One of the privileges of having a platform on which to write about music is the thrill of show and tell. New artistes can come seemingly out of nowhere and so amaze you with what they’ve got that you simply have to pass on the lead. A.A. Williams was pretty much unknown, only making her stage debut in April last year at Roadburn Festival, the signature heavy music gathering in Holland, following the release of a self-titled EP on Holy Roar. Out today, her debut album for Bella Union, Forever Blue, is paradoxically named after a song that was culled from the final selection of eight that adorn a record that is so assured that it seems like the work of a far seasoned performer.
The initials immediately add to the mystique of A.A. Williams. The black threads and curtain of long black hair suggest a gothic sensibility but there is far more light and shade within this artiste’s repertoire. Her music has a sense of both space and weight, which is why it might sit so well alongside the icons of heavy music she has supported live, such as Cult of Luna and The Sisters Of Mercy. Perhaps, coming from a classical background, there is an inherent discipline to how Williams forms and shapes her music. It defines her sense of dynamics, knowing where to leave space and when to wig out.
“Love and Pain” perfectly demonstrates the balance inherent in Williams’ music. It connects positive and negative sensations, lyrically and musically in its rise and fall. The sheer weight of the build in the latter part of the song is metaphorically crushing and contrasts perfectly with the quiet caution of the song’s opening and the resignation in its closure.
Forever Blue is an impressive full debut, balancing sorrowful emotions with melodic textures that swing from quietude to high drama, often within the same song. Vocally, Williams is controlled, often serene yet with an undernote of rawness. Her original music will give you goosebumps, for sure, while I also recommend you check out the majestic solo covers within her Songs from Isolation video project on YouTube.
Out of the blue also this week came Test Card Girl, the moniker of Manchester singer-songwriter, Catherine Burgis, or Caffs for short. You need to be of a certain age to remember the Test Card, which featured a young girl playing noughts and crosses with a clown doll, and was used during TV breakdowns or while no programmes were being broadcast. Back to the music: you know when something is that good, it stops you in your tracks? This does. “Holds Me Down”.
Caffs studied music at university, worked as a music teacher, for BBC Proms and the British Council and now runs her own childcare holiday club business called Nimble Arts. Despite confessing to a huge hang up about her voice which she is addressing with vocal coach Hannah Smikle (a genius says Caffs), she never gave up on the teenage dream of wanting to be in a rock ‘n roll band, to write and sing her own songs. Maybe Caffs remembers a childhood trauma of being overlooked to sing the part of principle donkey at the Christmas Nativity but I don’t think she needs to worry; the lovely northern dialect inflection in her vocal is a real USP.
Musically, Test Card Girl shares some ground with the likes of Imogen Heap and Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner in her Flock of Dimes guise and lyrically I sensed some echoes of early Ingrid Michaelson. According to Caffs, “my music spans lo-fi bedroom pop to simple indie folk songs, influenced in equal parts by the standard-issue musical taste of a 90's Manchester teenager; an obsession with the MIDI sounds from keyboards of childhood Christmases past; and the finger-picking guitar style of anyone who can play more than the one pattern I heavily rely on.” If you sense an underlying self-deprecating humour there, you may be unsurprised to learn that Caffs has also had a stint as a musical comedian playing a miniature Yamaha Portasound keyboard attached to a keytar strap.
She has been working with producer, Dave Fidler, on her debut album, Seven Dolls, due for release this winter. You can listen to the work in progress on Caff’s SoundCloud page, including the beautiful 'B-side' to the single, "If You're Feeling Down". Today is also Bandcamp’s ‘No Revenue Share Day’ in response to the Covid-19 crisis and its impact on musicians so please buy your copy of “Holds Me Down” pronto. Find it on Bandcamp here and while you’re there please shop around for more treats from unsigned acts featured in this column over the past weeks.
Music is having to adapt to stay live while venues remain closed and there are more and more opportunities to support live streaming and events. Pre-lockdown there was a flourishing live music scene here in Kingston, despite the not inconsiderable barrier of few original venues. Over the past year or two, the good folk of Banquet Records have promoted a huge number gigs in the town centre, featuring a mix of big names – Stormzy in January, The Who in February – plus emerging talents at affordable prices, often centred around promotion of a new album.
Kingston’s independent music store has now adapted by promoting streaming events linked to online purchase of the respective albums. Tonight sees a Virtual Live Performance and Q&A with Haim to celebrate the release of Women in Music Pt. III featuring a live show and album discussion with co-producers Rostam Batmanglij and Ariel Rechtshaid.
Last week Phoebe Bridgers played an intimate solo show and answered fans' questions via Zoom. Check out the stellar new album from Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher, and don't miss what's coming next on the Banquet Events page.
Photo of A.A. Williams by Thomas Williams