“I think we’re quite a luxurious band,” says Lauren Paige Dowling, singer and keyboard player for Sheffield, UK art-pop quartet Potpourri, reflecting on the band’s first year of existence. “The buffet table was always to hand, and we enjoyed booking the room that had classy pink lighting. Evie and I would meet up outside of rehearsal at the pub to write lyrics over a couple of pints. It’s always been an enjoyable experience that’s revolved around top quality booze and food.”
All cheekiness aside, the kind of easygoing camaraderie that comes from sharing a drink with a friend has always been central to Potpourri. It’s the warm core beneath their more aloof, grooving sound–cool as an English cucumber–and it took root well before they homed in on the psych-pop keys and post-punk rhythms of their debut album, First Dance. Dowling, Evie Garner, and Alanna Rusch had their sights set on a musical partnership for some time ahead of their team-up in the summer of 2019, but the catalyst came when Dowling was introduced to guitarist and saxophone player Emily Forde at a Stella Donnelly show. One week later, they met up for tea, and the wheels started turning.
You could say it was only natural that their first performance would be at Bingo Records’ inaugural Bingo Fest; Dowling and Rusch had recorded together with Family Selection Box, and Dowling had performed with Mr Ben & the Bens–both Bingo alum projects–so it was friendly territory. But in another sense, asking for the festival slot pushed Potpourri off balance into spur-of-the-moment improvisation. They had six weeks to prepare, and they didn’t have a song to their name, though they did have artistic vision, starting with their signature stage attire: headscarves, sunglasses, and macs all around.
“We’d decided on our costumes and had arranged our travel,” says Dowling. “All that was left was filling the 15-minute slot! I spent a day on the computer playing about with sounds with no particular direction in mind, anything to fill the time.”
That day gave Dowling the beginnings of the band’s first three songs, all of which they’d end up performing at the festival and committing to tape in the making of First Dance: “Postcards,” Tongue Tied,” and “Bad Communication.” She brought the demos to Potpourri’s first ever practice and played them over a PA for her new bandmates.
“We all listened and slowly worked it out whilst getting to know each other,” says Rusch. “I remember thinking Emily was brave and loving the saxophone. It was a really exciting time as the first song came into form–some came into form easier than others, but the exciting buzz of creating something together was good motivation!”
As a new ensemble, translating Dowling’s ideas into a shared musical language proved to be part of the learning curve, but they found ways to understand each other and even expand their horizons.
“Not being a consummate musician, all I could stretch myself to do was to write structures of the songs on huge bits of paper,” says Dowling. “Luckily, Emily has a great ear and made sense of the music side of things. I’ve played in bands before Potpourri, but have always learnt my friends songs through their instructions of pushing fingers onto a fretboard; I don’t know the actual notes. This felt like a completely new way of working.”
And in some ways, it was an entirely novel experience; as part of what Dowling calls Potpourri’s “wonky creative manifesto,” they made a point of taking up instruments they’d never played before. As Rusch explains, her lack of drumming expertise forced her to write unique parts she may not have come up with otherwise:
“I knew that I was limited to what I could do, but in a way, it meant thinking creatively. I wrestled between what I could realistically achieve and a stubborn desire to be a little different.”
That comes through in the winning quirks of the finished album, like the off-beat drum and synth-flute break that punctuates “Seven Seas,” and it all started with a willingness to just try something new in a safe environment.
“We were always worried that not really being musicians or being ‘fluent’ in our instruments would be a hindrance, but Lauren pitched us the idea of playing at Bingo Fest as just having a go in the company of friends and seeing how we like it,” says Garner, who took up the bass. “Et voila, Potpourri!”
Dowling continued to bring new demos to the band (“I was surprised how the songs bounced out!”) and each member of Potpourri continued to have fun and experiment in adding her own flair. With help from their labelmates Zac Barfoot and Tom Diffenthal, they started recording early on; their first single, “Eisenhower,” came out Christmas day of 2019. Dowling says tracking First Dance felt like an extension of their rehearsals, with Barfoot and Diffenthal faithfully capturing their process. Garner looks back on their session recording “Eisenhower” at Theatre Deli with particular fondness:
“It was on a freezing cold Sunday and we’d just performed the night before, so we were a little worse for wear! After doing all our takes, we relistened to a version and recorded all of the clapping bits together. I remember the feeling of togetherness and triumph very well, and when I listen back to the song, it always makes me smile.”
For a time, Garner, Dowling, Barfoot, and Diffenthal even lived together, allowing them to re-record and layer new parts at will. Throughout the album process, support from behind the mixing board helped the process along.
“I’ve been through recording before, so I was nervous, as I remembered the pressure to get it right or make your bandmates play again over and over,” says Rusch. “Thankfully, it ended up being fairly stress-free for me, but maybe not for Zac! He kept smiling though and was very patient.”
As a result of the ongoing pandemic, Potpourri couldn’t perform live to mark the release of First Dance, but they were still able to celebrate by virtually gathering a community of artists around the project. Working remotely, they enlisted dancers to interpret each song, and then on October 30, they live-streamed a compilation of video clips to accompany the album.
“I didn’t want to dwell too much on the restrictions we were facing and instead lift my spirits with the prospect of opening up our network to collaborate with some new wonderful people,” says Dowling, who spearheaded the project. “Our album is called First Dance, so it seemed like the best time to connect with dancers of different styles and ask them to record their first dance to a song from the album.”
The finished video indeed spans a broad range of expressions, some backed with classical training, as in the case of professional dancer and actress Ruby-May Martinwood. But in the untrained spirit of Potpourri, a headscarved Zac Barfoot also lends his “natural rhythm” to a routine for “Pool Blue Blues.”
“It was tricky because when we sat down as a band, we didn’t know many dancers, so we had a lot of research and reaching out to do,” says Dowling. “I’m so happy it worked out, the album now feels complete! We made new friends and we got to see interpretations of our songs in such a beautiful form.”
For Garner, it brings Potpourri back to its foundation as a visual-minded, interdisciplinary endeavor.
“We always wanted to shine a light on other art forms and artists as part of Potpourri,” she says. “In the early days we’d put on ‘potpourri nights’ where we invited a plethora of acts to perform with us on a cabaret-style night. Sadly, due to Covid we couldn’t perform, and likewise, a lot of performers have a limited platform at the moment.”
Many of the dancers who contributed to the album launch video took the opportunity to comment on those pandemic conditions, particularly cousin duo Laura and Gabriel Nicholson, who gave a joyful interpretation of “Seven Seas” on a grassy hillside. Laura says the two aimed to imbue their performance with a much-needed feeling of universality and togetherness.
“We wanted to dress without binary expression, and to synchronise some of our routine in a way that we hoped could represent closeness between loved ones, delighting in doing the same things even when we’re apart.”
First Dance is available for stream and download now, with a vinyl edition (featuring a zine with art by Rusch) out on Bingo Records. It’s a brilliant record, best enjoyed with good drinks and good company, even if you’ve got to set up over Zoom to make it happen.