Keeley Forsyth: Valleys and moors

Better known as an actor, Keeley Forsyth is now making sparse, atmospheric music. She says it was a return to her northern roots that allowed her to make her debut album – and shaped its sound

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You might recognise Keeley Forsyth from Happy Valley or the BBC’s dramatisation of JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. Think back even further, and you might remember her playing Nicky in 1990s kids show The Biz, and Marvel fans might have seen her name on the credits for Guardians of the Galaxy, in which she played Mottled Prisoner.

“That one song shows the transition from mother to singer and them both kind of being the same thing.”

The actor, from Oldham, has had a long and varied career in both TV and film. But now, at the age of 40, Forsyth’s life is heading down a new path, with the release of her debut album Debris earlier this month.

Forsyth’s title track is haunting, atmospheric. She cites Scott Walker and the Michael Clark Company among her influences, culminating in an album to listen to when you’re on your own, or through your headphones on a rainy
bus journey.

Forsyth says growing up close to Saddleworth Moor had a profound effect on her and, after 20 years living in London, the northern landscape has found its way into her work following a move to Harrogate four years ago.

“Saddleworth Moor has always had a massive effect,” she says. “That landscape and the dark and lightness of that. And now living on the Yorkshire side, we go into the Dales a lot, we go camping a lot. That’s a huge part of the music, or at least when I’m making the music that’s where I go in my head. I go to those places.”

Listening to Forsyth’s album, it’s easy to see what she means. She walks listeners into a place of bleak beauty, her voice characterised by a low-pitched melancholy.

She took the “long way round” into music. An alumnus of Oldham Theatre Workshop, Forsyth trained as a singer and dancer, but “resisted singing” for a long time.

But following events in her personal life she started writing, not songs but “stuff” – she doesn’t say she’s a songwriter. Yet a collaboration with instrumentalist and composer Matthew Bourne soon led to her first album.

“There wasn’t an intention to do this and then I suddenly felt ready to do the album,” she says. “It was an accumulation of things really. When you have big transitions in your life usually they come from you recognising that everything else is some form of unhappiness or some form of everything getting to a breaking point and then everything stagnates for a while and then eventually it starts to shift.

“It was a part-conscious decision to do music but also it seemed to happen when I started to change things from the inside. My kids went back to school full time so I had more time, and acting wasn’t fulfilling me in any substantial way.”

Forsyth admits there are some songs on the album she finds hard to listen to because they remind her of a more difficult time. But others, such as the album’s second song Black Bull – the first she ever wrote – have happier memories attached.

“We kept the original recording of [Black Bull] on the album, which kind of stops at one point because my kids had woken up and I had to press the space bar at home on the computer, go and see to them and come back and carry on. For me in that one song it shows the transition from mother to singer and them both really kind of being the same thing.”

Although she has put acting to one side, it continues to influence her music. She is working with a choreographer and visual artists to hone her performance for the two gigs she has coming up this month, and says the album was born of a character she has created.

“A lot of the songs happen through a state of improvisation, really – through me going into a character and improvising what they would say in
that state. I wouldn’t call myself a songwriter. It’s more like having a conversation. I just have conversations with myself, but I go into it like an actor would.”

Interestingly, Forsyth says it is her return to the north that has enabled her to delve into a career in music.

“Moving weirdly enabled me to focus more on the music, because it’s so saturated in London. It’s a good thing, but I could never find my feet within the music industry, not that I was wanting to. Everyone who is in the band is based up north, so it just seemed easier. If I’d stayed in London the album might have had a sort of city, tinny sound maybe. But here it’s definitely sparser and more breathing. I probably wouldn’t have met Matt Bourne, the album probably wouldn’t have got out.

“I didn’t even know how you get a record out. I wasn’t interested in that, because it felt quite self indulgent to go: ‘I’m going to make a record and I’m going to try and get it out there.’ It wasn’t really what I wanted to do. I think I didn’t have the confidence to believe I was worth listening to.

“But then making the music itself is a very empowering place for me to be. I think the energy of making it took over, which is very empowering.”

Debris is out now. Keeley Forsyth plays Yes, Manchester on 28 January

Photo by Maria Alzamora

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