Flat Roof House
Flat Roof House is available at:
5th June, 2016
The album, Exquisitely Hopeless, is available via:
This Is the News Today
Flat Roof House
I Say a Little Prayer
…Travelling Inside and Travelling Out
To Live In the Moon
28th October, 2016
ONE of the things that linger in my mind as we approach…
the coming year is how many great solo artists have emerged. I will come to looking at my featured artist soon, but before I do, I wanted to look at the female solo sector – and why they are outranking their male counterparts – a little about ‘unique’, expected sounds and the emotions music provoke. It is worth (first) addressing the sort of artists that have defined this year. I have mentioned, with repeated fervency, just how much tragedy and loss we have encountered in 2016. Titans like David Bowie and Leonard Cohen have left us in addition to some other musical stalwarts. That is not to say 2016 has been a cursed year – it was always probable we’d lose a few great musicians given age and prolificacy of illnesses like cancer – but it seems rather unfair. What has been born out of this black velvet movement is a need for celebration and reflectiveness. I hear many already looking ahead to next year and the sort of artist they will be investigating. Over the past few days, I have completed my compendium of musicians I feel will be prominently shining in 2017. Whether you call is ‘Ones to Watch’ or something else: it has been interesting collating the names and putting everyone together. What I found, and as I did last year, the majority of my tips are female. This is not a reaction to imbalances in the industry – men getting more money and focus – or reverse-sexism: this is a truthful outlay of the strongest artists we have in the world right now. The fact the majority of them are women is actually a positive thing. Too long, and not long ago, male-only bands were the toast of the media world.
You’d often see these end-of-year lists and read nothing but male bands being lauded and elevated to the status of kings. I suppose the proliferation of bands at the time – Artic Monkeys, Foo Fighters etc. – first of all started the rush of male band but also directed critical minds. Over the past couple of years, there has been a change in the wind. I am seeing more female artist come into focus and being proffered by the mainstream media. Given the shift of tastes and sounds – the band market taking a bit of a dip – seeing female artists being given their due is encouraging and heartening. There is, as I’m sure they’d agree, a long way to go to redressing the imbalance and a gender-blind scene being created. Years ago, around the time male bands were ruling, I was seeing a lot of sexism and injustice towards female artists. I am not suggesting that has been eradicated but things are changing. Maybe there is that determination and resolve to be noticed: the women of music are making big indents than the boys. A lot of this comes down to the solo market – there are far fewer female bands than male; there are more mixed-gender bands – and the sort of sounds being proffered. It is hardly a surprise artists like Billie Marten – the final time I shall mention her this year – and Laura Marling feature on my end-of-year lists. It is also not a shock to find so many other female artists feature highly – innovation, passion and talent reigning proud and strong. Helene Greenwood fits into my argument superbly and prompts other topics too. She is one of those musicians that has a Marling-esque quality: the consistency and innovation; the stunning delivery and exceptional lyrics. It is not going to be long until Greenwood transcends into the mainstream and starts getting big recognition. As she says herself (on the Facebook biography) she writes everything from Lynchian-Utopian contradiction to ‘60s-influenced gangster scores; Japanese soundscapes and odd, incongruous meshing of genres. Having been recording music since studying at Stanford University – and before that one imagines – I have seen her grow and blossom into one of the most individual, strong songwriters in our midst. I have explained how female songwriters are taking charge and I have a couple of theories.
For a start, there is – among them – an innate sense of ambition and experimentation. I am not saying male artists lack that sense of chemistry – James Blake is someone who does it in spades – but the female artists seem more daring and skilful when it comes to subverting expectations and pushing through boundaries. Also, one gets something more captivating and beautiful – again, the boys can bring this to the party when they feel like it. This is all distilled marvellously inside Greenwood’s music. She is someone who creates her own mini-universes and takes the listener into strange and magical realms. At every step, there is a realism and sense of tangibility to the music. It is never as out-there and strange as that but is never completely grounded and conventional. In a sense, Greenwood reminds me of American singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom. Here is someone whose writing blends quirky and honest: a talent who can bare her soul savagely but elevate the consciousness into a far-off, safe world filled with all manner of characters and situations. Greenwood has that flair and sense of endeavour; her compositions mic Folk, Classical; Pop and so many different strands. At no point do you get a sense of an artist following the pack of replicating anyone else. Helene Greenwood is her own woman and a songwriter who is impossible to classify. I feel one of the things lacking from this year’s best is that sense of magic and strange. You do not find many artists that blend genres and push the envelope readily. The more traditional musicians have created sensational work and are rightly being celebrated. I briefly mentioned Laura Marling – who we will hear more of when her new album is released in March – but someone who touches the surface of what I am saying. She can create some truly sensational music that is hard to define and has a dizzying, life-affirming quality.
That is something we do not often find in music: sounds that create escapism and enrich the senses; provoke serious reaction and take the imagination somewhere special. Too many musicians are so direct and unnuanced it is hard to rev the senses through the gears and get any sort of speed going. Talking about relationships and sex – often rather animal-like and carnally – is not something that mandates repeated listens and any thorough investigation. There is still that prolificacy of relationship-mentioning songs and issues of sex. Few songwriters cast away from those shores and explore something more original, nourishing and enriching. That is a shame because music, some sectors of it anyway, are in danger of stagnation and extinction. Helene Greenwood is someone who is doing things her own way, and in the process, inspiring others. Her music digs deep and gets the listener thinking and imagining. There are songs that look at love but never in a crude and simplistic way. An imaginative and intelligent songwriter inspired by more honest, charming themes: all this is funnelled into her beautiful and immersing work. I am sure we will be hearing more from Greenwood into next year and more tour dates for sure. Her current album, Exquisitely Hopeless, has been picking up positive reviews and amazing critics. It is that hard-to-define sound and colourful songwriting that has compelled so many people. Across the album, you get the sense of a woman not only discovering herself but urging the listener to search themselves and think more deeply about the world around them. Perhaps that is me over-interpreting but that’s the feeling I got. I wanted to focus on Flat Roof House – a song that she recorded a little while ago – as I feel it best represents the album and leaves the biggest impression in the mind. I am sure Greenwood will be making strides in 2017 and building on the success she has accrued. That will be exciting to see and discovering just how far she can go.
In terms of assessing how far Greenwood has come as a musician, one must look to the past. The fact Exquisitely Hopeless is her first, full work is not to say she has been idle for the last few years. Greenwood has been busy since studying in California and recording music for a long time. Songs that feature on her album have been in gestation for a while. I have known about her for a long time and know she is a prolific musician that should not be overlooked. Exquisitely Hopeless is the best way to judge and assess Greenwood as an artist and what she is about. Throughout the eleven tracks, you get a real sense of a young woman who likes to watch the world go by and documents that like no other. One imagines her people-watching in cafés and parks; casting her mind to new worlds and transposing the people in it. It is clear Greenwood has a rich imagination but she is never too flighty or surreal. With every song, you get that heartbeat of realism and relatability: a woman who has real emotions and concerns but does not portray them in any obvious and predictable way. That is what separates her from her peers: that ability to transcend expectations and blend the extraordinary with the ordinary. I feel we will hear a lot more from her in the coming years and some terrific albums. I have never seen her perform live but can imagine it is quite an unforgettable experience. More of next year will see me interview musicians and really getting into their mind – seeing what makes them tick and learning more about them. Helene Greenwood’s world is one I want to become accustomed to and learn more about. She is an enigmatic and intriguing human whose music is among the most arresting and memorable I have heard in a long while. Anyone new to Helene Greenwood should immerse themselves in Exquisitely Hopeless and its myriad themes. It is dreamy and floating; raw and open and times but never too wide-reaching and unfocused. Everything is anchored by an incredible vocal and authoritative command; the compositions always layered and gorgeous – a musician who you are loathed to compare with anyone else. I have mentioned artists like Joanna Newsom and Laura Marling: perhaps there is a smidge of both within Greenwood. That said, she is someone whose lyrics and stories are inherently her own and immune from easy categorisation and assessment.
Initial seconds of Flat Roof House put the vocal at the centre. There is little waltz of seduction: the song gets underway and the heroine is in view. Almost child-like in its purity and sound, the vocal has a sweetness and sincerity that is filled with innocence and hope. You are imagining the scenes unfold and following what Greenwood is singing about. There are highways “zooming past” – something the heroine can hear at night – and you imagine a rather busy, built-up scene of traffic and sound. In a way, there is a romance to the words. Not necessarily documenting pollution and stress: there is a feeling of life happening around her and a simple, honest life. One imagines, when hearing about the flat roof house, it is about someone else rather than the heroine. Perhaps a friend or character of the imagination; one envisions a simple girl lying by white kitchen goods – as Greenwood sings – and wondering whether it is a dream from yesterday. There is an oblique, dream-like quality to the lyrics that make you wonder what is being talked about. You see the girl in the house – rather honest and traditional – hearing the traffic race by and trying to find solace. The detail and mention of kitchenware could make it, in lesser hands, perfunctory and run-of-the-mill. Greenwood laces her words with something quite extraordinary. It is hard to put it into words but that voice is compelling and sensational. The compositional ‘interlude’ matches zooming, spacey electronics with more composed, balletic piano. There is that mix of gravity-defying and level-headed: blending supremely and creating a rhapsody of beauty and possibility. In a way, the composition best represents the contradictions and complexities of the lyrics. On the one hand, you get traffic noises and nods but there is an oddity and far-off quality that could represent dreaming and the imagination taking flight.
The “Milky white skin” and “Thousand possibilities” that arrive in the next verse bring about new interpretations and thoughts. Greenwood’s vocals – and composition in fact – are inspired by Japan and Japanese music. Her delivery has that calm and unique delivery one would hear from a Japanese artist. You get sounds of the Far East in the composition and vocal – quite still and slow but graced with tenderness and eccentricity. Greenwood’s voice is pure and precise; her words are pronounced with the utmost care in order to ensure they hit the mark. It is unusual hearing an artist with such an expressive and pin-sharp voice. In terms of the lyrics, you wonder what is happening in this segment. We have stepped fully away from domesticity and the ordinariness of life and have transcended somewhere more scintillating, unexpected and magical. The song’s heroine is lying on the floor – or floating in the atmosphere – and letting her mind conspire. I have been loathed to look at any interpretations about the song (Greenwood explaining its origins) as the words provoke different reactions and explanations. These possibilities have “Captured my breath” – the narrative seems to shift to first-person and be about the heroine. Flat Roof House keeps you compelled and guessing; the music and vocals so singular and enticing. At times, one gets glimmers of Icelandic queen Björk and her music. That same sort of delivery and intense (but safe) world where nothing is normal and anything is possible. It would be remiss of me not to mention that legend but incongruous to compare the two directly. Greenwood is her own musician and employs little touches of other artists. In fact, it is that cuisine fusion of Japanese and Icelandic (Súrir hrútspungar sushi, perhaps?!) that makes the song so hard to nail. At every stage, you are captivated by the beauty and softness – Greenwood the narrator and guide who takes somewhere safe and secure.
In a way, the song is like a recollection of past times and childhood memories, perhaps. Having a flat roof house where everyone has a room; there was simplicity to life and a purer time. Against the patterning, tribe beats and shivering, opulent string you ensconce yourself in the scene and spectate. It is hard to refute the majesty and divinity of the voice – something that continues to amaze and impress at every stage. There is a sparsity to Flat Roof House that makes the song more powerful. You are left to paint your own pictures and come to your own conclusions. Songs that provoke that are rare but rarer still are tracks that float into the imagination and calm the senses. In the final minute, you get the conclusion and wrap up. The voice takes a step back and you are left to swim in the electronics and strands; the whispers and echoes. At no point are you anything less than hooked and spellbound. Despite there being few words, Flat Roof House keeps you coming back with its unexpectedness and strange beauty. At the heart of the song is a reality: one that is special to the heroine and one we can all relate to. Even if you do not fully immerse yourself in the song and relate to the sentiments; there is enough beauty and refined grace – plenty of emotion and passion to get you involved. It is that sense of involvement and activity that makes the song so special. Unable to idly sit back, you spend the closing moments assessing what has come before and continuing to follow the story through. First thoughts looked at a fictional heroine who was in her simple house listening to traffic. That changed to ideals of our heroine casting her mind back to times at the house – where there were possibilities in life and everything was ahead of her. Upon further study, I got the feeling of a woman looking back to when she was young and the simple innocence of the time. Perhaps that view will change again but Flat Roof House never stops with its intrigue and fascination. A stunning song from Helene Greenwood that is a pretty good starting point when listening to Exquisitely Hopeless. That album is rich with bounty and marvelousness. One marvels at every song and casts themselves in Helene Greenwood’s world. Flat Roof House is that seraphic gem that keeps on shining and demonstrates what a talent Greenwood is.
I started by looking at Greenwood in the context of the modern scene. There has been a real surge of female artists doing some extraordinary things. This year has seen a lot of tragedy and stress and we are starting to rebuild and evaluate at the moment. Given the unusualness and extremism of 2016, it is understandable many people are willing to put it to bed and forget about it. It is true we can do without the tragedy and death that has been stalking the landscape – and the political insanity – but we cannot overlook just how many great musicians have laid down markers this year. In addition to the mainstream artists and their work: a whole host of new artists are doing great work and showing they can rub shoulders with the best of them. I have been hearing a lot of quality but finding the female artists are making the biggest impact. I am not sure what the reason and rationale is but I suspect there is a general move against the samey, predictable music that has been stalking the landscape for a few years. You still have those female acts – who shall remain anonymous – who are producing sexualised, relationship-heavy songs that are more boring than titillating. Even if they were the latter, you do not want to hear that for too long – the brain starts to rot and the imagination is almost forced into hibernation. Against this rather ill and primaeval movement is a counter-culture of sophisticated, intelligent music.
I have mentioned examples like Laura Marling but Helene Greenwood represents what I am talking about. I feel, is she were male, she would not have been able to create music quite like this It sounds rather odd but there is something innately beautiful, sensual and, almost maternal, unfolds. Among the men of music, I have been impressed by everyone from Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool is my album of the year and James Blake; Michael Kiwanuka and Jamie T – but have the most affection and time for female musicians. The girls have been leading the way: this is especially true when you listen to the new/underground musicians of the moment. Greenwood is an individual and special talent who is not following the herd and producing the same old music about the same old things. You get familiarity and relatability but there is that magical quality and entrance. That is in no small part down to the vocal-and-composition coupling that runs riot throughout Exquisitely Hopeless. Ripples and Dream Horses have been available for a short time and invested with something quite transcendent and mind-altering. It is that voice that elevates the songs and puts the words (at times relatable at others mystical) right into the brain. Flat Roof House is the standout and a song, I feel, best represents the album. Of course, the entire work is brimming with quality and beauty – many critics have noted that – but you get the biggest hit on Flat Roof House. I am not sure how Greenwood will capitalise on Exquisitely Hopeless into next year but feel there will be more work and perhaps another album. I have been thoroughly impressed by her album and it is one of the most interesting and detailed I have heard all year.
A stunning and busy work that introduces us to a range of characters and situations – just what we need in music right now. At times, one or two of the songs sound alike, but the abiding impression is of an album perfectly balanced and immensely impressive. The production is rich and polished – without being too so – but it is Greenwood’s assured and intelligent songwriting that stands proudest. Throw in a special and captivating voice and you have one of the best artists (and albums) currently operating in music. We need music that provokes hidden emotions and takes us somewhere special. A lot of the time, when hearing the mainstream’s best, you get some of those emotions uncovered. Whether relief, release or joy: musicians that can enrich and lift a listener is to be congratulated and encouraged. Too often musicians go for the gut and are incapable of producing anything with depth and nuance. Those that go the extra mile and really do something amazing are those we should be concentrating on. I urge you to get involved with Helene Greenwood and a musician with a definite future. I am not sure what her touring schedule looks like next year but she is likely to be performing around London and further afield. She has international quality and that demand should follow: an artist that could hold court around Europe and make a name for herself there. Exquisitely Hopeless is certainly exquisite but its author is far from hopeless. In fact, it that contradiction (in the title) that is reflected in the music. You get a sense of someone discovering themselves and pouring her heart out – a sense of realism and honesty – but that otherworldly effectiveness and stun. Make sure you get the album and investigate it thoroughly. If you are feeling like many out there – exhausted and confused by this year – Helene Greenwood is the person who can banish those bad memories and replace them with something purer and more positive. I have been listening to her album for a few days now and finding new insight and nuance every time I do. It is Flat Roof House that reverberates loudest and creates the biggest reaction in me. After a rather fraught and tempestuous year, it is such a relief…
HELENE Greenwood is among us.
Follow Helene Greenwood