Bella Union Presents a special double bill in-store at Rough Trade East with Will Stratton and Lowly both performing live in-store.
6.30pm Will Stratton live on-stage // 7.30pm Lowly live on-stage // 8.00pm Signing // 8.30pm Close.
Will Stratton's 'Rosewood Almanac' album is released 12th May on Bella Union, available to pre-order HERE.
Lowly's 'Heba' album is out now on Bella Union, available to order online HERE.
Both albums will be available to buy in-store and get signed on the night.
The band describe their music as “noise-pop, and everything in between.” In this case, ‘noise’ refers to the textures and treatments that the quintet mould from synths, laptop and guitar, which give Lowly’s spacious songs unpredictable, shape-shifting qualities, iced by Nanna Schannong and Soffie Viemose’s radiant voices – all brilliantly layered by the band and co-producer Anders Boll, Efterklang’s long-trusted engineer/soundman.
Lowly first met at the musical academy in Aarhus, Denmark, with Staub alongside Schannong (lead vocals, guitar), Soffie Viemose (lead vocals, laptop), Thomas Lund (bass, Moog) and Steffen Lundtoft (drums, percussion). Despite all five studying different subjects, and having their own bands on the go, “and having very different tastes” (the only band they can agree on is Radiohead), they quickly found an enviable chemistry. “Though we were not trying hard, Lowly slowly took over,” Staub recalls. “It was just fun and felt so easy, and inspiring.”
Two independently released singles found their way outside of Denmark, inspiring the Guardian to include Lowly in a ‘Five must-listen new tracks from around the world’ round-up, while The Line Of Best Fit swooned to an “idyllic, height of summer sonic landscape…total bliss…Nordic pop does not get bigger.”
Having tracked the band for a year, it was after seeing Lowly play the Spot festival in Aarhus that Bella Union skipper Simon Raymonde signed the band, which made its label debut in 2015 with the Sink Way Into Me EP. But it was autumn 2016’s single ‘Deer Eyes’ that confirmed the giant leap forward that is Heba. Further embellishing the album’s scope and impact are guests Jacob Danielsen on tenor sax and bass clarinet and soprano singer Anna Maria Wierød on ‘Still Life’, the album’s spinetingling opener.
“Lyrically, we start with abstract, but it can get personal too,” says Staub. The album title Heba is named after the band’s Syrian friend: “She moved to Denmark to live with her husband and to be safe from the war in Syria,” says Staub. “We are not a particularly political band, but we recorded the album while thousands of people were fleeing and getting killed. The frustration of Europe and our own country being unwilling to help, and bureaucracy being valued higher than human lives, affected us deeply. There are lyrics about that, but also your average love song, which Heba also is a symbol of.”
Bella Union is thrilled to release Will Stratton’s album Rosewood Almanac, the American’s debut for the label. It’s a work of fragile magic, a hypnotic combination of beautifully breathy voice and exquisite lyrical imagery, gorgeous melodies and similarly soft-spun instrumentation, centred on his thrumming acoustic guitar and the verdant presence of velvet strings.
Stratton had found evangelists before. About Gray Lodge Wisdom, the Guardian said “There are some familiar troubadour flavours here, but Stratton transforms them into something more unexpected and quite magical,” while Wondering Sound heard “a deeply assured and ambitious collection of prismatic folk tunes that should possess emotional weight even for listeners who don’t know Stratton’s backstory… The best album of his career.” About Post Empire, La Blogotheque said, “A classically trained virtuosity, an incontestable erudition and remarkable precocity.”
Yet this very special talent has largely flown under the radar… How come?
First, he’s only done two very low-key tours of Europe and one in the American mid-west. And second, he explains. “I get profound pleasure from composing, working out how pieces fit together, or don’t, much more than self-promotion, and by that time, I’ve moved on to the next thing. Even when my music doesn’t find an audience, I’m happy to just have a personal statement to reflect back on. But then Simon emailed out of the blue. And it’s great to put a record out on a label I love.”
Born in California, mostly raised in New Jersey and currently an upstate New Yorker, this great-grandson of a travelling preacher started songwriting and recording while at high school, before going on to study philosophy and music composition. He’s self-released work, and via a couple of tiny indies (one being Talitres in France) but extended treatment for cancer put everything on hold. After his successful recovery, Stratton decided to leave New York City for the Hudson Valley. Teaching (music, art, video) at a local boarding school, while living on campus as a dorm ‘parent’, left little time for musical ambition, though he had never stopped making music. But having left teaching, everything’s come together for the finest record of his life. Bella Union’s timing was impeccable.
Rosewood Almanac was named after Stratton’s current pride and joy: his acoustic guitar. “The guitars I love most tend to be rosewood, they have a crystalline tone, but also a really dark heft. When Bob Dylan was obsessed with his ‘wild thin mercury sound’, that’s the sound of rosewood to me. It’s almost menacing in its precision.”
He developed an intimate relationship with guitar after discovering Nick Drake, whose “fluid, effortlessly beautiful style,” led on to similarly cherished Britfolk icons – Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson, Anne Briggs, Bert Jansch. But Stratton’s studies led to chamber music, and minimalists Steve Reich and Terry Riley, which equally influenced his simultaneously complex and direct sound. His love of composition shines through when he talks of how a specific guitar tuning – “like learning a new language, with its own rules to obey”- can influence the writing of a song, “just as how you set up the stanzas and metres can dictate what you end up saying in your lyrics.” Yet there’s no trace of dry academia or virtuosity here, only a fluid, effortless beauty, with a matching emotional heft.
The album’s spell weaves over a contained ten songs and 34 minutes, from the extra crystalline sparkle from the addition of electric guitar and rhythm section in the opening ‘Light Blue’ through the string quartet’s gilding of the lily, to the pared back voice-and-rosewood effect of the closing ‘Ribbons’.
Having listened intently to Leonard Cohen and Hank Williams, “singers who try to wring as much meaning out of every sound they’re making, in correspondence to every other sound,” Stratton has focused more on singing and lyric-writing than ever before. “Some words are political, some are imagistic, some are personal,” he vouches.
And some overlap. “Light Blue’ and ‘Thick Skin’ articulate “the weird detached existence” of dorm-master life, though ‘Light Blue’ has an ecological bent while ‘Thick Skin’ addresses “alienation, ageing and feeling the freshness of human feeling is being dulled over the course of a life.” Leaving teaching, “lifted a weight, which let me focus on the bigger picture,” he says, naming ‘Manzanita’, which also addresses age, “and seeing yourself, and your family and friends, all changing. There’s beauty in those changes, but existential dread too!”
The dread returns for ‘Vanishing Class’, imagining “the alienation of people in the run up to the US election.” The closing pair, ‘This Is What We Do’ and ‘Ribbons’, address Stratton’s cancer battles while “veering into an apocalyptic vein,” he says. “I wrote the record before Trump was elected, but with hindsight, a lot of these songs come from a feeling that something is deeply wrong.”
If Rosewood Almanac ends on notes of fundamental unease, Stratton’s own story is an uplifting counterpoint: a clean bill of health, his first record to have both US and European distribution, his first nationwide US tour as well as a return to Europe, backed by a record label that believes, “Rosewood Almanac will be a record that will remembered for a long time and will resonate with so many of us.”