Two artists I’ve seen play before, in the same venue, at different gigs, in 1998 and 2001 – half a lifetime ago.
Astrid Williamson I saw, billed only as Astrid, supporting the Unbelievable Truth at UCL’s Bloomsbury Theatre. I was, I guess, 16. I’m 34 now. I’ve written about my teenage enthusiasm for the Unbelievable Truth’s first album before; it took me up to London in the company of two schoolfriends on a Sunday night to the university I hoped to be attending 18 months later to see my first sit-down concert (as opposed to the stand-up-and-bounce-around sort of show – I’d been to several of those).
In the intervening years, I’d not thought often about Astrid Williamson, whose music struck me as pleasant but unremarkable. Back then, her label seemed to be hoping that a mix of adult-oriented songwriting with gentle beats would appeal to the Beth Orton fans. It was too limited a market, probably; it didn’t happen. Her days of being pitched to a pop audience ended.
Last night she played nothing that could really be construed as a pop song, though the market dictates that she release singles and try to get airplay. She mentioned some success she’s having with 6 Music, and the song she said is going to be her next single, Scattered, was the highlight of the set for me: a soulful piano ballad in 6/8 time with, in its recorded version, an emotionally raw vocal. I can’t see it getting much daytime airplay (frankly it’s much too raw vocally; naked to the point where the listener will turn away if unable to embrace it), but it’s a fine piece of writing, the best thing I’ve heard by her.
Headliner Kathryn Williams was promoting Little Black Numbers – her second album, and the one that brought her to wide attention through a Mercury Music Prize nomination – the last time I saw her play. Not a comfortable performer back then, she talked so much between songs that she ran out of time to get to everything on her set list. These days she’s still apt to chat nervously between songs, but in all other ways is a more accomplished performer. In the last few years she’s regained her early-career form after a few years of drift in the mid-noughties, a period unrepresented in her set on Friday; instead it was heavy on songs from Crown Electric and new album Hypoxia, with a couple of very old songs from Dog Leap Stairs and Little Black Numbers.
Hypoxia, is the result of a commission from New Writing North to write some songs inspired by Sylvia Plath, and on the evidence of those she played live, it’s a strong record, full of tangled and frequently dark emotions. Mirrors, which saw Williams, layering vocals with a loop pedal, is one of the finest songs she’s yet written. Cuckoo, a sort of centrepiece song for the record, written from the point of view of Plath’s mother, was particular affecting, although the shouty thing she did midway through the song was a little distracting (it felt too much like a conscious piece of performance to me).
What’s great from the perspective of this fan, though, is to see her taking risks, expanding her palette emotionally, musically and lyrically. I drifted away from Williams’s music in around 2003, and in retrospect it seems a response to a period in her work where she’d stopped moving forward. As I wrote here, Little Black Numbers saw a lot of the rough edges of Dog Leap Stairs being smoothed away, and this coupled with an over-reliance on stock chord sequences tended to make much of her music sound and feel similar. Over the course of Old Low Light, Relations and Over Fly Over, the lack of variation, risk and challenge in her music became palpable.
Possibly she felt the same, as after Leave to Remain (for me the third in a sequence of rather underwhelming records; fourth, if you count covers album Relations) she found new collaborators and left her long-time band behind. Which was tough on Laura Reid and David Scott (her rather excellent former cellist and guitarist), but Neil MacColl, Ed Harcourt and Adrian Utley seem, in their different ways, to have inspired her to reach beyond the comfortable and easy. Hypoxia is extremely uneasy, and reminds you that it was only familiarity that has made Dog Leap Stairs seem familiar and comfortable to me; when I was 16 or 17, it seemed boldly adult and rather unknowable, full of emotions I had no experience of, or even a name for.
I left the gig feeling like Williams’s last two albums are probably the best work she’s ever done, and that the next one may be even better. It was a lovely, intimate gig in a beautiful venue (St Bartholomew’s Church, Sydenham), and Sydenham Arts did a fantastic job bringing it all together.