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.