Profiling an artists: Meet Saint ClairAug 15, 2021
Our podcast in this format is now defunct but there were a few episodes that were gems with some super helpful content and this is one! This was the first profile of an artist and it was good fun speaking to Saint Clair. The full content is only available on audio and a summary is below.
In this episode
We meet Saint Clair in 2019 and talk journey and process including the creative process, touring, releasing new music, filming a video, inspiration, motivation and lessons.
Meet Emma Topolski
Emma Topolski better known as Saint Clair started as a session musician and sang backing vocals for Laura Marling and Ghost Poet as well as playing bass for them. She successfully writes songs for herself and other musicians and has been support on tour for Bastille as part of Childcare and with her solo project. Currently on her second EP together we go over it all.
Emma: I was very lucky to have a good music department in our 6th form, I met a lot of good musicians there and got into jazz and corporate gigs. It wasn’t that creative but while you are learning your stripes you get to meet a million new artists so you are constantly expanding your network and meeting different people.
That became a regular thing and I got residencies and decided that music was what I wanted to do full time. I started writing and then developing the writing side of it as well.
Emma: I’d say I’ve been doing music professionally for 10 years. I didn’t have a clear goal so there was never an idea of going from somewhere and getting to where I am and achieving one singular thing. Everything that has come my way whether it’s been a curve ball or whether its been something planned or unexpected I just am where I am it's a journey that involves a multitude of things.
Building a network and getting shows
Emma: Today because of social media, you can reach out to particular producers on Instagram, you can just put your own stuff on Soundcloud or even Spotify.
I set up my own label which sounds very grand but is an imprint so I can put out music myself. It’s a very DIY culture now and you can be incredibly social while you are sitting in your pants at home.
If you want to graft the live side get to know other musicians and start to develop your taste. I came through a live route. My mates set up a function band when I was still at uni. I was at uni in Leeds and a lot of artists moved back down to London too. Then when I started gigging it became an ever expanding network and that is pretty much how I met my tribe they then recommend me for things. You can put together a group of experienced session musicians who have never met and it will sound decent. When you are thrown into learning tunes you get to develop your skills that way.
Working in music full-time
Emma: At the beginning when you are nurturing your music it doesn’t really yield any financial rewards it just costs loads of money. I’ve been very lucky, I’ve always lived from music for the last 9 years.
After the function work I went into session music which is a different world. You go on tour for long periods of time playing someone else’s music. It is this middle point between a full time job and structure and security and being able to plan ahead and then also still being freelance.
I did that for a long time. It can be one of the most miserable, isolating and quite lonely experiences. You are stuck in a confined space forever or what feels like forever. If you don’t have an ally and real connection with somebody then you are with people from the minute you wake up to the minute you go to bed. There’s often not a lot of time to explore places and there’s a lot of the same backstage area with the same rider.
On the flip side you get to see the world, travel and build amazing bonds. It’s all just a bit of a melting pot of emotions.
The last 6 months was the first time I earned money outside of music. I had to make a call because the session musician cycle goes with the artist’s album campaign you are playing for so while they are writing the whole thing is dormant so you need to hustle another thing.
So the last cycle that I was offered needed me free until summer 2020 and that was last summer and I had two original projects that I’d been meaning to give my full attention to so it was a good cross roads. So I turned down a lot of that kind of thing. You think you can but it’s hard to do both. I was in Detroit on the Laura Marling tour with my sister and I wasn’t going to write a song, I was going to explore.
I did a few functions to tie me over and took a temp job, it means I am completely secure month to month and I work from home so it doesn’t interfere with my schedule and it’s great.
I am going to do a music industry clang. I was writing with a guy called Fraser T Smith he’s an amazing writer and had been a session musician for ages. He was Craig David’s guitarist in his hey day. He told me that he put a completely arbitrary date in his dairy a few months ahead of time and told himself he was quitting all the other stuff because he had always wanted to be a song writer and had to commit 100%. So that day came and because he made a promise to his future self he did it. It took a long time but he got his first cut and is doing really well now. He has written for Adele and is doing loads on the grime scene.
It is risky, a huge sacrifice, a huge strain on your mental wellbeing and your sense of what achievement is but if you can do what you need to then it can be worth it.
Emma: Tours are all quite different depending on the budget the label has given the artist. It can be a 4am Easyjet flight or, it’s not that.
The last tour I was on was that tour bus lifestyle which is funny. You sleep on the bus three nights and then you get a hotel for the 4th. I’ve always been on tours where everyone has been quite polite and conscientious. I’ve heard a lot of notorious stories about people being up all night and being unable to sleep and that would make things incredibly taxing and exhausting.
A lot of support tours are like gold dust. But if you get yourself on one that really fits your genre you suddenly get the opportunity to play to whole swathes of fans you would not normally have access to. A lot of labels stay within their labels for support and the same with booking agents.
The Childcare slot came about because Dan from Bastille is a mate of Ed the lead singer. They are very generous with their support slots and they like to spread it out over lots of people. Their first slot is always a regular person. With Childcare we did an arena tour and that was a full run of dates. For me I went out to Scandinavia with my band and did Norway, Denmark and Sweden which was very good as that is the sort of territory that suits the music I make.
Outcome of touring
Emma: I definitely had a rapport with a lot of the people who came to shows and I noticed the follower increase that was the most concrete thing. I think as an industry thing even though it’s something I loathe to engage in, it’s high status. Most importantly for what I am trying to build was fan engagement and real people who leave real comments. Doing live shows is the most tangible and immediate response.
Emma: It always seems to be quite dark and cinematic and quite euphoric it opens up into these big choruses and then quite strange harmony in place. Not that conventional but not that crazy. It slightly more left field harmonically. It’s a hybrid of electronic sounds and synths and programme drums but also lots of guitars. I have come on it from a really traditional signwriting perspective but production wise tried to do something a bit more electronic.
The writing process
Emma: I think there are probably two ways. The first way is going with a trusted and inspiring producer multi-instrumentalist if you can find one and start from scratch or with a couple of ideas or some references. Often I have loads of little starting point ideas and then we kind of bounce of that and just writing the whole thing that day. I love the turnaround, it’s amazing and you’ve never felt so productive, when you collaborate your turnaround is better. I pretty much did the whole EP with just one guy, my friend Ben who is an amazing musician.
I probably only work with 3 people, I think it helps focus your music and I think when you find really great people it is really nice to build on relationships. That works better for me.
When you are on your own it's about discipline finding the time to work on stuff and actually work on stuff and finish it and not get distracted.
Otherwise I just write pretty much on keys at home and then do a bit of production and get it to a demo standard. I’ll either kind of be happy with it or I’ll take it to one of my friends and make it all shiny.
I did quite a lot of writing in LA and the attitude over there is pretty hard core. They do 2 or 3 session a day sometimes but the results are there. If you are into that pop thing and you want to get those cuts then it’s happening out there with or without you.
Working with a team
Emma: So I pretty much did everything myself. I do have a PR person, she is amazing, we work together on releases when my releases are ready. As I mentioned I set up an imprint called Dearly Beloved so that is my label and I put everything out through that and AWAL which is a distributor. And then PR deliver it and get press features. I have had a radio plugger before and I haven’t found them to be worth it at all. With Childcare it was a brilliant part of the campaign but for my stuff I found it to be a colossal waste of money.
If you can be as airtight with your concept and if you can come up with something, sometimes it's not even about the music if you can stand out. We have to work 10 times as hard as an independent to rise above. You need a whole campaign but that costs so much money and so much time and you need to think ahead by at least 6 months and plan it all out and that is why you need a team at the end of the day.
I have really enjoyed controlling a lot of what I am doing and I have learnt so much about different industries through doing it by myself but I think to take it to the next level you need some kind of varying degree of support. With Childcare we had just had an injection of money. With my solo project I got the Momentum fund through PRS which was amazing for the last EP and covered all the mixing and mastering, the PR and the music video.
I think it’s great to have as much ownership of your music long-term as possible and if you can still reach the quality and levels that you can on your own and just be patient, then when things do start to connect you’re going to own all your master and call the shots about how you come across. People are going to want to work with you because of what you have already made rather than trying to mould you. If things haven’t fallen into place by the time you thought they would then just try and move forward on your own.
Working with management
Emma: With management I had a couple of experiences and they were people who where part business minded, part music industry and creative and writers themselves. I think being a manager is a particular breed of person and there are very few good ones. The opportunities I’ve had to meet with managers it just hasn’t been the right thing. This has been the same with Childcare we’ve come quite a long way self managed but just haven’t found the right match. You can’t hand over your whole project and 20% but mainly be represented by someone in the room when you are not there if you do not connect with them on some level.
I would rather go with someone who is really hungry and thinks outside the box who comes up with smart, sassy campaigns that draw the eye than someone who is really connected but not creative. It’s a real art to being a good manager it’d a hard job that is intense.
The same as dating, unless you find someone who blows your socks off don’t bother. The same goes for managers, if you are not obsessed with your artist don’t do it as it will take all your time and it won’t be worth it. You don’t have to be best friends but you do need to respect each other.
I have shot live videos for things. I have done a series of covers of my friend’s music. The first EP came out in September with the lead single ‘I’ll stay’ which has that very murderous and psychopathic video. And then the next EP is all mastered and ready to go. It’s 4 tracks about grief and loss.
My sister is directing me in 4 videos kind of like short films. I think it is really beautiful for us to work together and collaborate. We lost our dad about four years ago and it’s nice to work with someone I trust so whole-heartedly. Her taste is second to none. We just came up with treatments and they all interlink and they all go through these very abstract quite visceral metamorphosis of grief and loss. They came out as a whole body of work but they will be stand alone videos you can watch as a kind of 12 minute short film.
We are shooting in London in a family home. I wanted it to have a family feel where the dust has settled and that something has passed.
I was trying to think about what to put out next and what could fit together and which songs to choose and I listened to things over the last 4 years and I realised that there was a lot of that in there. That is what inspired the video because a lot of the songs were about grief and loss and they were also a snapshot into my state at the time, like a diary. I thought that I could put this together and they could tell a bigger story about what it means to loose somebody. It is a never ending journey but up until this point these are the emotions that I felt about it.
I am putting out another song that is not part of that collection in the summer just because I have so much music and it will be nice to say 'hello' because I haven’t put anything out for a minute. Then speaking to press and radio and PR about how we can really build on the concept and the best platform for that to go out on. There is no point putting anything out without music PR.
You need to write so much. You need to be writing all the time if you want to be a songwriter. You need to do that as freely and as authentically as possible because you need to find your sound. There are things I wrote at the beginning of my journey that make me cringe so be patient with yourself. If you have one great song then that is amazing but then you need to do another 6 before you even think about how you want to plot how you want to put things out.
I think patience and honing the craft and not getting ahead of yourself in terms of aesthetic and social media and that kind of thing. If you want longevity I think you need to work out who you are and what you want to say. Not having a vision means that you can be pulled in all sorts of different directions. Figure out who you are; and the only way you can do that is by doing it loads behind closed doors.
Keeping motivated and productive
Endurance - It’s something I really confronted since last summer when I stopped the touring thing. It gave me identity and validation and suddenly I was out in this void where the only thing I had to show for myself was my own music. So I did go through a crisis of confidence and just the exhaustion of endurance. So much about this job is about endurance, clinging on and keeping some kind of love or determination there long enough for something to click and connect. It will be slow and it’s baby steps. It’s an endurance test mixed with finding ways to love it.
Collaboration - I am really helped by being in a band. I thought that would be one giant distraction but the way we rally together and share the jobs out I feed that back into my own thing. I just get active and think I have to take responsibility for my own song writing. Force people to be involved and then that creates deadlines. Other people will inspire you.
Have a plan - You will go through crushing lows and massive crisis of self confidence and may want to quit and actually maybe the project you started isn’t that fulfilling and you can completely reinvent what you are doing and it’s not a sign of failure but a sign of growth.
And things like this interview are helpful they force me to put a spotlight on where I am at and take stock and reflect.
Links and resources
Saint Claire Instagram – iamsaintclairhttps://www.instagram.com/iamsaintclair/?hl=en
Childcare - https://en-gb.facebook.com/CHILDCAREBAND/
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