In Late February – weeks before anyone could have predicted the lockdown – I got the opportunity to see Geordie rising star IMOGEN perform live in the basement of the Sebright Arms. This venue is an East London pub that has hosted music powerhouses such as The Vaccines, Charli XCX and Catfish and The Bottlemen. It’s small, it’s cosy, and it certainly does not have the capacity to hold such talent inside its four walls for long.
IMOGEN – whose genre is difficult to neatly pin down – is known for her silky vocals and subtle instrumentation, using keys and brass to stretch the boundaries of what pop music really is. Her singles ‘White Lines’ and ‘We Never Dance, Do We’ are both devastatingly beautiful, soft and floating. Incredibly different is IMOGEN’s latest single ‘I Wish I Were you’, which is sultry, dramatic and angsty; every song seems to fit together to create IMOGEN’s sound – songs that juxtapose wildly but are packaged together deliciously.
Sat on the floor in the basement of a pub, I got the chance to chat with IMOGEN about her latest single, the London music industry and her songwriting process. This was all whilst soundcheck was taking place in the background.
Alisha: How are you feeling about tonight? Sebright Arms looks nice and intimate!
IMOGEN: It is nice, I’m a little nervous though
Alisha: I can imagine, but I’m sure it’ll all be fine!
IMOGEN: It’ll be good, it’s my first full-band show in a while. I performed only a few weeks ago at St Pancras Old Church but that was just with keys, a trumpet, and me. I was very very lucky to work with [Jack Courtney]. He’s so good, and he’s in very high demand as a lot of people know he’s amazing, and sometimes he’s on telly and I’m just like [small noise of excitement].
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A: Your last song (‘I Wish I Were You’) included the trumpet instrumentation, and when I first heard it, it really reminded me of something from Killing Eve.
I: Ohhhh no way! I would love that! I got told it would be good in Peaky Blinders as well.
A: So what was the process of making a song like that?
I: Well, to be honest, that song kind of came about in a bit of a panic. I was doing my degree show at Goldsmiths and as usual, I was leaving a lot of things to the last minute. I just made a beat on Logic, and I’ve never really done anything like that before. I’ve always written at the piano. I made the beat and it was so rudimentary, but I just sang over it, and I was like ‘right, cool that’s done!’ and then I brought it to the band and I said ‘right, I’ve done this, you sing that, you do that, you do that!’ and it kind of just happened really quick.
It was definitely a good one to teach in the studio as well because I had a lot of rehearsal samples on my phone just as voice memos, so we put that with the drums. So you can hear my backing vocals and breathing in the background as well.
A: ‘I Wish I Were You’ is so different from your other songs like White Lines, especially with the tone and the instrumentation.
I: Yeah, it really is.
A: I was going to ask as well (because I’m also a Northener) do you think that being from the North has had an impact on your career?
I: Absolutely! I’ve never felt as Geordie as I did when I first moved to London.
A: I was the same! You never feel more Northern until you’re in the South.
I: Because you’re just like ‘Oh my God, not a lot of people here know past the M25, so there’s not a lot of awareness with what goes on in the North, it’s like no man’s land! I would speak – and I don’t have a very, strong, broad Geordie accent – and in Fresher’s week people would be like “Oh my God, say that again, say that again!” So I ended up completely dulling down my accent to have a conversation! It became a bit of a talking point, and I think that’s why I gravitated towards using the trumpet and the saxophone players because they’re from Newcastle as well (and we all went to school together).
A: Do you think it was easier to be a musician in London, rather than Newcastle?
I: I don’t know if ‘easier’ is the right term, but I think as a naïve child, Newcastle was a great place to get into music, because you can feel like a massive fish in a small pond. There would be so many opportunities for you, in terms of huge acts coming through on tour, and you got to support them. You could feel like there was an actual trajectory. […] I know it’s still incredibly underfunded and there’s not that many opportunities for all types of music. London, although it’s got a huge amount of opportunity – and I guess that’s why I’m still here else I would have gone back to Newcastle – It’s a completely different game and there’s a million and one people trying to do the same thing. So you have to think more about how you’re going to stand out, really.
A: So what was it like being at the BBC in Newcastle and getting their love and support?
I: Nick [Roberts] has always been such a champion and I’m so grateful. Since I was tiny he’s encouraged me which is really great, and everyone at BBC Introducing is so good, and it’s such a great thing that’s been set up. It’s always nice to go and see him. […] It’s always nice to do live sessions and show off what you can do live.
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A: What are you doing next? Rumour has it that you’ve got an EP coming out…
I: Well I’m sitting on a lot of work at the moment, which is a good place to be. But, I feel like I’ve got a secret and I don’t know when to let it go. I don’t want to give too much away but stuff will be coming to the surface soon! I’ve got some [gigs] ready to announce; more in London and some across the UK and some festivals as well.
Watching IMOGEN perform felt like I was seeing the world’s best-kept secret. Her songs, many unreleased, seemed oddly familiar yet so unique, which is a testament to the comforting qualities of her voice and her lyrics. Even in the relatively early days of her career, she shows incredible knowledge of how to use instruments to her own advantage, taking risks that are pulled off impeccably.
With the direction she appears to be heading, I predict great things for IMOGEN, possibilities that reach beyond the basement of the Sebright Arms.
Listen to ‘I Wish I Were You’ below: