The Joy of Independence
Feb. 06, 2006
by Matt Schild

What do you do when you bounce from record company to record company, leaking singles on a slew of labels, running into disinterest, mismanagement and a handful of other signals your recording career isn’t getting off the ground like you had hoped? If you’re like nearly every act since punk rock launched low-budget indie labels into existence, you scrape together a few bucks and have a go at the record-making biz.

Then you suddenly realize you’re in way, way over your head. Distribution deals, publicity and tour booking don’t fall into your lap, after all, dude.

Nobody told Sing-Sing that dropping out of the search for a label to form its own record company, Aerial Records was supposed to be a pain in the neck. Nobody told the London duo that getting a self-released, self-financed and self-made record anywhere but the cutout bins is an uphill struggle Sisyphus himself wouldn’t want to take on. In fact, sit down and talk with singer/guitarist Emma Anderson about going the do-it-yourself route with her act’s sophomore effort, Sing-Sing and I, and you’d probably think all those myths about making it on your own were akin to hitting a lottery jackpot.

“It’s a lot easier. A lot easier!” she gushes. “We couldn’t have done it if we didn’t have a fan base. The whole process is so much, you don’t have to sit there relying on other people, going ‘What’s going on? What’s going on?’ You’re doing it yourself. It feels, good, actually.

“We don’t have to sign contracts. We just have to make the record and manufacture it and put it out. It’s going to be a lot easier. I don’t know if anything will come out this year. We will certainly write, and hopefully, start some sort of recording. It’s January, so hopefully next year, there’ll be another album.”

Of course, Anderson and Sing-Sing partner Lisa O’Neill aren’t your average amateur songbirds. Anderson rocked the alt-rock world slinging guitar in shoegazer faves Lush for much of the early ’90s, a eight-year ride that came to a screeching halt in 1996 when drummer Chris Acland hanged himself shortly after returning home from tour. O’Neill’s credentials aren’t as flashy, but they’re diverse, as she stepped in to lay down vocals for Locust, Kid Loco and Mad Professor.

Sing-Sing isn’t the average brand-new outfit, either. In addition to the women’s history in other bands, the London pop duo’s been writing songs together since 1998, shortly after Lush officially threw in the towel. After a few singles the pair’s debut, The Joy of Sing-Sing (Poptones) finally washed up onto American shores in fall 2001, much to the joy of closet pop fans and critics alike. A tiny bit of touring followed, which helped the act further cement itself in the hearts of fans both in the States and at home.

With that sort of groundwork laid – and after moving from label to label with singles and EPs over the past several years – Sing-Sing was ready to ditch the label headaches and go independent for its sophomore effort, Sing-Sing and I. Recorded and released on an indie-label budget, the album reestablishes Sing-Sing as overlooked British pop darlings – and only five years after the act’s debut. The album, which is on tap for a Feb. 14 release in America, matches the pop confections of its predecessor with electro-assisted guitar pop (“Lover” and “A Modern Girl”). It also finds time to explore new territory for the band. “The Time Has Come” meddles with a folksy waltz beat where gypsies and pop chanteuses meet to jam, “Mister Kadali,” an ode to a voodoo healer who routinely fliers O’Neill’s neighborhood, checks into heavily synthetic bop that makes nods toward R&B as well as pop. The women, who team with producer Mark Van Hoen (Locust, Mojave 3, Seafood), weren’t so busy laying the groundwork for their record label as to overlook their songwriting duties. Sing-Sing and I is everything the duo’s debut was, plus a lot more sophistication and unbridled pop thrills.

After coming together and laying down a debut without much shared history between them, this year’s record gives Sing-Sing its first opportunity to step forward and assert itself as a band proper instead of a pair of songwriters working in collaboration.

“I think with the last one, the situation with that was some of the songs, we’d written before we met each other,.” Anderson explains. “I think with this one, we’ve known each other, toured together. We know each other pretty well. I think, maybe, we were able to write knowing how the other person would perform it a lot better, which probably has led to us to be able to find an identity for Sing-Sing. Before, the older songs, like ‘You Don’t Know’ and ‘I Can See,’ we didn’t even know each other at the time. Maybe this has been a bit more relaxed in some ways.”

“I think the first album was a bit bitty,” she continues. “Then we got to know each other. Lisa got to know Mark, our producer, before I ever met either of them. Some of it had actually been done before then. This one was a lot more cohesive.”

That cohesion is an important weapon in Sing-Sing’s arsenal. While the duo navigated the terrors of a launching a start-up record company with remarkable ease, it still faces a bigger challenge than small-business obstacles: America’s indifference toward pop. In a land that prides itself on being a bastion of international pop culture, pop music’s strangely ignored in the Land of the Free. Sure, Britney, the Simpson sisters and The Pussycat Dolls are moving records by the truckload, thanks, mostly in part to bubblegum record-buying habits, but real pop – the stuff soaked in the legacy of Phil Spector, The Beach Boys and The Beatles, to name but a few – are relegated to the underground. Pop, for all its triumphs over the years, is still a dirty word in most American ears.

In that regard, Sing-Sing is quintessentially British. Rather than awkwardly make excuses for its love for a great melody or guiltily hiding its hooks underneath a sheen of rock riffs, indie pretense or any one of America’s other handy pop-excusing tricks, Sing-Sing embraces pop with a love – and proficiency – born from a land where pop’s a career plan that’s just as valid as rock’n’roll career trajectory.

“I was always into alternative music, but I was also into Duran Duran, ABC and the like when I was younger,” Anderson says. “They’re certainly very respected bands over here. Maybe in America, I think the whole commercial thing is different. It’s such a big country, with the radio. It’s quite easy here to get into the charts as an independent band. People want to get into the charts and be on Top of the Pops. It’s kind of a goal and it’s not frowned upon. People congratulate you. In America there is a bit more of a divide.

“There are a lot of divisions when it comes to radio. It’s like ‘This station is this type music and this station is this type music.’ We don’t have that, really. Radio One will play R&B and pop and indie. It’s mixed up together. We don’t have all these different charts here like you do in America – the R&B chart, the pop chart, this chart and that chart. Here’s it’s all just mixed together.”

Don’t let the ear candy, glossy melodies and one-two punch of O’Neill and Anderson’s vocals distract you from what’s underneath the pop dynamics. Instead of the vapid, recycled love-song themes, Sing-Sing dishes insightful tunes left, right and center on Sing-Sing and I, and touch on everything from dumping your friends (“The Time Has Come”) to a run-in with date-rape drugs (“Going Out Tonight”). Anderson even weighs in on the pressures that pit post-millennial feminism against society’s expectations (“Modern Girl”) or pressures to marry (“I Do”).

That’s not to say the album’s themes are overbearing. Sing-Sing and I gently wiggles its social commentary into its songs without corrupting their pop charms. Anyone who turns a sharp ear to the women’s words and an eye to a lyric sheet should be able to enjoy the album on a level beyond its slick songwriting – but it’s not a prerequisite to digging into Sing-Sing’s music.

“I think some of the lyrics are probably quite, sort of vague,” Anderson says. “It’s not that obvious what some of them are about unless you read the lyrics and thought about them. Some of the lyrics, to be honest, I don’t really mind. When I listen to music, I don’t always know really what the lyrics are about. I don’t always care. If it sounds good and means something to me, that’s great. It doesn’t always have to be that obvious. I don’t try to write lyrics that are obvious, because I think it spoils it somehow. It’s nice when people put their own meaning to things.”

With Aerial Records getting out of the gate, the future’s wide open for Sing-Sing. Although the duo doesn’t have plans to tour the States on its latest – O’Neill expects her first child on the same day Sing-Sing and I shows up in shops – the outfit is already eyeing the possibility of turning out another album. Not at its once-a-presidential-term pace, either. Anderson expects to return to the studio sometime this year in hope of getting a third album into stores in early 2007.

For now, however, the duo’s going to enjoy the feeling of taking on the world with a band, a record label

“It’s been good, especially since we put it out on our own label,” Anderson says. “It’s been a sort of good feeling. We did the right thing by sticking to our guns and putting out another record. It’s been a good experience this time around.”