Nigel Godrich and Laura Bettinson on Ultraísta: “It’s about feeling strength in the fact we’re all together in this”
Ultraísta – the super-group made up of Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, dance artist Laura Bettinson and Atoms for Peace drummer Joey Waronker – returned with a new album just days before the country found itself on lockdown. We caught up with Nigel and Laura to hear all about life in these strange times and how fans think their latest album, ‘Sister’, is the perfect soundtrack for self-isolation.
Hi, Ultraísta. How are you coping with lockdown?
Nigel: “I’m as good as I can be with it being the end of the world and everything! I was about to go on tour with Thom [Yorke] but obviously that’s moved. Ultraísta weren’t going to tour until much later in the year anyway, so hopefully it will have blown over by then. Fingers crossed our tour will still happen.”
Laura: “Amongst all the chaos, I think we were quietly relieved that we managed to get the album out. What’s interesting is that it’s forced everybody to slow down and look at their way of life a little bit more and know it’s still possible to get shit done but not at a million miles an hour. People are actually making the effort to speak to one another again, rather than just sending like fifty fucking WhatsApp messages. If we can maintain a little bit more of this reflection it might be hugely beneficial to our mental health.”
The release of your debut was also hit by lots of problems – does this feel like déjà vu?
Nigel: “Absolutely, it just feels bizarre. Obviously, we can’t link all these things together but like with Hurricane Sandy when that hit during our debut tour, it was similarly apocalyptic with empty streets and the like. But all these disasters are nothing to do with us – I hope!”
Fans are saying the album’s final line – “I don’t know what it means to find myself alone” – is all too fitting for self-isolation…
Nigel: “It’s weird how this happens in art, isn’t it? It’s like you make something in abstract and you sort of follow a feeling that you don’t really understand and then it makes this connection with the environment around it when it finally emerges. It’s a very introspective but uplifting thing. It’s about feeling strength in the fact we’re all together in this.”
Laura: “I actually really enjoy seeing the way different people are connecting with it. It’s great to see how our fans are projecting themselves onto it and finding solace in the lyrics.”
How did you all start working together?
Laura: “Nigel came to see me at a show. I didn’t have a clue who he was. There was this huge hole in my Radiohead education and when I first went to meet Nigel at his studio I was like ‘Woah! This is a fancy studio…this guy must be a big deal!’ But in all honesty, I didn’t have any idea of who he was or what I was stepping into. Nigel and Joey lived through this whole other era of the music industry which fascinates me but equally, I’m there to like fucking re-educate them that it’s not how it is anymore! We’re all constantly educating each other.”
What finally got you all back in the studio?
Laura: “We started making this record quite early on, after we finished that first album and then it went through various permutations. We revisited it and hacked it all apart.”
Nigel: “I’ve not had a real deadline for a long time. When we got back together, we knew we couldn’t afford to waste time because we’ve got so many other things going on so in a way, that was the push. It was very sort of leisurely and navel-gazing for years and then it was like ‘okay, let’s knuckle down to do this because it’s worth doing’.”
The album is very lyrically driven and personal this time – was that harder coming from your production backgrounds?
Nigel: “Yes, definitely – it’s completely different. I am a musician and I make recorded music, but I also spend my life working with artists and trying to bring out the best in people. But with your own songwriting and lyric writing, you are very vulnerable. I’ve seen it many times in others, but to actually put yourself out on the line there, it’s very different.”
Laura: “A lot of the songwriting impetus came from Nigel. It was quite a challenge because in the last two years, I’ve been trying to consciously step away from songwriting: I’ve been making dance music, using my voice as a soundboard. The personal vulnerabilities for me came from my singing and my interpretation of those lyrics.”
Nigel, Radiohead’s last album ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ saw you adding a very personal tribute to your late father. On this album, there’s another…
Nigel: “During ‘Moon Shaped Pool’, he was ill. I was sort of leaving him because he was saying to me: ‘Go to work.’ He did die very close towards the end of the making of our record so it was sort of in parenthesis of that whole experience. His death certainly affected how I worked. It’s a sort of very personal catastrophe but you realise it’s all part of life and in a way, it makes you focus.
“Putting the music next to the experience of your father dying drives you forward because in watching and feeling somebody dying, you understand why we are here and what you should be doing with your life and what you should be putting your attention into. Seeing what is happening in the world right now makes it resonate even more.”
With your busy schedules, were you ever tempted to concentrate on singles?
Laura: “When we’d finished ‘Tin King’, I would have probably put it out as a single just to keep things moving, to give us the kick up the arse to get other stuff finished. Nigel was absolutely adamant he wanted to make an album and that we weren’t going to put anything out until it was ready. I come from the dance world where it’s all about singles and flexibility. There’s not much point to putting whole albums now anyway – only a few people stream whole records.”
Nigel: “I’m really passionate about the album as an art form. I always think about blocks of music because everything will have a sort of line running through it. For me, the whole thing is supposed to have an arc. With this one it starts with an explosion and ends with a self-reflecting thought.”
What’s the best thing about being in Ultraísta?
Laura: “What I love about Ultraísta is that I can step into a completely different part of my creativity which I don’t normally access in other projects. Nothing is off limits.”
Nigel: “The basis for the whole project really is the fact we’re all friends: we’re just doing it because we love it. There’s no labour behind it; it’s all done with joy. It’s the biggest luxury of all really, to be able to work with your friends and then put it out if there’s a vehicle for it.”