Saint Clair interview: grief, inspiration, and the upcoming visual EP ‘In The Violet Hour’

Singer Saint Clair interview

At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives / Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea, / The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights / Her stove, and lays out food in tins.
T. S. Eliot, ‘The Fire Sermon’ from The Waste Land

I booked my interview with the artist Saint Clair a couple of weeks ago. Grief was not in my world, but the day of the interview grief had set up shop in the family home: my uncle had died the day before. Grief is horrible. It sticks to everything. It can submerge you if you’re not careful but if you sit next to it, if you let it in, it can become a friend or at least something that just exists within you as any other emotion or experience.

On Friday 6th November Saint Clair will release her EP In The Violet Hour, a visual concept record about the grieving process that is broken down into four chapters: “Goddess”, “Violet Hour”, “Elegy in c”, and “Better”. The four songs and their four accompanying music videos span Saint Clair’s experience of grief, and culminate in the short film In The Violet Hour: a portrait on grief.

The visuals for the project were directed by the filmmaker and photographer, Tam Topolski. The whole project is a labour of love of two sisters processing their own grief of losing their dad, the journalist and rowing coach Daniel Topolski, in 2015.

Saint Clair, also known as Emma Topolski, is a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, known for her solo work as well as for recently joining Bombay Bicycle Club as their new singer. She has also been a session musician for Laura Marling, Ghostpoet and Dua Lipa.

Grief like love and life is an intensely personal experience, but also like these experiences there will be moments of overlap with others. It is why a songwriter can write about an intensely specific and personal moment and there will undoubtedly be fans nodding their heads in unison, speaking the artist’s language.

Someone I know once said, “Grief is love with nowhere to go” but in this case, grief and love have been given a voice and now have somewhere to go.

“Finding clever ways to reinvent you/ So five will never be a four/ I couldn’t miss you anymore/ I couldn’t miss you anymore”

In my interview with Saint Clair, we talked about the writing, recording and filming of In The Violet Hour, the inspiration behind the visuals, and Max Porter’s book, Grief is a thing with feathers.

EA: What is the violet hour to you, and what does it represent?

Saint Clair: I think physically it’s that purple light, sort of twilight, very reflective time around sunset where it’s always a very powerful time to sit and be at peace. I suppose be grateful in a way for nature and your own existence. I wrote violet hour during a very naturally phenomenal time, a huge kind of storm and a sunset and all that kind of stuff. I think you do just take stock when it’s that kind of mood anyway. I think technically it is also a term from T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land and it is that kind of time between life and death as well. I wrote the song in that actual light.

It’s now become this ridiculously purple feature of every single video. (laughs) I can’t see that colour anymore.

EA: Did you write the songs in the order they’re sequenced? Did you write them over a long period of time?

Saint Clair: There wasn’t any rhyme or reason initially to the way I was building the project up. I knew I wanted to have a body of work and have a full longform thing, with visual accompaniments and that’s kind of as far as I got, and then started listening back to all the songs that I had written over three and half, four years and was trying to select what the next kind of chapter was going to be with my music. And I noticed that I’d written songs about my dad and about grief and about loss at various intervals in those last three and a half years, so I collected all the songs that were about that subject. It was almost like reading a diary entry it was like immediately going back to a feeling. It feels like an outer body experience, like “God I was quite angry then” or “I was really low then” or “I was actually doing quite well then”, so I thought that’s quite a nice way to stitch things together so some got discarded and the four that remained seemed to capture the moods of each of those feelings really well. I just arranged them in what I thought was a natural grieving process. So, they sort of informed each other. But It wasn’t like, “I’m going to go and do a project like this and I’m going to write for it intentionally.

EA: Did you know in terms of the sound – because it’s quite a varied record – did you know what you wanted it to sound like before you recorded?

Saint Clair: For each writing session, not overtly but I always have certain leanings I guess with instrumentation, electronics, guitars, lots of vocal harmonies, tend to always build into quite a… the apex of the song is always the chorus and it’s always quite kind of explosive and epic. I guess there are habits that I do as songwriter that I’ve learnt over that I do but production-wise it was just sort of my tastes in the moment, whatever I felt was gonna bolster the lyrics as much as possible. But again because it wasn’t a sonic body of work at that time I kind of just let whatever felt organic and natural in the studio happen, and then when I was putting the songs together there were somewhere I was, “that’s a bit farfetched” to put into an EP because it’s a bit too different, but I think the four that I’ve got enough commonality to create, I hope, enough similarity whilst being varied. But again, the hindsight thing, I wasn’t going in thinking how can I make this cohesive.

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EA: The EP feels like grief.

Saint Clair: I’m flattered.

EA: From my experience of grief, everyone’s experience is obviously very different, but my experience is of it being a very uneasy feeling and it kind of sticks to everything. I feel like the music is like going into a wave and you eventually come out the other end. I think that was captured really well.

Saint Clair: That was conscious, the order and how the last one is peaceful and accepting and stripped back to nothing and just raw. I think that was really important. But that is so nice to hear because it’s not really an angle I’d thought about because I got so embroiled I guess with or just so taken over by the visuals, I didn’t stop so much to consider how people might feel musically as well, so much so. It’s really nice those things have come together without them feeling like they’re being shoehorned in.

EA: Did the visuals come first then?

Saint Clair: No they came after but I was like, “I’ve got these songs, this is how it feels, it’s a journey through grief” because the visuals are so much more explicit, it was more about how can we make the visuals successful and we just got so… I mean the whole thing just took such a long time, so consuming that almost when we got to the end shooting, I was like “oh yeah, songs, are the songs any good?” I can’t even remember if they’re any good because they became these vehicles for this wider story. But it really means a lot to get that kind of feedback that it all feels like one clear message.

Saint Clair black and white

Saint Clair – Shot by Tam Topolski.

EA: I listened to it with the video and I listened to it without watching the video and it’s kind of one in the same. Who wrote the treatment and were there any film makers that influenced your sister (Tam Topolski) and you when making the videos?

Saint Clair: We wrote the treatments together. Started off much more simply then our imaginations ran wild and got the better of us, our Pinterest board was this mad, “oh you can build a cage and we’ll put a perch in it and you can be the bird on the perch”, and then actually we’re going to need loads of people who work in set building and like no. So then we scaled back, scaled back and found this happy medium. We just brainstormed for a few months and then she really honed in on what are we doing, and what is the core of the emotion, and in terms of shot listing and really bringing all the… there’s a lot of symbolism throughout all the videos that a keen eye I could trace and a lot of those symbols are peppered and personal and they don’t have to mean anything to anyone. She really pulled that together.

Some of the references… the Mexican Gulf oil slick was a big one; all the birds and all their feathers being weighed down with oil. Grief is the thing with feathers, which is a Max Porter play that we actually saw dramatized by Cillian Murphy at the Barbican.

EA: I didn’t know it was made into a play. I’ve read the book, which I remember when I first read it didn’t like because the language is very disjointed and crow is quite vulgar, and then went back to it and really liked it.

Saint Clair: It’s so uncomfortable and really jagged and weird. the way crow speaks mainly is just so unusual. And with someone as physical as Cillian Murphy who really embodied crow and it was so scary but also reassuring and I think that idea of grief being present but not running away. Just living and wallowing in it, turning it around, and being curious about it and prodding it, and almost using it as a companion as well because you may as well get on top of it than let it drown you. The message behind that book and that play was a huge influence with how we wanted to approach representing grief, personifying grief.

There’s a director called Romaine Gavras whose one of the amazing music directors with huge, huge budgets but his work and also The Blaze, they’re a French electronic duo and they do everything inhouse, so they produce, they make all the music and then they make these videos and the videos are so… they’re like mini narratives within each one and they are quite simple to execute, so they’re just moving. I think because my sister is an actor by trade originally before moving into directing, I think how to extract emotion and how to have a succinct story are her great strengths and to my taste as well.

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There were definitely lots of bits that influenced it, but it was a weird love child of both our brains.

EA: Did you shoot each video close together?

Saint Clair: Yeah, back to back. It was so intense! We shot three days in a row for the live-action ones because we had our crew assembled and it’s so much easier to book people out especially when you’re not really paying them any money, and also for hiring gear, having it all just blocked out otherwise it’s such a mission. We basically couldn’t afford to do it any other way.

So those were all back to back, which was amazing just being so invested and immersed in a single experience. It’s very very rare, as a musician I think to do that. When you tour its travel, travel, travel, have a wait, soundcheck, wait, wait, wait, eat, play for an hour and travel, travel, travel. It’s not got this, “I’m doing a thing and it’s so intense.” I don’t even care what’s happening in the rest of the world, I don’t care about my phone, I don’t care about other musicians’ successes or failures, I’m just in my thing, I’m doing my thing.

So that was brilliant and the fourth one was an animation, a stop animation which just by definition takes so long. That was a separate kind of shoot, and That Was five days prep where we carved out with scalpels every tiny little object and different little me’s and then made me kind of do things. Five days prep and I think five or six days shooting each kind of scene, 24 frames per second.

The process of creating In The Violet Hour mimicked the process of grieving; it’s you and there’s nothing else except you and the loss of the person who’s died. Time stands still.

Singer Saint Clair

Saint Clair – Shot by Sorrel Higgins.

EA: I was going to say with the paint, you couldn’t really stretch it out. Covering yourself in paint and the mess everywhere.

Saint Clair: We did “Violet Hour” first which was the most paint and got all that out the way. Then because “Violet Hour” goes into the third chapter “Elegy in c”, I have to start covered in paint, so they had to repaint me in the outfit from the day before that my amazing costume designer Kate had washed, dried and cleaned. It was back on normally, then doused in paint again but it had to sort of be roughly similar so that I could wash it all off again.

So we did think chronologically how would it be the most successful… not needing the wings again because the wings are now completely destroyed. So, we did think a little bit about the order. But the paint, oh my God. (laughs) It was kid paint, so water-based and quite cleanable. It was my mum’s actual house, so “yeah okay the paint, in my bedroom…” She was very chilled about it.

EA: Going back, you mentioned symbolism and you may not want to say and leave it up to the listener, the viewer but the tarantula, what does that represent? Because it features in all, bar one of the videos.

Saint Clair: He’s around, he’s lurking in the second. I think the main kind of co-stars if you will, is like the bird, in and out of being the bird, having the bird around the spider. I think they just loosely represent grief and love and those things coinciding and existing, and loss and …. Yeah, I think other people should just make up their minds, and I suppose they are little quirks that are very personal to us that we recognise to represent certain things that hopefully other people are like “what?” but the tarantula’s not sinister.

EA: No, I didn’t feel that. He feels very lovable. It’s kind of watching you, watching over you, looking out, just checking.

Saint Clair: Exactly, exactly.

EA: Your sister can’t answer this, but do you feel that writing the music, doing the film helped with sort of… I don’t want to say coming to terms with, but the grief of losing your dad?

Saint Clair: Yeah, we actually had this chat the other day. It’s such a whirlwind. You’re so busy with trying to hit deadlines and make sure everyone’s on set, the edit and grade, and you’re distracted by the practicalities of it, and I don’t know whether we’d taken stock of what we achieved or how we felt about what we had achieved until we started receiving feedback from people who were watching them, feeling a certain way about them. Now that we’re out the other side, we sort of agreed that it was almost encapsulating where we’d got to up until that point and now we are free to kind of grieve a bit more freely, maybe? Or more productive? Because we’d got so much out there, so much catharsis, and we’d unearthed so many new photos and home videos and recordings, and it’s like rediscovering him all over again and I think it was a really amazing way of taking stock of that loss… I think I feel more equipped and bit more confident processing and how I talk it and helping other people with it. Making the film and doing the music and being so in touch with it, has made more mature in a way.

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EA: You can hear your dad throughout the film; he’s still there. It’s a nice memorial to him in a way.

Saint Clair: It does feel like a tribute as well as being an expression of our alive art. It’s a shared experience. I felt like we brought him to life a bit. We created a new memory with him in it. It was nice and inclusive in that way.

EA: There’s a part in Grief is a thing with feathers, when the kids are talking about their mum, and they’re saying, “We always made sure we aged her”, “We always made sure that she didn’t remain as she was”. I thought that was a really lovely way of thinking about it.

Saint Clair: Yeah, that’s so true, and I suppose for them in particular she was far too young to have died because they’re such little boys, aren’t they?

Otherwise people get stuck in time, and stuck in… It’s like a BC and an AD. I had a civil partnership this summer and that was one the first, most gut-wrenching reminders that my dad wasn’t there to experience something so pivotal, I suppose, in my life and such a kind of milestone.

You have to try and bring them with you. You have to include them. You have to joke about them. You have to talk about them. You have to include them. That’s a really good reference from the book of not just burying someone, an idea of someone in that moment in time. They’re frozen otherwise.

EA: What’s your favourite song from the EP?

Saint Clair: I think, maybe, “Elegy (in c)” because it’s the newest (laughs), I’m least bored of it. That’s not true. I’ve never gigged these songs. I haven’t had a chance to be sick of them too much but I think “Elegy in c” is so explicitly emotional and so direct. Like I’m talking to my dad in it. There’s just nothing to hide behind. I find that the most rousing, and the most moving, and I really enjoy its simplicity and the amount of space. I remember writing it and not worrying about, “ooh, is this catchy?” or “ooh, where does it sit, what genre?” I just remember thinking that sounds how I feel. So I think it’s maybe the most authentic and raw.

EA: I feel like it’s one the calmer songs out of the four. When I was listening to it, I equated it to when you have a good cry and then you feel better, because you’ve had that good cry.

Talking of gigging and live shows, and the state of the world, live music and the arts in general, do you see yourself performing the songs sooner or later?

Saint Clair: Our first kind of event is a screening on 2nd November, so we’re going to have the full film. The full 18 minute film isn’t just the four individual videos stitched together, it has all sorts of interludes and they properly kind of connect, and a Q+A and that just feels the most safe and responsible way of commemorating the hard work without having the logistical headache of streaming a performance, having so many personnel involved to get a show off the ground and then it getting cancelled, seemed not quite right for now.

I would love in an ideal world, which this is not, to maybe wait until March. We’ve shot live videos for each single as well, so that might feel right to explore me as a performer and what a gig might feel like more than just how hyper-surreal… Because the videos are so stylised, I would love to do a show that was still with the visuals and the music in that kind of immersive, visual way but not so stylised. I think it’s really important for people to come to a show and “Hi, I’m not bird, I’m a person”. I would love to do that maybe in March.

With regards to playing the songs, it’s really odd because it’s such a concept, the visuals are so intrinsically linked with the music that I haven’t quite worked out how I would place it in a set, and if I would just perform the EP but then four songs is not very much for your buck, is it? You can’t come to a gig that’s like 15 minutes long (laughs). So, I need to figure out where… maybe they need to exist as musical nuggets that aren’t always living in this world… I think they have to have their own life as well, where they live like all my other songs. I need to figure out how to integrate them and for not it all to be like, “This is its’ own thing and it will never be performed again!”

EA: You want them to take on their own life and metamorphosize.

Saint Clair: You’d probably listen to a gig and hear to one of my earlier songs and then one of these, and it wouldn’t occur to you that one was about grief and one wasn’t.

EA: My final question, and it’s probably quite difficult, but can you describe you EP in one sentence, or two sentences maybe that’s fairer? (laughs)

Saint Clair: A visual and musical journey through the grieving process made by me and my sister after losing our dad. Buy it now. (laughs)

EA: I think that’s good. People need to buy more music.

Saint Clair: Buy my stuff.

EA: Rather than stream.

Saint Clair: Yeah, please. Bandcamp Fridays are giving me a coffee a month.

See more of Saint Clair on Bandcamp


Emily Algar

Emily Algar is a journalist and writer who specialises in both long and short form features as well as interviews and reviews. She has written pieces ranging from the commercialisation of feminism and feminism in popular culture, critiques surrounding freedom of speech and the #MeToo movement as well as recently interviewing refugees from Iran. Emily also worked as an A&R intern for Joy Williams on her album Front Porch.