Born and based in Scotland, singer-songwriter Dorothy “Dot” Allison is one of the more elusive figures in British music. She came to public attention with the Glasgow-based trio One Dove in the early Nineties, working with the legendary producer Andrew Weatherall to create melancholy, country-inflected electronic songs. Industry and interpersonal wranglings meant the band never made the splash it should have, and it left just one perfect album and a smattering of fascinating remixes and demos.
Her output since then has been exploratory – meandering through various permutations of electronic music and guitar rock, collaborating widely, but only releasing sporadically herself. However, her new album, Heart Shaped Scars, is by some measures her most focused yet. It’s not without electronic and dub effects, but it’s broadly acoustic and explicitly pastoral – including field recordings of, and lyrical preoccupations with natural environments. It’s as full of the tension between loss and hope as One Dove ever was, and is a truly addictive listen. We spoke to Allison at home in Edinburgh to find out about its creation.
Hi Dot, how are you feeling about the new album as a complete item? Are you able to separate yourself from the creative process once it's all wrapped?
I feel happy that I think it’s pretty solid as a body of work. I’m pleased that it feels like a creative progression and I’m definitely proud of these songs from a compositional point of view. I’m still listening to it with a critical ear – so I’m always looking for ways I can improve as a writer or player – but I’m proud of the album as an evolution. It’s nice though, as you don’t necessarily need to re-invent the wheel as a writer every time you pick up an instrument but you hopefully start “slightly winning” from past lessons, if that makes sense.
But I am able to separate myself, yes. I leave the songs behind and am onto the next thing usually, then I take what I have learnt, glancing back but not staring as it were, and try to improve on my past endeavours whilst hopefully cutting a new path creatively...
It feels to me like a super cohesive album, but it's also incredibly sparse and restrained. How much was the aesthetic consciously planned in advance?
It was loosely planned. But I think it’s interesting that the album takes shape while you make other plans in a way – as there are so many creative blind corners that inform the next steps so you can only really plan to a degree I guess. And also the songs you envisioned being key album foundations can even get outshone by surprise moments too. It’s a journey of discovery – like driving with dipped headlights, you can only see so far ahead towards a destination and only have an inkling of what it’ll be like in the flesh when you arrive, so to speak!
The strings seem super important here. Hannah Peel is such an important person in the modern musical landscape – how did you connect with her and how was that creative relationship?
I came across Hannah’s work though Paul Weller who I had written and duetted with. I had loved his True Meanings album, and when he said Hannah Peel arranged those strings I raved about them to him and I mean, I genuinely love that record… so yes, it was through Paul really. She asked me to sing some lines over a song or two, which she mocked up the arrangements on [composition software] Sibelius. Aside from some really nuanced tweaks in the recording sessions at [Edinburgh studio] Castle Sounds, not much changed. She just got it from our bouncing of ideas and chats. She is brilliant and I loved working with her as a person too – she is a lovely energy to be around.
You've recently mentioned Karen Dalton, [former Byrds lead singer] Gene Clark, Joni Mitchell, Carole King as influences, and I can hear other psychedelic folk era people like Linda Perhacs and Vashti Bunyan in there too. What do you think has drawn you to that sound and era in particular?
I think the slight brokenness of some of the songs in a human, heart-wrenching kind of a way – and I love the wonder and universal musings in Linda Perhacs’ work. I think I’ve always had that slightly cosmic wonder in my songs too, and mining feelings around human attachment to the wonders around us and to each other... so I guess for these reasons they spoke to me. The same could definitely be said of Gene Clark with regard to cosmic musings: I feel he was asking bigger questions with his “cosmic country”, and his folk with Doug Dillard too. But certainly on, say, songs like [Clark’s] “Some Misunderstanding”, the lyrics feel profound and inquiring of reality and go way beyond the bounds of the language itself once it’s married to the music in a sense... for me anyway! Like, when he asks what fate is and if can someone explain time.
The passing of Andrew Weatherall [the producer died in early 2020] was a shock to so many but it must have been particularly acute for you, given your breakthrough collaboration. Did the memories of One Dove and your early creative processes have an effect on this record?
This album was already quite substantially written when we lost Andrew. In fact, he had asked me if I was making music and I’d told him of my new album being under construction and that it was still partly on my phone but that once I could I would send him something – of course that never happened. I was devastated when I heard the news he was no longer with us. I think his musical vibes and echoes probably touch all those who knew and worked with him. He was generous in how he curated and shared amazing music, and he certainly had a massive influence on all my music and me.
You've worked with a fascinating array of musicians over the years - not just huge names like Massive Attack and Paul Weller, but people like Keith Tenniswood [aka electro producer Radioactive Man] and [guitarist and former Gallon Drunk leader] James Johnston. Why is collaboration important to you?
I guess I like idea sharing, I like communicating with music, and for me, part of that is making music with other heartbeats in the room. I have a feeling now, though, that I may write more on my own due to having gotten lovely feedback on my own solitary songs over the years. I’m a twin, so that may have had an effect too. I do wonder sometimes if the fact I am female perhaps makes it slightly more noteworthy. I was just now thinking that Nick Cave, for example, isn’t seen as collaborative although I guess really he is – with Mick Harvey, The Bad Seeds and Warren Ellis, Polly [PJ Harvey], or Kylie.
Last of all, what do you most hope listeners will get from this album?
I hope it helps people to engage with their feelings and to be present in, and to appreciate the moments in life. I find listening to music makes the moments more embossed on the memory in a way. I once chatted to an old man at a table next to me, and he said all he remembers when he thinks back about his life are the moments. He said, “Never miss the moments.”
Buy/stream Heart Shaped Scars:
Cover Credit: Essy Syed
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs