BACKTRACKING WITH LITTLEBOW'S THREE

A few weeks ago, littlebow member Keiron Phelan kindly agreed to provide background on the seven pieces that compose the superb Three collection (Rural Colours) he and fellow bandmates Katie English and Brona McVittie recently brought into being (read the review here). textura is sincerely grateful to Keiron for granting us such a wonderful and at times irreverent insight into the album's material.

Keiron Phelan: “The album is titled Three because: it's our third album; with Brona McVittie now in the band, there are three ‘proper' members (with myself and Katie English); and as I chose stupidly complicated track titles, I thought I ought to behave with the album title. It was recorded in London at Soup Studio, Limehouse, in 2015. We live, variously, in London, Yorkshire, and Antrim.”

 

1. “The Last Summer of the Century”

“This is a little tone poem (well, close to) that has a brightly sunlit feel and a touch of Stravinsky about it. The sky, here, is very clear and blue and the flutes have definitely taken up residence in the tops of the trees. I know that this is 1899 (as opposed to 1999) from the feel of it, but I have desperately tried to find some specific event that occurred in that summer to link the piece to and have totally failed. Well, I can't always get lucky that way. Let's move on.”


Keiron Phelan

2. “The Swing That Creaks for the Child That Weeps”

“In terms of both length (nearly thirteen minutes) and structure, it's probably the most ambitious thing we've written. It's got a peculiar ABCDCBA structure, which isn't something you come across much, outside of The Incredible String Band. Chiastic or Arch-form, apparently, the same as Reich's Music for 18 Musicians. One thing that Katie and I sometimes do (and which I'll return to) is to re-write each other's melodies. In this case Katie's Debussy-esque dissonant section came first. I realized that part of it could be re-shaped into a honeyed, tonal melody that then became the opening ‘song' section of the piece. Musically I particularly like the tug and flow of the middle parts. The low end bass (actually low pizzicato cellos) and the deep, clunking drums very much remind me of Can during the Malcolm Mooney period, when they still had a slightly ‘garage' sound and those tones, along with the fitful stop-start harp and acoustic guitar, make a great contrast to the almost Edwardian sweetness of the beginning and end.

“Lyrically, Brona's character is a heartbroken young woman who revisits a (summertime) park where she was happy as a child. She reflects on the confusing emotional highs and lows of her adulthood and youth and the music, as it changes, is designed to reflect those complications. Good and bad feelings get mixed up and run parallel to each other. I don't actually tell this stuff to the women in the band, you understand. They're right hard tickets. The first time I showed the lyric to Katie she exclaimed ‘Bloody Hell!' Which takes us neatly to…”

3. “The Damned Erudition of Damian O'Hara”

“I should mention that, as I get allowed to choose the titles of the pieces, I do take full advantage. This is one such case. The opening section has an insanely odd time signature. Even Jerome Tcherneyan, our exceptionally talented drummer never quite worked out what it was. Additionally, Katie magicked a series of triplet (I think) drum rolls into the rather amorphous 4/4 end section. Given the general atmosphere of complexity, I began to think of the piece in slightly Faustian terms so, Damian O'Hara is a kind of Irish Faust figure (imagine the work had been written by Sean O'Casey instead of Goethe, or even a substitute for Professor Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes). Some fantastic, Steve Reichian multiple clarinet playing by Jenny Brand on this one. It's great to take something like that on and feel that you're really on proper terms with it. (Incidentally, we do know a real Damian O'Hara who is not in the least bit Faustian.)”


Katie English

4. “Some May Transition Drift”

“In her Isnaj Dui guise, Katie often creates very lovely ‘drift' pieces and it's a method that we occasionally import into littlebow. So, this is her deconstructing the main melody of ‘Some May Transition' and slowing the whole speed down, which results in a gently reflective introduction to the burst of the main piece. The quartet of bass flutes that holds the structure together sound like a gigantic pipe organ, and I was especially pleased that the textura review mentioned the effectiveness of our (Katie and myself) flutes playing call-and-response to each other. It's amazing how emotionally effective repeating a simple line can be.”

5. “Some May Transition”

“The riff and melody for this piece had been around since my State River Widening days but, with the harp and reeds available in littlebow, I found that the vehicle for it now existed. I've always loved the innocently euphoric nature of Kraftwerk's ‘Autobahn,' and this is almost a bouncy castle (for want of a better description) tribute to the feeling in that song. This is possibly my favourite piece on the album. It's unashamed Nature-worship, even though I'm the least New Age-like person you could imagine. The clarinets and bass flutes converse ever more insistently with each other as the track builds. The harp and drums lock into pseudo-Samba rhythm, while the main beat is a motorik ride. When the theme breaks in Brona's wordless vocal, the effect is positively Alpine in purity, and the wind instruments have an almost Mariachi sway. It also features Katie impersonating a Parakeet. Bucolic! We've dubbed this vibe ‘Kitsch Utopianism,' and we don't care who knows it.”


Brona McVittie

6. “Too Green, These Widow's Weeds”

“Outside of littlebow, Brona (among other things) sings a lot of Celtic language songs. Gaelic, Breton, Welsh, you name it. The singing on this song is in Manx. Rather by accident. We'd created the piece as an instrumental, and the vibe was to get a played-live feel to it (even though we didn't actually do it that way, all smoke and mirrors). The atmosphere is decidedly sultry and, to my ears, somewhat Tennessee Williams in feel. It's got that over emotive, over-ripeness to it. In the studio, Brona realized that the traditional Manx lyric ‘Arrane Oie Vie' would fit in and got it down in one take so, Brona in contralto excelsis. The lyric is, basically, a simple ‘goodnight' song but, in the context of this shadowy music and the way that Brona re-iterates the final lines, the feeling is that everyone is trying to say goodbye but has nowhere to go. Moody.”

7. “The Singing Sands”

“A title I stole from a Josephine Tey novel and a gentle postscript to the album. It's one of those ‘on a deserted beach' pieces, a rather wintery beach by the feel of it. We had the thought that it would work well in the context of an Eric Rohmer film. It's got a rather melancholic Francophile piano melody, like Debussy for parlour practice. We always seem to get drawn back to Debussy.”

August 2016