Phil Owen, research assistant at the Arnolfini, is working on a project entitled “where is this voice coming from and who am I when I can hear it?” This question has been following me around since I heard it, and I think its a really useful way to approach music. His interests lie in traditional and folk music, but the question applies to any song with a voice. For me, maybe because I’m primarily a singer, the voice is the first thing I listen to in a song, the accent, the tone, and if I like the voice then I’m much more likely to like the song.
This is where me and Ricky Wilson, current judge voice share an opinion. In the last round of auditions (yes I watched it, yes it was awesome), he berated a contestant for singing country music in an American accent, making his performance ‘unauthentic’. Although this criticism is problematic, on the whole I do agree. I really like it when people sing in their own accents, and the tendency to Americanise is something that, while not the worst crime in the world, is something I’m not all that into. Where is this voice coming from? Is it from the singer or from somewhere else. Its not that either is more valid or authentic than the other, cos the whole notion of validity of authenticity are pretty nuts. Its just you’re perhaps more likely to sing successfully and communicatively using your own voice. Also for me I guess its just a matter of taste.
All of these thoughts were usefully brought together when I listened to SJ Esau‘s new album Exploding Views. To start with SJ Esau is an incredible musician. The arrangements are intricate and satisfying; the whole album is a carefully carved pop symphony and a joy to listen to. For me the album is about identity – who we are in terms of our selves and others. The first single “Perspective Parade” is an incredible exploration of this concept, with a cast of voices stitched together to create a splintering multiplicity. What does it mean to have so many voices in one song, as one voice? The multiplicity actually serves to underline ‘where the voice is coming from’ – its coming from SJ Esau. His lyrics, his melody. But who am I when I can hear it? I could be one of those voices, so I am SJ Esau and I am also me? For me this is super successful art which both reinforces and questions my own sense of identity.
Another awesome aspect of this album is the accompanying videos. I’m super interested in how different forms of art express the same or different things. The video for “Perspective Parade” is a riot and beautifully develops the concepts in the song itself. Its a moving collage of video/photo/paint reflecting the vocal collage. The brass instrumental sections are accompanied by gloriously bright animations which echo the visual music of Oskar Fischinger colour and shape endlessly emanating from a center.
Elsewhere on the album identity is crafted and delivered through Sam Wisternoff’s understated and unaffected vocals. There is a repeated use of space to express interior, abstract concepts. In “Stubborn Step” the idea of drawing lines is metaphorical but visual. The song can be read as about crafting identity through opinion. The way we desperately grasp to our ideas as the definition of self “A stubborn step into a locked room”. There are some really neat twists of language “A sudden reversal of mind, To know I don’t”. My other current favourite song is “Make Space”.
“I was born an only twin,
But someone else came crashing in.
Managed to collect the shards,
But never reconnect the parts.”
The first line is funny, odd and abstract, like a riddle and then the metaphor of people interrupting your life (crashing in) is extended and made concrete. This song is another really nice example of voice. The way Sam sings the repeated refrain ‘logical’ is ace. That sounds like a weird thing to praise but it is. There is an accent but not over pronounced, its just the way he sings the word, shifting slightly when he goes up to higher notes. It also works well juxtaposed with synthesizer and vocoder – the human is contrasted with the machine, the idea of making space for people being particularly human, the emphasis on the logical nature of it perhaps less so? Or more so?
Who am I when I can hear it? I guess I am a collage of lots of different things, all of the things that SJ Esau’s voice reminds me of, all of the references that his words evoke. A combination of SJ Esau and not SJ Esau. Exploding Views is a great example of voice in songwriting, providing something essentially relatable and conceptually crucial underpinning an awesome album. A central point through which to navigate a rich and detailed musical project.