Music Features

Vanessa Lowe: 57 Suspect Words Review & Interview

It doesn't seem it now, but a year ago I was wandering round the streets of Manchester getting soaked by the rain on a regular basis, with no money in my pocket to buy a coffee/shelter in a passing café. Such is life. At the time though, my headphones were filled by an album I'd received from a (then) unknown to me singer called Vanessa Lowe.

I liked it, it cheered me up a little. Maybe I've always had a soft spot for women playing acoustic guitars, but that's what you get when your first gig was Suzanne Vega. Twelve odd months on, I'm still pretty much doing the same thing, albeit with a different haircut, and a new Vanessa Lowe album has fell through my letterbox and it got me thinking about too many things I shouldn't waste my time on, but do anyway because perhaps that's what happens when you listen to music made by Clinical Psychology graduates.

What I wrote back then about Barnacles Of Joy (the aforementioned last album) I can't quite remember, but around 30 seconds into 57 Suspect Words (out now on Jicama Salad Co.), it feels like familar ground: seductive vocals wrap around acoustic guitars, yet there's something different in here somewhere (could it be those bubbling electronic noises placed quietly in the background?) and the feeling continues until Your Worried Mind when it climbs, climbs until you find yourself almost physically wishing it to hit that peak that so few songs meet. And it does, and it makes you glow seeing that musicians can go forward and not just make the same record time after time.

Lowe has evidenty taken several steps forward between albums - the sparse acoustic arrangements of previous work are still here, but now backed with all sorts of instrumentation that adds a certain darkness to all of this. Darwinian Darts (mid-year contender for most interesting title of the year) credits 'Electric Guitar drills and roars', which I'm convinced may well be a first on any album sleeve that I know of.

All that said, Carry Me Home is pretty much stripped to its bones which could have put it out of place on an album such as this. Then you hear what appears to be it's sweet romanticism and let your heart be warmed but wonder what she can mean with the line 'only hints at what's underneath'. Draw your own conclusions, it's one of the beautiful things about art.

So, it's not quite as rock and roll as some may like. But I don't care because I like it very much. There's nothing present that you'll hear on the radio to work, which doesn't really matter as it's wonderfully different in it's own little way and listening to it makes tramping those (now sweltering) streets a little easier. For when she sings 'Goodbye my suffering, I'm thanking you for what you've been' I feel my heart buzz and we all need moments like that. 9/10


Where has the change in sound over the last year came from?

When I recorded Barnacles of Joy I did not have Bug Eyed Sprite, my full band. I had been playing with a violinist and a drummer. The drummer, Toby Hawkins, is still playing with me - he doesn't use a full kit, but rather a snare and metal pieces made by an artist, and random other objects and small drums, sometimes a floor tom. Ben Freelove is playing bass, and he's simply great. Kent Sparling plays 'tiny instruments' in the band - an old little casio synthesizer through lots of Boss effects, ukelele, melodica, slide whistle. He only wanted to join the band if he could carry everything he needed in a suitcase. He uses a little vintage Fender vibro-champ amp. He's very compact, and secure enough to withstand the "tiny" thing.

So, with 57 Suspect Words, it's really a record of the whole band and this great point in our playing together. Like the last record was about what I had been doing solo. Also, Kent is a composer of experimental music and he does sound for film. He uses old analogue synthesizers called Serge Modules, which he built a long time ago. He blended a lot of processed sounds into the record in a very atmospheric way. Roger Linn played theremin on one song, just for kicks. He invented the Linn Drum Machine, so it was really fun to ask him to do something entirely different. Finally, we recorded and mastered the record with Myles Boisen at Guerilla Recording. In addition to being a gifted engineer, he is an amazing experimental jazz guitarist - he played on one of Tom Waits' last records, plays with Mark Growden, Splatter Trio, Whore, and also composes amazing stuff himself. So he added a bunch of beautifully weird electric guitar to the record. He's played with us live a few times, too.

Is being on an Independent label important to you, and does it affect the way you go about making your music?

Being indie is important to me - the label is our own, so we're extremely indie. What matters to me is having total artistic control. No one is telling us to do things different for the wrong reasons. I can't really imagine being at a major label and being told to write a certain way, or look a particular way. Being independent is synonymous with having integrity for me. That said, it's also synonymous with lots of expenses and lots and lots of work. I would be very interested in working with a larger, well-established independent label for licensing and distribution of my records. We don't have the resources that a larger indie has with regard to tour booking and promotion.

Does your doctorate in clinical psychology have any bearing on your songwriting?

Absolutely. I'm very interested in the minutiae of human experience and interaction, whether that's with other humans, other living things, or objects in the world. I like to isolate a tiny aspect of a feeling or experience and magnify it into a whole world in a song.

Given it's only been 12 months between albums, can we expect more summer 2005?

Why, yes. We're immersed in recording the next record, tentatively entitled, eep. We have 19 songs to choose from. It's a very similar vibe to 57 Suspect Words, only that record was a lot about stuff underground, and eep seems to have a lot of perspective from way up above. I got a little claustrophobic with all the intensely digging songs, so I started flying around a bit. About half of the songs on eep were recorded with songs on Suspect Words. I've just emerged from a dry spell of about 6 months - I wrote three songs this week. They're really different, so I'm excited about the next record after eep. I might want to try recording it largely on my own for a change. I have Protools which I can run on my laptop with an Mbox. We'll see - I'm not very detail-oriented.

If there's 57 Suspect Words, name one.