Palatial pop storming the palace

Music

I speak to Sophie Dodds the morning after her birthday. As we talk of last nights revelry, the interview becomes almost prophesied. As an Oxford graduate, former History student at St Hughs and writer for The Oxford Student, Sophie herself was interviewing musicians on this very day, years ago. We talk of university and the role it played on the path of Sophie’s musical career and her band Storm the Palace and the release of their debut EP In Ruins this same month. For the sake of categorising their music, Storm the Palace can only be described as palatial pop. With grand musical arrangements often featuring various intricate piano, cello, mandolin and harpsichord parts accompanying Sophie’s melodious and charming lyrics.

Sophie’s lyrics have been described as “romantic, literate and thrilling” by the writer Lorna Scott Fox, artfully mixing elements of folk tradition to create a heartfelt style of pop. Did this apparent “literate” style come from her university days? I ask. Moments of reflection are followed by, “I used to see the academic side of me and the creative musical side of me being completely separate, but I’ve come to realise in the past few year they’ve influenced each other.” She even mentions a charming example, “One of my songs was influenced by Greenwich, which I became really fascinated by when I did a paper on architecture.”

University seems only a minor footnote on the path of Dodds’ musical career, “I’ve been in bands since I was about 15” she comments, and this was only set to continue when she moved away, “we had a cover band based in college, that was a lot of fun.” Despite offering interesting anecdotes and base material for her later lyrics, Oxford it seems, was perhaps a less practical environment to start a band or to play music, “I found it a very difficult environment. I found it very stressful. It was the sort of place where the content came rather than the time to develop it.”

After University, the road to a career in music was less than straightforward. She details the pressure of having to find a proper job, “I spent a lot of the last ten years pursuing more sensible paths. After I finished Oxford, I did a Master in Art History and for a few years I worked at the National Portrait Gallery.” It seems after much internal reflection, music remained the constant desire, something that Sophie confirms, “I think on one level or another it always was, it’s always been my first love”. Her relationship with music appears to be akin to meeting an old friend after several years apart. Things may have changed, life may have gotten in the way, but the love and quiet affection still remain.

Perhaps the most significant step was meeting her bandmate and current partner Reuben Taylor, “the current band, Storm the Palace, sort of blossomed when Reuben and I started working together”. She adds that he is sitting there with her at the end of the phone, but goes on to describe their working relationship honestly, “We have quiet a complementary style of working together, we fill in each others gaps.” later adding that on meeting Rueben, “the whole project rose up by the power of 10” I tentatively ask whether such a working relationship makes other aspects of their relationship difficult, it appears to only enhance it: “We’re both nuts about music. It’s meant to be a major no no, being in a relationship with someone you’re in a band with.” However the opposite seems to be true in this case, with Sophie stating matter-of-factly, “I couldn’t be in a relationship with someone I wasn’t in a band with, I just wouldn’t have the time for it.”

Despite the obvious success of such a collaboration Sophie describes a very independent way of working. “I start off with a very simple theme on my guitar, I write the lyrics and melodies and guitar parts. They all sound very Leonard Cohen-y at that stage” She later adds that this stems from a history of no-shows and cancellations, “I played in a band once where our drummer just didn’t show up. I’d travelled down from Edinburgh [to Bournemouth] and he just wasn’t there.”

Alongside Leonard Cohen, and more apparent influences such as the orchestral style pop of Scott Walker and Nancy and Lee, Sophie is eager to talk of her love for folk music especially in its European forms such as Fado and Flamenco, “I lived in Portugal a couple of years ago and got into Fado there.” Despite this varied and interesting mix of influences and sounds, Sophie adds somewhat hesitantly, “When we play we get told we sound like Belle and Sebastian.”

The comparison is perhaps an easy one to make. Belle and Sebastian’s wistful indie pop and intelligent lyrics would seem a perfect bedfellow with Storm the Palace especially when considering  some of Sophie’s most romantic lyrics, “If only like Copernicus we could rearrange ourselves another universe.” But Storm the Palace appear to occupy a perhaps unknown territory between the two genres, “We are totally sitting comfortably between the who gazing indie world and the big shiny pop world.” adding with ever so slight tones of self deprecation, “We make music our friends parents seem to like.” Yet, this to me is no bad thing. If it produces the sort of music that Storm the Palace have released so far, the journey the band and Sophie herself has taken, although not instantaneous, has been incredibly worthwhile.

Photo: Arnab Ghosal.