Comfortable in each other’s company and confident in the development of their music, on the cusp of releasing their next single, this three-piece are enjoying the way things are going. “It all makes sense” they tell Nick Pett.
The Clore Ballroom is a calm hollow in the middle of the Royal Festival Hall building, cheerfully decked out with strings of coloured lights. Outside it’s typical January, rain spattering the pavements, and the Southbank looks like it’s struggling to jolly itself up after the exertions of Christmas and New Year. Down here on the dancefloor, however, there’s no sign of weariness or damp moods.
The three members of Cat Bear Tree are sat across from me, laughing together (often entirely in time with each other) and casually united in their approach to the music. Claudia Mansaray (bass and vocals) comes across as the most open of the group; although she’s a little hunched over as sits, she’s a steady-paced talked, confident as she answers. Zoe Konez (guitar and vocals) provides flurries of narrative, gradually slowing down as she settles into the interview. Sarah Smith (drums and vocals) has much more guarded body language, and a naturally self-deprecating style.
The opening set of biographical questions reveals some of the newness of this experience to them: instinctive shyness brings a charming round of “you go first” and “no, you !” before Claudia steps into the gap. This isn’t to say that the band is naïve or unthinking. There’s a fascinating mixture of a teasing playfulness (gentle mocking of the banality of questions on a couple of occasions), intentional caution about how much information is given out, and of band members surprising each other with some of their answers.
Music has been a constant in their lives – all of them with family involved in or passionate about it. Sarah’s Dad and cousin were singers in bands and her parents were happy enough for her to practice drums in the house; Zoe’s parents are classical musicians and Claudia was brought up around “karaoke and dancing”. Sarah and her brother played together for a time in a band called The Munichs and Zoe confesses to the “writing depressing songs as a teenager thing”. It’s news to the others that Claudia was also “writing depressing songs and listening to Radiohead and Jeff Buckley” – early output that they’re yet to hear…
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For Zoe writing and playing alone is still important and it’s heartfelt material, albeit “slightly less depressing than it was when I was a teenager”. Her yen for music is so strong that she “really struggle[s] when I do jobs that are not music-based.” But right now, they are united in their strength of feeling about how right it is to be in this band, playing, recording and performing together. This is where “it all makes sense.”
The three met through “some sort of an online ad” (cue guffaws) although Zoe and Claudia knew each other, living in the same part of London, in Camberwell. Sarah met them after watching Zoe playing solo, they “had a little jam” and it started from there. Zoe sums up how they all view the inception of the band: “I needed Cat Bear Tree to happen and I was really happy when I found these two. This is the culmination of all the other stuff that has come from all our lives, and we’re all really satisfied that our journeys have brought us to this point.”
This sureness took a little while to develop, however, and at the beginning they “thought [they] there was a gap” and that they needed “another guitarist or another keyboardist”. The search lasted for quite a while and it felt like they “were finding a fourth member all the time”. They auditioned “all these really strange people” before they realised “we were making good music ourselves and then it was about that fourth person coming in and … if they didn’t fit then the music wouldn’t have worked.” Claudia explains a little further that “even if the most amazing musician had come along but didn’t get the jokes, didn’t gel” they couldn’t have brought them in. That said, they are part of a growing network of like-minded groups and musicians and they’re not ruling out the potential for one-off collaborations.
Playing in an all-female band was also part of the draw, and part of the design. They’ve all had good experiences of playing in mixed bands but they’ve also had bad experiences of being made to feel like second-class musicians because of their gender, with boys saying things “you can’t play guitar, just sing”. Zoe remembers going to see bands like The Donnas and feeling “this vibe, like this sister thing, and they’re obviously having a really great time on stage” and connecting with it. Now, in her role as a music workshop facilitator she’s dealing with girls all the time who are really lacking in confidence, assuming that they can only sing and be the next x-factor diva and, where there is an interest in playing in a band, they feel pushed out by boys. She thinks that maybe as a teenage girl there is a need for more encouragement – of trying to find inspiration for them in showing them female musicians and all-female bands to show that it can be done. I remind the band of an incident they recounted in a previous interview where they received that back-handed compliment (“you’re really good, for girls”) and how I wondered at their reasonable response. They explained that that was a night when they nearly did explode but “they were so gushy that it was impossible to give anything negative back.” Their belief in the genuineness of their compliment was so strong that it almost felt cruel to explain it to them. They expand in saying that it was clearly “so unusual for them to see three women on stage, playing and feeling comfortable so if there were more… It feels normal to us !”
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Even though they’re now firmly settled as this three-piece, they’re still developing, still trying things out. They’re not a band that studies their instruments in an academic sense, instead learning more from feel and experimenting. None of them are “technical musicians”, concedes Claudia, it’s a case of when a “bassline feels right”. As you can hear on their previous EP, “Let’s Share Hearts” they’ve been expanding their armoury – all three performing vocals and harmonising on “Blind”, for example. Claudia says that “in the beginning, me and Sarah weren’t really interested in singing” but it has been “liberating” for them and doing it live in particular “just feels great.” Claudia adds that it’s nice to “develop a new skill rather than saying ‘I’m the bass player, I’m just gonna stand here moodily !’”
Most of what they do is the result of playing together, including writing. While they might have brought material along at the outset the process now is a lot more organic. While at the beginning “Zoe had a lot of ideas that got the ball rolling and [Claudia] had some bass lines [she] had done at home”, since they “have got really comfortable with each other’s playing styles” it has become a less-conscious process of “tuning into each other”.
Trying to make all of this work is a familiar-enough tale. They all work – Sarah as a physio, Claudia in marketing and Zoe in community music – because the music isn’t yet at the stage that pays the bills. It isn’t the question that they don’t like what they do – they went to uni, they studied, and they’re doing the work but as Sarah says “I enjoy my job … but it’s not the same as music”. In response to being asked how far this could go there’s a quick comment of “the sky’s the limit !” but they’re also realistic. Sarah allows that “I don’t think anyone of us would say no if any kind of opportunity came along” but as Zoe notes “if it got to the point where we were able to tour, make a living by making a record and playing live” they would take that.
For now, they’re pretty much making all the running for themselves, “doing what [they] can, putting all [their] spare time into it” and each taking responsibility either for areas that match their skills, or whatever they can take on. They’re palpably proud of having made their most recent video (for forthcoming single “Spaces In Between” – out 4 Feb) themselves – “it might have taken all those hours but … at the end: ‘we made it !’” The DIY approach extends to the business part of the music and there are no signs of wanting to relinquish their hold: “it’s that or what do we do ? We find someone else to release our music and give them more work, but more control ?”
I raised the bar with the next question and asked about the prospect of an album. Although there are already plans for a next single (inspired by loss of identity and displacement by war) in Spring or early Summer they’re not looking much further than that at the moment. So far they are happy with the response that their current batch of songs has been getting and they feel that it would “quite a thing for a band at our level to be booking somewhere for a week and making an album.” They wouldn’t want to go down that road without being able to invest enough for the quality of the output to match the passion that goes into the writing and playing. Right now they’re “still developing [their] sound; it’s naturally developing and that process is one that we are still enjoying.”
You don’t have to wait long to catch them live, however – they’re playing at the Finsbury in north London this Saturday (1 February) with support from Esper Scout, Skies and Skinny Girl Diet. The show is the launch party for new single “Spaces In Between”. It’s a long way from their bases in south London but it’s a “really supportive venue”, something of a rarity in town, and “the sound is always really great there”. They’ve promised me that the rest of the bill are going to be equally brilliant – we hope to see you there.