"I played a show at the Green Door Store two weeks ago and was quite surprised how easy it was – you just get to the gig and play! The formula really works...”
When it comes to playing live, Catherine Ireton hasn’t been making life easy for herself since she moved down to Brighton from Scotland in 2010.
The piano-driven singer-songwriter, best known for her vocals on Belle And Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch’s side project God Help The Girl, spent most of last year playing four secret pop-up shows across the city.
These Treasure Tracks shows were performed in unusual spaces including the Booth Museum, Brighton Model Railway Club in London Road, and to fans tucked up in bed with cake and a hot drink over the internet.
All the locations could only be discovered by following a series of clues – with the final one taking fans from a telephone box smelling of wee in Trafalagar Street to an intimate show in Brighton Dome Corn Exchange.
She is taking that idea to the Theatre Royal Brighton as part of this month’s Out Of Hours season, with What Is It About That Night? featuring performances in unusual parts of the 250-year-old theatre’s backstage area.
“The starting point for Treasure Tracks was finding the best place to play a song,” she says, adding that the shows also gave her a “kick up the a***” having initially found it difficult getting gigs in the city.
“I like to give this experience – singing your own personal songs can feel a bit self-indulgent, so I would like people to get something else out of it. The songs aren’t as morose as many other singer-songwriters, I’m trying to be a bit fun and humorous.
“My favourite place was the London Road model railway station – I live very close by, and had passed by it so many times.
“Curiosity made me go up and knock on the door to discover this whole other world. It made me think about Brighton and look harder at where I live.”
In preparation for What Is It About That Night? Ireton has been visiting the backstage areas of Theatre Royal Brighton to find unusual spaces to perform in.
“Every time [I go] I see a new place I haven’t seen before,” she says from the Pavilion Gardens, in sight of the theatre, just before Christmas.
“It’s such a vast building – one of the people showing me around said there were 17 buildings that make up the theatre.
“There is such a choice of unusual spaces to perform in but there are also spaces that are very normal, which I find a little bit strange.
“There’s a staff room – that looks just like a staff room – and then there are these amazing old-fashioned dressing rooms, including one used by Marlene Dietrich.”
Ireton’s performance is in collaboration with Root Experience Theatre Company, who she first joined for their 2011 Fringe show Berlinernacht.
It was musical theatre which inspired Ireton’s move to Brighton, to study for a masters at the University Of Sussex.
When she got involved in the production, she realised she wasn’t so interested in the academic side, and instead dropped out to write music in her new adopted home.
“I think approaching 30 was a big thing,” she says of her move down south.
“I was 28, living in Edinburgh, and had used all I could use up there. I wanted to write music, and the only way I could make it work was to leave my friends behind and try something new. It was a bit of a risk.”
Ireton had first moved to Scotland in 2005 after graduating from University College Cork in her native Ireland.
The inspiration was Belle And Sebastian’s Murdoch, who had heard her sing with her then band Elephant and was keen to work with her on a side project.
“With Stuart you can be told these things will happen, but they can take a long time,” she says. “I learnt the hard way – it wasn’t until 2008 that we recorded God Help The Girl.”
The concept album, which was released in 2009, featured Ireton singing ten of the 14 songs as the central character Eve – a girl who drops out of college, starts work but wants to change her life.
She went on to tour the record, which she says was an amazing experience.
“We performed at a festival in The Netherlands, The 100 Club in London and with the Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Usher Hall,” she remembers.
“To have the experience of people asking me to sign their CDs was really surreal. At the time I was working at the Scottish Arts Council, having a very normal day- to-day life. It was like a strange reality that wasn’t a reality!”
Her earlier experience working with Murdoch was equally memorable – after a photoshoot for the front cover of Belle And Sebastian’s 2006 White Collar Boy EP went slightly awry.
The shot features Ireton looking forlorn dressed in a suit and tie and handcuffed to a set of railings.
And it was the handcuffs, borrowed by Murdoch’s wife from the BBC Scotland production of Rebus, that proved to be the problem.
“As we were doing the shoot we were joking and laughing that Stuart had got the keys,” says Ireton.
“We were about to move location, and Stuart went to take the handcuffs off. Instead they kept getting tighter and tighter as we struggled to get them off.
“They had to put a call on a Bank Holiday Monday to the firemen – it was getting desperate and people were gathering, trying to help as Glaswegians are wont to do!
“When the call went through to the fire brigade that we were doing a photoshoot and a model was stuck on the railings I can imagine them thinking their luck was in! They came over with their siren blaring, and there I was dressed as a boy...”
Theatre Royal Brighton, New Road, Thursday, January 17, and Thursday, January 24. Starts 7pm and 9.30pm, tickets £10. Call 0844 8717650