Kathryn Williams — Hypoxia φ “How did I know that someday — at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere — the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?” Fiercely independent British singer/songwriter who has attracted great praise for her beguiling contemporary folk songs.
φ The title, for those of a non–medical bent, refers to a state of insufficient oxygen supply and chimes with the mental state of Esther Greenwood, the progressively more anguished protagonist of The Bell Jar.
φ The 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s only novel spawned a commission from Durham Book Festival in 2013 which ultimately led to Hypoxia, Kathryn Williams’ 11th album. Paradoxically, though, this record seems blessed with a abundance of oxygen, being a collection of rare eloquence and spectacular beauty by which few listeners will remain unmoved.
Born: 1974 in Liverpool, England
Mercury Music Prize Nominee
Location: Newcastle, UK
Album release: 15th June, 2015
Record Label: One Little Indian
1 Electric 2:45
2 Mirrors 3:53
3 Battleships 3:31
4 Cuckoo 4:08
5 Beating Heart 3:21
6 Tango with Marco 3:16
7 When Nothing Meant Less 3:33
8 The Mind Is Its Own Place 2:59
9 Part of Us 2:29
℗ 2015 One Little Indian Records
φ Kathryn Williams releases a brand new album of songs inspired by Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, ‘Hypoxia’ which will be released via One Little Indian on the 15th June.
φ The project’s origins came in 2013 when Kathryn received a call from Claire Malcolm at New Writing North (for whom she had previously been poet in residence at Alnwick Castle), asking if she would like an open commission to write something about Plath for the Durham Book Festival’s celebration of her life and work, to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of The Bell Jar’s publication. Excited, but also somewhat intimidated by the prospect, Kathryn quickly realised that trying to write song lyrics for poems without using the actual poems or referencing them was going to be impossible, and as time passed, what had seemed like a gift of making her own brief, turned into dread and foreboding as she desperately tried to find a way into the material.
φ Momentarily stuck, Kathryn began what was to be a revelatory re–reading of The Bell Jar (which she hadn’t read since her teens): “What I wasn't prepared for was the muscular writing. The shocking, brutal honesty. The modernness. Thinking about a woman writing this 50 years ago was astounding.” Struck by the book’s protagonist, and with a note of relief, the brief to write about the characters and themes in the book came into clear focus.
φ In October of last year, Kathryn performed five original songs inspired by The Bell Jar at Durham Town Hall — alongside writer Andrew Wilson reading from his (then forthcoming) book ‘Mad Girl's Love Song — Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted’ — “it was a surreal experience to share these songs that felt like secrets,” she says of the show.
φ But things didn’t end there — Kathryn found she was unable to escape the lure of the book’s characters and continued to write songs ‘for’ the book over the next year (“This strange little cuckoo that had pushed my other records out of the way was demanding to be fed.”). Finally, with 8 songs ready, Kathryn enlisted the help of friend and collaborator Ed Harcourt who produced and engineered the album, also co–writing a ninth song, ‘Cuckoo’, into the bargain.
φ Sonically the album utilises textures first explored by Kathryn on her Adrian Utley produced project, ‘The Pond’ (2011). There are surprises to be found here too, like the dramatic glam rock guitars that suddenly erupt in lead single ‘Mirrors’ and in Kathryn’s idiosyncratic lyrics & delivery — her gentle voice loaded with an underlying edge and steeliness that has never seemed more apposite. http://www.indie-rock.it/
By HELEN GREGORY on 7 MAY, 2015
φ Back in 2013, singer–songwriter Kathryn Williams was commissioned to write something for the Durham Book Festival’s celebration of the life and work of Sylvia Plath, the American poet and writer, whose only novel — The Bell Jar — was published fifty years previously. Anyone who’s ever experienced anxiety or depression — and that’s as many as one in five of us, according to the Office for National Statistics’ Measuring National Wellbeing programme — may well have somewhat mixed feelings about The Bell Jar: there’s no denying its sheer power or its deserved reputation as one of the classics of modern literature, but its semi–autobiographical descriptions of aspects of some of Plath’s experiences with clinical depression and suicidal ideation often make for harrowing reading.
φ Nevertheless, Kathryn’s re–reading of the book inspired her to develop the Book Festival project further until, a year or so later, she was ready to go into the studio with friend and collaborator Ed Harcourt, to record her new album Hypoxia.
φ The listener finds herself thrown in at the proverbial deep end with the first track, Electric, a reference to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). It’s a method which is still in use today, albeit as a last resort, to induce seizures in the hope of providing some relief from major depressive states and, like many forms of medical intervention, has supporters and opponents. While Plath, through the novel’s protagonist Esther Greenwood, was highly critical of psychiatric medicine, Kathryn’s lyric manages to avoid becoming drawn into that debate and settles for an atmospheric and descriptive composition where time and space seem slowed down and drawn out, eerily conveying a sense of woozy detachment to a distant backing of treated electric guitar over a gentle acoustic guitar.
φ Second track Mirrors examines one of the recurring motifs of the novel; more often than not Esther believes her own reflection to be that of someone else. This is generally taken to be a cipher for her own internal struggle for self–identity in a world from which she feels increasingly alienated. The looped vocals and colliding, fragmentary guitars, interspersed with short phrases on piano and bass, mixed way upfront, mesh and combine to produce a piece which is a dramatic if unsettling listen.
φ Battleships seems to be an oblique reference to Plath’s poem Epitaph In Three Parts which shares with The Bell Jar certain imagery and metaphor: mirrors, fickle lovers, blood, isolation and so on, but may also draw inspiration from the well–known guessing game. Kathryn’s lyric seems to refer as much to the novel’s recounting of the failed relationship between Esther and Buddy Willard as it does to Esther’s own relationship with the world and the mind games we all, to some extent, play; trying to second–guess each other as well as ourselves and the events of our lives. The tension is almost palpable, due in no small part to the use of the slow ‘tick tock’ of a mechanical clock in the arrangement.
φ Cuckoo is one of the record’s highlights. A simple keyboard part grounds the gorgeous harmonies of Kathryn and co–writer Ed Harcourt in this song, written from the point of view of Esther’s mother who, despite her almost invisible part in the novel, still plays a hugely important part in Esther’s life. Kathryn’s lyric brings the character to life in a way that gives the listener pause for refelection on the effect that the unconditional love of a parent may have on a child.
φ Another of the record’s highlights, Beating Heart takes a retrospective, first person look at how Esther’s numerous attempts to end her life have always been foiled by her body. The will to survive that invariably proves stronger than the wish to die calls to mind Antonio Gramsci’s quote, “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”, which seems oddly pertinent here, albeit out of context. It’s a reflective composition whose lush, mulitracked vocal hook — “I am, I am, I am” — comprises the words that Esther imagines her heart to be speaking during her attempt to drown herself. There’s a huge sense of space in the song which, combined with the distant piano, creates some very evocative mental pictures of the hospitals in which the character of Esther spent so much time.
φ A key catalyst in Esther’s mental illness is her struggle to survive in circumstances which are unbearably oppressive, and her relationships with others, particularly men, seem to play a major part in this. One of the most powerful passages in The Bell Jar describes Esther’s horrific experience on a blind date with a violent misogynist called Marco who, having forced her to tango then attempts to rape her; an episode which Esther’s detached recounting makes all the more frightening. Tango with Marco captures the suffocating mood of menace through a combination of Jon Thorne’s rattling, echoey bass and various treated sounds swirling around the edges of the mix like the encroaching darkness.
φ The confessional When Nothing Meant Less is a comparison between Esther and Joan, her acquaintance in hospital, of the similarities in the ways their illnesses have affected them and a recognition of how the process of healing, of learning to manage severe mental illness, is never a simple open and shut case. Rather, it’s ongoing, and the negotiations and compromises we make affect the course of our lives in different ways at different times. Certainly there are commonalities: in The Bell Jar, the difference between Esther’s expectations in life and its harsher realities are crucial to gaining an understanding of the origin of her illness; this dissonance still exists in the world today and is felt no less keenly by many mentally ill people. Kathryn brings a hugely empathic approach to the subject in When Nothing Meant Less and the sparse arrangement — Kathryn’s vocals are high in the mix, over acoustic guitar and a distant, glittering, treated electric guitar — is judged to perfection.
φ With a more upbeat, major key arrangement, The Mind Has Its Own Place sends out a supportive message to any woman who finds herself on the receiving end of the inherently sexist and implicitly violent values of patriarchal society. This is something that informed the 1950s America of The Bell Jar and which still persists today. Then, as now, women are bombarded with conflicting messages: be a good student (as Esther was) and you’ll face ridicule for not dating handsome boys; but if you date too many, then you’re clearly a slut. The fight against these entrenched double standards, and the countless others that women experience each and every day, was undeniably a key factor in Esther’s (and Plath’s) illness and Kathryn’s lyric is a timely reminder that if we truly seek liberation then we all, regardless of gender, need to support each other in the fight against the crushing weight of the impossible demands and expectations of patriarchal society.
φ The short but sweet, Country–tinged Part of Us rounds out the album, its arrangement as comforting as its lyrical refrain that “loneliness was never a part of us”. It brings the record to an appropriately quiet, reflective conclusion, in the same way that The Bell Jar leaves the reader feeling that a particular chapter of Esther’s life has ended, with the subtext that protagonist and reader are ready and willing to move on with their lives. And, while that may be true to some extent, in life as in mental illness there are no guarantees — as Esther asks in the final chapter of The Bell Jar:
φ “How did I know that someday — at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere — the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?”
φ Theming an album around a book as intense as The Bell Jar was never going to be an easy task but to her credit, Kathryn Williams has brought great sensitivity and empathy to her writing of the nine songs on Hypoxia. The result is a fine collection of contemporary folk songs which can be enjoyed at face value but which, on deeper listening, reveal an intelligent and thoughtful reevaluation of one of modern literature’s greatest novels, as well as an unflinching look at the huge impact that severe depression can have on an individual and those around them.
Greg Johnson, φ http://nemmblog.com/2015/06/01/hypoxia-by-kathryn-williams/
Sean Guthrie, φ http://www.heraldscotland.com/arts-ents/music/kathryn-williams-hypoxia-caw.128462251