“What did you learn when life was unkind?

Was there some purpose to losing my mind?”

WHEN you’ve made an album that is full of death, loss and grief maybe it is serendipitous, Catherine Anne Davies suggests, to release it in the middle of a global pandemic.

“In the past people have shied away from talking about all these things,” the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist tells me down the line from Buckinghamshire where she’s currently shielding. “I think now we are forced to confront it every single day. Everybody knows somebody who’s been touched by Covid and we’re all being forced to think about making a will, talking about what we would like to happen if we die, in a way that I think, pre-pandemic, we just weren’t very good at.”

If so, then The Art of Losing, Davies’ second album, released under her alter ego The Anchoress, might make for the perfect soundtrack for the moment we are living through. Both thrilling and tough to listen to. Dark and painful, yet full of beauty.

Davies in conversation is chatty, entertaining company, whether she is talking about her love of Depeche Mode (“Martin Gore is probably one of my favourite songwriters”), the years she spent touring with Simple Minds or Julian of Norwich (“the original anchoress,” Davies points out when talking about the 14th-century English mystic).

But inevitably it’s difficult to avoid the pain that envelops the new album.

Produced by Davies herself, mixed by regular David Bowie collaborator Mario McNulty and featuring a guest appearance from James Dean Bradfield, The Art of Losing contains 14 tracks that take on themes such as the death of loved ones, sexual assault and baby loss, while sonically conjuring up the ghosts of Talk Talk, Depeche Mode and even PJ Harvey. The Art of Losing is a lush yet scouring follow-up to Davies’ 2016 debut Confessions of a Romance Novelist.

Finished in the summer of 2019, the album was meant to see the light of day a year ago, “but obviously 2020 had other ideas,” its creator points out.

“So, I’ve been sitting on it for a while. But that’s actually had its upsides. Some of the subjects I tackle on it are difficult and the upside of having had that extended delay is I’ve got some distance from the events. So, it’s a lot easier for me to talk about than it would have been 18 months ago.”

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The album began from a place of anger as Davies responded to the emergence of the #MeToo movement, the Harvey Weinstein revelations and the Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings (all of which can be heard swirling around the single Show Your Face). But as the recording process went on, Davies was hit by wave after wave of personal tragedy.

As a result, work and life were inextricably linked during the recording, most notably when she was working on the track My Confessor.

“At the precise moment I was recording the guitar, my dad died. My mum called me in the middle of a take to say he had died. He was 59. It’s no age at all. I wasn’t able to come back to that song for a very long time.

“And then to have subsequently visited upon me multiple baby losses and then to be told I had cervical cancer … It was just …. I feel like it’s quite logical to look for a reason because, otherwise, what does it mean? It’s cruel. It’s unbelievably cruel.

“And so, the music for me was a means both to process what was happening to me and to try and find some meaning in it too.”

She pauses for a moment. “I don’t think I achieved either of those things.”

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Photograph: Isabella Charlesworth

The weight of all that must have been appalling. Trauma therapy and counselling, helped, she says. As did making a podcast, also called The Art of Losing.

Speaking to the songwriter Sophie Daniels who had also gone through baby loss for the podcast was hugely beneficial, Davies says.

“Talking to her about the wisdom she had come to, which was, ‘You cannot beat grief. You cannot beat this. You cannot win this. You cannot succeed at this.’ That was really the best thing anyone said to me.”

This all might make the album sound impossibly difficult to listen to, but it is anything but. From its Debussyesque opener Moon Rise (Prelude), it is an immersive, gorgeous record. Yes, it is angry, and, yes, at time the words are tough. But the music – rich and strange, propulsive, at times synthy – is always a consolation.

“When I say to people what the new album is about, they’re expecting something sombre and downtempo,” Davies admits.

“But I really wanted to challenge myself to not write an album of ballads or funereal marches. That was really important to me.”

Making the record was a way to process what she was going through, Davies says.

But, she adds, “I very much rail against this idea that suffering makes great art. I hate that toxic myth. I think it’s really dangerous, especially if we chase it or pursue it.”

At times, though, the album, no question, makes for discomfiting listening. Should we find a song like 5am, which takes in domestic abuse, sexual assault and baby loss (“Red, red blood is dripping on the carpet”) beautiful? Because it is.

“I think what I wanted to do with that song was present it as a triptych; three different scenes that are very common to female experience. It would be more unusual for me to talk to a female friend who has not experienced one of those things and perhaps that’s not readily acknowledged.”

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And acknowledgement is key here. We need to talk about baby loss because in the past as a culture we haven’t.

“Absolutely. I think we’re making huge strides in the last few years. It’s a subject people are uncomfortable talking about. But, you know, the common thread through all of this – talking about death, talking about baby loss – is that people are often scared to say anything because they don’t want to say the wrong thing.

“And I remember one of my friends saying, ‘You know, the worst thing has already happened. There is nothing that you can say that will make it worse.’ People should be less afraid of saying the wrong thing.

“I think that’s what I tried to do with the record. I am not worried about whether or not I’m framing it in a way that other people will understand or find helpful. I’m just doing my thing and it’s helpful for me in some way.

“It means we’re having conversations like this, doesn’t it? And that is putting it back into public discourse and saying, ‘OK, let’s talk about the physical, visceral experience of baby loss. Because it’s not just about the emotional fallout. It’s about the surgery, the blood. That’s what it’s like. Let’s not dress it up in a package and call it a stillbirth or a miscarriage because the language doesn’t do justice to the experience.

“And that was why I wanted to write 5am on the album because I wanted to put the blood at the centre of it because every person who I was encountering in hospital post-surgery was not acknowledging that reality for me – that I had bled for nine weeks. It’s a huge amount to lose and it makes you feel very physically frail and weak.

“I can hear myself saying this and thinking this is an uncomfortable conversation to have, but it shouldn’t be. It’s just a physical reality and I find it enormously helpful to just be very, very honest at the time because there are not many things that help.”

Music is one of them, presumably? “Absolutely. I’m a workaholic, so work was exactly like that, the thing I was grasping for in the dark. It kept me going on a daily basis; something to cling to, something to do, something to take up the huge, gaping, painful hours.

“No one talks about the physical pain of grief. It visits itself upon you in an incredibly visceral way and I found that really difficult, and work was something of a distraction in that.”

I tell her that every time I listened to the album, I was always happy when the spoken-word All Shall Be Well came on in the middle of it. Its sweet uplift felt like a chance to take a breath.

“That’s a real-life vicar as well. I managed to get a friend of mine who is a proper Church of England … I’m not even sure what his title is, he’s above a vicar, whatever that is … and he kindly agreed to read the words for me which are from Julian of Norwich who is the original anchoress.

“It is a breather moment. It is a moment of hope, I guess, on the record.”

So, let’s take a breath and step back, then.

Catherine Anne Davies had a peripatetic childhood which started in south Wales, took her to Australia and then brought her back to the UK. As a kid she learned to play the flute and became good at it very quickly, which led to a place in the local youth orchestra and eventually the National Youth Orchestra.

“And then I discovered the Manic Street Preachers and started to teach myself guitar.”

Even then, though, she didn’t pursue the limelight, instead opting for a life in academia.

“I made the first album while I was doing my PhD, all the while being really super-quiet. Even my boyfriend at the time never heard me sing.”

It was working with Simple Minds that brought out the rock goddess in her. She’d met Jim Kerr after writing some songs for the supergroup they were both involved with, The Dark Flowers. Next thing she knew, he invited her to tour with the Scottish band in 2014.

“I didn’t know much of Simple Minds beyond Don’t You Forget About Me. It’s not really my era,” she admits.

Even so, she spent years playing arena tours with the band.

“I went from playing shows in front of 500 to 600 people to playing shows in front of 30,000 people, which is a bit of a culture shock. But I’m a quick learner. I had faith because Jim saw something in me.

“I learnt from the best. They’re incredible. Jim is such a showman. They’ve spent their lives on the road. They know everything there is to know about putting on a great show. And I studied hard and absorbed everything.

“I went from being quite meek and shy for the first few months, to, by the end of the first tour, being right up the front of the stage throwing some moves around, clad in PVC and high heels. I found my confidence.”

What’s your favourite Simple Minds song, Catherine? “The Hunter and the Hunted. My favourite to play as well. What a privilege to get to learn all of that stuff and explore the vintage synthesisers, which became a very expensive habit that I have kept up. I’ve ran out of room now, that is the problem.”

Now here we are on the eve of her new album coming out. What are her hopes for it?

“I realise that an album about death, loss and grief isn’t going to be number one in the Tesco CD chart. It’s not got that mass audience. I think that a lot of the reviews I have seen already are good. I couldn’t be more pleased than that.

“I love pop music. The challenge of writing an alternative pop album about death. Who’s done that before? No one.”

The Art of Losing, by The Anchoress, is out now