Heel to toe to hair and hoof and it's head over heels and it's all but an ark-lark...

“I’m so excited to have made this decision to perform”

  • By Tim Adams
  • The Guardian
  • 23-Jun 2012

Since the Cocteau Twins split 15 years ago, their otherworldly singer has lived a quiet life in Bristol. But in August, as part of Antony Hegarty’s Meltdown festival, the one-time darling of the music press will sing her own songs for the first time this century. So what prompted her change of heart?

The last time I saw Elizabeth Fraser was in 1984 on the stage of a short-lived Birmingham nightclub called the Powerhaus. I was then 18, and she, fronting her band the Cocteau Twins, was 20. It was, on my part, love at first sight. The Cocteaus, at the time, were high in the John Peel pantheon, on an independent cloud somewhere alongside the Smiths and the Jesus and Mary Chain, and like both of those bands, they sounded like no one you had ever heard before. Fraser’s ecstatic vocals, which carried just a hint of her growing up in Grangemouth, Falkirk, were not only hair-raising, they also dwelt in unique soundscapes of her own devising. Her lyrics formed an invented language, words chosen for texture rather than meaning, and the adjectives that clung to her among ardent critics in the artier music pages were “ethereal” or “otherworldly”.

On recordings, the most successful of these compositions, ‘Sugar Hiccup’ or ‘Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops’, had a dreamlike, almost prenatal quality; I seem to recall grown men in the New Musical Express routinely confessing to being reduced to tears. Watching Fraser sing these songs live you saw their point. That night in a Birmingham basement the emotional force of her voice was held in constant tension with a palpable anxiety in her performance, which gave the music a nerve-shredding high-wire tension; by the end of the evening, the audience (and her band, led by her partner Robin Guthrie) seemed to be collectively willing her on to her next improbable feat of melody; an encore seemed almost an unfair ordeal to impose on her. As my friend Stuart memorably observed at the time: “It’s like watching Alice in fucking Wonderland.” He meant that in a good way.

For a decade or so after that concert, the Cocteaus followed their own creative path with increasing commercial success, but the fragilities that seemed apparent that night didn’t go away. Interviews with the band became a kind of rite of passage for music journalists; Fraser, in particular, was an infamously reluctant and awkward subject, sometimes seemingly tortured by the obligation to explain the music she helped to conjure with Guthrie and bass player Simon Raymonde; shy to the point of monosyllable…

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