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

“Embracing Otherness”

  • By Val Phoenix
  • Alternative Press
  • Jan 1996

The last few years have been ones of transformation in the Cocteau camp, as Robin Guthrie and Liz Fraser renegotiated their long-term relationship. Once pegged as the shy vocalist who sings obscure, mysterious lyrics, Liz is now clearly speaking her mind.

“Our lives are quite entwined. We always kind of know what’s going on with each other, except nobody ever knows where Liz is,” says Robin Guthrie, impishly adding, “We’re gonna get her electronically marked.”

“I’ve been very good lately,” Elizabeth Fraser retorts indignantly. “I have been. So fuck off.”

The banter comes easily after fifteen years or so, even if it is barbed. The Cocteau Twins have gathered at their studio, September Sound, on the banks of the Thames. The subject is interpersonal relations. Discuss.

The loquacious Guthrie has taken a few digs at Fraser for her lack of accessibility. She sits quietly for the most part, while bandmate Simon Raymonde busies himself drawing on some white paper. By fits and starts Fraser edges into the discussion, which is now about wrestling. Over songs.

“I’m just really afraid of being judged, I guess,” says Fraser, struggling to express herself. “It’s better than it ever was before. I mean I’ve got more confidence now than ever. At least I can catch the other voice in my head that’s saying, ‘You’re shite! Go and get a day job immediately!’” She chuckles self-deprecatingly.

Doesn’t it get easier after so many records?

“Oh, no.”

She manages to stamp her will on the music, though. “Liz shows very little regard for any sort of arrangements that me and Simon do,” says Guthrie. “She’ll come in and completely sing in what we would consider all the wrong places…”

Fraser lets out a whooping laugh.

“… and she’ll make it so much better.”

Three new records—two EPs and an album—are in the can, but Guthrie confesses to “paranoiac insecurities” hovering below the surface. He’s unsure if the earlier work is any good or just a collection of overdubs. Choosing old tapes to remix for the acoustic Twinlights and the ambient Otherness EPs, the band’s criteria were pragmatic. “The ones that worked,” says Raymonde.

Though they left the company in 1991, quite a bit of their 4AD oeuvre has migrated to September Sound, it seems. “Every time we’d visit the record company, we’d sort of smuggle the tapes out the back door, basically,” says Guthrie. “It’s terrible having to steal your own work back, but…”

Guthrie carries a glint in his eye, but what’s that in his mouth? Good heavens, is that a tongue piercing, Robin?

“Yes,” he says, his mouth gaping wider to show off a large, shiny stud. The more refined Simon has a tasteful red stone in his nose. So, that leaves Liz. Anything pierced?

“No, I’m more of a tattoos girl. And they’re being removed,” she says firmly, with embarrassed laugh. “She’s getting them changed to Blur and Oasis from the Sex Pistols,” declares Guthrie.

Bulking up then?

“Am I bulking up?” She’s not clear on the Americanism, but guffaws when it’s explained. “I’m really into having a boyfriend at the moment, actually,” she says in a Fraserian leap of logic. “That’s what I’m devoting everything to.”

Alone, Fraser sits down shyly at the table, and then, hearing the men’s voices, blushes and flees on to the back patio overlooking the river. Moving to the farthest corner away from the studio, she hesitantly voices her thoughts. “I have much more of a sense of self,” she says quietly, looking out on the water. “I’m getting some power. I just gave it all away—just to any man in my life.”

Recently returned from her father’s funeral in Grangemouth, Scotland, she says he’d approved of her current beau.

Were you close? She looks away. “We could have been,” she mumbles.

Three Weeks Later…

The tape recorder is out of sight, the microphone’s hidden behind a menu, and Liz Fraser has “snuggled in” to the booth of a cafe miles from the studio. She is still nervous.

“I probably wouldn’t be having this conversation if I hadn’t had Lucy,” she confesses, tapping her nails on the table. “I wouldn’t be in recovery from…” She pauses. “…my past. I’d have no idea what my gifts were as a person, as a woman. I wouldn’t be in touch with my faults.”

Overriding her doubts is a sense of responsibility to six-year-old Lucy, her daughter by Guthrie. Parenthood has clearly reordered Fraser’s thinking, as has the self-examination she’s undertaken since she had a nervous breakdown in 1993 while working on Four-Calendar Café.

“Everything ground to a halt,” she explains. “I didn’t know what was wrong with me.” Entering a treatment facility in the U.S., she was admitted to a trauma unit and confronted both herself and those around her with some hard truths.

“I got told I was big-time codependent. I found out I was bulimic. I found out what I went through is called incest,” she says. Deeply buried childhood memories became clearer. “You know, memories of being abused by people with no face. All you do is just cover up for those people, even while you’re trying to remember.”

Grangemouth, as she recalls it, was a dark and stifling industrial town which left its mark on her and her music. Fraser was thrown out of her home at 16 for being a punk. “I was the sweetest punk rocker you’ve ever met,” she says with a giggle, describing her look as resembling Wilma Flintstone.

Visible on her upper arms are those embarrassing punk tattoos, fading homages to Siouxsie and The Banshees, Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten. “Nobody’s ever seen my arms,” she declares, holding them out. “See, no tracks. Well, I know everyone thinks I’m a fuckin’ heroin addict, ‘cause they never see me without sleeves.”

Music provided a respite from her home life, where she was sexually abused by a brother-in-law and possibly her father, as well. The youngest of six, she felt abandoned by her older siblings and silenced by her family. At 32, she’s still reconciling her grown-up responsibilities with her childhood training.

“By the time you’re old enough to make choices, if you believe through being told so often by your caretakers that your not worth a shit [and] you don’t deserve a choice, then you won’t even challenge that. And when you’re old enough to make choices on your own, you won’t know how.”

Her union with Guthrie—she was 17, he 19, when they met—was fraught with undercurrents of need and control. “He really looks like my perpetrator,” she blurts out, voicing a recent revelation. “What brought us together was me having no ideas and opinions of my own, and him having plenty—enough for both of us. We were attracted to each other for the wrong reasons.”

Yet they stayed together for thirteen years—all of her adult life and the last of her teen years. Guthrie struggled with drug and alcohol addictions, while Fraser struggled with her addiction to him. Getting pregnant in 1989, she says, “was my last desperate effort to hold on to him.” It was after they both emerged from treatment that they broke up. Shaking her head, she marvels at her muddle. “It’s incredible.”

The ingrained sense of inadequacy took its toll on her creativity, as well, so much so that she stopped writing and singing in English. “I was so afraid of people hearing me,” she admits. Going from Grangemouth to Garlands, the Twins’ debut in 1982, provided little time for self-analysis or reflection, and the press attention only panicked her more.

“A lot of the stuff I was singing about then was all metaphorical. I wasn’t talking like I am now,” she says, pondering a moment. “I guess it’s back to how much personal power you feel that you have. Like, if I’m 17 and I don’t even know when I’m hungry, am I tired, have I had any sleep—if you don’t even know that—then how can you talk about lyrics that come from such an unconscious place? I always said, ‘I don’t know,’ and I don’t.”

Flash Back To The Studio…

The title of the forthcoming album due in early spring in Milk & Kisses, words redolent of gentleness and solace. Sitting between her partners, Fraser explains. “A friend was kind of comforting me on the phone and they were just being so sweet, really. They had empathy for what I was going through, and they said, “I wish I could get take the poison out of you. I wish I could just take it out of you and replace it with milk and kisses.’ And I just thought that was really brilliant!”

A soft smile covers her face. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it? I kept hearing it and feeling so good about it, it seemed right to use it.”

During the few minutes it takes for Fraser to explain this, Guthrie begins sighing. “I’m ready to answer a question now,” he says, impatiently squirming, like a little boy who can’t sit still in class.

Guthrie assumes control of the Cocteau Twins’ hobby list: “Here’s what Simon likes to do—soccer. He is totally obsessed.”

“This is just your opinion,” replies Simon.

“He’s like a football fundamentalist.” Simon looks a bit uneasy with this portrait.

But, Robin has moved on: “Liz spends her time rushing somewhere. That’s what she actually does. That’s my perception.”

“I disagree. And I’m going to punch you now.”

Simon grumbles, “I’m glad you summed me up so well in like four seconds.”

“Simon also likes to go to the movies,” offers Robin, as a consolation.

“He’s my dad. I like having him as my dad,” adds Liz, cocking her head.

“And Liz,” says Robin. “She’s a bit of a mystery. I don’t really know what she does with her time, but there doesn’t seem to be enough time to do it, whatever it is she does.”

Revenge is taken swiftly on Robin: “He’s very anal… about several things,” begins Simon. In particular, his computer.”

“I love my computer.”

“Elvis Presley.”

“I love Elvis. Don’t fuck with the King.”

Simon concludes, “You seem to have a very rich and fulfilled life.”

“If only you knew how empty and shallow I feel at this moment.”

“Well, I love you,” Simon says indulgently.

“And I’ll grow to love you,” Liz adds.

Flash Forward To The Cafe…

“I’m just getting good boundaries with Robin now. We just didn’t communicate,” Fraser says, over tea. If her break-up with Guthrie afforded her some independence, it also opened up romantic opportunities, and when the Twins went on tour in 1994, Fraser fell in love. “My love addiction was worse than ever. I was maniacal,” she confesses.

“The EP is about that man,” she says of Twinlights. “My last goodbye, as it were. I was too needy and he was too much of an avoidance person. Naturally.”

Twinlights finds Fraser voicing words of self-reliance and comfort. When she panics, she says she feels about five years old. “You kind of go back to the age when you were being abused,” she explains. Singing helps her soothe her younger self.

“There’s some of that going on in ‘Rilkean Heart’: ‘You’re lost and don’t know what to do/But that’s not all of you.’ It’s all a bit corny, really. It’s really simple language; it’s how you have to speak to yourself at that age. That’s the part of me that’s so hungry.”

Particularly poignant are the EP’s closing lines—yes, audible lyrics—in which Fraser plaintively intones over a fading melody, “I have my friends/My family/I have myself/I still have me.” The message is to herself. “I just have to remember I have my friends and family. It’s not just about a man,” she says in exasperation.

It’s good advice, but it embarrasses her. “Sometimes I cringe when I think about what I’m singing, but I’ve never been more real in my life.” ▣