Keeley Forsyth: how the Happy Valley actor became the new Scott Walker

She was enjoying a successful if gruelling film and TV career when serious illness struck. But Forsyth has channelled that experience into a bleakly beautiful avant-garde album

Yorkshire is the backdrop to many disquieting works of art, such as David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the Brontës’ explorations of the soul. The newest is Debris, an album made by a 40-year-old actor with a familiar, pale-eyed, haunting face, whom we have seen in recent years playing a sex worker in Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley and heroin addicts in The Casual Vacancy and Waterloo Road.

Keeley Forsyth’s debut as a musician is an avant-garde proposition, however: a shivery descendent of Scott Walker’s Tilt, a more unsettling older sister of Aldous Harding’s Designer. Forsyth’s voice marries Peggy Lee’s bluesy vibrato with Nico’s thunderous terror, and delivers lyrics that invert nature, as a way of exploring despair. Large oaks descend and grow roots. Salt hills move. Madness unfurls.

Add to the mix Forsyth’s image in her videos and artwork (Virginia Woolf as directed by Bertolt Brecht), and spacious, stark arrangements by the composers Matthew Bourne and Sam Hobbs (Forsyth emailed Bourne the songs she had recorded on her laptop, without a microphone, after hearing him on Radio 3’s Late Junction; he loved them). The results are bleakly beautiful.

Forsyth is easy to spot when she collects me at Harrogate station. She moved here in 2016, after 20 years living in London. Three-and-a-half hours ensue, discussing art, despair, kids and creativity over oat-milk lattes and soup; her joy in her new work is contagious. “I feel alive when I’m doing this,” she says, smiling (she smiles often). “My work isn’t meant to be painful. All I’ve wanted to do is open up and connect with people.”

Forsyth was born in 1979 in Oldham, the eldest of five children, although she was brought up by her grandmother (her parents were “very young” when they had her, she explains). Her gran, a psychiatric nurse who worked night shifts, was a comforting presence, surrounding Forsyth with songs from musicals and singers such as Doris Day. Forsyth acted from the age of eight in Oldham Theatre Workshop. So did her younger half-brother, the Emmerdale actor Kelvin Fletcher, who won Strictly Coming Dancing in December (of whom she’s “really, really proud”).

“The youth theatre wasn’t fun,” she explains. “It was work, but I loved that. The way that performing involved fear, excitement … then relief. It was a shock getting back to real life after that.”

At 16, Forsyth got a regular role on the BBC kids’ drama The Biz, after which she “fell into” TV acting (The Bill, Peak Practice and Heartbeat all feature on her CV). But her heart was often elsewhere. She had trained as a dancer (the German choreographer Pina Bausch is her major creative inspiration), had lessons with a local opera singer and auditioned without success for West End musicals. “I considered doing Stars in Their Eyes once, as Karen Carpenter,” she laughs. “But I never wanted to just be a fan of the music. I wanted to be part of it.”

In 2009, she met the performance artists Matthew Boyle and Adrian Shaw, who gave her the creative freedom she craved. With them, she created a character for performance called The Scuttler, “this woman who lived in the hills in a trenchcoat, who didn’t speak, just used her voice in strange ways”. The lyrical protagonist on Debris holds her shadows, she admits.

Soon after, Forsyth had her two daughters, now 10 and seven. She split from their father, who sees them often, but she is their sole parent at home. After becoming a mother, her musical expression felt more urgent, especially around the chaos and frequent disappointments of acting life. “Having the girls – giving birth to them – also made me think more about the sounds that come from our bodies,” she says. “It made me go deeper into myself physically in that way.”

A few years later, Forsyth’s friend Maxine Peake introduced her to the musicians Adrian Flanagan and Dean Honer; they were then performing as the Eccentronic Research Council. Honer lent Forsyth his harmonium, and they worked on early versions of her songs. Forsyth’s acting CV was also getting fancier. As well as more experimental films such as Carol Morley’s Edge, she was in a Marvel blockbuster, Guardians of the Galaxy, where she spent four weeks in heavy makeup playing “Mottled Prisoner”. Then came big-budget TV.

Her roles in those shows were almost always traumatised figures on the edges of life. Did that affect her? “Yes.” Forsyth is at pains to say she is not being judgmental about ordinary people in similar positions, but feels she was typecasting herself. She would head home to look after two children alone. “I was exhausting myself, using my emotions to stimulate worse emotions. It wasn’t a healthy way for me to live.” She also felt she was on the wrong path. “I couldn’t do anything about it. Then I just couldn’t do it any more.”

Forsyth “hit a wall” psychologically and physically in 2017; she was so ill, she spent a month not being able to move her tongue. This sense of abstract terror soaks through Debris. Its title track begins with a pulse and a breath, a fox twisting, someone being begged not to leave, someone else insisting they “ain’t going”. Elsewhere, a black bull cries; the sea pushes someone away; someone longs to be the space around a raven’s wings. Look to Yourself is specifically about Forsyth trying to settle her children to sleep, but many of these songs have personal inspirations, although they stand separately from them, too, Forsyth explains.

Keeley Forsyth 2020 press publicity portrait.

Then there is Lost, which even Forsyth finds a hard listen. It begins with her murmuring: “Is this what madness feels like?”, then describing how it feels: “The smooth space after all boundaries have been dissolved / Where there is wind, high wind / But no tall trees for it to grapple with / No buckets for it to shove around the yard.”

It was the track Forsyth was most scared to have on the album, but also to not have on the album. Why? “Because it is too much. But then again, when I was coming out of all of that, I had this realisation that, yes, I’ve gone through these things, but I don’t have to be them.” At the same time, she was playing a mother possessed by a cult in the 2018 film The Devil Outside (directed by Andrew Hulme, with whom she is now making videos). “I made sure I stepped outside of that role on set. I gained a stronger sense of self to observe my work.” And Forsyth has noticed that when she is talking about Debris, she calls the woman singing the lyrics “she”. “And ‘she’ has to be a character. I have my own life to live.”

Forsyth nevertheless hopes to take “she” out on tour this year. A live performance is being developed with the film-makers Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, who made Nick Cave’s 20,000 Days on Earth. Her next album has also been sketched out, and Bourne has even bought her a microphone. “It’s sitting on top of my microwave, of course.” She is also excited about exploring electronic sounds as on Start Again, the latest single from the album and Debris’ final track.

The song’s protagonist is waiting for lightning to strike her as angels laugh at her, then turn their backs. But Forsyth knows what happens next. “The lightning struck me. And I kept going.”

Debris is released on Friday 17 January on the Leaf Label


Jude Rogers

The GuardianTramp

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