July has seen a quick succession of standalone EP’s released by women in Nashville; Caitlyn Smith, Molly Parden and Joy Williams. The story and words are the prime focus of these artists who refuse to stick to one “type” of music and who bend genres, and at times reimagine them, all in service of the story.
The first of them is Caitlyn Smith’s EP Starfire (July 8), which, because who has written for in the past and where she lives, could lazily be called country but the sound and lyrics are more akin to those artists who sing the blues. Detail is important to Smith; it glues her stories together. Think Taylor Swift’s All Too Well.
Next is Molly Parden’s With Me in the Summer EP (July 15), which unlike Smith, leaves the details vague and lets the instrumentation and atmosphere do the talking. Despite the differences, both draw you into their worlds and their stories, and allow you to find yourself and your experiences in the melodies. The EP is bookended by songs that could very well represent the hopeful beginnings of summer and the inevitable drawing in of nights as summer disappears in place of Autumn.
Last is Joy Williams’, formerly of The Civil Wars, Venus (Acoustic) (July 22) produced by Charlie Peacock, an epilogue of sorts to her 2016 EDM release Venus. Williams has gone back to where it all started; an acoustic guitar and her voice, which is free to roam on a seven track selection of songs both from the original album but also never heard before songs. The EP gives the listener a much more calming and peaceful but nevertheless a moving listening experience; one that allows you be explore the more vulnerable corners of your self in the safety of a song.
Over the next week or so, I will pour over these three EP’s by these artists who are passionately intent on producing honest, vulnerable and beautifully crafted songs and stories.
Venus (Acoustic) is Joy Williams’ epilogue of sorts to her 2015 release Venus, which saw her depart, albeit briefly, from the folk and Americana worlds that she came to inhabit both as a solo artist and as one half of The Civil Wars. On the Venus (Acoustic), Williams returns to the world of folk but not as a mere passive traveller, treading the well-worn path before her, but rather re-imagining the genre; the same way The Civil Wars re-imagined Americana.
This no more evident than on the final, and title track Venus. Williams’ voice is once again paired with an acoustic guitar, an instrument that she will forever be synonymous with. The pairing not only allows her vulnerable voice to breathe but also showcases her voice doing what it does best; that effortless dance between the chords.
“Close your eyes, and touch the curve of the earth/ Run your hands down my back, like a river/ Lean into me and bend me, like the wind.”
The arrangement lends itself perfectly to the lyrics, the feel and texture of the song; the song having the atmosphere of being recorded outside, amongst the trees and the wind. Williams’ vocals begin gently, almost caressing the lyrics as they drift into the room, but slowly she begins to push and pull against the music, drawing it in and around until it bursts into a powerful crescendo and then settles once again into the softness of her voice. Creating an incredibly moving and sensuous song, full of the fire that the ache of love and longing elicit.
“I’ll be your land/ Land of milk and honey/ I’ll be the moon/ I’ll push, and I’ll pull you in/ Oh let me be the fire/ Oh let me be the fire that burns you to black.”
Listening to Venus (Acoustic) is a very peaceful and calming experience but also one that allows you to be introspective and vulnerable too. There have been a handful of moments where I have found myself getting lost in the music. You Loved Me, which featured on the original incarnation, but more as a pop piano ballad, was undeniably one of those moments. It gave me the freedom and safety to reflect on my own life and love; allowing me to simultaneously lose and find myself in the words and music.
“I thought you wouldn’t love me/ If I didn’t do everything right/ So I lied to tell the truth and hid myself/ Most of all from you.”
The stripped down version with its bass notes and sparseness, brings the more melancholy, darker and introspective undercurrents of the song to the surface, which were obscured by the conventionality of the original recording. The new arrangement has also allowed for the song to take on new meanings. The original recording always felt like a message to a lover; this one however, feels more like a moment of self-realisation and acceptance that this person really does love her. For all her dark corners and shadows as much as her brightness and beauty.
“I may never understand/ Why I walked so far away/ And I may never understand/ What it is that makes you stay/ When I try, when I fail, and you love me.”
Till Forever has always been a bit too happy and sunny for me, which probably says more about me than the song. Leaving that aside, the sparse instrumentation on the track brings out the delicateness and sweetness of Williams’ voice. The words, which seem to fall in time with her heartbeat, convey the song’s intimate nature so much more than the beat and synth heavy original recording ever did.
“Hold me, touch me/ Let me make you new// Let me lay here beside you/ We can stay here and not say a word…”
A song for me that stood out for me on the original recording of Venus and the one I felt was completely original in terms of sound and arrangement was Sweet Love of Mine. On Venus (Acoustic) all the synths, background vocals, heavy beats, strings and layers are stripped away to reveal a vocal and guitar skeleton of a track; the way it was first recorded, the way it was intended. I love both the full and bare bones recordings but what comes through in the latter version is the feeling that you are listening to a lullaby from mother to child.
“When you found me/ I was all alone/ The whole world around me and nowhere to call Home/ But I heard your voice/ Sing like Heaven’s choir/ Gathered up my fears and threw them in the fire.”
Like a lot of the songs on the album, Welcome Home takes on a completely different life; it’s given an entirely new energy with just a guitar and Joy’s voice. The tone, key and rhythm turns a once grandiose song with pulsing strings and a sound akin to Holst’s The Planets, into something more intimate, more soulful and in its’ own way, more powerful. The guitar player seems to playing as if his fingers are dancing on the strings, and Williams’ voice is very much part of that dance. You can imagine this being sung to someone who you care deeply about. That’s what makes it so powerful, that connectedness, which in the end is what we are all looking for; a place or person to belong to.
“Come inside from the cold and rest your weary soul/ You belong, you are loved, you are wanted, you’re not alone/ I’ve missed you so// Welcome home/ Welcome home/ Without you near, it’s not the same/ And I’ve been waiting here/ Welcome home.”
Songs are expected to have defined edges and clear cut lines but music that permeates the deepest parts of ourselves is rarely so conventional or contained. It is messy, it is unpredictable but always special and moving, and at times, wakes you up. We Can Never Go Back has always been a song that I considered to fit this description. From the lyrics, to the story, to the unconventional-ness of how the verses, choruses and pre-chorus bleed into each other. It is almost like an unconscious stream of thought whilst also being a conversation between two people.
“Remember when it all fell silent/ Remember when you raised your voice/ Remember what forgiveness feels like/ Oooh you wanna try that again/ Oh try that again/ We can never go back/ We can only go on and on.”
The vocals, words and guitar effortlessly blend and weave in and out of one another. It is a beautiful song; not because of what it says but because of what it doesn’t say. It’s open yet closed; empty yet full; it leaves the listener pondering what the story is behind the song but also allowing the listener to find themselves in the story and the music.
Over time meanings change, a book you once loved is now discarded, your favourite record you listened to when you were sixteen, you just don’t get, and that boy you had the biggest crush on and swore you were in love with, now makes you cringe. Time moves on. Some things we discard and others continue to grow with us. Someone to Love You is a song that grows with you no matter how old you become or where you find yourself in life, and in my mind at least, this what really good art should do.
“When you look at me/ Try hard to hide it, try hard to hold it all in/ But I found you out/ Discovered your secrets/ And honey, it ain’t a sin.”
The musical arrangement and the emphasis of certain lyrics and the tone in which they are delivered, lends to the song to its musical ambiguity. You can’t quite tell if it’s a song to a friend, telling that though you can’t give them the love they crave, but they still deserve to be loved. Or if the person is saying that though they do love you, and wish desperately it could be them, sadly it can never be.
“It doesn’t have to be me…/ But you, you need someone to love you/ You need someone to hold you, tonight/ Oh you, need someone to love you/ You need someone to hold you.”