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London-based Alison Cotton has emerged as a unique voice in the UK’s music scene since 2018. With her haunting viola, vocals, and harmonium, Alison creates ethereal soundscapes that merge the arcane with the modern, crafting a distinct auditory experience.

Alison began her musical journey with The Left Outsides, marking her future direction with an untitled collaborative album with Michael Tanner. Her first solo album, ‘All Is Quiet at the Ancient Theatre,’ was a deep dive into mystical realms, with each piece named after a space, real or imagined, that inspired its creation. Her versatility extends beyond the viola to percussion, recorder, and piano, enriching the texture of her compositions.

Commissioned by the BBC, Alison’s music for Muriel Spark’s ghost stories showcased her ability to create haunting narratives, while albums like ‘Only Darkness Now’ and ‘The Portrait You Painted of Me’ received critical acclaim for their depth and innovation. Her live performances, from BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction to European festivals, resonate with the emotional depth and intensity of her recordings.

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Since her first solo work manifested in 2018, Alison Cotton has quietly become one of the UK’s most extraordinarily evocative aural explorers, building eerily arcane tapestries of supernatural beauty from her multi-layered viola, incantatory vocals and harmonium. If Alison’s chosen main instruments have predictably drawn comparisons with The Marble Index-era Nico and Cale, these ultimately prove superfluous as the cathedral vault soundscapes Alison crafts with producer Mark Nicholas soar into a magical realm entirely of her own making, haunted by folk’s dark ancient spirit at the same time as providing a much needed time suspending antidote to tumultuous modern times.

Based in London, Alison made her first records with Mark as The Left Outsides, 2016’s untitled collaborative album with Michael Tanner (‘Plinth’) pointing at her future path with its quietly levitating drones. Alison’s startling debut album ‘All Is Quiet at the Ancient Theatre’ arrived like a vividly bottled medieval ghost visitation in 2018, its mesmerizing autumnal drone reveries including the ten minute title track, ‘The Last Sense to Leave Us’, ‘The Bells of St Agnes’ and ‘A Tragedy in the Tithe Barn’.

Alison says many of her pieces are created for and named after spaces, real or fictional, usually of another time. As she plays, she focusses on the image of these places and becomes part of the scene. It should be added that she also plays percussion, recorder, omnichord, shruti box and piano. Alison was then commissioned by the BBC to compose and record music to accompany Muriel Spark’s ghost story, ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’, broadcast on Gideon Coe’s BBC 6 Music show that Christmas and released as a ten-inch EP by Clay Pipe Music in October 2019, doing full justice to her shimmering violas and spectral overdubbed chorale. It was joined by her music for another Muriel Spark story, ‘The House of the Famous Poet’, set against London in the Blitz as “an abstract funeral march.”

Then came 2020’s riveting ‘Only Darkness Now’ on Bloxham Tapes / Cardinal Fuzz / Feeding Tube Records taking her basic template to yet more uncharted vistas, starting with subtly shifting twenty minute dronescape ‘Behind The Spiderweb Gate’. With brief interludes provided by ethereal vocal confessional ‘In Solitude I Will Fade Away’ and solo viola ‘The Hill Was Hollow’, harmonium-viola gem ‘How My Heart Bled In Bleeding Heart Yard’ conjures centuries back sea voyage momentum tempered with that Nico-like omnipotence, the set closing with her luminescent stained glass reinterpretation of multi-instrumentalist Dorothy Carter’s ‘Shirt Of Lace’ from 1976’s Troubadour album (The track also became a lathe cut single-sided ten-inch, limited to 33 copies).

Five star reviews were joined by the set reaching number eleven in The Quietus Albums of the Year and number one in its New Weird Britain chart (along with getting cited in Stewart Lee’s Cultural Year and hammered on BBC Radio 3 and 6 Music). In 2021, after The Quietus commissioned Alison to compose the first piece in their Singularity series, she came up with the twenty minute ‘What You Told Me On That Journey in the Horse and Carriage’ (released as a one-sided 12-inch lathe cut by State 51 in 2022).

In 2022, she was invited by BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction to take part in a live improvised collaborative session with Hinako Omori and, in March, performed a live set for BBC Radio 3’s New Music Show at Sunderland Fire Station. 2022 also saw Alison headlining tours of the UK and Europe, along with festivals including Madeiradig, Supernormal, Krankenhaus, Raw Power and Berlin’s Kiezsalon. Alison also attracted enthusiastic reviews for several of the many live shows she played in Europe, including The Quietus remarking of her appearance at Utrecht’s Le Guess Who, “For more consistently overwhelming beauty, there is the Hertz theatre where Alison Cotton’s set of sparsely looped violin is deeply affecting in its intensity and directness”, and Louder Than War declaring of her Leeds gig, “If he’d had access to a Walkman, I’m pretty sure this is the music that Heathcliff would have been listening to while traipsing about the moody rural landscape of 19th century Yorkshire.

Alison released her third album, ‘The Portrait You Painted of Me’ on Rocket Recordings / Feeding Tube in May 2022. Displaying the continuing evolution of her sound, it was another astonishing masterpiece, setting the mood with the multi tiered vocal fanfare of ‘Murmurations Over the Moor’ before ‘The Last Wooden Ship’ unveiled the set’s characteristic deeper, richer sound as her viola unfurls its oaken magic, complimented by her piano adding another voice. Blessed with a clear, sepulchral vocal, ‘I Buried the Candlesticks’ takes the subtle sonic expansion further with percussion such as rattlesnake fizzes and closing drum tattoo before side two opens with the heaving drone of ‘That Tunnel Underground Seemed Neverending’ creating an atmosphere of claustrophobic melancholy and mournful reverie. ‘Violet May’ shocks again with Alison singing her words of lost love and waiting with crystal a capella resonance. Finally, ‘17th November 1962’ kicks up a massed viola drone processional, glazed by feedback-like sparks oddly recalling the Velvet Underground at the Exploding Plastic in the way it becomes all enveloping as the track unfolds.

Along with the barrage of great reviews it received, the album made The Guardian’s Folk Album of the Month, The Quietus’ Album of the Week and reached number 37 in its Albums of the Year along with Stewart Lee’s year end list.

Alison’s fourth album, ‘Engelchen’ was released in March 2024 on Rocket Recordings / Feeding Tube Records. Inspired by the lives and work of sisters Ida and Louise Cook, opera fans who saved 29 Jews from the Nazis, the music was composed for a production Alison curated in March 2023 at Holy Trinity Church in Sunderland as part of Sound and Music’s Composer Curator programme.

Alison will be touring throughout 2024 and a second production of Engelchen will take place at The Bedford in Balham in June 2024 as part of Wandsworth Arts Fringe.

photo by Kate Hockenhull

“Alison Cotton’s
solo work speaks of places,
people and stories not quite of this world,
while orchestrating folk and drone
elements meticulously, as if
following an arcane

The Wire


Visions Of The Country: Alison Cotton Interviewed (The Quietus, March 2021)
The Wire Issue 471 (May 2023)
The Healing Scream: Alison Cotton Interviewed (The Quietus, September 2021)
Alison Cotton and The Portrait You Painted Of Me (The Haunted Generation, September 2021)
Alison Cotton: A Northern Soul (Electronic Sound)
11+3 questionnaire Alison Cotton (Digital in Berlin)
A Bunch of Five – Alison Cotton (OUTSIDELEFT, December 2022)


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