Spotlight On… Two-Headed Calf

By Kulsum Shabbir

Ahead of the release of their debut single, Kulsum Shabbir sat down with Glasgow-based band, Two-Headed Calf, to discuss their unique approach to climate activism and explore their journey as a band.

The ambient noise of the earth breathing is incomparable. The whistle of an exhale, dancing through branches, swaying in time. The ebb and flow of a breeze, following the beat of a heart, steady beneath the ground. A distant memory now. Instead, that same beat pounds frantically, soundtracking the impending end of the world. We fill our ears with cotton wool to evade it, to ignore it, basking in the relief of silence. To fill that silence: Two-Headed Calf.    

As she chops onions in the kitchen, Sarah McMurray, lead singer of the band, leans against the counter and introduces herself: “I’m Sarah, and I’m from Ireland, Northern Ireland. I am the…frontwoman of the band? per se…” She trails off, sweeping veg into the pan.

Across the room, sitting at the table absentmindedly plucking at a guitar, is her bandmate, Katie Lindsay, who smiles at her. When asked to introduce herself, she launches straight in: “I’m a music student, and I’m a songwriter, keyboardist, synth player… composer… oh, and I play keys and sing in Two-Headed Calf.”

The smell of sizzling tomatoes, onions, and garlic wafts through the kitchen, filling the cosy space with a homely warmth.

“Oh, and also, our guitarist Callum, he’s from Aviemore and he plays guitar.” Lindsay pauses before lighting up with a grin. “He would say that he doesn’t play guitar, he would say that he just makes ‘ambient noises’, but he definitely plays guitar.” We all laugh.

The band began working together in early 2023, initially coming together to aid McMurray’s solo work before forming the band as a show of a more collaborative project. Their music focuses on a range of topics, but largely explores climate change and environmentalism – something all three members are very passionate about.  

“When we first met it was kind of like, it was just Sarah McMurray, and we were playing for her.” Says Lindsay.

This period did not last long, as soon they formed Two-Headed Calf.

“So, we were discussing how to come up with a band name,” starts McMurray, as she grinds salt into the pan, “and we realised that some other bands had come up with their names via poems that they liked. And I had recently read a poem called Two-Headed Calf. So, I mean, I read it, and I know that a lot of the girlies find it very sad, so I was like, wow, I think that’s definitely the target audience, catch people’s eye…”

The poem, Two-Headed Calf by Laura Gilpin, details the story of a calf that is regarded as a freak of nature and exhibited for all to see, however, the night before his capture, he is free and unburdened with worry, simply existing.

“I explained it to one of my friends as like, peacefulness before impending doom.” Lindsay laughs, “Or something like that! Like finding joy and art and perspective in the moment before the world ends.” She strums the guitar decisively, punctuating her point. “Because the world’s ending.”

McMurray walks over to the table, serving up plates of beans and buttering toasted slices of sourdough. Half of the table is dedicated to various houseplants, swaying gently as a breeze from the open window sweeps in.

“Yeah, a lot of the stuff I deal with, like, on the daily, is just, thinking about the climate, thinking about, just like, all of the values and morals of a hippie, green… girl,” McMurray pauses to think.

“You talk a lot about feminism too,” prompts Lindsay.

“Yeah! Yeah, the experience of what it’s like to be a woman in this world, what it’s like to be a woman with empathy for other people.” She nods to herself. “I’ve been writing music lately that’s like, why? Why does everyone keep their head down when it comes to human rights? And I think Katie and Callum feel very similar, and I think our music kind of sounds like that? I feel like it’s meant to be a safe space but it’s also very sad.” She turns to Lindsay, seeking her input, satisfied when she receives an emphatic nod in return.

The band is currently in the process of recording one of their songs ‘Wasteland’ as their first single, with the hopes of releasing it at some point in the New Year.

“As soon as we played it through [for the first time] we all agreed that it was our best one.” Says Lindsay, running a hand through her hair. “It’s like, the end of the journey is where Wasteland is, and we were like, ‘How did we get there already?’ and we can’t really… it’s hard to get there again?” She laughs to herself as McMurry nods. “That’s just what I think though, what do you think, Sarah?”

“Yeah, I think that song was so…” McMurray pauses, choosing her words carefully, “like, as soon as you hear it you know exactly how it’s gonna sound, like you guys already knew what to do.” She looks to Lindsay who hums in agreement. 

The song encapsulates the feeling of growing up in a unique coming-of-age ballad style, exploring themes of grief, loss and heartbreak.

“The verses I wrote a year ago? I think. I had graduated from uni, all my friends seemed to be either moving away, getting jobs, doing a masters.” Explains McMurray. “I didn’t really know what to do with my life, I was living in a horrible place, I didn’t really like my flat, so I didn’t really feel like anywhere was home. So I was just… in a bad place.” She laughs slightly at this.

“I also wanted it to sound like you’re standing in the middle of nowhere.” She pauses for a second. “Well, when I say in the middle of nowhere, I mean like… you could either be standing in a field and you don’t know where the next house is, or you could be standing in the middle of a super busy city and have nowhere to be. I think both of those things mean ‘in the middle of nowhere.’” 

The band’s last gig at McChuills in early October had a great turnout, where McMurray was just as open and honest on stage about her life experiences, political views and opinions. At one point she even managed to get the crowd chanting “fuck the Tories”, all while the band effortlessly switched between instruments in preparation for the next song.

“They’re quite…not sombre, but kind of atmospheric, which I thought might be difficult because you’re kind of taking down the energy? But people kind of reacted to it as ‘Oh wow, this is new, this is different.’” Explains Ali, McMurray’s partner, who attended the band’s very first gig at Room 2 and has watched them grow from its impetus. “They’ve kind of amalgamated a new sound that’s just pretty new and interesting, and it’s pretty sick. They’ve got a new angle on stuff, and it’s really interesting. I mean the songs and the lyrics are the focus, but the music really pushes it to another level, and Katie and Callum really add something to it.”  

The show at McChuills reflected this perfectly, the gorgeous ambient tones of suspended chords filling space in an almost ethereal manner. The band themselves bounced off of each other in the same comfortable, easy manner as they did during the interview, making room for each member to have their moment and express themself. The music itself is mellow, yet no less impactful in its emotional magnitude, reaching heartbreaking heights with its raw lyricism and thoughtful composition.

“The atmosphere that the band brought was, kind of relative to the themes that they would sing about.” Says Humna, an audience member at the McChuills gig. “They had a song about environmentalism and sustainability which was really, really nice because I feel like it’s something that’s always talked about but never really expressed in an artistic way? It’s always talked about in terms of politics and science and stuff like that. So it was very nice to see a more expressive and artistic take on the whole climate crisis.”

Two-Headed Calf’s unique exploration of this topic allows room for hope; the idea that perhaps a new angle is exactly what is needed to reach those who have plugged their ears and turned away.

“I think… I never stopped caring about this stuff, but it got to the point where the hopelessness was just overwhelming and I felt so small.” Lindsay explains, as she details her personal journey towards climate activism. “I kind of just settled into that, till I started talking about it again with Sarah and Callum.” She turns to face her bandmate, a grateful smile playing on her lips. “I guess… like I said, I never stopped caring, it just left the forefront of my mind for a bit… and you guys reminded me of it.”