Friday, 22 May 2015

Kathryn Williams - JW3, North London: 20th May 2015

It seems fitting that this launch show for Kathryn’s new album ‘Hypoxia’ based on characters from Slyvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ should find her slightly on edge, nervous, uncertain but capable of articulating those concerns wonderfully. If we wanted icily cool, detached and studied perfection we wouldn’t get the warmth, vulnerability and humanity that Kathryn gives this material. Clearly nervous about playing these songs for the first time outside her own head or the studio, she settles us and herself in with three tracks from my personal album of 2013 ‘Crown Electric’ which is the same year she was given the commission to write these songs.

She has risen to the challenge wonderfully with a set that is spiky, woozy and at times claustrophobic. Like the book’s protagonist, Esther, her lyrics show a fractured sense of self, a nervous energy along with an acceptance of the comfort of medicated blackness. I’m not sure if you get or understand the songs more if you have read The Bell Jar (which I did again recently, almost in preparation for the album) but Kathryn spoke a little about each one, something I hope she continues for the tour. Not only would it help those unfamiliar with the characters but a little of her own impetus behind the song’s creation.

Hearing all these new songs in one rush it’s hard to pick out “favourites” but ‘Mirror’ with it’s live vocal looping creating an uneasy foundation as shaky as Esther’s sense of who she is or wants to be. The insistent ‘ticking, ticking bomb’ of ‘Battleships’ echoes like the ‘I Am, I Am, I Am’ of ‘Beating Heart’. ‘Tango With Marco’ is suitably vicious and uneasy as the encounter with the most unpleasant man of the novel – ‘Like a coat draped on your arm / I’m a jar on your shelf/ A pig in the farm’ she almost spits in disgust. My personal highlight was the simple honesty of ‘When Nothing Meant Less’ which lays out the friendship of Esther and Joan ‘I don’t even know how your story ends cos you turned a corner and I stayed on the bend’ is heart-breaking stuff. Her producer, Mr Ed Harcourt, joined her onstage for the sweet ‘Cuckoo’ as well as returning during the encore for some production duties, using a stage mic for amplification when the bass players sound failed. Despite any irritation or nervousness at a couple of technical hiccups, Kathryn’s voice is markedly more confident than ever before, really inhabiting the songs and bending them in new an unexpected ways.
Ending with her traditional cover spot – a splendid version of Neil Young’s ‘I Believe In You’ this was what live music should be – making you think, feel and share in the things that make us all what are in our own slightly mad way.

People I spoke to afterwards were knocked out by the new material which rewarded Kathryn’s bravery of presenting it whole rather than cut up in the set. A wonderful taster for the album I am even more keen to hear and I encourage you to catch her on tour as live she brings so much to her songs. I hope she performs the album as a piece like this as it creates a very special atmosphere.

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