With his third album now out in the world, the Glasgow multi-instrumentalist tells us about his renewed approach
C Duncan is known for straddling that divide between the classical and pop music worlds, having come from a classical background and earned a degree from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. But while his releases exhibit the melodic precision and choral-like qualities associated with classical composition, his affinity for pop music has long been a part of his creative output.
'Since I was about 11 or 12, I've been recording "pop songs", and even when I was studying classical, I was still writing and recording pop music,' he recalls. 'I guess the albums felt natural in that sense. It was really the live thing that at first felt a bit unnatural because the reason I became a composer was that I didn't really want to be in the limelight or be a frontman!'
Despite his reluctance to take on this role, being shortlisted for the Mercury Prize for debut album Architect rapidly altered his path. The Mercury may have gone to Benjamin Clementine that year but earning a nomination so early in Duncan's career certainly cemented the multi-instrumentalist as an artist to watch, whose creativity would only blossom with each project and each release. Follow-up album The Midnight Sun was proof of this, featuring more of his trademark ethereal ambience and well-crafted compositions. But with third album Health, the plan was to make a dynamic shift towards something more direct and sonically rich.
'Musically, I had the same approach,' he says about working on Health. 'But also, because the second album is so much its own thing and basically just one big song that lasts 40 minutes, I wanted to make an album that was much more varied this time round, with more highs and more lows. There are lots of themes in this album, but the one that comes up a lot is love and loss of love, which is quite a cathartic thing for me to write about because it's not something I've really done before. With my previous records, I buried my voice and my lyrics way down in the mix, below loads of reverb, because I was a bit shy about expressing myself. But because I've recorded so many songs now, I just felt with this record that it was really time to be more direct with my lyrics or as direct as I can be.'
Health features an evolution of Duncan's sound but also highlights a change in his creative process, with the album marking the first time he's worked with other producers, engineers and musicians, including Elbow's Craig Potter who took on production duties. 'Working with Craig was just brilliant, he's so good at what he does and so experienced,' Duncan says about his former tour mate. 'The first two records I did from home, and I loved doing that, but I knew it was time to branch out and try something a bit different and push myself.'
To have your debut album shortlisted for the Mercury is no mean feat, but for Duncan, this was largely unexpected. Made on a budget of only £50 in his own bedroom studio, 2015's Architect was lauded across the board for its dreamy layering and lush pop soundscapes. Health may represent something more ambitious in its engagement with fresh perspectives and new ways of writing, but it remains a record full of warmth, texture and personality. 'Because Health is much more lyrically direct, I hope that people will be able to relate to it,' Duncan notes. 'I guess that's really my biggest ambition with this record.'
C Duncan, Summerhall, Edinburgh, Fri 10 May; Maryhill Community Centre Hall, Glasgow, Sat 11 May; Health is out now on FatCat Records.