“The Demons Within”
- By Stephanie Young
- Propaganda: Gothic Chronicle
- April 1994
Liz Fraser of the Cocteau Twins purges her soul on Four-Calendar Café.
It has been called “the voice of God” and the “sound of heaven itself.” From no quarter of the cosmos echoes a more angelic sound. The music created by the Cocteau Twins has for twelve years been the defining statement on what is ethereal and eternal in pop culture. Strangely however, what for most is a deeply serene and beautiful sound, is for its creators a by-product of self-torment and self-doubt.
It appears that for the past dozen or so years, the members of the band where using the enigmatic quality of their music to shield themselves from the prying scrutiny of the press and public. They were hiding behind the renowned aloof mystique they had built up around themselves. For the first time since the band formed in 1982, lead singer/lyricist Liz Fraser is commenting on this seemingly bizarre dichotomy between the music of the Cocteau Twins and their state of mind. “I think people who listen to our music get something completely different out of it than what we put in,” says Liz. “I’ve heard that most people feel a calming influence, an almost tranquilizing effect… which is strange because we pour a lot of anguish and aggression into our music.”
The band has recently released their seventh album, Four-Calendar Café on Capitol Records. Though the familiar Cocteau sound remains essentially intact with its cascading guitars and angelic vocals, there is a true departure in Liz’s lyrical style. For the first time since the band’s debut album Garlands, she sings in clearly discernible English. Over the past decade, the Cocteau Twins have built up an almost cult like reputation based on the fact that Liz created her own undecipherable language of nonsense syllables. The songs did not have lyrics in the conventional sense. Liz created her own little revolution with a completely new dialect. She used her voice as an additional instrumental apparatus rather than simply a mouth-piece to convey ideas. From such now classic albums as Head Over Heels (‘83) to Treasure (‘84) to Victorialand (‘86), Liz procured an entirely new frame of reference. It truly was as if the angels above could be recorded and played back for we mere mortals. As it turns out, however, Liz was not simply making a creative statement, she was using this vocal style as a veil of secrecy to hide her intense torment and absence of self-esteem.
“I used the music to escape into, to withdraw from the hurtful reality of my life,” reveals Liz. “It was almost like the was drug addict uses drugs—to blur out reality. Whereas Robin [Guthrie, Liz’s husband and Cocteau’s guitarist] was actually using drugs, I was using my songs as an escape. They had no relation to the world outside my head. Though that way of writing lyrics is very comfortable and insular, it wasn’t helping me deal with my problems.
“I was sexually abused as a child on several occasions. Large segments of that period in my life had been repressed until recently. The trauma of those incidents forced me to withdraw within myself. I lost my right to be a child. I lost the rights over my own body. Do you know how devastating that is to the psyche? When Robin and I first started to write music together, I was only sixteen. I used my writing as a defense mechanism and never even realized it. Now I need to write meaningful lyrics, clearly understandable lyrics, because I need to use them as a therapeutic tool. Our music is the most important thing in my life outside Lucy[ her young daughter] and Robin.”
On Four-Calendar Café, this unusual therapy Liz is using to exorcise her demons manifests itself quite clearly in songs like “Evangeline” and Thefts and Wandering Around Lost.” In these selections we discover the pain Liz is only now releasing. (“My body’s my own / Is this what my body says? / There is no going back / I’m not the same / I’m growing up again / I had to fantasize to survive”) It seems Robin has also exorcised some demons of his own. Since the depths of the group’s collective depression back in 1990 while touring for the Heaven or Las Vegas LP (the one just prior to Four-Calendar Café), he has been drug free. But as with Liz, the struggle to remain on track is on-going.
Indeed, the Cocteau Twins have been reborn. They are armed with a new optimism and a resurgent enthusiasm. The heavy handed control of the 4AD label has also been lifted. The band felt the label wanted too much input. They acknowledge that this creative control did in fact help mold them as a young band, but they feel the need for such a thing had outlived its usefulness a few years ago and had actually become a hindrance.
“4AD has always been involved very heavily in artist development… which is a good thing when you’re just starting out,” states Liz. “But we have our own plan of action now. When we first signed with 4AD back in ‘82, Ivo [Watts-Russell, the label’s founder] was like a mentor/father-figure to us. Now 4AD is some big corporate entity, and we sensed their loss of enthusiasm with what we wanted to do. We weren’t playing their game. The recording of our last two albums for them [Blue Bell Knoll in ‘88 and Heaven or Las Vegas in ‘90] became big battles. We finally had enough and went somewhere we felt would give us more creative freedom. Fontana [their U.K. label] and Capitol [U.S. label] have been just great—very supportive.”
Another major factor in giving Liz and Robin the peace of mind they’ve needed for so long is the sense of family they’ve acquired since the birth of their daughter, Lucy Bell. Liz describes motherhood as the most valuable learning experience anyone could ever have.
“Being parents has forced us to be more responsible in our lives,” confesses Liz, “because whatever we do, not only effects us, but also effects Lucy. She’s at the stage now[ five years old] where she’s constantly asking questions and constantly yearing for knowledge. Not only has this taught me to try to set a proper example for her, it has also taught me to constantly keep asking questions myself. The growing process should never stop. In this sense, my song writing has definitely matured. I no longer use music to hide behind—instead, I use it to expand my scope of experiences. Through my music, I can grow.”
This growing process is quite evident on Four-Calendar Café. Even the titles of the songs suggest Ms. Fraser’s much heralded new awakening. “Know Who You Are At Every Age” is about just what the title suggests. In this piece, Liz poetically reiterates her thirst for self-growth and exploration. In “My Truth” she comes to terms with whatever may have faced her in the past. She bravely lets the chips fall where they may. She expresses the desire to turn all negatives into positives, and to use adversity as a driving force rather than allowing it to become an obstacle.
The Cocteau Twins have used this new-found confidence to their advantage. They recently finished a world-wide tour that included four back-up musicians in addition to the regular line-up of Liz, Robin and Simon Raymonde. Four-Calendar Café has also become the band’s most successful Lp to date. They’re not only getting a lot of air time on MTV, but they have also had several appearances on network television, including the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
It’s been a long and bumpy road since Liz and Robin, two idealistic teenagers, left the grimy, industrial Scottish town of Grangemouth to seek fame and fortune in London’s postpunk music scene… but it seems they’ve finally reached their heaven.
No demons up there. ▣