FRACTURED AIR

The universe is making music all the time

Chosen One: Brigid Mae Power

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“Its hard for me to be interested in music unless it goes deep into a feeling.”

—Brigid Mae Power

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The first week of June marked the eagerly anticipated new full length from the London-based, Irish songwriter Brigid Mae Power. The sublime “Head Above The Water” is the first record for Power on Fire Records after a pair of widely acclaimed albums for U.S. independent Tompkins Square (2016’s self titled LP and 2018’s “The Two Worlds”).

“Head Above The Water” was recorded in Glasgow’s fabled analogue studio The Green Door with Alasdair Roberts co-producing alongside Power and Peter Broderick. Unsurprisingly, with two such revered fellow songwriters as Broderick and Roberts involved, one can discern the sensitivity here to allow Power’s own voice take center stage. The production is beautifully crisp with an impressively wide sonic palette, while also giving Power’s own imitable vocals the space it requires, letting the myriad nuances and endless subtleties take hold of the listener in the process.

The album’s players include Roberts’ own band (Hamilton Beck, Stevie Jones, Liam Chapman; Peter Broderick and Brían Mac Gloinn (Ye Vagabonds), where arrangements are beautifully and subtly varied across the album’s ten compositions (from the piano-led ballads of both title track and “Wearing Red That Eve” to the folk gems such as “I Was Named After You” and the Joni Mitchell-infused “Wedding Of A Friend”), recalling the spirit of Bert Jansch or Planxty, where no single note is superfluous but rather is considered both instinctively and sensitively to highlight Power’s own singularly unique and soul-stirring songs. The use of pedal steel guitar with upright bass and drums provides the captivating rhythm section throughout. Similarly, Mac Gloinn’s impeccably understated contributions (bazouki, violin, fiddle) provide for another set of textures here, giving the wider palette a more Irish-based context, which helps give Power’s songs a delicate link to such Irish treasures as Planxty or Van Morrison before her.

Album opener (and lead single) “On A City Night” provides a beautifully immediate and irresistibly lush introduction to Power’s latest opus. “City lights or country skies at night / Which do you prefer? / He said to me with a smile / And eyes so pure” Power sings in the opening verse, introducing the recurring theme of motherhood throughout the album, where a sense of bright hope and vulnerability often occupy the same planes as that of one’s own innermost feelings of doubt, fears and worries. A sense of fully embracing new beginnings and brighter horizons – while overcoming self-doubts and embracing change often provide a running thread too, as Power sings: “I can’t quite believe / How easy it’s been for you / To let go of everything / You previously knew”.

The heart-stopping piano-led ballad “Wearing Red That Eve” is a hugely affecting ballad which finds Power reflecting on an old memory of a time spent in New York which, while simmering to the surface of her mind powerfully reflects finding one’s own voice and inner strength amidst adversity. The striking use of colour and imagery has also been an intriguing part to Power’s songbook (“From those mountains I draw something deep / Their warm colours and their rough peaks / In my mind I climb them under a burning sun”), something Power’s own artwork (an established visual artist in her own right) equally manages to evoke with much purity and vibrancy.

Equally moving is “I Was Named After You” which, like all of Power’s divine songs, could be sung a cappella and the affect would be no less monumental. The lyrics are stripped back and pared down to only its essential core, revealing a lament of true vulnerability and utter transcendence. The song is more akin to listening to the most cathartic or cleansing of songs, as the intricately layered arrangement expands and flourishes (flurries of flute, fiddle and guitars offset Power’s honest, thought-laden questions) emanating a song of remarkable power where strength and vulnerability are one.

Tempos shift on the pulsating “We Weren’t Sure”, beginning with an acoustic strum and meditative vocal, the composition gradually builds to its fearsome outro of congas, percussion and drums, forming a rhythmic delight after Power affirms: “I’ve come out knowing / That I’m Sure / I’m completely sure”, producing another magical moment of empowerment.

“I Had To Keep My Circle Small”, with it’s pulsating strum and breathtaking harmonies (supplied by Broderick here) is one of the many treasured moments across “Head Above The Water”. “I needed you to favour me / I needed you to favour me / That is not a bad thing at all” sings Power while the arrangement’s glorious harmonies and many feather-light nuances are reminiscent of “Automatic For The People”-era R.E.M. or the songbooks of Nick Drake or Bill Callahan. The song builds to a soul-shattering climax, where layers of voice and sound combine and reverberate, reaffirming Power’s private realizations.

After the fittingly-included cover of Planxty’s “The Blacksmith” (a song, which, together with “As I Roved Out” have been memorably covered by Power live over the years), comes the spellbinding title-track and album closer, where – like so much of Power’s cherished songbook – it feels like we’re bearing silent witness to Power’s innermost musings all on our very own. The song finds Power reminisce about a memory of a lost soul from a distant past, whose faded dreams and lifetime regrets – with a “pain that can’t be helped” – come to the fore. While Power notes his losses and past pains, she also sings: “His sense of what matters is really strong” before touchingly leaving us with the sincerest of wishes: “I wish you luck with your losses from before”.

Once more, the specific and the universal merge wholly as one as Power’s songs – like they always so effortlessly do – traverse both the real (and imagined) and ascend into a near-spiritual realm. For Power’s music, like all the great songwriters of bygone times, truly exists outside of time.

“Head Above The Water” is out now on Fire Records.

https://brigidmaepower.bandcamp.com/

https://www.facebook.com/brigidpowermusic/

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Interview with Brigid Mae Power.

Congratulations on your enthralling new solo album “Head Above Water”, an album that feels truly like a culmination, where all points in your musical path leads you to this engrossing destination. Firstly, please talk me through the recording sessions that took place in the analogue studio The Green Door in Glasgow and introduce to me your band for these sessions? Did you have most of the songs fleshed out at this point (lyrically and musically) prior to recording?

BMP: Thank you! It was such an enjoyable experience to record the album and in these lockdown days I’d give anything to be able to go and play live with those musicians again! The band that played on the record live are Peter Broderick (drums + violin, backing vocals), Alasdair (electric guitar, piano, violin, backing vocals), Brían MacGloinn (bouzouki, fiddle, vocals), Stevie Jones (double bass), Liam Chapman (percussion) and myself (guitars, vocals, piano). Then a few overdubs were added after which involved Hamilton Belk on pedal steel, Peter on synths/random sounds and myself playing mellotron organ, piano… I think I’ve remembered everything there!

I had all the songs ready to go lyrically and structurally. I had sent on some demo recordings and chords to the guys and kind of just basically said have a go at playing along with them. When we got to Glasgow, we had a very short rehearsal the day before, just a couple of hours, and then the next day we just got to it! We just figured things out pretty quickly. I like to get the recording process done as quick as possible, and I kinda like what comes out of musicians when they’re on the spot… I like to do things in 2-3 takes max usually.

The wonderful Alasdair Roberts co-produced the album (alongside you and Peter) and also plays on the record. I’d love for you to describe the colours and insights Alasdair brought to the process of making “Head Above Water”?

BMP: Well the main thing that really sticks out for me with what Alasdair brought to the process is with the song ‘Wearing Red That Eve’. He had the idea to take the guitar out completely and just have me singing, with him playing the piano. He had the idea to have me singing without playing an instrument at the same time so I would have a different quality of singing I guess, being able to focus totally just on that.

He really opened up that song entirely into something different… something more jazzy, I’m not even sure how to describe! But I love what he did.

Alasdair also was really helpful at arranging the lineup of musicians for the live recording, giving ideas of who would play what and when, in a very open way. He also lended such a varied musical energy to the songs, one might presume he is totally traditional or more of a folk player but he is very versatile!

What I immediately love is the widened sonic palette on display throughout these songs and the adventurous new sonic terrain that is fearlessly tapped into. I feel the duo of “We Weren’t Sure” and “I Had To Keep My Circle Small” serve the empowering and utterly captivating moments of part B. Again, the rich instrumentation and daring arrangements serve the ideal backdrop to your immense vocals. In terms of witnessing these songs develop from the solitary writing process to capturing these songs live to tape; this must have been quite a special experience to be part of?

BMP: Yes, it was really great to hear how they turned out. It always takes me some time to be able to listen back and hear something with a clear listening slate if you get me but I was really happy with how those both turned out. ‘I Had To Keep My Circle Small’ was maybe the trickiest out of all the songs to do… we tried another version entirely in the studio but it sounded too cheesy ha. It was a struggle to get the right vibe for that song.

‘We Weren’t Sure’ was a LOT of fun to do in the studio. There’s one mellotron overdub but otherwise that song is pretty much sounding exactly how it was when were playing it. It was fun and came out so weird, in a good way.

Album opener “On A City Night” begins with your beloved son’s wide-eyed curiosity and child-like wonder (asking you whether you prefer city lights or country skies at night). I’d love for you to discuss this infinite source of inspiration you draw from this special soul in your life and how his ruminations and world views seep into your own train of thought and mind, so to speak?

BMP: I’m so lucky to have this little boy in my life. Saying that, during quarantine, we naturally drive each other mad 50% of the time. But the other 50% is really magical. I’ve always been a more observant and listening kind of person and I really believe if you really watch and listen to kids they are just incredible. Their look on things is so fresh, they’re very connected to the truth of things. He’s very creative and free. And he’s so optimistic. He’s been my teacher in a way!

So yes, he is really inspiring to me. Life and nature and how things circulate around is inspiring to me and something I always need to bring myself back to. Being in touch with this little force of nature every day is a blessing.

As ever, an undeniable power and resolute spirit permeates throughout these songs; in effect keeping your head above water. The song-craft yields immeasurable emotions and a whirlwind of feelings. Do songs (such as these songs captured on the latest album) come to you quickly could phrases and ideas slowly simmer before the final result is in sight? I wonder do you find the song-writing process for you changing in any way- from perhaps your Tompkins Square debut or back to the “Told You The Truth” mini album?

BMP: My song-writing process has largely stayed the same. It usually starts off with the melody on the instrument first and then humming over that. Then words can kind of come to me for that specific tune, or I have a look in some of my notebooks and see if any of my writing feels like it fits into the melody I’m working on. Sometimes words I’ve written a long time ago will fit into a new melody and vice versa – sometimes I’ll have an old melody that I’ve been working on for years and I’ll write new words.

I guess with this album there are a lot of songs based on memories but that wasn’t intentional. I really don’t think much, to be honest, about how to write or what to write or whether it all fits in with each other. I just trust that it does and if it doesn’t sound right then I’ll not add it to the album… but I kind of work in a mostly thought-less way. I work from feelings and mostly unconsciously. I’m not an “ideas” kind of person… but the phrase “Head Above The Water” was floating around in my head for a while for sure. Sometimes little snippets of phrases will pop up for me and I’ll do my best to remember them!

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Your beautiful cover of Andy Irvine’s folk song “The Blacksmith” is the penultimate track. I love how it fits so perfectly among your own material. Can you discuss your love for this song and can you remember first hearing it?

BMP: Hmm I think the first time I heard it was when someone posted on facebook a youtube video of Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny playing it live. Since then I’ve just loved it and didn’t want to hear other versions because I just loved that one so much! I can get a bit repetitive like that. When I like something I really like something! So I played it over and over. Then someone, I don’t remember who, suggested online that I do it as a cover. So I have been playing it live for a while now, and so, often after I’d play it people would ask me which one of my CDs it was on, and it wasn’t on any, so I promised a few people that I would eventually record it and now I have!

I always wanted to sing with Brían because I sooooo love his singing voice. While he was in Glasgow recording with us I suggested it as a sort of last minute thing to do. We didn’t have much time left but Alasdair arranged a format that we could try sing it in and it worked really well. I’m really glad we had time to give it a go!

Your voice is the magical spell that forever emanates from the songs: a wholly unique and incredible sound. Take me back to your earliest musical memories and the different singers and albums and performances that served inspiration for your own unique singing style?

BMP: Oh thank you, that’s a really nice compliment!

Hmm well, I don’t think about my singing style much at all, I remember just always liking to sing and finding some ways of singing easier to lean into than others. I like to sing a lot of wordless melodies, I think that started originally from imagining an instrumental solo while I’m singing a song, but being the only player I would just sing it myself!

My earliest memory of singing (and there is video footage) is of me singing ‘Itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka dot bikini’ on top of a table in the family living room when I was like 3. God knows why that song, I think it was on an advert on the time. I remember everyone was laughing because it was funny, but I remember taking it so seriously and really feeling like “this is a big performance right now”. I really loved the limelight when I was little and always sort of knew I would do singing. But shyness overcame me as an older child and I didn’t sing again really until I was an older teenager.

I was deeply moved by the singing of Aretha Franklin. She had a huge impact on me when I was about 16/17. I loved blues singers also like Etta James and for the first few years when I was singing, I was deeply influenced by that style. I couldn’t help though have traditional inflections on my singing and the more I let go and sang naturally as I went into my 20’s I sort of let those traditional inclinations come out more.

Another huge influence for me vocally was Tim Buckley. I had grown up listening to Jeff Buckley (also an influence) but when I heard Tim, wow, I was just floored. I felt like that naturally I liked to sing kinda like that too… like holding out notes for a long time… I just hadn’t heard anyone else do it before I heard him. So then I just let myself naturally sing however felt best.

The presence of piano ballads “Wearing Red That Eve” and the album’s title track creates that striking intimacy and delicate beauty that hits you deeply. Growing up, did you learn the guitar or piano first?

BMP: On that track its actually played by Alasdair Roberts and I am instrument-less which is rare on my songs. But I grew up playing piano first. I taught myself when I was probably around 13/14. I played the accordion growing up, then slowly figured out how to play the trad tunes on the piano. Then I got really into boogie-woogie piano as a teenager, and got obsessed with playing in that style! I really actually for a while wanted to be a serious blues piano player rather than a singer songwriter!

I started playing guitar when I was 21.. I usually play in DADGAD tuning!

Your ability to draw something deep from the well each time when it comes to creating a new batch of songs awakens something deep within (in terms of the listener’s experience). As the composer and writer, are you aware of that special spark as a song comes into life? Needless to say it must be a very intuitive and natural process.

BMP: I think I always like to go deep. I’m sort of like that as a person. I’m not really good at on the surface stuff, talking on the surface etc. I like to get to the root of things very quickly, which is frustrating for some people to be constantly dug at, but I definitely like to dig deep. I don’t really know any other way. Its hard for me to be interested in music unless it goes deep into a feeling.

Sometimes I am aware of the feeling when a song comes to life, but sometimes it takes some time. There’s a lot of doubt for me with songs I’m writing and usually it’ll have to sit with me a few months before I notice that it has a spark that I need to take further.

Lastly, what is the song that surprised you the most (upon hearing the final version)?

BMP: ‘I Was Named After You’ surprised me a lot. It had started out as a sort of tender song with just finger picking guitar in the demo we made. But when we did it in the room it felt like something kind of spooky happened. It has a kinda ethereal energy to me that song. Part of it is about my grandmother Bridget’s spirit so its kinda ghostly anyway, but I was really surprised where that song took off too. It’s probably one of my favourites on the album!

“Head Above The Water” is out now on Fire Records.

https://brigidmaepower.bandcamp.com/

https://www.facebook.com/brigidpowermusic/

 

Written by admin

June 23, 2020 at 7:04 pm

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