On the North York Moors

Brigid Mae Power

Sat 17 December 2016 - 19.30

Our Christmas show this year features the dazzling, dreamlike soundscapes of Irish singer-songwriter Brigid Mae Power whose eponymous Tompkins Square debut album – recorded with Oregon’s Peter Broderick - has drawn comparisons with MARY MARGARET O’HARA, ANGEL OLSEN, ELIZABETH FRASER and TIM BUCKLEY, receiving rave reviews in UNCUT (9/10 – ‘A Masterpiece’), The Guardian (4*), MOJO (4*) and The Irish Times (4*).


Born in London to a big Irish family, Brigid moved to Galway when she was twelve years old and it was there that she began to learn her craft. Now back in England she’s sharing stages with the likes of Ryley Walker, Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo, Alasdair Roberts and Richard Dawson, playing guitar, accordion, baritone ukulele, piano and harmonium.


Kitty Empire writes of Power in The Observer:


We don’t know what multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter Brigid Mae Power has been through. As she is a relative newcomer, there are scant biographical pegs on which to hang this extraordinary, reverberating album, so full of feeling: born in London, raised in Galway, spent time in New York. Power is the sole parent of a young son. She’s heard Joni Mitchell and John Fahey too.


The specifics of Power’s plot aren’t essential to the appreciation of this spacious record, recorded in Oregon in the studio of artist/producer Peter Broderick; merely an appreciation of what mantrically strummed guitars, pianos, hovering strings, pump organs and a cupboardful of studio textures can do alongside a startling voice, at once fluttery and steadfast, that has come out the other side of something, touching transcendence on the way.


Whatever went down, the song titles tell of the need for succour – received and dispensed. Let Me Hold You Through This finds that pump organ lending wheezing polyphony to a song that sounds like a hymn with a near eastern bent. There’s a hint of PJ Harvey here in the pump organ and in the high notes. “I’ll have to leave you again,” Power promises, “but this time I’ll make sure you’re taken care of well.” You wonder, with a shudder, what happened the last time she left.


One of the simpler piano tunes, Looking at You in a Photo, finds Power contrasting her child’s smile with her own false one, not fooling him. “There were some people around us at the time who weren’t for us, although they claimed to be,” she remembers, her lyrical piano saying as much as her words.


Even more intriguing are the songs that go beyond quietly epic reportage into a kind of otherworldly state, in which Power’s own selfhood comes under attack – something of an occupational hazard in intense relationships, not least motherhood. I Left Myself for a While opens with the clatter of someone pressing “play” in a haunted house. Power’s voice is wordless for the first few bars, exuding against a heavily strummed guitar. She feels herself “watered down”, dissociated; she has “left herself”. On Sometimes, another piano and voice meditation, she wants to “collapse into” someone else.


Power invokes the elements, either in contrast to internal weather or in sympathy with it. The album’s opening track, It’s Clearing Now, a folk raga, clocks in at just under eight minutes of lush, simmering emotion. “It’s clearing now,” sings Power.


Much as cats purr to comfort themselves, singer-songwriters often write themselves out of their distress. Their gift to the rest of us is an acknowledgment of internal tsunamis having raged, and the reassurance that the singer is still here to tell the tale.


Pitchfork says of her: Brigid Mae Power is a songwriter from Galway, Ireland, a city famous for its bay, enclosed on three sides by green and white cliffs. For her self-titled album on Tompkins Square, she recorded with Peter Broderick in Oregon. It fits: her voice demands the space of such a vast, open coastline. On “It's Clearing Now”, Power echoes the wayward yet grounded reach of Mary Margaret O'Hara or Angel Olsen circa Half Way Home—warbling, gauche, meditative, utterly in control over its eight doomy, languid minutes.


She distills a hard-won peace in very few words, but stretches each one out and turns it over in her mouth as if wanting to savour every moment of her revelation. “The sea on the beach/ The sun falling down over the sea/ I cling to these beautiful things,” she sings, though you could read those words 100 times in the time it takes her to sing them. Despite the scope of her voice, she holds a resolutely steady pace, drawing out her song's heavy natural intensity.


Power strums her rich, loose acoustic guitar with the unyielding rhythm of the tide's slow lap, as the elements swarm around her. Strings spill over from mirage-like shimmer into an overpowering heatwave, and rugged winds and cavernous depths emerge, turning It's Clearing Now into a torch song from the scorched landscape of Earth's The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull, or Grails' Burning Off Impurities. By the end, whatever storm she had been facing has gone—presumably because the one singing has scared it away.”


John Mulvey, editor of UNCUT, writes: In early 1993, the 4AD label released a boxset dedicated to their in-house supergroup of sorts, This Mortal Coil. Within its exquisite art-goth packaging sat four CDs: the first three albums by the band plus a compilation, which corralled all the original versions of songs they’d covered. That disc, featuring Gene Clark, Chris Bell, Tim Buckley and Pearls Before Swine among others, was an exceptional act of curation by 4AD founder Ivo Watts-Russell. It presented a strand of classic singer-songwriters whose work was at once personal and other-worldly, their music ready to be remade as something that would conform to the label’s ethereal brand identity. Here, the rawest human emotions could be aestheticised, with bespoke “Filigree And Shadow”, and without losing any of their visceral impact.


Brigid Mae Power, a remarkable new artist from Ireland, is not much familiar with most of that canon; she has only recently heard Mary Margaret O’Hara, a very useful point of reference. But as soon as her first album for Tompkins Square begins, Power seems to be instinctually channelling that heritage. “I’d cling to these beautiful things, immerse myself in their feelings,” she sings rapturously and, though she’s specifically referring to “the seaweed on the beach, the sun falling down over the sea,” it feels like she could just as easily be invoking a pantheon of spectral influence. The song is called “It’s Clearing Now”, built around the most indolent of acoustic strums, a string arrangement that blurs the horizon like heat haze, and Power’s ineffably graceful, sometimes wordless, ululations. It manages to recall both Elizabeth Fraser and Tim Buckley, while never sounding much like the point they historically intersect – This Mortal Coil’s version of “Song To The Siren”. It’s also the sort of piece that encourages dazzled hyperbole: I can’t imagine hearing a song I’ll like more in 2016.


Power, it transpires, has been making music of comparably rarefied beauty for a few years now. On Bandcamp, you can find a wealth of her early efforts, often recorded in churches and underground car parks, the sessions underscored by ambient noise leaking in from the world outside. The locations suggest a certain conceptual affinity, since Power’s work often has the resonance of liturgical music, and is delivered with a generally uncompromising sense of minimalism and verite. In fact, they were the products of expediency, of recording on a non-existent budget, in pursuit of architectural reverb to give the songs an unostentatious grandeur. A version of the traditional “My Lagan Love” is emblematic, just a creaking harmonium and Power, sounding extravagantly forlorn, far in the distance.


“Brigid Mae Power” brings this talent into focus, taking her from the empty spaces of Waterford to an actual recording studio, The Sparkle in Portland, Oregon, that belongs to the artist and producer Peter Broderick. Given the uncanny charms of Power’s early work, it’s a risky transition, but fortunately these songs are enriched by the process, and neither overburdened nor over-finessed. On “Let Me Hold You Through This”, over a pump organ that evokes the solemnities of early sacred music, Power’s declaration of unmediated love for her five-year-old son is in no way diminished by Broderick’s harmonies.


He does, though, deploy himself sparingly, appreciating the singularity of Power’s vision and the intimacy which contributes so much to her appeal. “Looking At You In A Photo” finds her alone at the piano, meditating on a picture of the child she has brought up alone. He is in his paddling pool, “so happy”, but Power remembers her own contrasting emotions: “I was so tired and lonely.” The infant, she believes, could see she was faking contentment, in the midst of people “who weren’t for us/Though they claimed to be.” It is one of Power’s many gifts that she can render sublime what seems on the page to be awkward, diaristic writing, and she also has a knack of tagging her poignant tales with upbeat conclusions. “We came through it, sweetheart,” she consoles, at the end of “Looking At You In A Photo”.


“Sometimes” is similarly unadorned – again, nothing more than Power and the piano – and even more moving. “Sometimes I just want to collapse into you,” she begins, before losing conventional vocabulary for a while and articulating a state of mind that is both transported and hesitant. Eventually, she ventures the second half of the line, “But I don’t know if you want me to.” The song works carefully towards a resolution, where she can finally trust those welcoming arms as secure.


Like “It’s Clearing Now”, “Sometimes” encapsulates the album’s subtly-implied theme of struggle and doubt transcended, of better times coming slowly into view. At the climax of this hugely satisfying album, Power even gives us that rarity: a happy ending, via a laugh and a dreamy, Karen Dalton-ish folk song called “How You Feel”. Before her words dissolve again into a minute or so of post-lingual harmonies, the last line is one of blissful reassurance: “I feel safer,” she sings, “than I ever have before.”

Brigid Mae Power website

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