Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Discovery: Will Varley

Will Varley is a 26 year old London born singer-songwriter who lives in Deal, Kent. His music takes a comedic and political look at the polite genre of folk. Varley is part of a grassroots promoting music collective called Smugglers Records. The Kent record label sticks together and puts a festival on each year, showing off local talent, most of which makes up the collective. Smugglers Records helped Varley release his debut album Advert Soundtracks in 2011. There's something innately attractive about Varley's music. The comedy side to his music evokes a strange reoccurring laughter, even during serious moments. If you're looking for light-hearted folk music then this isn't your guy. Varley is soft and well read; he's an inspiration to the next generation of folk musicians that lean towards Frank Turner. The politics in his music segues with comedy, such as "I Got This Email" a track from his upcoming sophomore album As The Crow Flies. Varley talks of scam emails in a gullible fashion to get rich quick, using fantastic storytelling which ends with David Cameron following in Varley's footsteps. Take a listen to Varley's latest single "King For A King" and meet me on the other side. 

Taken from his sophomore album, "King For A King" combines Varley's key features - his fantastic lyricism, imagery, and tasteful voice. Varley isn't afraid to write gutter poetry, something that has kept him back from performing at festivals over the years. An artist with passionate lyrics shouldn’t be held back through the means of explicit language, but somehow folk discourages this realistic and pessimistic view of the world. Varley isn't the villain in his music; he's the watching member of public that picks up on the world turned upside down. 

You can find Varley's music on the Smugglers Records YouTube page, or download four tracks for free on his Facebook page. As The Crow Flies will be released in September and if that’s not enough, then you can catch Varley at one of his many gigs.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Julianna Barwick - Nepenthe

The human voice is an amazing feature. I don't want to come across as sappy, or end up documenting such history on the topic, but more and more the feeling strikes me: no matter how many records or albums you hear (I'm talking about those which hold vocals in great emphasis of course), there's always that one record - that one distinguishable moment - whereby you not just hear a human voice, you experience it. You feel and embrace it in all its tonal, textural and tense dictation of concept and context. In discussion, we sometimes bring it up through listing our favorite vocalists; if not that, then in reason as to what potentially makes a certain piece of music so decisive and/or powerful as a form of creative freedom and expression. Julianna Barwick can sleep a little easier at night knowing she's struck me recently as one of those types of artists/vocalists whom shares that same inkling feeling concerning the human voice, and more-so the importance it shares when put in composite form. 2011's The Magic Place, while removed itself from the contemporary normality of treating vocals either in direct clarity or stereoscopic distortion, just scuffed its opportunity in being considered a phenomenal record due to its strong emphasis on such an element. In the case of her previous album, Barwick's lack of strong melodies and complacent song-writing, while bringing out the most in the artist's tremendous vocal tone - and its application into what felt like some chamber assemble of enshrouding harmony and emotion - I felt came at a cost to her focus on allowing the tracks on that record to develop and integrate further towards a complete, and contextual, whole.

So it's pleasing then to find Barwick's follow-up, Nepenthe, takes such critique into careful consideration - not only proving she can add validity to her toning of vocal ambiance, but outright excels at it when introducing further instrumentation. The album opens with the track Offing which immediately returns to that soloist play in working around Barwick's voice and the multilayer of differing tones and timbres that accompany it. Alongside, there's this part-breezy, part-chilly whistling of ambiance that fades in and out of the mix as well as these very subtle chord changes that integrate quickly yet swiftly into the track's main soothing field and dispersed delivery. True, there's not any real difference in both content and method from what we heard on her previous album, but given the way it both begins the record and feeds into follower The Harbinger, what we later realize is that - as noted - Barwick's state of focus seems to be on the breadth of the entire album as opposed to each individual track on their own. Here, the vocals begin rather more isolated; there's a brief bit in the beginning with this hazy, crackling that tends to give off a vibe of uncertainty and perhaps shyness about this particular track's presence amid this hollowing void of harmony and vocal tone. But soon, Barwick enters the fray in what feels more a weighted and considered degree of expression than previous, perhaps out of emotive tension or physical tension likewise. What we get then, surprisingly, is this gentle-yet-thoughtful lead of piano that begins by nestling into the mix, and then follows dramatically with a more heftier, and striking descent into the track's choral ascents of vocals and light-gleaming synths and strings; its rich, tonal quality (to the piano especially) sounding like an extract of a Hoppípolla demo.
The use of instrumentation thereafter becomes increasingly more about its melodic and harmonic properties, as much as Barwick continues to focus on its tonal and textural qualities. One Half is where she appears to present these two opposing viewpoints almost by contrast one after the other on what is possibly her most pop-like composition of the ten on this album. What begins as this slightly dynamic, distilled air of violins to begin with, the vocals - which here conveys a clearer indication of lyrics and subject matter present, as opposed to a lavish abstraction of context defined by toning - appear a little more withdrawn and ghostly, much like what the previous track appeared to allude to. Already, there's a growing emotive suggestion about how exactly these vocals are treat, and the more distant treatment of sound overall adds a degree of perspective to the music's delivery. It's a great lead-up, in result, to what finally blossoms into a melodic awakening of sweeping strings and piano chords - accompanied all the while by Barwick's shift to a more fleshed-out and human persistence in her voice. 'I guess I was asleep that night/Was waiting far' she professes in this seemingly still half-dazed awareness, alluding likely to the concept of not just sleep, but dreaming as this alternate mode in both sensual and psychological experience. And while I really like what Barwick tends to express here - thus finding myself taking this track in both its methodical aesthetic as well as its musical one - my only grudge with it, is that I feel it ends quite abruptly and doesn't necessarily go far enough in really capitalizing on its provoking take on the concept of dreaming and/or the vibes that might entail.
Look Into Your Own Mind then follows on with a sound that comes across more focal and direct in its intensity. Here, the smoother delivery of electronics and strings, while not as built-up or as vertically reaching as previous tracks, still manages to maintain momentum and consistency of texture within the track's greater breadth of sonic instrumentation. Out of this comes a clearer degree of care and consideration for how far Barwick attempts to portray these sounds; the swelling of low-frequency sounds and the harmonization of her voice as a result emerging from this plain in something of a cinematic manner. The ways in which these elements are layered and presented therefore, gives it a variety of shade and spaciousness, and fortunately doesn't let itself come off as confused or confounded even. As a result, coinciding with the instrumentation's horizontally-arranged manner, I get a strong, sonic-like tundra visage emerging from out the track's stark, isolation and mildly temperate textures. The great thing then about these sounds, as we move onto Pyrrhic, is that Barwick's more open breadth to both the music's intended atmosphere and its artifice of environment and imagery, allows the opportunity for her vocal layering to be treat more as a reflective expression rather than simply that of an emotive one. Here, the sounds tend to allude to that escapist longing for the open air - production making better use of space both in-between layers, and surrounding the entire composition at the same time. But more-so, Barwick's reach and directioning of her voice to me gives the feeling of reaching out personally, perhaps in search or simply in humble curiosity, rather than (as she's presented in previous tracks on both albums) this metaphoric allusion of ascension or transcending said plane to a more anti-material existence.
Perhaps one of the main reasons why Barwick's use of layering and applying such a blurring-of-the-margins approach (especially when deciding wherein these individual components and sounds lay) works more effectively here, is due to the fact that she offers an increasingly more reflective and effective return to nature as that of a human being. No longer do these tracks come across dispersed to some wider, ambiguous part of space, nor do they feel like an attempt to shift to awe-inspire us with some declaration that such unknown and indecipherable plains are impossible to simply reach (or even be understood) in such conventionally physical terms. The music plays out, instead, like it's being inspired by the very fibers Barwick herself is comprised of. That humanity and that collective of thoughts, emotions and expectations - in all its shattered or lucid imagery - is what conjures most strongly on this album. Forever for example, sees Barwick express a lot less clearer or richer of tone, and yet the way she still offers it as this pure, untainted fabric to her being, gives the track's accompanying frosty glow its wakening and cold vulnerability. Even when her presence moves into multi-track phase, the resulting blur of the environment and the density increase of the atmospheric drone still hold, within themselves, that inescapable imagining of the human voice as this fundamental building block to what is a spectacle of a sight, namely being human.
But again, not all of Barwick's attempts at visualizing vocals in this textural carriage, create the same level of conviction and added appeal with the surrounding bloom of musical tone. Adventurer Of The Family, while offering more gestural instrumentation - the low octaves of piano and longer reaches of violins creating an intriguingly close-to-dramatic tension of dynamics and chord progression - it makes the same mistake as previous in leaving the track at its most crucial point. If this were to be compared to a narrative alternative, it comes across like a chapter that neither blends well into the following scene, nor convinces us such ceasing is the result of some dramatic or emotive relay that's come before. So too with Crystal Lake, while the music comes off more cohesive and focused upon its middle-ground, I don't feel the choices made by Barwick in her vocals perfectly reflect the vibes emanating in the music. Ultimately, I find the relatively mild-mannered vibe of the instrumentation isn't reflected as clearly or as intricately and thus the connection between the two fundamental components not only gets tangled, the context and vibes overall get lost amidst it all. Waving To You does end the album on a reassuring high, be it one that offers this now familiarization of richly intense strings atop what is a very open space. And despite its lesser material and lesser extension of the aesthetic and intended vibe, there's still a feeling of escapism in what is a brief but gallant send-off to end the record.
It's rare for a vocalist, in any genre or field, to show little difficulty in capturing the beauty and richness of tone that, visually, it overwhelms me. That's not to say that the increased use of instrumentation isn't the principle reason to why Nepenthe gladly follows, and capitalizes more importantly, on what ideas The Magic Place brought forward. But combining her minimal palette of sound and established maximizing of the human voice in its most richest and soaring of intensities, Julianna Barwick carves then smooths out her sound into a field that projects a rather more substantial, but still soulful weightlessness and sense of liberation from the supposed difficulty of the [physical] World beneath. Where Barwick fails in parts to capitalize on this sound - thus missing out on the opportunity to push her soothing, yet impacting emotion into more contextualized compositions - for the most part we find an artist treating atmospherics more as a catalyst and means to react against. And through this formula of droned pop and ambient instrumentation, the feelings she conjures are of environments free of mass and saturation, just not excessively warming and blissful at the same time. And here is where Barwick better integrates her sound in a way that's both consecutive and evolutionary. For someone clearly rejecting the formal status quo of modesty and lyricism, the lasting benefit is that this treatment gives the alternate sense that vocals - rather than just another source - can, at least here, play the role of keeping us together; in a state of sanity, amidst a stateless void of ambiguity.
~Jordan Helm

Live - Woodpecker Wooliams

Where Cambridge Folk Festival
Venue: The Den

Woodpecker Wooliams looked like a fly on the wall when she showed up to Cambridge Folk Festival's smallest and most intimate stage wearing a similar dress to the marquee set. Gemma Williams took to the stage with her synthesizers, balloon, harp, and a can of Carlsberg. Woodpecker Wooliams was all alone after being asked to play a solo show, leaving her with a hard task of playing the harp and working through synthesizers.

The chair was out, the harp ready, and on came the despairing introducer who sucked the life out of the sitting audience, which by this time could have been inside the Tai Chi tent. These Cambridge City Council introducers have been plucking out every last note and unnecessary information all weekend; however this lost soul for Woodpecker Wooliams was just beyond awful. The awkward silence and pathetic introduction sent shivers down my spine as the audience also began to feel somewhat estranged from the upcoming set. An exciting 30 minutes was set to come, but little did the audience know how intense Woodpecker Wooliams performance would be.

She opened her set with "Red Kite", a song so personal and chilling that it actually evoked the pure essence of full-bodied emotion, something the folk festival was lacking all weekend. To some, it may seem like a facade, but this really is someone speaking from the heart. Her eyes, fixated on the ceiling, as if she's looking up to heaven for answers. At times during Woodpecker Wooliams set, it seemed as if she was swelling up continuously, on the verge of tears - though somehow she managed to continue under this emotional spell. It was a gripping opening to her set, and when she finished, pushing away the mic, she began tuning her harp to utter silence. There was no clap, no coughing, and an awkward silence that was finally met by applause as the singer-songwriter stood up.

A number of words could describe the look on the audience’s faces; I think the best descriptions would be: scared, confused, attentive, and mesmerised. Woodpecker Wooliams was one of the most interesting artists to play at this year’s Cambridge Folk Festival, and her short set witnessed by a good 50 people would say the same thing.

Wandering over to the synthesizer table from time to time, she played numerous songs with just ambience representing industrial noises of chaos and conflict to work alongside her soprano voice. "Gull" sounded fantastic, but one must wonder what it would sound like with the backing of a band. One of her best songs was met with destruction, "Sparrow". The sound of the synthesizers sounded fantastic, and as Woodpecker Wooliams excitement grew and her foot stomping percussion picked up, her can of Carlsberg fell on the floor shocking the audience. By this point, we were all in it together and fully gripped by her on stage emotion.

After playing more soulful songs from her debut album, such as the apocalyptic "Dove", Woodpecker Wooliams ended with a bang. There was no breakdown, no falling over, it was the stomping percussion and screaming lyrics in German, which finished with the reoccurrence of the word achtung. "Crow" was a spirited finale that captured the heart and soul of Woodpecker Wooliams' left field music.

Her apologies weren’t needed, and her set definitely stuck with the people that stayed long enough to witness a lucrative and special performance from an astounding singer-songwriter. People were reprising 'achtung, achtung' on the way to the toilets, others sat down, still unsure of what they just witnessed. This was a performance that will always be remembered at The Den. Cambridge have out done themselves with this tent, which attracted my attention more so than the main stages throughout the weekend. With her full band and a place holder for her beer, who knows, maybe we'll see Woodpecker Wooliams playing the bigger stages to the sit down festival goers in a few years time. I'd like to see it happen and I’m sure others in The Den that evening would agree.

Interview: Woodpecker Wooliams

If you're not familiar with Gemma Williams' music, then get familiar now. Better known by her stage name Woodpecker Wooliams, the multi-instrumentalist has been creating a wave of excitement among fans and critics since her debut album The Bird School of Being Human hit the shelves last year. This unconventional singer-songwriter plays the harp, deep and dark synthesizers, and a balloon during her sets. We sat down in the tall grass to discuss her interesting music.

Music Review Database: So why the name Woodpecker Wooliams?

Gemma: I think I’ve grown in to it over time. When I took it on I was just starting to make music living in a  cottage in Totnes. I had been really ill and had a lot of seizures, so I was kind of shaking a lot and my head was hurting, and I felt like setting my head against a brick wall over and over. But I guess it’s also something about the tenacity of keeping going and chugging on. Wooliams, just because my surname is Williams and I was wearing lots of woolly jumpers because it was freezing.

MRD: Have you always liked animals and used animals in your music?

Gemma: I think so yeah. Yeah, I'm not really a pet person, but I’ve got a lot of respect for animals and from when the music started I think they’ve kind of been involved as an influence.

MRD: When did you start writing songs?

Gemma: Properly in 2009, after being unwell. I don’t think I’d really written any before.

MRD: And they mostly include birds in the title, so is that taken from the woodpecker?

Gemma: I guess it’s a starting point yeah, but the recent album songs are all loosely related to a different bird, but not everything I do. I'm not like a bird freak, a bird maniac.

MRD: Who in your life has inspired you the most as an artist?

Gemma: Well, maybe probably equally people like Robert Wyatt and Robin Williamson because their music kind of creates a vessel to carry a spirit or a feeling. I'm just reading a book now about Nijinsky, he's a Russian ballet dancer. It's really inspiring, I've only just came across it recently but, he seems to be someone who conveys the same sort of thing through the medium of dance.

MRD: What led you to the harp?

Gemma: I wanted to sing, and I'm really shit at kind of spatial things and trying to get two hands on a guitar is impossible. In Totnes where I was living, there was a shop down the road that hired out harps for £6.99 a month, so I just hired a harp and had a little go, and really liked it.

MRD: Who influenced your industrial sound?

Gemma: I don’t know if it was a person so much. I didn’t want to make something that was one dimensional or really simple. There’s like a lot of conflict in all the themes of songs I was writing. also there’s a lot of conflict in the world around us, so I wanted to yeah, bring that forward. And also I just felt a bit sick just playing the harp and I’ve got a really high pitched voice and felt a bit  like I was a sugar plum fairy. 

MRD: Do you feel it was a bit empty without having something else extra over the harp?

Gemma: Yeah and just a bit like super sweet, that pink icing which is fine, but you don’t want a whole cake of pink icing, because it's too much, for me... I'm wearing a pink dress.

MRD: Was it difficult creating these songs that are acoustic and have the harp, but with the synthesizer there as well?

Gemma: It's really fun. It's a bit harder trying to get that balance live. Like today here, they asked me to play on my own, do a solo set because it’s a small stage, and normally I’ve got a band and more recently I’ve been playing with a band and between us we can get some filthy noises but then across the set you can balance it with like sweeter songs but then, when I’m on my own I feel a bit sick about the thought of just playing the harp and singing.

MRD: Are you nervous?

Gemma: Yeah, cause I can't quite convey the.. I want to be a bit urgggggggggggggggggggggg, but I don't know how it's going to happen. So if you want to do some hyping in the background and be like urghhhhhhhhhhh, come and do it.

MRD: Is this your first time playing at the Cambridge Folk Festival?

Gemma: Yes.

MRD: Are you excited?

Gemma: Yes. I think I might have come to Cambridge once when I left school and I was thinking, do I want to go to Cambridge University, and I maybe went on a little boat. Is there like a little boat in a little river?

MRD: There is a little river.

Gemma: I think I did that, so all of it, exciting. I sort of turned against folk a bit because of not wanting to be too twee. I started reading something recently called  Electric Eden by Rob Young. It's like exploring folk music in the British isles but it does it in such a beautiful way and makes it really vivid, about drawing from the land and this whole history. It's kind of made it exciting again, so now I’m pleased to be here.

MRD: What are your plans for the future?

Gemma: I've got a plan for a new set of songs, so I’ve just needed the time to be able to write them - well they’re kind of written in my head. So hopefully summer I will be writing loads and playing festivals.