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A Ghostly Joy: An interview with David Turpin

By Alan Kelly.

David Turpin‘s first album, the stark, secretive The Sweet Used-To-Be, was among the best-reviewed Irish debuts of 2008. Now he returns with Haunted! This is a record in love with the possibilities of pop music, taking the listener on a ghost train ride through an eerie interior expanse populated by dancing skeletons, magical animals and celestial bodies. The conventional subject of carnal desire is conspicuous by its absence, and yet the world of the album remains a genuinely tender-hearted one, as the excision of the libidinous allows other forms of love – platonic, commemorative, anthropomorphic – to ripple to the surface. The result has the conceptual rigor of Laurie Anderson, the open-hearted experimentation of Arthur Russell, and the oddly soothing spookiness of The Cure.

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[Image: Mark Duggan]

3:AM: Your work is at turns inspired by folklore, the literature of Frank Baum, Faustian bargainings, the actress Margot Kidder and a fascination with early hip-hop and modern R&B – why the cascade of subject matter?

David Turpin: I wouldn’t say my work is about any of those things, thematically. It’s a failing of mine that I can be fiercely analytical of other people’s art, but when it comes to my own, I prefer not to interrogate where it all comes from. Whenever I finish a piece, there’s always this scrabble for me to provide reference points for it – after the fact – and I tend to just list things I like.

In terms of the album’s sonics, though, there is a definite strain of old hip-hop and new R&B. At the very start, I knew I wanted to make a spooky, lively record that had something to do with skeletons. The rhythm is the skeleton of a song, so I listened to a lot of music that was driven by the rhythm.

3:AM: Analogue magazine compared you to This Mortal Coil, Cocteau Twins, Frazier Chorus, Momus and Pet Shop Boys. I’ve always felt that some of your songs are very Julee Cruise, and you admit that Laurie Anderson – a woman who, like you, mines modern literature, pop culture et al – is an influence. Do you wander in many other worlds before building a song?

DT: If I’m looking for ideas while I’m in the process of making a record, or anything else, I go for a country walk, or I look to films or to writing, just for a little atmospheric nudge. I never think about anybody else’s music when I’m making a record. I use it to reference mixes, and that’s about it. Having said that, I’m aware of all sorts of music, and I suppose it’s all swimming about somewhere in my subconscious all the time, whether I like it or not. It must seep into my work somewhere, because I certainly don’t sing in the bathtub.

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[Image: Mark Duggan]

3:AM: The album is launched at the Hugh Lane Gallery and you’re the first Electromantic pop performer (well the first pop performer) to play in the gallery’s Sculpture Hall. Why this choice of venue?

DT: I’ve always liked doing shows in galleries, and if you’re going to do a show in a Dublin gallery, you may as well do it in the Hugh Lane. So many performers nowadays want to break down the barrier between the audience and the show, to make it into a collective experience. It’s a lovely idea, but it’s anathema to my work. When I perform, I really do think of myself as an object, a thing – so the Sculpture Hall is a very apt place for me to be installed, as it were.

3:AM: There are collaborations with Cathy Davey, Conor O’Brien and Cora Venus Lunny on Haunted! In the past you’ve supported Davey as well as Marc Almond. Is there any singer/song-writer/musician you’d have liked to have on-board making the album?

DT: I’m happy with the cast of the album as it is. I suppose, as with any cast, the distinction between the players and the parts dissolves, and it becomes difficult to imagine what it would have been like with other people playing those same parts. Of course, there are lots of interesting people I’d like to make a record with some day – a lot of them are dead, but one never knows.

3:AM: You’ve said “the record takes place in an imaginary world, and what could be more intimate than that’s wholly imaginary?” Do you make a conscious decision to put as much distance between the musician/pop artist David Turpin and the actual David Turpin? Or is that a dumb question?

DT: I don’t know where the line is between my persona and my personality. If anybody comes to the record looking for an insight into my private life – and I can’t imagine why anybody would look for that – they will not find it. At the same time, every invention on the album is utterly personal to me, since they all came from me. It’s both completely honest and completely divorced from reality. There’s some kind of paradox there, I suppose.

3:AM: The cover of the album has you astride a skeletal black Bess, which is really beautiful. Did you design it yourself?

DT: Yes, I made the cover illustration. It’s a montage made using a portrait of me taken by Annie Atkins. There’s a kind of ghostly joy about this record, and the image just presented itself to me. It was in place quite early in the process, and it helped pull the sound of the record into focus as I was finishing the production.

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3:AM: Why the interest in all things supernatural?

DT: I don’t pick away at why I’m interested in anything. I’m attracted to supernatural things, eerie things, ghostly things, and I don’t need to know where the attraction comes from.

3:AM: Have you decided on which direction to go once you’ve finished with Haunted!?

DT: I have lots of ideas, but I don’t want to say yet. Whatever I say, I’ll probably end up doing precisely the opposite.

3:AM: Are there many contemporary Irish artists you appreciate?

DT: I feel closer to visual artists than to musicians from my generation. My friend Gary Farrelly is a great artist. He lives in Paris. Sophie Iremonger is the high priestess of erotic art, and a very close friend. I worked with her for a spell, though she’s living in Berlin now. As far as music goes, I probably don’t know as much as I ought to about other contemporary musicians in Ireland. I like Cathy Davey and I like Adrian Crowley.

3:AM: How would a eulogy to the deceased David Turpin read and who would you have read it?

DT: That’s easy. “We are richer for having lost him.” It makes no odds to me who reads it, the sentiment is what counts.

David Turpin‘s new album Haunted! is launched at the Hugh Lane Gallery on October 9 and goes on general release October 16.

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Alan Kelly [centre] is 3:AM‘s Film Editor. He has worked for a number of specialist magazines, Film Ireland, Pretty Scary, Penny Blood, Bookslut et al. He lives in Wicklow, Ireland, and is partial to pulp, noir, hardboiled, brainy erotica and horror fiction.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, September 28th, 2009.