Muses of Fire – Notes from a small experiment

While tidying up my desktop before New Year, I found some notes from a little experiment I did over the Summer. Over a week, I tried a bunch of records I hadn’t got round to yet, for one reason or another — from artists as diverse as Björk, Nadine Shah, Jenny Hval — as well as Shilpa Ray’s latest album. The choice of artists was deliberate — I’ll admit I don’t own as many records by women as men, and it’s led me to wonder whether this has affected my perception of music, and art in general, in insidious ways, especially coming from a rock-oriented scene. Maybe it stretches as far as my own creative work. Regardless, I think it’s worth doing these experiments every so often, just to nudge you out of old habits and maybe allow you to re-examine them from another perspective.

I’ve tidied up my thoughts a little. So, here’s what I made of albums by four of 2015’s most forward-thinking artists, and what I picked up from listening to them. If you’ve got a few quid burning in your pocket after the holiday break, you could do worse than give these a go.

Bjork – ‘Biophilia’ (One Little Indian)

First up was Björk‘s 2011 release Biophilia, her last-but-one album. I’d actually been avoiding this — clips I’d heard from TV hadn’t quite excited me as much as I’d hoped. Having listened to the album a fair few times now, I’m honestly not sure why. Biophilia is Bjork’s concept album about the Earth and Near-Earth ecosystem — and she takes that theme and runs with it. Viruses, Earth movements, Geodes, the Sun-Moon cycle, all covered with a mix of more organic and electronic sound. There is something wonderful about the sense that a musician is genuinely having fun with what they’re working on — it suffuses every moment of a record, as much as a relished performance can be felt from the work of the actor onstage. Biophilia is an utter joy to listen to.

‘Mutual Core’ is my jam.

Jenny Hval – ‘Apocalypse, Girl’ (Sacred Bones)

Jenny Hval‘s new album, Apocalypse, Girl, just came out this week [These notes were orignally written back in June – REJB]. Hval is a new artist to me, albeit one that a friend of mine raves about. Unfortunately I’ve not been able to listen to this as much as I’d like. It’s not really one for working to — this isn’t the backing track to your day-to-day. Hval is a wayforger. Her music requires attention, lest you stray from the path and get clipped by a sharp swoop of sound you never know was coming. To clarify, Apocalypse, Girl not one for the easy ride, or lulling you into unearned comfort. It’s not tricksy, as such. Hval is playful with her art, but there is an intensity to her music, that of muscles stretching needfully. This album does not insist or make demands, it simply is.

‘That Battle is Over’ is an easy entry to this. But you should listen to this album in order.

Shilpa Ray – ‘Last Year’s Savage’ (Northern Spy Records)

Leapfrogging a day, Shilpa Ray‘s Last Year’s Savage was kind of a cheat, as I’d had it on rotation since its strangely quiet release in January. This album’s in no hurry, it has no need to be. Instead, it starts with a spell — ‘Burning Bride’, the mogadon dream of Nancy Sinatra spinning endlessly in a burning music box — and lets things take their innevitable course. Ray’s calling card is *that voice*, a rough diamond scraped to sharp facets, refracting society into a technicolour spectrum. Last Year’s Savage shows Ray satirist and storyteller (take ‘Moksha’, for example), and versatile genre tripper (‘Oh My Northern Soul’ and ‘Johnny Thunders Fantasy Space Camp’ are exactly as they sound), and utterly By-Herself — she’s a one-off. There really is noone like Shilpa Ray on this whole goddamn planet, for which we should be thankful. Last Year’s Savage is the sound of a 60 ft woman toothpicking her teeth clean and opening wide, in anticipation of swallowing a city whole.

Try ‘Burning Bride’ on for size – you’ll hear few album openers chosen so well in 2015.

Nadine Shah – ‘Fast Food’ (Apollo)

Finally, Nadine Shah‘s Fast Food, a record I’ve been looking forward to the most out of any this year (see my photo set from earlier in the year). And God, I wish it hadn’t been third, because it left little room for anything else this week. I could pick any song out of the air here: ‘Fool’, with its discordant guitar, and Shah’s bone-dry delivery of unrecoverable put-downs; ‘Washed Up’, with its tension-laiden warning for those who never surrender to love; and ‘Living’, to those who surrendered too much. ‘Nothing Else To Do’ is Delibes’ Flower Duet reborn in a dusty, half-lit, smoke-filled room on a Summer day. I’m by no means done with this album yet, but think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who’s heard this who won’t agree Shah is one of the best songwriters the North-East has ever produced.

I imagine that words like smouldering, sultry, other sexually-charged words have been thrown around about Shah’s voice, but I’d prefer we drop the lazy pretence that all artists are the cliche of the eternally sex-starved teenager — writing songs purely to get a shag. Yes, there are songs about love in here. But Shah’s bow-string vowels are not purely an expression of aching loins. This is the artful use of one’s range and vocal texture, in combination with an instinctual feel for word shape and tone, to create a powerful avatar of self: an expression that ultimately comes from something within one’s core, something far deeper than projected lust. My favourite vocalists have always been ones who’ve known their voices inside and out – Bjork, Mike Patton, Nat King Cole. Artists who chose songs or words not just for their meaning, but for their shape, their nuance; the way they roll around in the mouth and the ear, how their texture affects the shape of a sentence, and in turn the emotion we feel. Shah is most definitely in this school – one only needs to listen to the way she shapes the title word in ‘Divided’ to know this.

In other words, this is a masterful album by an incredible artist in the fields both songwriting and musicianship. ‘Fast Food’ is magnificent. I wish I could post the entire album here, but that wouldn’t be fair, and you should really find it for yourself. Instead, here’s ‘Stealing Cars’ to be getting on with.

When I originally made notes on these four records, it was with another purpose in mind. As I said at the beginning, the choice of artists was deliberate. Nevertheless, though I wasn’t looking for inspiration, four things struck me about those records that I’d never really taken the time to properly digest before.

1) Each artist had their own voice — and by that, I don’t just mean vocals. We hear about this idea of voice a lot, of finding our own voice, but when it comes to how you actually fnd that voice, there always seems to be a lot of handwaving, culminating in “just sit down and do it.” Which may be essentially what it is, but when you put it like that, sounds pretty unhelpful.

On each of these four records, whether consciously or unconsciously, it was as if each artist knew where they were coming from — not just geographically, but what their influences were, what their influences weren’t (what were simply things they like or disliked), what went into who they were, what made them themselves — let that sit and stew for a while… took a ladleful out, and tried what came of that. So maybe finding your own voice is just that — being aware of those things that go into you, doing the Work, and seeing what the results are. Maybe you just need a little more something something in there next time. Maybe you got that something somethng already. Maybe you should get out into the world to find what it is.

2) They’d all found the honesty in that voice too. This may sound like repetition — it’s more auxiliary to the last point. To take it from another angle, say you find someone else’s work beautiful and heartfelt, and try on their style for size. It can be remarkably easy to love that style so much, you get stuck in their groove, rather than your own. Maybe that groove makes lines that are beautiful, or seem an easy route to that beauty, but unless they’re yours, something will always feel a little off about what you’re doing. That’s not to say these four artists didn’t learn from others — you can hear it in moments of their tracks — just that they didn’t allow themselves to get stuck in someone else’s groove. If you are honest in yourself, other people will know. If you’re not, they’ll know that too.

3) None of them were afraid of their creative impulses — they just went out and did it anyway, whatever the result. This is the hard lesson, I think, to take away from these records. Sometimes the most seemingly embarrassing or uncomfortable work for a creator is work that’s getting to the heart of a truth, something personal you’re afraid to get out. But who’s to say what other people think? Maybe getting vulnerable, personal, almost foolish can open you up to making something special. So perhaps it’s worth following those creative impulses, anyway. Whether you make use of the results is a decision to be made later

4) Most importantly of all, they enjoyed what they did. Here I’m thinking particularly of Björk’s record, that album rang with joy. Someone wise once said to me, art is intellect having fun. I think it should be. Some people make art to explore or make real pain, but the goal isn’t to relive it. It’s to get it out, to find some kind of release from it. There is no fun in the cliche of a tortured artist. Enjoy your work. Do things that you enjoy. Your art will be better for it.

Though these are lessons from music, I think they can apply to other arts, other sides of the creative life. Having left the thought to settle for six months, I’m even more convinced of that. I’m going to try to give them a little more space in my head in 2016, and see what results.

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