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Track By Track: Kar Stanton - Protagonist

Kar Stanton is a multi-instrumentalist songwriter based in Bournemouth. She released her debut single, ‘The Body Count’, under the moniker Red Stencil in 2015. Protagonist is the name of her first album, which was released under her own name just last week on October 8. After interviewing her last year to find out about the process of recording the album, Musos’ Guide decided to get back in touch to find out more about the finished article. Here, Kar takes us through the album track by track, giving us insights into the songs, what inspired them and the recording of the album. 

Track 1: 'She Can'.

This song is about a teenage girl who’s making art and music and using technology. I sing in the first person at the end but that’s just a device to get the listener into that position of empowerment and fearlessness. 

I am part of an online community that sets musical challenges for its members and we were going to each make an experimental track. I had bought a recorder because I was working on some songs for kids so I decided to open the track with distorted recorders. I stripped a lot of the experimental elements out of the final track because I didn't want it to be too much of a challenge to listen to. I really wanted this album to be one you could connect with on the first listen.

Track 2. 'New Year'.

Most of the acoustic tracks on 'Protagonist' were written in 2014 and by the end of that year I felt my writing was starting to reinforce my negative emotions, because even if I was having a good day I would keep on writing a difficult song which would drag me down again! I wanted to make a conscious effort to write something positive. My New Year’s resolution was ‘write some happier songs’, so I started writing the song 'New Year' on 1st Jan 2015. This is one of the most hopeful tracks on the album and a lot of friends have told me that it’s their favourite. I started exploring more synth- and beats-based instrumentation when writing this track, and my electric guitar even makes a rare appearance.  

Track 3: 'The Loon'. 

Years ago when I was in Aberdeen, my now husband and I passed a very frail elderly man who was really struggling with all his shopping and we offered to help him with his bags. We took them up to his flat which was pretty high up in this huge block and we ended up having a cup of tea with him while he told us about his life. It turns out that he had been a musician and had played in the dance halls, which was a big thing in young people’s lives in the 50s and 60s in Scottish cities. I asked if he still played at all and he showed me he had arthritis and couldn't play anymore. Lots of the things he said stuck with me for a long time and the song is me attempting to tell his story. ‘Loon’ means ‘boy’ in Doric (the Aberdeen dialect).

Track 4: 'The Body Count'.

This track is me giving myself a telling-off for my social, political and spiritual apathy. The song's roots are actually in a whole lot of lyrics that I wrote just after the London bombings in 2005. I was up in Aberdeen at the time and I felt so close to it, but so far away at the same time. Every day there is something horrific happening somewhere in the world: you see humanitarian disasters, wars and scandals on the TV or the internet and there is a sense of helplessness at the enormity of them. We’re also becoming so used to it. I get upset and am moved emotionally, but I do nothing to help. I often want to close the curtains, disappear under the covers and not see any of it.

This track was mixed by Lola Demo, who’s this incredible one-woman band with a huge following on Soundcloud. Her album Morphine Crush is my favourite album of the year, so it was a privilege to work with her. 

Track 5: 'Overcome the Monster'.

Writing positive tracks while not feeling positive was a huge challenge for me. I started by listening to songs I had on a playlist called ‘Joy’ that I’d been adding tracks to for years on Spotify. I tried to analyse a song, work out what it was that lifted me up and then tried to emulate it. No matter where I start with my own writing, though, the lyrics always end up being from my reality and view point. This song actually came out of me looking at the song structure of ‘Angel Interceptor’ by Ash.

My husband was very unwell at the time and at that point I didn’t know if he would get better. I wrote the lyrics as if a full recovery was definitely going to happen: “You will overcome the monster, you’re gonna get better”. This is not me saying ‘just think positively’, as I don’t believe that works, but I had written too many nuanced songs and so, for this one, I gave myself permission to write one where I imagined a positive outcome.

Track 6: 'A Simple Life'.

This song is one that I start singing to myself in my head quite a lot, usually when I’m starting to get overwhelmed. I think its a pretty universal desire to want to have a simple life, but perhaps especially for those of us who are prone to worry and anxiety.   

Track 7: 'In Sickness'.

This is probably the most personal song on the album. When I write I don't usually have a set idea of what a song should say. It’s more that I start writing because I’m either struggling with something or confused about something, and writing the song helps me work through what I’m feeling and make some sense of it. I write a song for myself, first and foremost. When I looked back on this song after writing it, I hoped that someone in a similar situation to me, trying to work through a relationship where their partner was in a very difficult place, would take some comfort in it. Otherwise the song would not have made it out of our flat because it was so personal.  

Track 8: 'Youth in Bloom'.

This started life as a poem about a young girl being used for a few years by the music industry. In the poem, she was used to make them money and then dropped. The content got more and more serious as I developed it, as everywhere I’ve turned in these last few years there is another story about girls, boys and all the forms of abuse and exploitation they’re subjected to both here and round the world. It became so colossal for me to work through personally and I just tried to do my best with the song. I wasn't sure I could manage such a challenging subject matter. I think the crucial moment with the development of this song was when I decided that the responsible parties should be ‘we’ rather than ‘they’. I feel like we all have some responsibility for the horrific things that happen in our world because they are happening on our watch.

Track 9: 'Back to Reality'.

I used to be a big daydreamer. It’s not a bad thing in itself, of course, but I started to feel that it was becoming a problem for me. I felt that I was spending too much time in other imaginary lives and situations, rather than living my own. As with any problem or anything that’s nagging at me, it ends up turning into a song, as songwriting is the way that I work through my thoughts. 

Track 10: 'In the Darkness'.

As with many of the tracks that made it onto the album, I did a full demo on my iPad first and then went to The Burrow Bournemouth [a studio space with its own record label] and recorded everything again from scratch - vocals, acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, cornet, piano and organ. I go into the studio with all the parts written out and all the instruments tracked out in different colours on a master sheet with lyrics. I think the details are really important and I’m a bit of a perfectionist, but the aim is that ultimately the music gets out of the way of the song. I’d prefer it that listeners are completely immersed in the story and emotion of each song. The details need to be perfect so that they are supporting the flow of the song rather than distracting from it. This one very much recreates a certain feeling for me at a really difficult time in my life. I have to try and enter that space again when I perform it otherwise I don't do it justice and it feels like karaoke.

Track 11: 'Kids'.

This is my Mum’s favourite! I’m the one who was ‘singing splendid nonsense in the backseat of the car’ - she can probably remember that better than I can! I guess the song explores nostalgia, wanting to get back to when we were kids and teenagers, and feeling like the potential you once had has not amounted to anything. By the end it reaches a place of acceptance and even celebration of my life now, which felt like a good place to finish the album.


Kar's debut album, 'Protagonist', is out now. You can give it a spin on Soundcloud and Spotify, and it's available for purchase via iTunes and Amazon. Physical copies of the album can be ordered through Bandcamp. To keep up to date with Kar's releases and live-dates, keep an eye on her website.


A Wee Chat With Red Stencil

Last Friday saw the release of two singles by Kar Stanton, aka Red Stencil, whose two EPs Protagonist and will be released next year. Kar is a multi-instrumentalist songwriter who grew up in Scotland but now lives in sunnier climes in the south of England. Kar’s music came to our attention via her Facebook page and, as the singles ‘New Year’ and ‘In Sickness’ are her first releases under the moniker Red Stencil, we thought it was a great time to talk to an emerging artist about her music, starting out as an artist, and the forthcoming EPs. 

Musos’ Guide: As you’re a new voice on the scene, this is a great chance for you to introduce yourself to our readers. Can you tell us a bit about your music?

Kar: I write both acoustic and alternative songs. My lyrics are mostly from my own perspective, but sometimes from that of others too. One of my favourite songs to play live is ‘The Loon’, which is written from the perspective of an elderly guy that I met in Aberdeen. I’ve got other songs that are written from the perspective of a doxxed blogger and another one from that of a girl with a facial disfigurement. My lyrics are usually quite honest and stark, sometimes disturbingly so!

MG: At the moment, Red Stencil is very much a solo venture. Is that particularly important to you at this stage of your career, and are there any artists that have influenced your thinking on what you want your music to be like and achieve? 

K: I like to write every single part of my songs, and I fell the need to write every note. At the moment, it’s important to me that I do everything myself, not be in a band, and have a complete vision of everything that goes into the songs. I really want to be the mastermind of my own musical world, like Bright Eyes, Beck, St Vincent or Sufjan Stevens. I like artists that aren't afraid of their own emotions, which is very important. I think as a musician, artist, or a writer you have to reveal yourself and be honest. It’s part of your role, to express emotions that others might be feeling and that they might not feel able to express.

MG: You mentioned the fact that it’s really important to you to do everything yourself, in terms of writing and instrumenting your songs. I think that’s really important when you’re starting out as an independent artist — to really work out who you are as a musician and to learn the ropes, as it were. What was your experience of recording the EPs like, and what did you do to get ready for going into the studio? 

K: I’m part of the community at The Burrow Bournemouth, which is a recording studio, record label, and a big group of musicians that do gigs together. With the writing I almost always do the complete arrangement of a song on my iPad DAW in advance of going into the studio. With the acoustic stuff I go into The Burrow studio and Matt [Musial] records me playing the acoustic instruments from scratch, which means I get a properly decent recording, and then we sit and mix and master it. With the alternative stuff, I do most of the synth and drums stuff on my iPad and then transfer it over to Matt, and then we re-record the vocals and any electric guitar or bass in the studio.  I’m a bit of a control freak and a perfectionist and Matt, bless him, puts up with me being a bit of a diva sometimes! He’s an excellent producer and a great musician in his own right. As a sound engineer he makes sure that everything sounds clean and professional without losing its character.

MG: ‘In Sickness’ and ‘New Year’ are our first tasters of your upcoming EPs. Can you tell us a bit about the singles and what inspired them?

K: The singles both showcase the style of the EPs, and they tie in lyrically too. ‘In Sickness’ was written in the midst of my husband’s depression. It was difficult to write. It might have stayed unreleased, actually: I gave my husband a veto on it and it wouldn’t have left our flat without his saying-so. But he felt that the song might help other people who were in a similar position to us to get through it. I set myself a New Year’s Resolution this year to ‘write some happier songs’ and the first song that I finished was ‘New Year’. It’s a hopeful song, but realistic at the same time: it’s not victorious or ecstatic in any way. It’s an alt-pop song with electric guitar and synths — it was brilliant to liberate my electric guitar, as it’d been buried away for years!

MG: What about the EPs themselves? Can you tell us about them and what we might expect?

K: The plan for the EPs is to release them simultaneously in early 2016. The acoustic EP ‘What Remains’ is almost completely recorded.  It’s all acoustic instruments – acoustic guitars, acoustic bass, cornet, piano, all played by me, and I would say the main theme really is of loss – the loss of status, job, friends. It wasn’t a conscious choice to arrange the songs together on an EP; the songs were all written individually but a unifying theme emerged.  I would say the feel is early Sufjan Stevens or early Bright Eyes: the instrumentation is quite sparse, and the vocals are delicate. The ‘Protagonist’ EP, on the other hand, just tried to create something joyful and hopeful!

MG: What’s next for Red Stencil? 

K: At the moment I’m doing stripped back versions of the songs live, just me and my acoustic guitar, and mostly songs from ‘What Remains’. My plan for gigs in a few months time is to have a set-up where I’ll have my iPad, my electric guitar, and a midi controller or synth so I can play and sing songs from ‘Protagonist’. I think at some point in the future I will get a band together to play live, but I’m still in my control freak space at the moment! In terms of success, I’m not even sure what I’m aiming at, but I feel once I’ve got the EPs completely finished and then have a small body of work that I’m really proud of, that will be a big milestone for me in my life. I got to a stage where I just realised that the only thing I’m half good at, and truly love, and ever really wanted to do with my life was music, so I decided I was just going to do it!

The singles 'In Sickness' and 'New Year' are out now. They're available on Bandcamp on a 'Name Your Price' promotion, or you can head on over to iTunes or amazon to download the singles. Money raised from sales of the singles will go towards studio costs for recording the final songs on the 'Protagonist' and 'What Remains' EPs. 

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