FIFTY3 FRIDAYS: IN ALICE’S FOOTSTEPS
The character of Alice has endured since her story first began in 1862 by an Oxford mathematician entertaining a friend’s children on a boat trip with a tale of her adventures in an imaginary world. The Don in question, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, went on to publish “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” under the aegis of Lewis Carroll three years later. Since then, Alice has inspired countless interpretations, been imbued with meanings from the rational to the seriously loopy and touched virtually every aspect of the arts and many strands of life and science.
Visiting London’s V&A yesterday for a preview of the Museum’s impressive new show, Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser, I was struck by a parallel between Alice, curious and questioning, strong-minded and empowered despite all the mysterious hurdles presented to her, and many of the independent women trying to make their way in music today. So, with due deference to Steven Skelton, one-third of Seattle indie band Cozy Slippers and the sole male representative in this week’s Fifty3 Fridays, here come the girls, metaphorically at least, in Alice’s footsteps.
We begin with Essex-based singer-songwriter, Roisin O'Hagan, whose name reveals some Irish parentage too and whose music blends influences from Americana, pop, rock and folk music. Although playing live is very much in her veins, she has kept busy during the pandemic, spending the first lockdown completing a Music Journalism degree from home and since then, songwriting and recording at her producer’s home studio; in her own words, “making huge steps in becoming closer to being the songwriter I want to be.” Her latest single, “Girls Like Me”, is a positive stride in that direction.
This song is something of a standard-bearer for combatting issues that women may face when relying on social media ultimately to promote their music, but possibly inviting attention of a less welcome kind along the way. “Girls Like Me” is a spirited response to receiving a series of creepy unsolicited messages on Instagram from an online stranger, “calling names from behind a screen”. Rather than giving the harasser the time of day, the singer replies in song, emerging triumphant from her personal rabbit hole. With ample vocal attack, Roisin O’Hagan holds her own too against a strident trebly guitar and drums backcloth, her empowered lines carrying a strong pop hook in the choruses.
I first encountered Vanessa Gimenez at the Glastonbury 2019 Emerging Talent Competition Final. The four-piece she fronted, Swimming Girls, were one of eight finalists that year, going on to take third place and to play a great set on the legendary John Peel stage at that summer’s festival. I remember being impressed both by the rich live sound of the band and notably the stage presence and vocal ability of Gimenez. Despite a busy summer including a full UK tour supporting Pale Waves, she ultimately stepped away to pursue a new solo project and the band split. The first fruits of this enterprise are to be picked this summer, starting with the release of a tangy debut single, “Make It Rain”, with an EP to follow later in the year.
“Make It Rain” was co-written by Vanessa Gimenez with ex-Swimming Girls keyboardist Robert Primrose and Toby Scott, and retains a little of the flavour of the old band though its languid groove reveals more of a sensory pop vibe. Speaking about the song, Gimenez commented: "To me it’s about retaining that childlike sensibility that is full of hope and dreams. A mindset that a lot of people lose once they grow older." Her vocal behind the enticing web of synths is as silky smooth as ever yet with a coy detachment to it to counterbalance the intimacy of the lyrics. A delightful debut.
Gloucestershire-born singer-songwriter, Chloe Foy, recently announced the fulfilment of a decade-long devotion to her craft with her long-anticipated debut album Where Shall We Begin, due out on 11 June. There is a tragic backcloth to her art as she sadly lost her father to depression before embarking on her musical path, vowing not to make the same mistake as him when he put a lid on his own dream to work as an artist and potter. Previewed via a plea for non-conformity that referenced her father in the plaintive “Shining Star” last month, Foy has followed this with the sublimely melodic “Work of Art”, a piece that feels perfectly in sync with its expectant title.
Fittingly, as live music in front of an audience slowly begins to return, “Work of Art” celebrates the special connection music has with the live crowd; music in itself being incomplete without sharing it in the close company of others. It demonstrates an inner confidence to relax and live in the moment, to express herself openly and honestly in song. There’s a sparkling resonance to the instrumentation on this song while Chloe Foy’s delectably gilded tones combine grace with longing, conviction yet with a hint of vulnerability echoed in an urge to let go, collectively and warmly shared here.
Photo of Madi Diaz by Lili Peper
While Chloe Foy is realising the fulfilment of a long time spent honing her craft, over in the USA Nashville-based Madi Diaz marked a full restart of her recording career back in February with her powerfully raw debut single for Anti Records, “Man In Me”. Then came the richly evocative “New Person, Old Place”, hinting that an album might not be far off. Originally from Pennsylvania, Diaz was brought up in a family steeped in music and went on to release a series of records in her twenties, spending time in both Nashville and LA writing and performing before a seismic break-up heralded a return to Nashville, as a go-to songwriter. Moving on, her latest single, “Nervous”, continues an impressive run of work for herself rather than for others.
“Nervous” almost catches you unawares. At first it may seem like a pleasant, head-nodding indie rock song with a simple, strong hook, “I make me nervous”. Diaz’ resilient vocal carries all this off perfectly. Then the lyrics catch up with you and disconcertion steps in. Holding up a mirror to herself, self-awareness reaches a nadir in the line “I have so many perspectives / I'm losing perspective”. What is clear is that Madi Diaz is an accomplished, emotive artiste with the curiosity still to see herself outside the multiple reflections of self-analysis.
Los Angeles-based singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Emily Moore is best known as a respected touring musician, taking the stage with the likes of Taylor Swift, FUN, Dua Lipa, X Ambassadors and more. Her alter ego, Total Brutal, as a moniker might conjure images more akin to a heavy metal act but the reality is far closer to dreamland than nightmare territory. Moore’s solo project aims to promote positivity and self-empowerment; in a nutshell to be heard, be seen, face fears head on and be comfortable in your own skin. Her latest single, “Had A Feeling”, is a gentle call to arms.
There is such a relaxed vibe to this song that you almost feel that Moore is answering the question she poses in the affirmative: “Should I sit around and waste my time / Hoping that the world aligns?” While this could sum up the feelings of many over the past year, you sense conversely it is more about getting on with your life. Based on her own experience and realisations, she wants to help other young women make their worth known and their voices heard. “Had A Feeling” details the need for connection, both emotionally and physically, set in a breezy and agreeable musical framework.
We stay across the pond to complete this week’s song selection, so it’s back to paragraph 2 and Seattle where we find the splendid indie band, Cozy Slippers. The trio comprises Barbara Barrilleaux (drums, keyboards, vocals), Sarah Engel (bass, vocals) and Steven Skelton (guitar, keyboards) and had its origins when the two women met at a local Rock Camp a while back. Skelton joined as the ‘third man’ after the original guitarist couldn’t commit to taking things further. The band is currently working on an album with the hope that it might come to fruition sometime next year. Meanwhile, if you are sitting comfortably, here is the latest single, “When Will When Come?”
The recording is very much a DIY, pandemic-constricted affair. It is the first release to come from a year’s worth of home recordings, made very much on the fly given that the band members couldn’t be in the same room at the same time. “When Will When Come?” is a person-to-person plea to carpe diem, rather than daydreaming about a journey to see flamingos, nicely steered by Sarah Engel’s lead vocal and Barbara Barrilleaux’s sweet harmonies. It's a lovely slice of breezy 80’s flavoured indie pop that I’m sure would have gone down well at a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, though recalling the absurdist brutality of the Queen's croquet match, we will draw a line at any further reference to flamingos.