Sky Rising: Porridge Radio

On third album ‘Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder To The Sky’, Porridge Radio have stretched their ambitions and emotions to the extreme.

It’s early Monday morning and Dana Margolin is drinking orange juice on freshly-brushed teeth. “Mmm delicious,” she deadpans, to the amusement of drummer Sam Yardley, the two of them sat side by side in a North London cafe, having just got back from a short run of rescheduled European dates promoting Porridge Radio’s 2020 LP ‘Every Bad’.

If it seems a maverick move to tour so close to what will doubtless be a lengthy stretch of promo in support of forthcoming follow-up, ‘Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder To The Sky’, Dana remains unrepentant. “People had bought tickets two years ago so it was nice to honour them,” she explains, and Sam is absolutely in agreement. “I was really thinking that people were gonna be so over [‘Every Bad’] by now, like, the moment’s passed. But there was still that enthusiasm. In fact, if anything, it was even more intense because of the wait.”

Intense is a word that comes up a lot in the course of conversation today, it being the most fitting descriptor for the Brighton-formed four-piece’s journey following 2016’s self-recorded debut, ‘Rice, Pasta and Other Fillers’. Graduating from DIY darlings to being shortlisted for the actual Mercury Prize with ‘Every Bad’, Dana, Sam, keyboardist Georgie Stott and bassist Maddie Ryall suddenly found themselves catapulted into another stratosphere entirely.

To further complicate matters, it was an experience they each went through separately - and at a distance - as the UK went into lockdown just 10 days after the record’s release. There would be no album launch party, no international travel, and no live victory lap, just an endless stream of Zoom interviews and rapidly expanding social media numbers, all experienced in the context of widespread anxiety and fear. As Sam puts it, “It felt like we were watching whatever impact [the album] had happening to someone else.” And though these torrid times ultimately overshadowed the band’s breakthrough moment, Dana has never harboured any bitterness.

“Shit happens,” she retorts, almost indignant at the implication she might have felt put-out by the circumstances of the album’s release. “Like, why should it work out? It’s not like I have a right to be in a successful band. Plus every single person has had a really difficult two years, so we were lucky that we got away with releasing the album. And actually it was amazing to just be able to stop and look after myself.

“We had such a slog getting to that point, and everything was difficult about that album, and then we were about to go on tour for a year and I didn’t really feel ready. I was really at the edge, like, I need to go to bed RIGHT NOW. So yeah, I slept for a week or two, messaged Sam, and then we started demoing songs pretty much immediately.”

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“I just have this need to figure out where the line is, then push through it so I can connect and communicate.”

— Dana Margolin

These were the circumstances that would lead to ‘Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder To The Sky’: a wildly ambitious third LP that cements the band’s reputation as one of the UK’s most vital, and that finds Dana asserting her utter fearlessness as a songwriter over and over again. Drawing on the very darkest of moments - from feelings of intense anxiety to a streak of stark self-loathing induced by failed relationships - she succeeds in transmogrifying intense personal pain into something triumphantly universal. And however gut-wrenching it gets lyrically, any discomfort is offset by the band’s bright arrangements, which were predominantly composed on keyboard rather than guitar, and took inspiration from some pretty eclectic and unexpected sources.

“I listen to a lot of Radio 1, and I love a lot of big pop artists, so I was just so excited to play around with sound in the studio, treating it to make it sound raw and gritty but also big and shiny,” she explains. She cites Greg Millner’s history of recorded music, ‘Perfecting Sound Forever,’ as being particularly influential on her creative process, while musically the band looked to Charli XCX, ‘Parachutes’-era Coldplay and Deftones circa ‘Diamond Eyes’ for inspiration.

“I remember you kept saying, ‘It has to be stadium epic’,” Sam grins. “But really, the most consistent reference point was stuff that we’ve done previously. Like, look at the vocal in this song: this exact moment is the feeling that we want to recreate.” Dana nods in agreement. “I had – and still have – complete faith in us. The songs that we’ve made for this album are great, and we have great chemistry, no matter what we’re going through in our personal lives.”

You get a pretty lucid sense of the latter in a song like ‘Birthday Party’ which, lyrically, feels like an anxiety attack in audio form, and begins with the couplet, “A fear of death, a fear of dying, why won’t the dog pick up the stick? / Panic sweats, you wake up crying, always feeling kind of sick.” Similarly, lead single ‘Back To The Radio’ conjures a slow-building dread out of squalling feedback and persistent synth arpeggios, that fear accentuated by Dana’s ragged, emotionally-wrought vocal on lines like, “Nothing’s the same and I swear that I’m haunted.”

Though written pre-pandemic, and capturing the sense of rising panic Dana was anticipating in her future, today she concedes that the song speaks to a much wider societal anxiety. “People are struggling, and they don’t know how to express it,” she says. “Everyone feels like they’re really alienated in their anxiety and their misery, and mental health resources in this country are really not enough and they haven’t been for a long time: the system in this country just lets people down again and again.”

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“My own emotional experiences are very intense and often very contradictory.”

— Dana Margolin

One powerful lyrical device she returns to repeatedly is using physical discomfort as a metaphor for mental anguish. On ‘Rotten’ her “puny muscles ache”, while ‘Trying’ sees her dissociating, her physique calcified into “wood and stone”. By the album’s crescendoing mid-point – ‘U Can Be Happy If U Want To’ – her relationship with her body has deteriorated to the point she’s crowing, “I peel off my skin”. But perhaps most disturbing is future single ‘End Of Last Year’, a slow-burning ballad featuring the lyric, “Cut off my hands because they’re itching so much”.

Throughout, the rawness with which Dana renders these images feels more than just courageous, but borderline compulsive. “It’s absolutely compulsive,” she confirms of the lyrical process. “Nothing is off limits when I’m writing, but when I’m sharing [my writing] I sometimes pull things back a bit, or make details a bit more ambiguous. But I really want to push myself to the edge of what I can possibly share because, for me, writing and art are about translating an emotion into something that somebody else can understand.

“It’s actually a really terrifying thing to do. And sometimes it’s quite alienating, because some people can find it too much; too intense. But also, I can’t stop myself doing it. I just have this need to figure out where the line is, then push through it so I can connect and communicate… I don’t know to what end, or if it’s all worth it.” “What else are you gonna do?” Sam interjects flippantly, and Dana laughs, “Exactly.”

Perhaps most fascinating is Dana’s use of contradiction, most starkly rendered on ‘Birthday Party’ where she proclaims in the same breath, “I want one feeling all the time / I don’t want to feel a thing”. In a society increasingly obsessed by absolutes, it’s particularly satisfying to see someone accurately express the messiness of the human mind.

“My own emotional experiences are very intense and often very contradictory,” she agrees. “And it’s about giving myself space to feel ten different emotions that, on the surface, seem not to go together, but actually they do. Because, you know, maybe it’s just really confusing being alive? And I’m trying to figure shit out by writing.

Ultimately, Dana’s mission to explore multifarious states of being is intrinsic to the album’s title, which was born out of her own painting - partially inspired by a collage by British surrealist Eileen Agar, and making reference to the Old Testament tale of Jacob’s Ladder. As she explains, “The waterslide represents joy and play, the diving board is about work and risk and fear, and then the ladder to the sky represents infinity, and how insignificant we all are… Each of these compositions have all three elements in them”

It’s this commitment to balance that ensures the album comes over as cathartic rather than maudlin, capturing and celebrating the endurance of the human spirit. And with the band’s musicianship coming on in leaps and bounds too, it feels like ‘Waterslide…’ could prove another watershed career moment, pushing Porridge Radio way beyond their current highs.

“Obviously I’d love to have a wider fanbase, but we’re still our own primary target audience,” Dana considers. “And what interests me more is songwriting, like, how can I challenge myself? How can I learn something? When we got shortlisted for the Mercury we thought it was kind of funny, because it was this unbelievable thing that we never expected.”

That’s not to say Dana isn’t ambitious about her hopes for Porridge Radio, but that, like ‘Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder To The Sky’ itself, they’re not linear but complicated and multiple. “Success for me is having the freedom to choose what we do next,” she nods, “and I definitely feel like I have ambitions [for the band] but more than it being like, ‘I want to win a GRAMMY,’ I want people to take a desire to be honest from this record. Because if I can be this vulnerable and honest, maybe other people can as well?”

‘Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder To The Sky’ is out 20th May via Secretly Canadian.

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