Tag Archives: Little Black Numbers

Kathryn Williams/Astrid Williamson @ Sydenham Arts, 15/04/16

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.

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Dog Leap Stairs – Kathryn Williams

For any artist who sticks around for a while, record-making gets to be routine after a time. Just like anything else. But debut records aren’t routine by definition. Their stories usually stand out a little. So it is with Kathryn Williams’ Dog Leap Stairs, which had me spellbound for a year or so after its release in 1999.

With the British music press then briefly focused on a trend they dubbed the ‘new acoustic movement’ (NAM), it was a good year to be a singer-songwriter putting out a debut, so Williams’ timing was right, but the fact that the artists who got national-press exposure of the back of NAM were largely horrible helped, too.

The story behind Dog Leap Stairs has been told often, so let’s get it out the way quickly. It was reportedly recorded for £80, and was released on Williams’ own Caw label. She worked in a greengrocer’s shop, a baby-wear shop and as a cleaner to make ends meet in a pre-minimum wage world. She gained precious exposure through a Nick Drake tribute concert at the South Bank, by the clever ruse of not destroying the song she covered (Saturday Sun), and was the subject of a laudatory write-up and interview in The Times from Caitlin Moran, which is how I, and I suspect much of her early audience, came to hear of her.

A new singer-songwriter with the right influences would have been interesting to me, but it was the DIY nature of her career and her lo-fi recording methods that really got my attention. As a 17-year-old aspiring musician who was cynical about the music industry and his own chances of making a successful living within it, anyone who managed to bypass the industry and attract attention on their own terms was an example to me, a hero even. So I was duly smitten with Dog Leap Stairs.

Fifteen years later, it has lost some of its magic for me. I’d love to be able to claim it’s a masterpiece, and its relative modernity wouldn’t be a barrier to that: I claimed precisely that for Nina Nastasia’s Dogs a couple of weeks ago on this blog. It’s just that Dog Leap Stairs feels too insubstantial for that. It’s only half an hour, and 10 songs, long, but identifying weaker tracks (Night Came, What am I Doing Here?, Lydia) is very possible, and occasionally the lo-fi nature of the recording is double-edged: while Handy benefits from its lack of polish, and you feel like you’re in the room with Williams as she sings to you, Leazes Park, creepy as it is, would have benefited from its drums being plainly audible, rather than an indistinct, barely perceptible background presence.

So why am I talking about a record that I seem to have a lot of reservations about? Well, for its flaws, it was a significant gateway to other artists. But, furthermore, I do think it’s a strong, distinctive, very likeable album.

It has a more pleasing overall shape than Williams’ others by virtue of a couple of outlier songs that don’t share her usual chord sequences (the reliance on simple C/F/G- and D/G/C-type chord sequences that crept in on second album Little Black Numbers has been a major limiting factor on her songs, surprisingly so for an acknowledged fan of Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and Kurt Cobain, all of whom, in their different ways, expanded the vocabulary of chords and progressions in pop music), or familiar patterns in their tunes. Someone coming to Dog Leap Stairs after having heard Little Black Numbers and third album Old Low Light would likely be surprised not by the album’s lack of sonic clarity, but by the sometimes spiky, unconventional songwriting of Something Like That and the aforementioned Leazes Park.

It’s the last four songs that elevate Dog Leap Stairs above Williams’ other work, and way above the mulch which came out at the same time (the likes of Starsailor and David Gray). Stripped of the fake reverb in which Night Came almost drowns, with Wiliams’ fingerpicking unsteady and somewhat unsure, her voice sometimes dropping into near inaudibility, Handy has an extraordinary presence. Dog Without Wings, meanwhile, is as graceful song about love going wrong as you’re likely to hear; a song that manages the feat of incorporating a glockenspiel without sounding twee.

Fade is the album’s best song, and was the album’s ‘push’ track. Produced, like Leazes Park, by PJ Harvey collaborator Head (as a demo for a record label who wanted to sign her; a good reason not to put too much faith in the ‘recorded for £80’ legend), Fade has Dog Leap Stairs’ most fleshed-out arrangement, with jazzy drums and piano, and a beautiful, sighing chord sequence in the verses (Cmaj7, Em, B7, Em), but once again the lyric is elliptical and sometimes sinister: ‘there’s nothing more sexy than watching someone who doesn’t know their being watched’, Williams concludes at the end of the second verse. The vocal is uncertain, sometimes off key, but I doubt she could deliver a more resonant, haunting one today, no matter how much more conventionally strong her voice has become in the last fifteen years.

The album concludes with a live version of Madmen and Maniacs, an open and vulnerable recording of a song that is itself a plea for openness and vulnerability. It’s a lovely end to the album, the small burst of applause surprising on this most introspective and solitary-sounding record.

It seems extremely unlikely that Uncut’s prediction, ‘In 30 years’ time they’ll be cooing over Dog Leap Stairs with the reverence currently afforded to Nick Drake’s albums’, will come to pass. But now, after confident-sounding single Heart Shaped Stone made the BBC Radio 2 B list in late 2013, is a good time to remember the songwriter Williams started out as, and that her journey, which has in truth been disappointing to this early fan, isn’t over yet and may still lead somewhere exceptional.

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Kathryn Wiliams