As I get off the bus in Clapton, the midsummer evening sun is giving the neighbourhood a lingering kiss. It brushes across the Clapton Portico (a bewildered, disinherited classical remnant, grafted onto a school at the end of an abbreviated road), takes away its sadness and helps it in its lonely loom. It limns the shopfronts of convenience stores and barbers and closed-down shops, and perks them up. It lends soft glows and sends little licks of shadow chasing around the stonework of the Round Chapel, and it brings out the last sleepy cheeps of the day from the local sparrows as I head down Glenarm Road towards Homerton.Thirteen years ago – when I was living a lengthy stone’s-throw to the west, over in Stoke Newington – this part of east London was a soured inner suburb with a brooding, bullet-ridden reputation. The length of Clapton Road was tagged as Murder Mile – an edgy and angry place beset by resentments, drive-by shootings and unprovoked beatings. Flickers of anger sometimes still plague it. Almost two years ago, the second night of the 2011 London riots kicked off just a few minutes walk from here: a churn of flames, looting and outright war between police and estate kids. Barely a block away in Clarence Road, Pauline Pearce delivered the impassioned harangue which would establish her as a Hackney heroine. Now though, all is peaceful: and it gives me the chance to reflect that, as with people, the hair-raising reputations of many places come only from their occasional spasms.
The biggest fuck-you I get tonight comes from a house painted in a shocking purple and gesturing out from an otherwise cream-and-beige Victorian terrace, like some kind of bolshy architectural remix. As I’ve come to know in recent years, this part of London is a place where a very diverse set of people get on with living: it’s also the kind of area where people get out of doors not to go hunting but to break that pesky London reserve and meet their neighbours. Pubs become sitting rooms; sitting rooms and armchairs spill onto streets – another embedded global village. While people are a little thin on the ground tonight, this late-June evening (just beginning to show the mottlings of dusk) is suffused with an easy warmth. Later in the evening, Liam Singer will chuckle from behind his keyboard and gift the neighbourhood with a more welcome tag than it’s had in years. “It’s like Brooklyn, but if everyone was really friendly.”Sitting on the border of Clapton and Homerton, The Dentist is nothing if not hopeful. A former drop-in surgery a little north of the hospital, it’s a genial wreck of a building. Crumbled, scarified and grime-smeared, it stands like a worn, chewed tooth in a shopping parade halfway between old London main drag and international souk. An enterprising guy called Phil calls the upstairs home, while using the downstairs for pop-up gigs, shoestring theatre, and scratch-and-strike art gallery exhibits. The back garden is full of splintered wood and earth hummocks, plus a makeshift tabletop bar. The wine is rolled up from the cellar via a scary ravine. The whole place thrums with friendliness.
Inside, crowded into the front room and sharing its atmosphere of ravage and reclaim, we’re part of a show. In a place this small, within breathing or patting range of the musicians, it’s hard not to feel that way. Behind the players, the curving plate-glass façade of the old shopfront runs across and around: over their shoulders, we look out at the street life. It looks right back at us, sometimes with suspicious flicks of the eyes (a man in a shalwar kameez, hurrying past to the makeshift mosque next door), sometimes with a bemused acceptance (a local geezer ambling along to the chippy) and sometimes with outright delight (younger locals on a stroll, pointing and celebrating on their way to and from the Hackney bars further into town).To them, this must look like a gig in a bottle – the audience in full view, the musicians upfront but backs turned, the music bleeding out in faint enticing vapours. Speaking of which… cue musicians.
Tye McGivern slumps over a double bass, plucking, bowing and sometimes wrenching his notes: a man with strong, thoughtful butchers hands and the face of a weary rabbi. To his right, Kitty Whitelaw sways barefoot – grubby toes, blue nails, a jazz pulse, a little black dress and a feel for the taut sinews of a song. There’s no-one else. About five years ago Tye and Kitty were two-thirds of Kitty & The Drowning Bag, were a lot noisier, and had a drummer. For the couple of years that they’ve been Sealionwoman they’ve been drummer-less and bring their own extra noise in their pockets.
Sealionwoman deal in blurred versions of jazz and torch, and they’re perfectly suited to the smear of dusk that’s coming on as they begin to play. As influences, they’ll cite the crepuscular – Nick Cave and Morphine – but also cite the vivid, iconoclastic enactments and reinterpretations of jazz songs as carried off by Mina Agossi. There’s something in that. While they deal with plenty of old jazz standards – passed from hand to hand, worn smooth like wooden heirlooms – Sealionwoman share a trace of that Agossi rebellion against jazz performance manners and form, preferring to draw out song essence and perhaps a thread of history along with it.However, what I’m hearing is something which shades Peggy Lee with Patti Smith. It’s partially that everything they do sounds a little bit like Fever – songs carried entirely and by necessity on the honk, creak and slide of Tye’s bass and the teasing dance-around of Kitty’s voice. It’s partly the lazily assured flutter of Kitty’s demeanour, and the way that it can quickly shift and escalate to an incantatory yell.
What they do has little to do with straightforward theatrics, and still less to do with diva drama. In his hands and on her lips, the songs turn as wayward as blown smoke: dip in and out of ritual; become stretched-out, yammering versions of themselves; go from breezy cool to swimming, waking dream. Sometimes Tye leans over to prod at a laptop or a fuzz pedal, furring up those woody bass notes to turn them into air-horns, or a sweep across concrete. Sometimes he drums with a pair of brushes on boxes and chairs. At other times his hands drum vigorously on the wood of the bass, booming out ritual and conversation, a vigorous and physical lover teetering on the border of tenderness and violence. Kitty sways, stands on tiptoe; brushes against the songs as if stretching for a passing kiss. Her voice folds around the melody line and uses it as a jumping off point, springing into the air, hanging, returning. Every so often a familiar tune and lyric slides through the circling murk. I spot Night And Day.
Mostly, though, it’s all about mood. Strangely blissful, narcoleptic – although by the end of the set and the dip of the late sunset they’ve risen in a slow heat, culminating in a Dionysiac frenzy of bass-drumming and banshee wails. It’s probably enough to put the wind up the Muslim congregation next door, praying their way through Asr. If they’re as Hackneyfied as everyone else around here, though, they’ll just shrug it off.The gloaming has well and truly arrived as Foxout! settle down and begin. Perched opposite each other on a couple of stools, Daniel Merrill and Jeremy Young hunch over a network of effects pedals and rummage through what looks like a box of yellowed prehistoric teeth: these they mouth and mumble, blowing into a microphone to build up a warm, rambling noisescape of notes, feedback and harmonic buzz before they even pick up an instrument.
In fact, the teeth are reed tubes gutted from an old harmonium. Foxout! enjoy rejigging bits and pieces of antique musicality, and they’re extraordinarily good at it. Some more history might be useful, before we go any further. Essex-raised but with feet made for journeying, Daniel is the fiddler in Dead Rat Orchestra. Despite his youthful looks, he already has a decade of improvised folk music behind him, plus tours all over the globe (some of which were in the company of Godspeed You! Black Emperor (from whom he may have filched Foxout!’s abrupt exclamation mark). Another young veteran, Jeremy’s from Brooklyn music – he once played bleakly beautiful post-Godspeed chamber music with [the] slowest runner [in all the world] and limpid post-rock atmospherics with Sontag Shogun before moving on to solo experimental tonescapes and spoken word as szilárd. Both men wander; both men curate the work of others. Both men mingle.Right now, both men are studying here in London. As their orbits have converged, Foxout! has emerged – immersed in the tributaries of Celtic folk but flowing through some crafty filters as it contributes to the journey. Certainly the prime stamp and weft of the music is Celtic – reels and pibrochs; plangent, sad melodies. Yet it’s Celtic music folded back over itself, cross-cut with experimental sounds and processing, and by strands of improvisation from elsewhere.
Daniel is one of those musicians who looks extraordinarily sad while he plays. Concentration renders his long, bearded face into a subtle mask of tragedy until you expect lock-gates to burst and for three hundred years of folk laments to come pouring out of him. His fiddle is the main melodic phrasing voice, with Jeremy’s acoustic guitar serving as a taut, bounding dodging rhythm source. Jeremy himself is constantly watchful and supportive, his eyes fixed on Daniel, holding up his partner’s passionate forays.What emerges is remarkable, not least for the way in which it shape-shifts between different disciplines, experiments and sound-art tricks with neither seam nor strain. At times Foxout! broil with a heated minimalism or take on a grain of compulsive, systematic Futurist patterning. At others, a flexing bough or current of history catches at them and pulls them back to direct expression. One piece is a sensitive plucked-and-bowed air-ballad played (for half its length), over the sound of a draining straw, but with neither bathos nor disruption. Strips of noise sometimes bluster through the wood and strings, like another conversation passing through. Another gorgeous ballad tune sounds as if it could have be minted yesterday, simultaneously fresh and ancient. In the latter, there’s a moment of perfect meshing as Daniel and Jeremy briefly sweep into lockstep, rolling out a near-telepathic unison of notes before dancing away from each other again.
Night begins to settle in properly. Shades of indigo, of dulled London brick and of gaudy shop-front neon sift in through the window. The Dentist’s front room starts to take on something of the air of an Irish lock-in – nothing rowdy, but with the same sense of deep involvement in the music. As Daniel announces “a new ditty”, a couple of guests step up. Usually, Laura Moody’s a mischievous classical renegade or an acrobatic singer-songwriter when she’s not a fizzing cocktail of both. Right now, though, she and her cello are demure and thoughtful – the sober and quiet accompanist providing deep, cloudy strings while Liam Singer (just a few minutes away from his headlining set), sits in to sing.The song all four share with us in semi-darkness- which may or may not be called As The Wind Turns Away – is a perfect closer. Sombre and gripping, there may not be too much too it (certainly Liam’s softly yearning tenor seem to be making much with fragmentary, cycling sentences) but they make a virtue of that.The song builds softly and inexorably with the dying of the light: a folky threnody for something a little out of focus, something over your shoulder, waiting to be picked up on. Listening to Foxout! gives you the dreamy and welcome impression that if you didn’t have roots before, you’re growing some now. Sat behind a borrowed piano, and minus the sophisticated ornamentations that colour his chamber pop and detailed modern-classical minatures on record (those strings, mandolins and marimbas; those sundry twists and shifts of sound), Liam Singer runs his own set on a shoestring, and runs it well. As the delicate instrumental fantasia of On Earth A Wandering Stranger Was I Born unspools itself, it’s tenebrous but increasingly shot with hopeful illumination. While Liam performs, police cars occasionally sail up Chatworth Road in search of trouble, passing behind him in a quick welter of blue-and-red lights and siren-wail. They rock his soft resilient bubble of song, but don’t burst it.
Easygoing and enthusiastic in person, Liam ripples his own depths when he sits down to sing. Even when stripped down to piano-and-voice, his songs grow their own bosky Edenic atmosphere, filling out his excursions into classical minimalism with deeper shadings. I’ve noticed, previously, how he dips into American antiquity and draws it up up like well-water. His high, open tenor brings freshness and a glow of innocence, but older things lie in wait in the shade to snatch that away. At times, Liam’s like a young scholar running assured, fascinated fingers over the scuffed and scraped covers of ancient leather-bound books; but when the mood deepens and takes him, he sings like the man who’s been spat back out of the faery mound – fully aware and alive, but displaced, crucially out-of-joint with his times.This is not just down to the tinge of Edwardian parlour song within Liam’s work, nor yet the occasional antiquarian “thou” or “thee” in his lyrics. There’s a mildly febrile quality to his songwriting, a flicker of Blakeian hallucination to add to the forays into classical piano and the Tennyson tint of mediaeval inflections. His song world is notable for its permeability – the mythic or the supernatural soak through into it, adding piquancy to his sharply edged portraits of involvement and solitude. On The Brief Encounter, Liam can bump into swarms of gentle slacker ghosts, massing there to comfort him as he heads up the coastal road. In the middle of Oh Endless Storm he can cite a rock-chained Andromeda, looming spectrally above him and disdaining rescue as he veers towards a break-up.
Liam immerses himself in the story-swirls, homing in on the core as he sings, “Love is a wind, rips through our hearts, that takes control / We long for a language to lose ourselves, / or for a way to let go.” Later on – as his piano notes spiral in a stately, panicking dance on One Breath Out – he’ll clutch after disappearing chances. “Never could I know as each one passed, / that the last would be the last… / Just one breath out and the world grows colder; / fight the war, but not the soldier. / And one hand moves to protect the other now – / but we’re falling anyhow.” Yet none of this is mawkish or precious – in between songs, Liam is relaxed, gently self-mocking and friendly. Two songs played with Laura Moody on cello (a snatched opportunity before she catches the train back to West London) become affectionate tickles and tussles, ranging from childlike warmth to a rousing gamelan jig.Even his solo piano miniatures, potentially an excuse for indulgence, carefully balance their romantic invention with a pucker of thoughtful modesty. The Dance of Cupid and Psyche pays subtle passing visits to Chopin, Satie and Air On The G-String, flushing its economy with a dash of vigour. On Hannah’s Dance (a lone flash from his decade-old debut, ‘The Empty Heart Of The Chameleon’) Liam displays a Tori Amos drive and fluidity but rounds it off within a single minute. The sweet cascading single, Stranger I Know, slips out of its crafty Shaker-gamelan arrangement and breathes easier, now less of a revelation than a relaxed celebration: “suckers, speeches, they can keep ’em all.”
In one week’s time, Liam’s new album – ‘Arc Iris‘ – is released, yet already he’s moving on from it. Half of the set is songs so new that they’re not on any record, and at least one of them – Three Songs – is fresh out of the notebook. “I’ll fuck it up tastefully,” promises Liam, shuffling his sheet music into place.
What emerges suggests that the drift away from Liam’s earlier experimentalism into fully-fledged romance (as promised by much of ‘Arc Iris’) is accelerating. Here is a beautiful but unnerving love-song, holding strong on the edge of wreck; swimming with gas-masks and cruelty and an unsettling Saint Sebastian gasp. “Someday I’ll see you sideways, / your pretty words are opening like arrows in the middle of my chest / ’til petals fall from my mouth / and I, I gasp for air / ‘cos something inside is pressurized… / When you feel it, you will know / that I was not crazy when I had to let it go.” Running through the words are hints of fairytale transmogrifications; always restlessness. Liam’s heading east after this concert, travelling over to play more gigs in France and Belgium. In another new song, with a vocal line like a perilous descent down crags and scree, he muses “from one skin to another we slide endlessly.” Perhaps he’d like to keep wandering on, heading to the edge of the world.Sitting beside the mixing desk is a jar of lollipops. By now, the contents are making the rounds among the audience and consequently Liam’s playing is being punctuated by furtive, respectful cellophane rustles, which he takes in good heart. Someone else is passing around a copy of ‘Paradise Lost’, which seems more appropriate, as the prowling monsters name-checked back in Oh Endless Storm are resurfacing in Love Me Today (“”There are dark things in the earth / soon they’ll be twisted / up for air /… as the ground gives way.”) Maybe I’m a being little suggestible, but it seems to me that there are also shadings of the twenty-first century ghosts which haunt Liam’s adopted hometown of New York. For over a decade the city’s romantic signifiers, once brash and confident, have been haunted by the shock of sudden and brutal dissolution. While Liam’s not one for hammer-blow songcraft, much of what he sings enfolds an onset of loss, from the counting to (ominously) the banking aircraft. “In the shadow of the moon, as our planes spin away / You know my eyes may tell you lies, but love me today.”
Under the cheerful coloured bulbs strung across The Dentist’s battered ceiling, he offers us a last dance. This’ll be to Unhand Me (You Horrid Thing), from ‘Arc Iris’, a brief, deliciously rueful song which sketches out the mixture of hope, awkward embarrassment and careful blundering steps that make up an ordinary, flakey relationship – prickles and all. “They’re playing our favourite song, the one that makes us both dance for a dare / ’til our feet turn to air / and our hands come apart, / as the guitar solo starts. / And that is the part / that breaks my heart.” It’s a different, generous note to end on, for a gig that’s felt like a cosy but inspiring house party. As I say my goodbyes and slip out of The Dentist, it looks as if the party will be going on for a while longer. Not only sound carries. Warmth does, too.