There’s a tendency in the world of music promotion and journalism to look at albums as bodies of work that represent a singular, and often very narrow period in a songwriters life. The reality is that all albums, and in particular debut albums, are often written over months, years, even decades.
This creative journey can manifest itself in a huge variety of aspects within someone’s music; the lyrical content could be a ten-year old heartbreak, the guitar riff might be the furtive stumbling of your teenage technique, while the changes in what you’re listening to will inevitably develop your style. There’s a tendency to look at influence like a record collection, but in reality, owning every White Stripes record doesn’t mean you’ve listened to them in the last decade, or are suddenly going to stick a blues lick into your minimalist electronica.
What’s so exciting about a debut record is that it represents all elements of a musicians work, from their earliest musings to their most adventurous and current ideas, it even serves to signpost where they might be headed next. Savour any musician’s debut album, they’ll never have that much time to develop their sound again.
Sam Airey is a musician who knows a thing or two about taking his time. We first came upon the music Sam makes the best part of a decade ago playing in his adopted hometown of Leeds, and the Anglesey born musician is only this month putting out In Darkened Rooms, his debut album – thankfully it was more than worth the wait. The development of his music is instantly evident; listen to the folk-tinged finger picking of Endless Sea, which first appeared as a B-side back in 2011, and compare it to the driving power-pop of new single Epitaph, and you’re dealing with a musician transformed. This is a songwriter who has made a natural progression, taking in a huge variety of styles and genres, and gradually finding a way to make them his own.
Despite being a long-term resident in land locked Leeds, discussing the inspiration behind the record, Sam has suggested much of it comes from his Welsh roots. It was there as Sam was being inspired by the changing light and scenery of Snowdonia on a writing trip, and there when he thought of the concept of “hiraeth”, a Welsh-language word for which there is no direct translation but likened to “homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed”. In Darkened Rooms is unquestionably a dark record, but punctuated by moments of revelatory brightness, like the titular room, the darkness only serves to emphasise the light.
Today, Sam has shared a mixtape with us, featuring some of the artists who influenced In Darkened Room. Fittingly it’s an eclectic selection from the folk of Fionn Regan and Leonard Cohen, through to the expansive post-rock of Explosions In The Sky – it’s also an absolutely brilliant listen.
1. Wilco – Reservations
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is one of my favourite records, and as a band I find Wilco’s approach to the studio absolutely fascinating. At the heart these are classic-sounding, beautiful songs but there’s also an audible willingness to experiment and challenge the listener that creates an amazing tension to everything. It’s difficult to single out one track but this is the album-closer and it’s totally heartbreaking.
2. Leonard Cohen – Chelsea Hotel #2
My dad got me a Leonard Cohen record when I was 14 or 15. I was obsessed with Jeff Buckley’s “Grace” at the time and I guess it was kind of a gateway into loads of other interesting music. I remember hearing this for the first time and being completely blown away. As a storyteller the man was unparalleled, really – the imagery is so vivid. Lyrically he was just the best, and remains a huge influence. I’m devastated I never saw him play – a total hero.
3. Anais Mitchell – Coming Down
Anais is a friend of mine since playing a few shows together and hanging out a fair bit, but above all that she’s just an incredible songwriter and performer. I could have chosen anything from “Hadestown” simply for its sheer ambitiousness as a record, but the follow up “Young Man in America” is equally great and this track is particularly beautiful. Her sense of melody is a gift and for me she has one of the most unique voices in the folk/roots world.
4. Wye Oak – Take It In
Wye Oak are incredible. I’ve always been blown away by the amount of noise they can make as a two-piece, and their use of dynamics as a band I find really inspiring. It’s something I’ve always tried to bear in mind when playing full band shows – to keep the hushed moments of a solo set, but equally try and take things as loud as possible at times too. Jenn Wasner is a great songwriter and I really like her new project Flock of Dimes too.
5. Explosions in the Sky – Postcard from 1952
For years now I’ve listened to quite a lot of post-rock and I think in some way it has definitely informed both the making of the record and the way we play as a band. EITS have one of the best live shows, but their records are something you can really get lost in. The first few albums are obviously very highly regarded and rightly so, but there are moments on “Take Care…” from 2011 which I think are pretty underrated and this track in particular is really breathtaking.
6. Fionn Regan – Abacus
One of my favourite songs ever. While he’s well respected in a lot of circles, for me he’s still criminally undervalued as a songwriter. His new record is predictably great and I’m sure will open a few doors for him in terms of a new audience, but it’s hard to beat “The End of History” – the perfect debut album in many ways. This is a highlight – it’s short and sweet, nostalgic and nonsensical and just really pretty. It came as both a surprise and no surprise whatsoever that Justin Vernon chose to sample it on the new Bon Iver record. A man of taste.
7. Phosphorescent – Song for Zula
I have long been a fan of Matthew Houck’s work as Phosphorescent, and while this probably feels like an obvious choice, there’s just something completely enchanting about the song and in particular the production. There are shades of “Streets of Philadelphia” to the drum loop and bassline, the string arrangement is gorgeous and I love the way it blends and interacts with the guitar swells. Endlessly listenable.
8. Slowdive – Souvlaki Space Station
Having been too young to be aware of it the first time round, I started really getting into shoegaze in the period leading up to making the record and I think its influence definitely found a way through. While I love the fuzzier MBV-type stuff too, I’m mostly drawn to the slightly cleaner, shimmery end of the spectrum and Slowdive are my favourite band of the lot. Again it’s hard to pick one song from Souvlaki as it is such a perfect record, but I’ll go with this one for being a sonic whirlwind of sheer awesomeness.
9. The National – Runaway
In all honesty, they’re probably my favourite band. “Boxer” is the record I return to most often these days, but for a long while I was totally obsessed with “High Violet”. Runaway is a change of pace from the rest of the album and it really showcases Matt Berninger’s ear for a melody, which I think is actually pretty underrated.
10.Sharon Van Etten – I Love You But I’m Lost
She’s amazing. I’ve seen her play a couple of times but the first was when I played at Latitude festival a few years back, it was completely captivating and one of the best things I saw all weekend. Given how brilliant “Tramp” was (incidentally, Aaron Dessner’s production is great), it’s impressive how she stepped things up again for “Are We There” – it’s self produced, there’s a real confidence in the songwriting, and you can just tell that a lot of heart went into this record. One of my favourites.
11. Sun Kil Moon – Like the River
It’s hard to shy away from the fact that Mark Kozelek is a difficult character in most respects, but if it’s possible to separate the man from the music – his creative output over the years is profoundly prolific. I loved “Benji” but in general I haven’t really fallen for his shift towards the conversational style on the last couple of records, so I mostly listen to Red House Painters and earlier SKM. “April” is one of the ones I return to most, though it’s hard to pick one moment from it.
12. Stars – Your Ex-Lover is Dead
There’s must be something pretty magical about Canada because lots of my favourite bands and artists seem to hail from there – I’m really interested in that scene around Montreal and its output over the years. I’m a huge fan of Broken Social Scene and Feist but this track by Stars always seems to drift in and out of my consciousness. I’m drawn to how wistfully nostalgic it is, the string parts are lush and it just builds really nicely throughout.
In Darkened Rooms is out May 26th via Hide & Seek Records. Click HERE for further information on Sam Airey.