Track by Track: Sugarcane, ‘Cat’s Eyes’

Sugarcane have just released their debut album Cat’s Eyes‘ and to celebrate they share with us an in-depth reflection on the tracks inspirations, collaborations and stories behind the lyrics. In the album British indie songwriting is infused with Brazilian, Samba and Latin beats to create an uplifting, smouldering and seductive sound. Robin French explains how these influences and ideas came together:

I think Brazilian music might have exerted such a spell on me because it’s two things at once – it’s black and white, it’s melancholy/reflective chords with propulsive, joyful rhythm. I remember looking at CDs in HMV in Birmingham – and liking the way the guys on the sleeves were mixed race like me. I’m attracted to stuff that exists within polarities, that is somehow neither thing but also both.” 

Track by Track:

One Specific Thing. Our first single, featuring a spellbinding vocal performance from Antonia Thomas. It’s a song about the end of things, and the start of a new chapter – which feels apt. I was the bassist for Mr Hudson and the Library (who once upon a time supported Amy Winehouse, Kanye West and the Police – not at the same gig). I co-wrote this song with Ben many moons ago, so it felt like the ideal bridge between my old world and my new one with Sugarcane. Antonia (who you may recognise from TV shows like Misfits, Small Axe and The Good Doctor) lent backing vocals to a few other songs on the album. Here you can see her frontwomaning with pure charisma in the video.

Blondes (Have More Fun). I was a teenage indie kid in Birmingham when I first fell in love with Brazilian samba and bossa nova. A while later, Jorge Ben became the Brazilian artist closest to my heart. This song’s about how Rod Stewart stole the melody for “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” from Jorge’s hit “Taj Mahal”. Naughty Rod also nabbed his hit single’s string part from another favourite singer of mine – Bobby Womack. This explains the cheeky quoting in the flute solo. I also love that Rod only heard Jorge Ben because he went to the Rio carnival with Elton John and Freddie Mercury – sounds like quite a party.  The video for this was filmed by Paul Glynn, at the end of lockdown – a lovely sunny day in Victoria Park.

Midland Girls. This one I’m very fond of  – it kept developing over a few years. Among a lot of wise advice, Andrew Savours – who produced Black Country New Road’s debut album – encouraged me to add a middle 8 late in the day. It’s about someone going to London to find herself and pursue her dreams, and finding out her dreams end up breaking her. I like the weird addition of a typewriter at the end by percussionist Alua Nascimento, who came in one afternoon and hit a lot of surprising objects. I also love the electric guitar sound in the outro – made through an old guitar pedal called “Memory Man” which is the source of much conflict with my two guitar playing brothers, we all covet it. This video was a chance to work with the amazing artist and sign painter Archie Proudfoot. I think it’s stunning – check it out.

Cat’s Eyes. This was the first Sugarcane song I wrote – about an hour after my friend – and Cuckoo co-writer Kieron Quirke had almost killed me in a late night car accident in the US while we were listening to Neil Young’s “On the Beach” album. That makes the song sound depressing – but it’s more spacey and hypnotic than that. After leaving Mr Hudson and the Library, I’ve spent my daytimes writing plays and screenplays – so have been lucky to work with lots of talented people. The Cat’s Eyes video is directed and animated by the Cannes Award Winning director Gaelle Denis. We made a film called Crocodile together a while back that I was extremely proud of – and with this dark dream of a charcoal video, she shows again she has a dependably magic touch.

Bethnal Green Blues. Antonia sang a beautiful version of this on our first EP, but it was fun to sing my own version. We also swapped cellos (played by Sarah Gill) for flute (Sian Herbert) and clarinet (Maree Choie). This is about as classic Bossa Nova as we ever go. Sugarcane came about when I got my bass stolen while travelling in South America. That’s when I bought an old tango guitar, and got my hands on the bossa nova songbook. I’ll never not love the bass – but I’d started to play more and more guitar on the Mr Hudson and the Library tourbus. I think our producer Raphael Mann might have shown me my first 6/9 chord. I play the cavaquinho at the end of the song here – and that’s an important instrument for us, it’s a kind of Portuguese ukulele with a really bright sound.

Forevermore. This is a live favourite. It’s beautifully sung here by Claire Niesyto-Bame and Sian Herbert, who both sing backing vocals and play throughout the album. Claire (of Freedom Fighter Arts) is a professional dancer who also plays percussion and steel pan. Sian plays steel pan and flute through the album – do check out her new band Of Ghosts and Other Forms. I love the cuica at the end of this song, played by Mario Repique. Producer Raphael Mann complains that I end up wanting cuica on everything – I just love it – it’s the weird percussion instrument that sounds like a seal yelping.

Shambala Mess. I wrote this in the Botanical Gardens in Lisbon. It’s close to my heart this one. I find it stylistically exciting – right on the borderline of everything we’d recorded before. I can’t get over Xande Oliveira’s drumming on it. Xande’s from Minas Gerais, Brazil – Sugarcane’s drummer and a key man in the band. It was a single but we made an extended version of this song for the album – and, for me, its one of the highlights. I love my little brother Will’s guest appearance on electric guitar in the outro, while I’m playing that big menacing bank of cellos. I’m a big fan of the contribution by the jaguars too – thanks guys. The video is alas of the single not the album version, so you’ll have to go to Spotify to hear those jaguars.

Clear Blue Sky. This is a song Mr Hudson had written a long time ago. He’d never released it, and I always had a soft spot for it. Ben and I have been in bands together since the age of 12. I arranged it in a Sugarcane way and Antonia sang it on a sunny day at Raphael’s seaside studio in Ramsgate. I find this track so light and charming – for me, it’s the perfect switch from the depths of melancholy Robin-ness we get to with Shambala Mess. As ever Antonia sings gorgeously – and this video is really special – shot on 16mm by my friend Max Brill, a ridiculous talent, who’s been behind so many of our videos – One Specific Thing, Shambala Mess and Clear Blue Sky, while also cinematographing the video for Midland Girls.

Josephine. This new album version captures what I wanted for this song. Me and the album’s production wizard Raphael Mann discussed rain sounds at length. Raph is an absolutely key collaborator on this album – central to why this album sounds like it does. Having recorded together, a large portion of lockdown was spent mixing the record, finding exactly the right sonic picture – Sugarcane just wouldn’t sound like they do without him. We met in the days of Mr Hudson and the Library, in fact, he took over bass duties from me when I left for a writing project in America.

Wide Sargasso Sea. I was on that same Lisbon trip, when I read Jean Rhys’ “Wide Sargasso Sea” for the first time, and was blown away. This song is inspired by the hauntingly beautiful and macabre first chapter. The lyrics are from the perspective of the family parrot – Coco. I was pretty obsessed with calypso at the time. My big brother Alistair makes a guest appearance, playing some bitching piano on this one – I love how it winds around Sian Herbert’s steel pan solo.

Night Owl. This a slightly narky lullaby. The big other river of influence on Sugarcane is French music – particularly Serge Gainsbourg, but I’m also rather fond of Michel Legrand. I just came back from Paris, where we played our first ever French concert. While I was there, I hung out at a studio in the French countryside with French singer Cléa Vincent and Midnight Special Records. The melodica solo here is super Legrand. Beautiful double bass played by Klaus Stahr.  We haven’t tried this one live yet, perhaps we will at one of our gigs coming up.

Live Shows

Sept 22, Sofar Sounds

Sept 30, Woolwich Works

Oct 28, Biddle Bros