There’s a stunning debut album doing the rounds right now from a talented singer-songwriter starting to earn plenty of critical acclaim, building a steady following after initial interest from a South East indie label.
Marlody’s I’m Not Sure At All was released last month as a limited edition white vinyl LP, on CD, and in digital format, and it seems rather apt that it emerges 45 years after the first album from another notable Kent-based female artist, a certain Kate Bush. And while this particular performer bats off any such comparison, however flattered, a refreshing mix of quirkiness, talent and songcraft certainly rings bells.
Even the name suggests mystery, this mum of three from Ashford preferring to go out under her one-word stage name, winning over new fans whenever and wherever she plays.
As her label, Skep Wax Records, puts it, I’m Not Sure At All ‘takes anxiety, weakness, fear – and turns them into strength: powerful melodies, the sweetest harmonies you ever heard, and lyrics that insist on the possibility of hope, without losing sight of the possibility of despair.’ I wouldn’t argue with that, these ‘deep, darkly beautiful pop songs’ dominated by quality keyboard, ‘illuminated – and sometimes made sinister – by occasional bursts of programmed percussion, submarine bass and distant, chiming digital bells.’
There’s an intriguing back story too, Marlody one of the higher-achieving classical pianists of her generation as a child, winning competitions and seemingly destined for greatness. But she hated all that, throwing it all away, putting more and more distance between herself and those more rigid music roots, listening to Yo La Tengo and Shellac ‘and a hundred other things that took music to new, untutored extremes’ … all to great effect.
Her painful personal journey is not glossed over in her lyrics, and by way of example ‘Words’is about the debilitating effect of psychiatric medication, ‘Malevolence’is about an urge to commit inexcusable violence, and ‘Friends in Low Places’ her ‘remarkable hymn of solidarity with all those people who’ve contemplated taking their own lives.’
But for all that, the songs are uplifting, not least lead single ‘Summer’ the first that made me and many others sit up and take notice, written from a child’s point of view, describing the beginnings of new life after the loss of a parent. From that tinkling piano threaded through to those sumptuous, haunting harmonies and the subtle power behind it all, I’m captivated, something that continues across these 10 powerful tracks.
And talking of hard subject matter, there’s ‘Wrong’, relating the history of an adulterous affair, offering a piercing sympathy for the emotional state of the adulterer. These are certainly not dialled-in would-be pop hits.
While I mentioned Kate Bush earlier, her label stresses echoes too of Cate Le Bon, Liz Phair, and The Unthanks. And now she’s got our attention, she’s at work on a follow-up record. Has she been impressed with the reaction so far, not least after an official Sunday afternoon LP launch last month in the surrounds of Central London’s treasured Victorian pub venue, the Betsey Trotwood?
“Yeah, people seem to like it, and some were a bit emotional … which is good, I guess.”
If you can send them home with tears in their eyes, that’s a start, right?
It was Skep Wax Records’ husband and wife team Rob Pursey and Amelia Fletcher, also behind The Catenary Wires and Swansea Sound, who took her on.
And while between school runs and weekend record fair set preparations in Folkestone when we spoke, in May she’s set to support Heavenly – the celebrated indie ‘twee pop’ act (1989/96) Rob and Amelia had a major part in beyond involvement in C86 era darlings Talulah Gosh – at treasured 400-capacity Shepherd’s Bush venue Bush Hall. How did your link come about?
“Oh, a friend of my husband introduced him to Rob, showing him one of my songs I’d done some really rubbish recording of! I think it was ‘Change’. He liked it and said I should come along and play at the venue at their house, a little barn they put events on at sometimes.
“I said, ‘Erm … okay …’ I tend to say yes to things and see what happens. I said I’d give it a try. I’d already put together this album, a suggestion of a friend who I sent a few songs to. And Rob was like, ‘We should release this on our label.’”
So it was more or less fully formed collection at that stage?
“Yeah, we did make a few adjustments to some of the songs and added a bit of bass to a couple of tracks, while Amelia added harmonium to one of the songs. A couple of minor adjustments. And I re-did ‘Wrong’, because I had a version that was a very basic recording. It sounded nice, but was really hissy.”
A little too lo-fi?
“Yeah, I quite like that, but it was just pushing that!”
You mentioned the lovely, somewhat timeless Marlody masterpiece, ‘Change’, which I imagined was recorded on a church hall piano or somewhere out in some dusty back room. And there’s almost a hymnal quality there.
“Yeah, someone said it sounded like something you’d hear in some old bar.”
There you go. I was imagining a more teetotal setting, but maybe they’re closer to the truth. And because you mentioned ‘Wrong’, that and particularly ‘Runaway’ – a potential crossover hit for me, so take note, radio people – put me in mind of Judie Tzuke’s ‘Stay with Me Till Dawn’, a single which made an impression on me when I was 11. Both of those tracks have a similar sweet but somewhat haunting quality.
Marlody’s vocal delivery styles certainly chop and change over this LP, not least on the afore-mentioned ‘Summer’, which carries a proper sense of voice and place, the way it’s captured from a child’s perspective truly chiming. Which makes me think it’s very real, making me wonder if she’d be comfortable talking about the inspiration behind a few of her songs. They seem rather personal, and I get the impression that asking any more could be intrusive.
“I don’t mind talking about them.”
There are some quite dark subjects there.
“Yeah, I wrote most of it when I was in the process of being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a very tumultuous time for me, when going to sing and play piano was kind of like my therapy, really.”
I guess sharing it with others might help, rather than keeping it all in.
“I hope so. I never wrote the songs with the idea of sharing them, they were just for me. This was other people’s suggestions that I thought, okay, put them into the world. The only one I wrote with other people in mind was ‘Friends in Low Places’. I was doing a spark therapy group as part of my trying to get through my depression. And there were these people that I met there, and some of them were really struggling with loneliness and stuff. I wrote that song kind of thinking that I would share it with them, but then I was too shy to. But now I’ve put it out into the world, much more people are going to hear it than the eight people that are in the group!”
That’s the power of music really. And despite the dark subject matter, that’s an uplifting song, carrying a morning after the storm vibe.
“Yeah, that was the point I was at. I was just trying to get to the other side of this horrible phase of my life, on the cusp of it, really.”
There’s a clarity in that voice that for the likes of Rumer led to commercial success, and Marlody’s work is very filmic for me, offering a soundscape feel in places, with ‘Up’ a perfect example. And it is perfect. I imagine a few of these songs featuring on soundtracks. Is that a possibility somewhere down the line?
“Someone approached me to use some of my songs on a little documentary she’s making about a young lady with bipolar disorder. She came to my Betsey Trotwood gig. She’s directing a documentary film for 4Digital, for online streaming. She wanted to use some of my music for that, which is cool.”
Back to ‘Summer’, is that third person narrative or deeply personal to yourself?
“It’s actually about one of my nieces. I lost my mum as a young adult, so, obviously, it’s got my own emotions in it, but it’s about my niece, whose mum died of cancer when she was just a toddler. It’s part fact, part fiction, but I sort of wrote it for her and her dad, really.”
It seems particularly poignant on the back of the disappearance of the Lancashire mum all over the news at present, one of those familiar sad tales where, as a fellow parent, you wonder just what you would tell your own children if it happened to you.
Meanwhile, mesmerising second single ‘These Doubts’ is a potential hit for me. I’m reminded of that same haunting quality (yep, that phrase again) that accentuated Vince Clarke and Feargal Sharkey’s ‘Never Never’ as The Assembly. It grabs you, reminding me somewhat of Smoke Fairies, the female duo that came to my attention via them featuring on Public Service Broadcasting’s The Race for Space. In their case, there’s a wonderful blend of female harmonies, whereas in Marlody’s case, she’s harmonising with herself.
“Yeah, although now I’ve been doing some live stuff, my friend Nem has been singing with me on some of the songs, singing harmonies and playing a bit of guitar with me. But when I was recording the album, I was doing everything myself, and it didn’t occur to me to ask anyone else to sing with me. I just liked coming up with the harmonies myself.”
There are some fine examples of that partnership, not least a beguiling take of ‘Runaway’ with Nem online via For Folk’s Sake, linked here, And, back to the LP, ‘Wrong’ and ‘Words’ also have those lush harmonies, even a California highway feel in the latter case, a little into Crosby, Stills and Nash territory. And then we have more off-kilter moments like ‘Malevolence’, somewhere between Tori Amos and Mitski for these ears … and a little Kate Bush.
That then segues into the more reflective, other-worldly ‘Up’, on an album that carries a rather enigmatic feel in places, even if she does seem fairly open on talking about the songs. Anyway, what comes first for Marlody – the keyboard, the voice, or is it all in-built within by the time she puts it down on tape for the first time?
“It depends on the song. They kind of come together a lot of the time, but sometimes I’ll be driving in my car and I’ll come up with some little melody I’ll hum to myself. I’ll be like, ‘Right, I’m not going to remember this,’ so I’ll stop the car, record a voice memo, then back home I’ll sit at the piano and see if it turns into a song. And at other times, I’ll just sit at the piano, do some chords and eventually some words will come out. It depends on the song really.”
Did she find her classical music training roots all too rigid, something she grew to despise?
“I just didn’t like the pressure of it all, having to perform at all these recitals and stuff I really hated. I used to get really bad stage fright, would learn everything off by heart but just sometimes sort of freeze. I’ve got this dissociation thing where I’d be playing the piano, then I wasn’t in my body, and suddenly there’d be these hands moving on the keyboard, and I’d be like, ‘Whose hands? What? What’s that?’ Sometimes I’d literally sort of stop, mid-piece, a really horrible experience when you’re in front of an audience. As a kid, I did competitions and recitals for local halls.”
Was there as key turning point, a record she heard or a performance she saw that made her realise this was perhaps what she was destined for after all, despite those negative early experiences?
“After I left school and got with my boyfriend, now my husband, I used to have a little band, making music with friends, like, kind of post-rock stuff I got into, making up our own songs. That’s when I properly left all the classical stuff behind. “
Was that a release for you?
“Yeah, I had to do it when I was at school, to sort of fulfil everybody’s expectations. I didn’t have to do it anymore. We had this little band for a few years, then I stopped playing when I had my first daughter and didn’t play for about a decade. Then, within the last few years, I got given on loan this really nice, upright Steinway piano from a friend whose brother was moving to China, and he wanted somewhere to keep this piano. I went to school with this girl, and she remembered that I played. And that’s when I started playing again.
“It’s not some sort of expensive new one, but it’s properly nice and I’m privileged to have that, my previous one having come from a place called Necessary Furniture, very honky-tonk. And when we got the Steinway one, we took apart the old one, among various recycled objects around the house.”
She cites Low, The National, the afore-mentioned Mitsky, and The Japanese House among her influences. Arguably an all too easy comparison, but how about fellow Kentish performer/singer-songwriter, Kate Bush? For me, there are echoes there in particular on initially sparse but slow-building penultimate number ‘Friends in Low Places’, with ‘The Man With the Child in His Eyes’ springing to mind.
“I think I listened to Kate Bush when I was a kid. I think my mum used to listen to her. That must have gone in to somewhere, although I don’t think I’ve really considered her as an influence, particularly. But quite a few people have said that somethings I do sound reminiscent of Kate Bush. And I’m glad that’s the case.”
But I guess she’s in a genre all her own, ultimately, something perhaps labelled, if anything, like the final number on this compelling debut, ‘Otherly’, its harmonies on the edge of folk but not so easily pinned down. And irrespective of any label, to misquote Lee Mavers on ‘Timeless Melody’ all those years ago, ‘The Marlody chord unwinds me.’
To find out more, and find a copy of the first LP, visit Marlody’s Bandcamp page. You can also follow her progress via Instagram and Twitter, and keep in touch through Skep Wax records via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.