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Girl From Winter Jargon – Song for the Waves / Matilda

Photo credit: Mark Blizard

Since starting this blog I’ve yet to encounter another piece that has kicked, screamed and fought as much against being compiled as this one has. Thwarted by a comedy of errors ranging from unseen emails languishing in junk folders – with both parties wary of sending potentially irritating follow-ups – to delays caused by two house moves (one each), it’s a piece that originally was intended to coincide with the release Girl From Winter Jargon’s recent double A side 7″ back in February: the brilliant Song for the Waves / Matilda. Naturally all of the limited edition lathe-cut physical versions (released through the North East’s Butterfly Effect label) are long gone now, but the good news is that you can obtain both – as well as her debut single from 2019, Without Apology – as downloads via Bandcamp.

Before hearing either of the songs that make up the double A side, the first thing I did was was check out a live performance of Without Apology. I’ve embedded the YouTube clip somewhere below in the second half of this piece, and given that you’ve read this far, I guess it would go without saying that I thought it was great. It’s the perfect introduction to what she does too; kind of like what you might get if you dropped The Cure, Journal for Plague Lovers Manics, Pixies, Shakespeare’s Sister, Thom Yorke, The Anchoress, and Tori Amos into the large hadron collider. Or nothing like that. Essentially Girl From Winter Jargon is making precise, literate alternative post-punk with a hint of a pop edge and it’s not difficult to see why plaudits have come from the likes of BBC Introducing and 6 Music.

With its layers of intricate squealing guitar, slap bass, shattering glass, and spectral harmonies, Song for the Waves is an inventive and muscular beast with a healthy dark streak of self-referential humour running through the lyrics that confidently walk a line between earnestness and everyday vernacular. A couple of favourites include ‘You said you would never hear a happy song from me / I maintain that you were never listening properly‘ and ‘Judges judge you, counselors counsel, teachers teach / Come and do the job that you signed up for / Make your mind up please’. It’s bold and impressive stuff, and for a song with a fairly dark sting in its tail, remarkably light.

If Song for the Waves represents an oncoming twilight, then its companion piece, Matilda, is very much the daylight that balances it out; specifically that golden hour where the light falls just right and everything looks glorious. A more laid-back affair with a much slower tempo, it’s a gorgeous song (I don’t really want to use the term ‘ballad’) that calls to mind, among other things, The Bends-era Radiohead. Its gentle atmospherics and shimmering arpeggios gradually build in the manner of something like Fake Plastic Trees, with the dialled-back arrangement carving out acres of space for the vocal to take centre stage. Again it’s an interesting lyric – based on the Roald Dahl story – and the delivery is exquisite, in equal parts vulnerable and searingly powerful. As with Song for the Waves, the arrangement and production are such that I’d advise you plug in a semi-decent pair of headphones, close your eyes, and let these songs carry you off somewhere.

A conversation with Girl From Winter Jargon

Photo credit: Rob Irish

Despite calling these things ‘conversations’, usually when I put them together they’re the result of me sending several questions across to an artist and then awaiting their response. It’s something I always look forward to – reading their answers – and I hope that it interests other people too. Anyway it’s a misleading yet aesthetically pleasing term for what I often fear might be seen by some as a glorified questionnaire, but I’ve yet to find a better alternative. The reason why I’m talking about this is because this time I thought it would be interesting to send questions across piecemeal, wait to see where the responses went, and allow them to dictate where the so-called conversation would go next. In an ideal world I’d have the time, energy, and windows of opportunity to do interviews over Zoom etc. like everybody else, but alas our son is very erratic in his sleeping patterns – well, he’s pretty erratic in everything he does (but hey, that’s neurodiversity for you!).

So you probably wouldn’t know any different from reading through this, but what follows is an interview conducted over several weeks via email and Instagram. Thanks to Rachel for sticking it out and providing some really great insight into her work.

• I’m intrigued by your name, which is quite unusual to say the least…

Winter Jargon was formerly a band, but it’s also a made-up phrase that I used to write everywhere (and say to myself) from being young. The complete sentence was always, “O’ for the winter jargon.” Most people assume I’m Girl From Winter Jargon. They’re not wrong, but I don’t quite think of it that way, because I’ve always thought of Winter Jargon as a place. (Or possibly a state of mind?? I’m not sure). It was born out of childhood imagination. Am I making any sense here??? 

• Ha, I think so. Now that you mention the idea of a place, it kinda does. I think it’s a great name anyway; at first I was drawn by how jarring it is, and how I just couldn’t process it… and even now, having a clearer idea of where it’s coming from, it still feels pretty odd. Also, I can’t help but wonder what kind of place Winter Jargon is?

I always imagined it as a wide open wintry landscape; the kind of space where there’s very little concealing your view, so it’s virtually impossible to gauge distance, because distance is infinite. White. Cold. Sensory. Peaceful. Solitary. Powerful. But there’s also hidden forests and sheltered areas to live in, with bonfires and cosy, whimsical elements. The laws of physics can be bended and reshaped there. (If you want them to be!) 

I was drawn to the word ‘Jargon,’ because I liked the idea of hidden meaning within language. It’s that whole idea that there are certain things which can be concealed from others that are beyond their comprehension and understanding. I like to imagine that a younger version of myself actually found that place and now inhabits it, hence, “Girl From Winter Jargon!”

• Who would you say are your main influences? Matilda really reminds me of Radiohead around the time they made The Bends. To my ears it doesn’t sound a million miles away from something like Fake Plastic Trees. I love the melody, and the way your vocal just goes everywhere… high, low, almost raspy in places. And your guitar playing is quite something (particularly on Song for the Waves). I can definitely hear early Manics in there too – glimmers of Gold Against the Soul or The Holy Bible in places. Then there’s those kind of spectral backing vocals…

That’s funny, (and interesting), because you’ve actually pinpointed some of my biggest influences… but I wouldn’t necessarily have made those specific connections to the actual songs. If anything, I’d say there was probably a conscious influence with Radiohead for Song For The Waves (the erratic-ness of the guitars in Paranoid Android shall we say) – but now you’ve mentioned the Manics, that makes absolute sense too. I love James Dean Bradfield’s spiky, angular guitar solos especially in mid-90s era. And yeah, I can actually see what you mean with the ghost vocals too, though I don’t think I would’ve spotted it! Matilda definitely has a 90s vibe I think, so the Bends comparison is pleasing. 

I think that compositionally, I like to pick and choose from a variety of genres and influences. I like a lot of 90s alternative guitar aesthetics; grunge and indie… I like a lot of 50s & 60s music, though I’m not sure to what extent (if any) those influences creep into my music. Classical music. Jazz music. I was a big Tori Amos fan growing up, so there’s more than likely the occasional Tori note in my vocals. There’s also a band called the Dresden Dolls who had their own unique brand of “punk cabaret” or dark cabaret. They’re a piano/drums combo and I really love the quirky, theatrical elements in their music. When I was younger, my ears always honed in on melody and harmony. In recent times, I seem to be more drawn to music that is challenging and mentally stimulating; rhythmic, complicated stuff, like Primus for example. As time goes on, I suspect I might become increasingly interested in odd time signatures, but I’m not quite there yet.

• How does a song typically come together for you? Are you a journal-keeper? Are you building everything up from loops? I think there’s something really interesting about how your songs seem to be built over these unwinding figures and odd, disjointed melodies rather than bog standard chords – which everybody does…

Initial ideas for songs usually happen very quickly and unexpectedly. I could be out on a walk or watching television etc. My phone is full of voice memo song sketches, often recorded during inconvenient moments, for example, I was once watching a film at the cinema, didn’t want to miss any dialogue and resorted to humming gently into my phone! Other times it’ll happen in moments of procrastination. Rehearsing for gigs etc… 

In more recent times, I’ve written new songs based on accidental short loops that I’ve found within other songs I’m working on. I’ll end up duplicating and renaming the project so that I can build something on the accidental loop. If any of those songs surface, I imagine they’ll be quite strange! 

Ideas themselves are driven by distraction and never in short supply, but it takes me a long time to actually complete my recordings. I’m indecisive and don’t always choose the easiest or obvious route. I’m fortunate to have found Rob Irish, who is able to make sense of what I want within a mix! 

• You play quite a range of instruments on your stuff. I was particularly drawn to the clarinet weaving around the guitar on Without Apology. I was wondering how you started out, and how you ended up playing so many instruments to such a high standard?

With ‘Without Apology’ being my solo debut, the clarinet parts were important! I began lessons when I was 8 years old. Presumably due to a lack of school funding, the entire class were made to take some sort of audio music test and four of us were then deemed ‘worthy’ to learn a woodwind instrument of our choosing. I couldn’t read music, but nevertheless continued with the clarinet lessons throughout school. I even joined the school woodwind band (which was pretty much mandatory) and wasted everyone’s time staring blankly at sheet music while playing the notes I thought sounded right! I think having ‘official lessons’ served as justification with certain teachers to ‘grant access’ to the music rooms during break and lunch times. The doors were usually locked but I would always find ways to sneak in. The head of music didn’t like me and was always kicking me out. I think there was a huge amount of snobbery that existed toward self-taught musicians. Playing by ear was discouraged, never nurtured. All I cared about was getting access to those pianos. I was obsessed! Shutting me out only made me more defiant. With pianos, you’ve a very clear visual of all the notes laid out before you, which I think helps you make better sense of how they relate to one another. From there, I suppose it’s a case of adapting the same rules to other instruments? I think I was about 14 when my older brother bought himself an acoustic guitar beginners’ bundle. He didn’t take to it. I did. I still have the guitar. She’s called Lucy.

The production is amazing. I love the clarity and precise nature of your arrangements… again, the intricacy of the different parts all complimenting eachother. Could you talk about your recording process? Also you mentioned your collaborator Rob Irish earlier, and I was curious as to what he brings to the mixing and mastering process…

Thank you. I record all the parts myself at home; it’s quite a slow, painstaking process. I like to take my time and try different things before making any final decisions. My arrangements will often evolve naturally over time; I’m always in favour of trying to capture accidental, ‘of-the-moment’ weirdness where possible, but at the same time, everything is carefully considered and deliberate, so maybe there’s a blend of both extremes? Home recording is a relatively new thing to me and I’m still finding my way with it. Moving forward, I’d ideally like the execution to become quicker; more primal, less obsessive.

When it comes to mixing/mastering, I know how I want my music to sound but I can’t quite get it there myself, hence the need for assistance. Rob Irish is a very good match for me in that respect because his qualities are helpfully counteractive to mine; he is patient, orderly, unassuming and reassuring. There always reaches a point with my music where I’ll completely lose perspective. I overthink. I get indecisive and overwhelmed and will start to doubt myself. Having an outsider perspective is therefore important. I’d never want to work with someone who was opinionated or forceful with their views, and I definitely don’t want to be told what to do. Rob doesn’t do that. He is respectful and objective, but is also happy to step in and make decisions when asked. With the latest releases, [Song For The Waves & Matilda] I recorded around 100 individual tracks a piece, and sent them through to Rob, along with an initial rough mix and many, many notes. We’ve yet to work together in the same room. Quite literally, hundreds of messages and (hilarious) audio clips will be sent back and forth between ourselves, revising and revising, until we’re both happy with the final result. Somehow, Rob is able to make sense of the chaos. His own original work with The Black Sheep Frederick Dickens is very grand-sounding, cinematic and experimental; that’s actually the reason I wanted to work with him. Listening to a person’s own work, (as opposed to the work they do for other artists) gives you a better sense of who they really are, and what they might be able to bring to the table. In production, “bigger” does not necessarily equate “better,” but it’s good to have options. I sensed he would know what to do with multiple layers and would not be fazed by my weirdness!

• One of the things that jumped out at me was that the double single came out on limited edition 7″ vinyl, with the hand-printed sleeves. I was interested in what draws you to the physical format, and also in the print that forms the cover…

Honestly, as a listener and fan, I get a bit annoyed when something isn’t available on a physical format, so naturally, I want to apply that same basic principle to my own releases. Having something that is tangible and visual to accompany the music is important; more of the senses are involved and it’s a lot more personal. The record was released with Butterfly Effect from Darlington. Every month, they release a small run of limited edition, lathe-cut 7” vinyl featuring music made by Artists from the North East of England. The idea is to create something that is highly unique and collectible. With my own release, I included a card with an envelope, three hand-made lino prints, lyrics, download codes and a hand-written ‘thank you’ on a small piece of paper. The cover artwork itself features a character I made up called Daniel; he’s a visual representation of Song For The Waves. A lot of the song’s lyrics feature in the design itself: elephants, knives, radio waves, breathing in ions etc. He has a bass clef for an ear and I’d say around 90% of Song For The Waves’ bass line is slapped, so it sort of fits?

You can find more information on Girl From Winter Jargon on her website and on Bandcamp.

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