“Take a look at me before I fall down”
Isabel Monteiro has a story to tell you. It’s about passion and pain; rock-bottom and redemption. It’s as compelling as it is self-confessedly hubristic, and perhaps more importantly, it’s gratifyingly entertaining and moving.
If you ask the internet the right question, you’ll find that Drugstore have been, ahem, kind of a big deal in their time. They toured with Jeff Buckley, who liked them so much he took to covering their debut single live – go to is.gd/buckleydrugstore to hear him do so. They toured with Radiohead, whose singer liked them so much he sang a cello-laden duet with Isabel, which reached the UK Top 20 – go to is.gd/radioheaddrugstore to hear it.
While the times meant Drugstore were compelled to hang around with cheery, Mod-tinged Britpoppers, their music beat a rather different path. “We had absolutely nothing to do with Britpop,” says Isabel. “We were on the shoulders of all that but we just didn’t belong.”
Had anyone actually thought about it, Drugstore would have undoubtedly been branded Alt.country – as is the case today. Isabel’s smoky vocals and pitch-dark lyrical subject matter, coupled with her new band’s minimalist, melancholic guitar and string arrangements, stick them firmly in the lovelorn, caustic company of Low, Dusty in Memphis and Leonard Cohen.
Isabel talks about “an alternative late-night Americana scene, bands like Girls and Calexico, I think we have more in common with" and this is borne out by the songs she’s written in the last 12 months, for her new Drugstore album Anatomy, out on Rocket Girl (Rocketgirl.co.uk) – home to A Place To Bury Strangers and PS I Love You – which had in the past tried and failed to snap the band up on two previous occasions.
So what happened to Drugstore? “I stopped overnight," she admits today. “I fell in love, was tired of the crazy touring carousel – and overnight I just thought: ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ The rest of the band were disappointed.”
Having, over a 15-year period, started and finished relationships with three band members – “I wish I had met writers and architects, but I didn’t! I just met roadies, tour managers and musicians” – things were about to change dramatically for Isabel.
“I think I know what black holes really are”
After three albums on three labels, Drugstore went their separate ways in 2002, and in Isabel’s own words, “things spiralled down” into seven undeniably gloomy years. “There were hard and dark times, my universe shrank overnight. I became homeless, I was completely broke, telephone went dead, but I’m sure I’m not the only artist who’s experienced that sense of ‘Where’s everyone gone?’ and that all my connections were made out of sand.”
The singer survived, perhaps in spite of herself, on wine and hope. “Love for life kept me alive,” she says now, until September 2009, when a briefly reunited original band played a gig at Dingwalls in London, “just for fun”. It sold out. This made a lot of people – Isabel included – realise that far from being stuck in any era, Drugstore’s music nimbly hopped over the ages, from 1920s Berlin cabaret through the French chanson tradition, via The Velvet Underground’s woozy melodic charm and Tom Waits’ bar-room badinage, across PJ Harvey’s earnest intellect and The Bad Seeds’ rumbling, angry sadness.
The singer felt emboldened and, inspired by a guitar donated by a fan, work started on material for the album Anatomy. In 2010 she played London’s ICA – “I was very nervous. We were thinkin': who's gonna buy those tickets? Amazingly, it sold out.” – and a couple of festivals (including Glastonbury) with a new Drugstore.
Ever the benevolent dictator – “It was true then, it’s still true now. You’ve gotta have someone leading the boat downwards…” – Isabel held open auditions for Drugstore at legendary London bar The Troubadour, and all the while she wrote the “liberating” Anatomy blog (isabelmonteiro1.blogspot.com) that would eventually inspire their new album’s title and lyrical content. “My blog is part of the band,” she explains. “Anatomy is about exposing yourself to the core, whether it’s pretty or ugly. I think it’s both: an analytical inspection of a state of mind."
“I want salt in the wound/I want blood in the rain”
So now we have a freshly stocked Drugstore – “new cowboys”, Isabel calls them. “Ultimately, the outcome has been totally rewarding and really productive,” she says of the process. “I could have been dead now, but there was this desire to still see the sunshine another day, and I knew I just had to release those songs, tell those stories.”
This tiny sliver of optimism eventually led to Drugstore convening at a remote studio on Platt’s Eyot – an island on the River Thames near Richmond – to create Anatomy’s 12 stripped-and-whipped tracks together.
“It’s painfully intimate, shamelessly simple, devastatingly sad,”says a disarmingly candid Isabel. “And right in the middle of this fucked-up seascape, the twisted heart of our littleDrugstore still beats pretty.”
Biography by Charlie Ivens