“The human being is a self-propelled automaton entirely under the control of external influences. Wilful and predetermined though they appear, his actions are governed not from within, but from without. He is like a float tossed about by the waves of a turbulent sea.”
Whether we’re talking songwriters, musicians or even journalists, we’re all essentially a combination of the person inside and all the external influences that change the fabric of our being. Would we be writing this article if we’d not grown up on a steady diet of The Kinks and the blues? Would this site exist if we hadn’t discovered The National or Hope Of The States? Would we write the way we do without Amanda Petrusich, Simon Reynolds, Stuart Maconie and the hundreds of other brilliant music journalists we never even noticed the name of?
The answer to all those questions is of course, we don’t know. One of the great joys of influences is that we rarely notice them happening. Equally you can trace the lineage of everyone back to whoever influenced them; to our knowledge we’ve never read a single piece by Lester Bangs or Lillian Roxon, but how did they influence our influences and as such influence us – it’s impossible to ever know.
Take every songwriter cited as being influenced by Bob Dylan, how many of them discovered Bob directly, and how many found him through the likes of Wilco or Ryan Adams. How much did Bob Dylan create himself, and how much did he borrow from Woody Guthrie, Chuck Berry or even Jack Kerouac. It is nearly impossible to trace music back in this fashion, since people began to sing, people began to imitate, and influence began. Yet pointless as it might be, it’s always intriguing to try to piece together just what made an artist sound the way they do.
One artist who we have attempted to piece together is Belfast’s Isobel Anderson. A musician who cites the influences of the jagged white cliffs of South East England’s coastline and Bon Iver in equal measure. Isobel’s sound seems to be simultaneously rooted in nature and the recording studio. Isobel’s latest offering, Chalk/Flint is set for release in June, after successfully crowd funding its recording via Pledge Music.
The album marks something of a shift in Isobel’s songwriting; a result as much as anything of a prolonged bout of tendinitis, which forced her to reinvent her writing style. As she explains, “I couldn’t use my guitar or a computer for a while. I had to write all the songs in my head, and I’d hold them there for weeks. When my wrist got better, I started writing on the computer, then I gave the songs their flesh”.
The resulting album, Isobel’s fourth record, is her most intriguing to date, perhaps because of that change in songwriting method. Falling back on her background in textural soundscaping, Isobel has a PhD in Sound Art, Chalk/Flint pushes dense instrumentation and clever vocal harmonies to the fore, with often spectacular results. This was showcased in recent single Flint Shingle. A track Isobel describes as, “sort of a love song, if only with a nostalgic, almost regretful, sentiment”. The track is a gorgeous tapestry of sonic textures, interweaving vocal lines sit atop complex layers of guitars, bowed strings, plucked violins – the whole thing building to a percussion-less cacophony of ideas. It’s intense and yet strangely soothing, bringing to mind the likes of Marika Hackman or Peter Broderick, and it suggests Chalk/Flint could be a very special record.
Today Isobel has been kind enough to put together a mixtape featuring some of her biggest influences from Nina Simone through to Jeff Buckley, which you can check out below.
1. Nina Simone’s cover of ‘Suzanne’
I first heard this song when I was about 12 years old and was looking through my parent’s music collection. I found a completely unmarked mixtape filled with some of the best music I had ever heard, but I had no idea who I was listening to. One of the tracks I later found out was Nina Simone’s cover of ‘Suzanne’. It was only then I realised that I had been listening to a woman. But apart from this revelation, this cover of Leonard Cohen’s classic has such a magical and curious tone. Now when I listen to it, it always reminds me of that beautiful feeling when you discover music that you love but you don’t quite understand yet.
2. Jeff Buckley – Lilac Wine
All of Jeff Buckley’s music has profoundly touched me, especially when I discovered it in my first year of university. But this track hits me that little bit harder than the others. I think it’s because it has such a delicacy, amidst so much chaos and confusion. Jeff Buckley had a knack for that. He interweaves light and dark, intimacy and distance so that these seemingly disparate qualities are actually one and of the same. So when I hear this track, it truly echoes human experience.
3. Fairport Convention – Autopsy
I first heard Sandy Denny’s voice in Groove Armada’s track ‘Remember’, where they sample a few lines from ‘Autopsy’. I had never heard a voice as beautiful before. I still really can’t think of anyone who has surpassed her since, and she really set the bar for me and my own vocal performance. So, I tried to track down the original song that Groove Armada sampled, which took a while, but when I found it, it became one of my favourite songs of all time. The tracks goes in and out of different time signatures, and simmers with rich bass and guitar lines, but my favourite part is the breakdown which has such a lush groove and Sandy Denny’s voice soaring over the top.
4.Portishead – The Rip
I am a massive fan of Portishead in general. Their first album ‘Dummy’ was such a profound influence on my understanding of music. Hearing their combination of dark hip hop beats, samples and Beth Orton’s delicate but deliberate vocals opened up a new musical palette for me. But I chose this track because it steps into some really nice experimental music territory. Just small things like the way they intersplice samples of Orton’s voice amidst the rest of the music so that it becomes almost a new instrument creates slightly off-centre atmospheres. I also love how ambiguous Orton’s central character, who “walks in the room” is. It’s a delicious song all round.
5. Laurie Anderson – O Superman
I first heard this when I was doing my undergrad in Music at Dartington College of Arts and it sparked a real interest in experimental vocal music for me, and widened my understanding of how dynamic the voice can be. I love how she moves in and out of speaking and singing and of course her use of the vocoder on her voice. She presents such a strange almost post-apocalyptic world. It gave me so much more confidence to explore characters other than myself within my music.
Chalk/Flint is out June 2nd. Click HERE for more information on Isobel Anderson.