Each year, the Hyundai Mercury Prize gathers a panel of musicians, journalists, broadcasters and industry people to decide on the best British album of the past year.
This year’s panel includes a nominee from last year’s shortlist in Wolf Alice frontwoman Ellie Rowsell. This year’s shortlist includes the likes of The 1975, David Bowie, Skepta, Bat For Lashes and more, and on Thursday (September 15), Ellie will be arguing it out with other judges including Jessie Ware, Jarvis Cocker and Kate Tempest to crown one of them the 2016 champions. Ahead of the night, we spoke to her about the process of going from nominee to judge and detaching herself from the world around the records.
What was it like judging after being nominated last year?
Ellie: “Yeah, it was cool to see it from the other side I guess. It was quite a lot harder than I had perhaps anticipated just cos, well mainly cos of the sheer number of albums to listen to and to get through and to give a solid chance to. It took quite a long time and I don’t really believe that you can fully grasp an album after one listen. I had to decide which ones I wanted to listen to two or three times. It was hard, but it was a really interesting experience.”
How many albums did you have to listen to overall?
“I can’t remember what they said it was, but it was over 200 or something. It’s hard to have any kind of life when you have 200 albums to listen to!”
Were there any that didn’t make it into the final shortlist that you really liked?
“Yeah there were quite a lot, I don’t think I’m actually allowed to say what, but it was good for me cos I got introduced to a lot of new stuff, whether they got into the shortlist or not. Also familiar names that I’d never really given a chance to. In that way, it’s a shame the ones that I really liked didn’t make the shortlist, but at least I know about them now and I know they’re really good and I can tell over people, and hopefully catch them live and follow their next steps. For the most part, a lot of what I liked did get on there.”
Is there anything in the shortlist that surprised you?
“No, not really. I think all the stuff on the shortlist… I had never heard of The Comet Is Coming and I don’t even know how you’d describe their music. It’s quite unusual. That was cool to be introduced to not even them, but that genre. I guess that’s the most obscure thing on the list.”
How are you feeling about being part of the judging on the night? Apparently it can get quite heated…
“I think that’s gonna be when it’s the hardest cos I like all the albums so I’m happy they all have the exposure and the merit of being on this shortlist, but it’s harder to… what I like about the Mercury Prize and a lot of other things is when it’s at this stage and giving exposure to some really good British albums in the past year. I don’t think there ever needs to be one winner, what would be really good would be to leave it at this and watch those 12 bands and artists play songs from their album, and celebrate that. I guess the one winner thing is unnecessary, but I guess it just makes it a bit more of an occasion. Although it will be hard, this is the bit where I don’t think it’s too important.”
Do you have an idea of who you’re going to be voting for on the night?
“I’m pretty sure I know. If I’m truly thinking about what is the best album on that list, regardless of any other factor, I know what I think it is. I thought it was that when the list was far longer. Not much has changed for me. For me, it’s not easy because there are other things on there that are really good as well, but I think I’ve always known what’s best.”
Was it hard judging albums when you knew the people who had made them?
“No, I don’t think knowing the people makes any difference. It is hard to detach yourself from external factors. When I was going through the whole 200 or whatever of them, I didn’t Google anyone or I didn’t listen to any of their previous albums if they had any cos I wanted to take the album in isolation, and I didn’t read any reviews or stuff. No matter how strong you think you are or how much not a sheep you presume you are, those kind of things really subconsciously come into play with you. If I’m a bit unsure of something and see the majority of reviews say it’s amazing, I’ll be like ‘OK, yeah’. I want to stand by what I think. You might think you are, but it’s subconsciously changing things in your head.”
You’re judging alongside the likes of Jarvis Cocker, Jessie Ware and Kate Tempest. Are you expecting them to be very opinionated judges?
“Yeah, when we met up to do the longlist thing everyone was vocal and there was no like arguments or anything like that, but people were really getting into it, which was fun. It’s a good panel, I think. I enjoyed listening to everyone’s opinions.”
Is the Mercury Prize still relevant?
“Yeah I think so. Like I said before, it’s good exposure for what’s come out in the UK and Ireland in the past year. That doesn’t necessarily factor in industry hot tips and who’s working with this team and who’s got this many fans. It’s purely about the music. I’m not too sure how you submit your album and I’m sure there are some really good albums that weren’t submitted. I think it’s relevant as a celebration of some quality albums coming out of the UK and Ireland, [but] don’t take it as the only music that’s worth listening to.”
Could you tell when you were nominated that more people began paying attention to you?
“Yeah I think so. It’s kind of a shame in a way cos, like I said before, I don’t want to think that bands who aren’t nominated aren’t relevant or anything cos who’s to say that, but I did notice a bit. It used to be on Channel 4 or something didn’t it? I remember watching it and taking note of it even before I was interested in following new music and stuff like that, so it does reach a wide audience and it is good exposure.”
What are your memories of the ceremony last year and what was the wait like to hear if you’d won?
“It was a weird ceremony last year. I think it was the year after they stopped having it at the Roundhouse where it looked like a big party and they’ve changed it again this year so that was a weird, one-off year. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting. I always remember it was quite a debauched thing and everyone looked really drunk, but when we were there it was quite a civil affair. But it was really fun cos Joel [Amey, Wolf Alice drummer] got up and played a song with Slaves and we were in a fancy hotel and we dressed up so it was really fun. I always have a split second of – I don’t know if this sounds bad – ‘Oh my god, maybe it is us’ and then it’s evaporated in about a millisecond. As cheesy as it sounds, it’s really not about winning. I mean, there’s the prize money, which would be helpful and nice, but maybe more people have listened to your album [because of your nomination].”