Just when you think you’ve figured out Kendal-based band Woman’s Hour, they throw a curveball into the mix and brilliantly challenge any assumptions formed.
The quartet released their beautiful debut album Conversations through Secretly Canadian in 2014, a swooning fusion of opaque electronics, skittering digital beats, and those heartfelt vocals, at once so yearning and open yet also draped in mystery. Immediate, striking, and piercing with potential, the group then slowly faded from view, worn down by pressures both internal and external, with sessions for a proposed follow-up album being discarded, the tapes left half-finished on a dusty hard drive.
Yet they couldn’t ignore what they’d achieved. There’s family involved, too – singer Fiona Burgess is joined by brother Will on electronics, with Josh Hunnisett completing the trio. Gradually, those conversations began once more, and work began anew on their abandoned second LP.
Out now, Ephyra is a testament to their dogged independence, matching a strikingly unique aesthetic to the raw determination DIY methodology can provide. While their debut was resolute in its approach this new album seems to find strength in its scattered origins, its mosaic of ideas distended by time and temper but brought back together by the sheer gravitational pull of shared experience.
Robin Murray: Your debut album Conversations was extremely well received by critics, but the band seemed to falter after this. What happened?
Fiona Burgess: After we finished touring our first record we drove up to the Lake District and hired a rehearsal room on a remote farm and spent weeks on end just writing songs and discussing what we wanted our next record to sound like. It was a really exhilarating process and we really connected as a band. There was a lot of positive energy between us whilst we were making this record, and I think a lot of that energy is reflected on Ephyra. When we moved back down to London we were recording everything in Will and Nick’s apartment and I think this contributed to a sense of claustrophobia. I actually think the physical space we were in had a big effect on how we were connecting with the music and each other, and I think you can hear this kind of tug of war in the songs. We were struggling with living in London and feeling trapped in this band dynamic that felt increasingly hostile. I don’t think we’re unusual in this regard, I think a lot of what we experienced is common ground for many musicians. We just decided that we would be honest about the process, we have always been a band in flux, but what partnership isn’t.
RM: You left Secretly Canadian following the release of your debut, how were subsequent sessions supported? Were you working on a completely DIY basis?
FB: Yes, everything was very much DIY. We wrote and recorded the whole album in our various living spaces, including staying at our parent’s houses while writing in Kendal. I think fundamentally though we knew that however tough it could get, we were still incredibly lucky to be writing at all. So for me it never became a burden, I always felt inspired by artists who had made amazing work with minimal resources.
RM: Many of the lyrics on Ephyra deal with miscommunication and repressed feelings – was this a case of art imitating life?
FB: I can’t really detach myself from the lyrics. Everything I write is a way to meditate on something, so yes it naturally becomes a reflection of the various states we were in when writing this album. It would be strange if we were writing songs that had no connection to our personal and mental situations. I became fascinated by my great grandmother’s life during the writing process. She suffered from depression and ended up drowning herself in the river. This is the river I would walk past every day on my way to school and swim in on hot summer days. The river quite literally runs through the town we grew up in, so I found the discovery of her death quite traumatic. I didn’t learn about her death until I was in my late teens, and that image always haunted me. So I began to talk to my relatives about her and try to understand what led her to do that. What leads anyone to do that? And I guess in a way, I was also aware that within the band we have all struggled with various degrees of depression and anxiety, so I was interested in how such a trauma could affect generations of family after they had passed. What kind of memory does this legacy leave?
” I became fascinated by my great grandmother’s life during the writing process. She suffered from depression and ended up drowning herself in the river.”
RM: You’ve always had tremendous use of space in your music, do you think that relates to growing up in Kendal? Do you think the atmosphere of the place, and of Cumbria, crops up in your music?
FB: I’m really not sure. I mean, when we were growing up I would say there was a tendency for bands to play loud, aggressive music rather than anything more stripped back. But maybe teenage hormones have something to do with that. It’s hard to detach myself from my surroundings and look objectively at why we’re more drawn to certain sounds and styles than others. But with this record, there was a strong sense of wanting to remove ourselves from London and re-connect with the rural landscape we grew up with. Our relationship with London and Cumbria is one of love and hate. This record is very much a love letter to both landscapes as much as it is a warning sign.
RM: The band didn’t officially break up, but the relationships did crumble. What was that like? Many musicians compare it to grief, was it something similar for Woman’s Hour?
FB: Being in any kind of long-term creative collaboration has its ups and downs. It’s a marriage between you all, and over time it’s easy to become resentful of everything you’ve sacrificed for the collective group. You all bring your individual stories and personal situations and it has a huge impact on the group’s morale. We were constantly projecting onto each other, whilst trying to support each other. But then resentment builds because you don’t always want to have to deal with other people’s emotions. You just want to walk into a room and not know what everyone else is going through.
RM: You’ve has always had a background in visual arts; during the band’s hiatus you directed a number of projects, did these experiences help you approach songwriting in a new way? Can you detect elements of this on Ephyra?
FB: I directed all Woman’s Hour music videos, so it was a really natural progression for me to make music videos for other artists. It all happened at a similar time, just as the band was breaking up I was approached by a few friends to make music videos for them. I’d been asked to make videos for artists before but never felt I had the time to dedicate to it, so suddenly I had the time to give to it and nurture that side of myself. We’d actually finished writing Ephyra by that point, so it didn’t impact on the writing of the record, but I’m definitely a much more confident director now as a result. It’s given me an opportunity to create work that communicates on a visceral level, so it’s very connected in some ways to songwriting. It involves telling stories and creating worlds for people to explore.
“We just decided that we would be honest about the process, we have always been a band in flux, but what partnership isn’t.”
RM: What led you to return to the recordings and complete the album?
FB: We had actually already recorded everything by the time we broke up, so once we reconvened to finish the album we just needed to mix the tracks. So we actually didn’t have any band sessions together until after the album was mixed and mastered. For me, I never really accepted that this album wouldn’t be released. I just couldn’t bare the thought of it sitting on someone’s hard drive. It needed to be released but it was also clear that our mental health needed to take priority, so it was important that we all took a step back and allowed our personal wellbeing to be our main focus. We had given so much of ourselves to making this record, it nearly broke us. But once we all had some time to heal and reflect, it became clear that we needed to feel a sense of completion. A sense of resolution. And I think that was a very important part of the process, it took the pressure off and became something to celebrate rather than to blame.
RM: Don’t Speak is the first song on the album, and it led your return. Why choose this song?
FB: Don’t Speak is a song begging for silence, whilst acknowledging all the tension and tenderness that lies and wrestles within it. This is a very personal song for me. It was written at a time when I was struggling to communicate with people close to me and I was desperate for them to trust me and believe in what I was doing. I didn’t want to fight, I didn’t want to talk, I just wanted to trust my instinct and feel supported by the people closest to me. When I was directing the video it was clear to me that dance could offer a way to visualise this struggle. Physical touch, the push and pull, each movement signals emotions I was unable to express in words.
RM: Luke was prompted by Wordsworth’s poem Michael, and it deals with moral corruption and a yearning for home. What prompted these lyrics?
FB: During the first writing phase we spent a lot of time in Kendal, our hometown, and we became interested in local authors and the history of the place. So we started reading some Wordsworth poems and this one just seemed to speak to us. It is such a heartbreaking story of a child, Luke, who leaves home with the promise that one day he will return, but becomes seduced by corruption and greed and never sees his parents again. Our song is written from the perspective of Michael, Luke’s father. We wanted to imagine how it must feel to lose a child and long for their return. I guess there were lots of themes in the poem that resonated with us, and it was a nice process to use a song as a response to it.
RM: Is Ephyra the final chapter for Woman’s Hour? Could you foresee another project together?
FB: Ephyra is our final album together as Woman’s Hour. Who knows what’s next.
All clothing by Regina Pyo and Simone Rocha.