Set for release via FatCat Records on March 29, 2019, C Duncan’s highly anticipated third album sees the Scottish multi-instrumentalist ditch his bedroom studio and work with other producers, engineers and musicians for the first time. “This was the biggest shift in dynamic for me,” he explains, “having always worked alone, it was a daunting prospect but one I knew I had to explore.” Navigating themes of love, anxiety and sexuality, ‘Health’ is a deeply personal record that delves into a world Duncan had previously felt uneasy exploring. “Writing it was a very cathartic process. It helped me through a lot of tough times and also to celebrate the good,” he continues. Warm and harmonically rich, Duncan delightfully juxtaposes the vibrant and wholesome aesthetic of the album with an often darker lyrical undertone, pushing himself to refine and explore new ways of writing. As the sole protagonist of his self-carved niche, ‘Health’ sees Duncan evolve and expand its parameters in mesmerising fashion.
Born and raised in Glasgow, Duncan began writing songs in his early teens, further honing his craft while earning a degree at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. A trained pianist and violist, he quickly discovered his love for rock and pop, dabbling in bands while at school, and adding guitar, bass and drums to his extensive repertoire. By the time he gathered enough courage to send FatCat Records some demos, he was already crafting elaborately arranged pop songs that felt majestically unrushed. The label were instant fans, and agreed to release Duncan’s debut on completion.
More than a record, 2015’s ‘Architect’ felt like one man’s labour of love. Unencumbered by time constraints or the influence of outside producers, Duncan methodically and intricately layered his ethereal songs in his bedroom studio. Combining church hall harmonies, rustling percussion and multi-tiered instrumentation to create a work dazzling with ingenuity yet full of subtlety, it won him favourable comparisons to Grizzly Bear, Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes. From delicate, pastoral dream pop to intimate, electronic-tinged folk, songs like ‘Say,’ ‘For’ and ‘Garden’ garnered early attention and the exhausting construction project that caused his computer to give out several times during the process seemed to have paid off. As a result, ‘Architect’s’ timeless, genre-defiant and endless invention earned Duncan a coveted Mercury Prize nomination.
If ‘Architect’ made the music world sit up, it’s 2016 follow up pushed his trademark layered production even further. Citing the American sci-fi thriller television show The Twilight Zone as the conceptual starting point, ‘The Midnight Sun’ shared the melancholy atmospherics of Cocteau Twins, Broadcast, Stereolab and Air. Blending sweeping synth sounds with hushed vocals and dreamy instrumentation, it’s spiralling odysseys felt like an endless, surreal slumber, breaking down the walls of his bedroom with moments of rapture. Duncan’s whistling falsetto sailed magnificently over the ambient textures, taking on a more electronic direction without abandoning his penchant for dreamlike orchestrations. If he was daunted about the prospect of following up his critically-acclaimed debut, it certainly didn’t show. Meticulously thought out and painstakingly assembled, ‘The Midnight Sun’ defied convention, its spellbinding arrangements further establishing his unique identity. “That album was very insular in a way, and everything – including the lyrics – was clouded by an icy melancholia,” explains Duncan. “With album 3 I wanted to take a more direct approach, adding even more layers but thematically and lyrically laid bare.”
‘Health’ succeeds on both counts, it’s soaring sonic tapestries chiming with rippling enchantment and Duncan’s vocal harmonies executed with acute precision. “Having someone else to bounce production ideas off was really eye-opening for me. In the past I had been very controlling about how everything would sound but ‘Health’ really showed me the benefit of working with others and made the whole process much less isolating,” he explains. Reverberating with staccatoed urgency, album opener ‘Talk Talk Talk,’ documents the trials of miscommunication and trying to rebuild fractured relationship, whilst the rhythmic art-funk of ‘Impossible’ sees Duncan’s use of strings and oddball psychedelic sounds combine with equal vigour. Written around the time of the anti-gay purges in Chechnya, ‘He Came From The Sun’ sees Duncan slow things down and contemplate his own life and experience of coming out. “The character depicted in the song is almost a martyr-like figure who symbolises the ongoing fight for gay rights, and the activists who do so. Chechnya was a stark reminder of how warped and brutal the world can still be.” In contrast, the super breezy ‘Holiday Home’ was written to cheer up his Dad who had fallen on his own hard times. The title track documents the end of a previous relationship, it’s syncopated piano rhythm and brooding vocal harmonies reminiscent of the ‘The Midnight Sun’s’ soothing aural beauty, whilst ‘Blasé’ marches to its own tune, it’s lilting swing a healthy reminder not to let others bring you down. ‘Reverie’s’ dreamy atmospherics recall a low period for Duncan, whose own mental health had taken a nose dive, leading to recurrent thoughts and dreams of being consumed by the sea. The cascading ‘Pulses and Rain’ follows a regular pattern. “For some reason each album has a song about writing songs. This one is about being daunted by starting something from scratch and gradually everything starts to fall into place.” ‘Stuck Here With You’ keeps the pace going before ‘Care’ wraps things up, the undulating heartbreak ballad a gentle and sombre end to an album packed with fresh ideas and buzzing with invention.
Another big part of Duncan’s artistry is his painting, which he says goes hand and hand with his music. Duncan started painting seriously in his late mid-teens, developing a fascination for Polish poster art of the 80’s and 90’s, and artists such as Wiktor Sadowski and Stasys Eidrigevicius. “Their wonderfully absurd and surreal images opened up a new world for me and what I could do with my own art.” Surrealist painters like René Magritte and Max Ernst and the straight lines and prominent shadows of Giorgio de Chirico formed Duncan’s artistic tastes and styles. “Together music and art inform what the album will be and what it’s about. ‘Architect’ and ‘The Midnight Sun’ were essentially about where I wrote them, the former depicting bird’s eye views of the locations and the latter a personal snapshot of a place I spent many hours thinking about music. The images attached to ‘Health’ are fictional and fantastical. I didn’t have the same need to visually show where the record was written, but instead show how the music makes me feel. The record’s colourful and natural, which reflects the instrumentation and lyrics. However, there’s an eeriness and ambiguity to the imagery which is breezy yet strange.”
Having fast-tracked from playing basement venues alone to selling out 900 cap venues within a year, C Duncan’s live show has come along leaps and bounds. Now flanked by a four-piece band, they provide a fitting backdrop of spacey ambient sounds, with his vocals taking on an elegiac, choral quality over soft arpeggiated synthesisers.