write about something else. I suppose it’s quite an emotional story, but I still didn’t really know how to make might make something of my own yet.
How did you open up into a more personal kind of songwriting?
That’s been a very long process for me. I feel like only recently, like in the last year, I’ve been able to be really honest in a clear way. Because I started writing and I was like, “I’ll just disguise everything with really flowery language and people won’t really know what’s going on.” Because I didn’t feel that comfortable, I suppose, with expressing myself in such an honest way. I think I was still trying to work out my voice as a musician and I was listening to a lot of people like Joanna Newsom, and her lyrics are incredibly intricate and complicated. And I think I was trying to go down that path because I was scared – I didn’t want to reveal my emotional self at that point.
That’s interesting, because another artist I interviewed recently also brought up Joanna Newsom in a similar context. So I’m wondering if, for you, there were any songwriters that showed you that it was okay to write in a more diaristic kind of way.
I was very influenced by Laura Marling, but I think she’s also one to use poetry and other experiences to create. I think maybe someone like Marika Hackman in her most recent work has been very direct and honest, and I suppose there were a few artists at the time that were making a transition from very folky to maybe a bit more like, “No, this is what I’m feeling,” more direct.
What was your approach going into your new EP, Holy Isle?
I suppose it is a breakup EP – which I never felt like it was, but it is, and it’s very transitional. Some of the songs, like ‘Sheets’ and ‘Holy Isle’ and even ‘Your Mess’, they’re really quite old, and it’s taken me a long time to get them finished. ‘Greedy’ is much more recent and it was quite a different experience creating that, because all the other songs I’ve been very much mindful of how they’re gonna sound in a live setting. I didn’t want to overcomplicate everything, but with ‘Greedy’, because we were not performing and I didn’t do it with the band and we had to do everything remotely, it was really fun to play with. And I felt like that process really informed how we’re going to think about production for the EP, and it’s going to be creating more of a soundworld than just thinking about how it’d be live.
Why do you say it didn’t feel like a breakup EP at first?
I mean, in hindsight, I can really see that it is, but some of the songs, they’re about my relationship, but there’s only one song that really is about letting someone go, and I think that’s ‘Holy Isle’. And weirdly, with ‘Holy Isle’, I wrote the song ages ago, about the relationship that I was in then. And then I just felt like it was never finished. And then when I went through my breakup a few months afterwards, I came back to ‘Holy Isle’ when we were going to record it, and all the lyrics just came about the breakup. And it was like I needed to break up to have this verse so that the song felt finished, and I think that’s why I felt like, “Oh, it’s a breakup EP.” You know, the song wasn’t about my breakup before but it was never finished until I had the breakup, and it was like all the pain that had been in the song before, it just made sense. Sometimes you have to go through that emotion and through that stuff in your life to make a song complete.
I wanted to ask you about that song specifically, because I kept listening to it and I kind of realized that shift. And it’s a bit surprising because there’s this slow progression to the song and it starts out really gentle and affectionate, and then just as the strings come in, there’s this tension. I was wondering, besides the realization that made you want to add that verse in, what was your thought process for having the tone shift like that, as opposed to maybe letting the song be what it is in the beginning and then writing another song about what happened afterward?
I probably will write loads more songs about what’s happened, but that song, it was very much about my relationship at the time and what we were going through, but like two years before, about being in this place. We were on holiday in [the Isle of] Arran and we had this conversation, looking over the bay, and Holy Isle is there – it’s like a Buddhist’s island where you go and have a retreat from the world. We weren’t there for that reason, but we were on the island, looking over the other island, and the place is really important to me because my family’s been returning to Arran my whole life, and my dad’s family were returning to Arran before that. I’m also named after an island off of Arran, the Ailsa Craig.
And we had this moment when we were looking over this other island, we were talking a lot about our relationship and what we were going through at the time, and that felt like it was was just so meaningful. I didn’t want to write a song that was all about, you know, we broke up and I’m really angry with you, because that’s not how it was. It felt like it was really nice to capture that moment and be like, the love you feel for somebody and how much they mean to you, that still exists when you break up with somebody. That can still exist as much as the pain. And I think that’s why it felt like it was important to have an overarching feeling, and it wasn’t just going to be like, “I’m pissed off, argh!” Because it is nuanced, what you go through in a breakup, and anything you go through in your life is nuanced – there’s not just one emotion. And I think that’s why ‘Holy Isle’ I felt so important, because it had all that meaning for me anyway, about the place, and then that part of our relationship, it kind of moved forward into this moment where I was like, “We’ve been through so much and it’s so hard that we have to break up, but I’m so grateful for what you’ve given me in my life.” And the cellos were like this big explosion of gratitude.
I really wanted to use the cellos because I’m cellist originally, and I wanted to make it kind of catching you off because it’s intense, you know, what you go through, and I wanted to evoke the intensity after that brooding kind of conversation. Because you go through that in a breakup, lots of conversations and things that feel quite like you’re kind of going ebbing and flowing through it all, and then there can just be these big [makes whoosh sound] moments. And that’s why it felt like I had to bring it all together in one.
I was thinking of the line “I wish I could make a mess/ And feel from my chest,” which is such a powerful sentiment to have at the start of the EP. What does that mean for you, to feel something from your chest?
I think being in a really long-term relationship, you have lots of expectations, and you become someone from being with someone else. And I think sometimes, you try to grow out of that, and you can’t. And when I broke up, it was like this moment where I was like, I can do whatever I want. It is like a kind of release, but also it’s quite painful – well, it’s very painful, but the other side of it is, rather than thinking, you’re leading with your emotions. And that’s what it meant to me at the time, just that raw, impulsive movement to your life.
But there’s also something kind of holding you back at the same time, right, because you’re imagining it – you’re wishing.
Yeah. So that was like the kind of brink of moving into that stage where you’re trying to weigh, Is this something that I can actually do? Can I actually break something to start again? So there’s a lot of tension in it, for sure, especially in the beginning.
And then with the final track, ‘Your Mess’, you’re kind of returning to that idea, but instead of making a mess, it’s more in the sense of being someone else’s mess.
Yeah. I’m just obsessed with mess. So, I wrote ‘Greedy’ after, because ‘Your Mess’ is quite old, and I was like, “Why am I always talking about this?” [laughs] I was at a point where I felt like, “Why am I always the one that has something wrong with me? Why am I always this problem that you have to solve?” And it’s not at all a slight on them. I think some people might think that I’m like “your mess,” you know, like you’ve made a mess, but it was like, “I’m a mess.” That’s kind of what it was about.
When it comes to the field recordings that you use throughout the EP, how conscious were you of wanting to include a certain recording when writing a song, or are you the kind of person who just records a lot in general, without necessarily knowing how it may be useful in the future?
Kind of both. I normally know with a song, if it’s been in a certain place, I’ll know what kind of sounds I want. But I do record a lot – I’ve made like the millionth recording of wind on the black mountains where I live, and where my parents live in Wales. I’m always collecting sounds, and that’s very useful because you can build up a bit of a library, but normally it’s because the song is in a place, and I really like thinking about like, when did I do this, what did it mean at the time, where was I? And I think that that feels really emotionally important to the song. I don’t know if that comes through to anyone else – obviously to someone else it’s like, “Oh, there’s a wave,” [laughs] but for me, it’s pretty important.
Do you mind sharing what some of your most recent recordings are that you might use in the future?
Yeah, well, this is a bit tricky, but my dad’s recently passed away from cancer. And I’ve been recording him – just like recording him talking or recording him playing. So, I think I’m going to use that in a body of work in the future, because he’s, you know, was such an amazing musician. We’ve done lots of little low-key recordings together, but that was very difficult, recording him trying to play again, and like practicing again, when he was losing the ability to do that. So yeah, very, very painful, but that’s my most recent recording.
I’m really sorry to hear that.
Have you found yourself revisiting memories from that relationship and the music that you shared together in your current work?
I think I will, but maybe a bit later down the line. Because the music for us was like a big bond. I think I need a bit more time before I can go back there again. But I will, and I’m going to hopefully use a lot of those little samples in future work, because it’s going to be – I feel I probably need to write an album about this. [laughs] I guess it’s a way of still playing with him, but not being able to. So yeah, we’ll come to that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.