Without sounding too bombastic Sarah really is an icon within the Leeds music scene. Whether playing in Esper Scout, Molars, Ecate, in Fig By Four or being involved with Chunk or Bomb The Twist (not to even mention the City of Culture bid) she really covers a lot of important bases and really represents what is great about the local scene. We’re lucky Manchester’s loss was our gain (in your face Manchester!) so here’s an inspiring little chat with Sarah before she opens up the next Youth Anthems gig.
What’s your name and where do you come from?
It’s a play on ‘four by four’. My favourite number married with a distaste of urban-tank 4x4s. It came to mind and stuck. I had a habit of eating dried figs at the time which happens every so often. Figging is also a form of torture but I won’t share that with the kids. I’m from Manchester. That’s where I started in bands when I was 15 or so. I’ve lived in Leeds for around eight years, coming here to study cinema and photography at university.
When did you first start writing and performing under the Fig by Four name?
Even though I’d consider drums to be my main instrument, it was a classical guitar that my nana and grandad bought me from their local market which came first. I learnt some cover songs and wrote a couple when I was maybe fourteen, half my life ago. After a short while I began focusing mainly on beats until the band that was to become Esper Scout moved to Leeds and needed a guitarist, and later a singer. It took ten years for me to pick it up again. I started putting chords and words together, admittedly with a feeling of tentative uncertainty about if it’d be any good. I still have that but with some grounding and direction. I’m a drummer with tendonitis. I thump things with a balance of cautious anxiety and carelessness in the moment.
How do you decide which songs are going to be for your solo work and which for Esper Scout?
There is some overlap in terms of me being able to rearrange some of the band’s songs to play solo. Ultimately though the more I pursue Fig by Four, the more I realise the two draw from completely different parts of myself. That’s not always the case, but with the four of us I find the lyrical roots are often of a noticeably political or at least directly social and passionately stirred nature. The message is a bit more urgent. Not an outright agenda but an ethos and atmosphere I guess. By contrast Fig by Four has a delicacy of tone you could say. Maybe I could put it like that. I seem to allow myself to indulge in productive and cathartic self deprecation and wistfulness a bit more. Still with an aim to be positive like Esper Scout, but more personally pointed and introspective. Turning frustrations and nagging daily expectations into a happier reality. But yeah, needless to say there’s more room for a love song or allowance for idiosyncratic quirks when it’s me alone. In ES I’m conscious of representing and uniting Kirsty, Abbi and Rebecca’s voices with mine. It’s a group effort bond band.
What sort of gigs do you find yourself playing and how do you find them compared with playing in a full band?
My first solo ‘set’ I think was an Elliott Smith tribute night in Leeds. I brought an Esper Scout song and my version of Smith’s ‘Twilight’. It’s still my favourite of his and lovely to play. The gig was quietly attended by a few friends and a handful of strangers. A couple of which have said hello a couple of years later which is nice. I remember it well. There are some gigs which have been offered to ES but we can’t be available for them so if I can do I’ll offer myself up. Experience is good and every show is a chance to build on what you have and see and meet new faces. There’s no question that it’s more nerve-wracking to perform alone, but usually I only realise that after the fact. I’ve started to notice my ‘just say yes and get on with it’ attitude recently. The same applies to the band too. I only felt the effects of the daunting London Roundhouse show that we played with the Cribs in a brief quiet moment some time later. Often they never come, those pieces of reality sinking in. Things can mean so much to me that I get so swept up in them and become overwhelmed to a point of numbness. So in that sense any gig, whether it’s solo, guitar, drums whatever, is very much the same. I do enjoy things, but they can pass me by too easily. Try to catch the fleeting journeysteps.
I know you are involved in the Leeds bid for Capital of Culture so what do you think are the most important cultural treasures in Leeds we should be making more use of?
Yeah, two years left to pull the bid together and if successful the celebrations will be in 2023. Chunk, the co-op practice space and venue we help maintain and grow would be my first mention. It’s a big collection of caring heads and hearts. Likewise musically Wharf Chambers and The Brudenell being obvious venue shouts. I’m a support worker by day and through that I get to see a lot of the city. The Tetley gallery in town, trips to Kirkstall Abbey (in my ‘hood), the Leeds-Liverpool canal and Meanwood Park are gems. Leeds is one if the best cities in the world and summer’s coming.
Since we last interviewed you with Esper Scout have there been any new local bands on your radar we should be checking out?
Oil are great! New, fun friends of the band who I’ve met through ES’s involvement in Chunk. Featuring members of Bearfoot Beware, ZoZo and Cattle. More from them soon. ZoZo are one of the best live bands you’ll see, we’re looking forward to releasing a split 7″ with them. Sabrina Piggott has a lovely way of songwriting too, with a warming Irish accent. Recommend! This person isn’t Leeds based but I think younger music lovers would really enjoy the new Frankie Cosmos album ‘Next Thing’. It’s bouncy and innocent but with real depth for someone who wrote those songs in her late teens/early twenties. Earlier this month I went to New York with my girlfriend, who’s a big fan of hers, to see both album release gigs at a DIY space in her local Brooklyn surroundings. A special gal. Melodic and intuitive.
Do you have any top tips for anyone thinking about doing some solo gigs if they’ve been used to playing in a band?
It’s nerve wracking at first for sure. Not having that family comfort. I play one or two Esper Scout songs in my set at the moment, an opportunity to know them differently. Lyrics tend to come across with increased attentiveness when it’s just voice and guitar. The chance to bare my emotions nakedly is a test of character and confidence, with no other sounds to hide within or people to stand amongst. Thankfully my motivation supersedes my nerves, at least enough to deter me from bottling a gig or let hesitation irrationally block me from putting a song out for others to hear. I must credit the encouragement of others a lot too. I write and play because it’s a compulsion I can’t seem to ignore, but boosts from outside myself can mean a great deal.
What question do you wish we would have asked and what would the answer be?
I love to travel, so I suppose something around that would always be welcome. I get real clarity of mind when moving around and open-eyed in new places. Or familiar ones with refreshing things happening. Recently in New York I visited the Interference Archive (a collective who preserve flyers, zines and documents from decades of oppositional political action). Seeing an anti-gun protest and the buzz of a Bernie Sanders rally immediately after leaving. As well as more the routine people-watching on the streets and subway was inspirational, enriching and familiar to my soul. So far away yet I feel I know that bit more surely who I am and what ideals in life are and mean. Leeds is a wonderful place to come home to, despite the end-of-trip blues clouding me for a couple of days this time as usual. With Chunk and bands and some of the best music venues I’ve been to right on my doorstep and a supportive, growing community. It’s home, as much as I feel like I’ve left pieces of myself elsewhere that I’d like to reunite with.