This feature interview was originally published in the March 2018 edition of Jazzwise Magazine
Thought You Knew, the latest album from genre-crossing London sextet Snowpoet is as beautiful as it is personal. Thomas Rees spoke to bandleaders Lauren Kinsella and Chris Hyson about writing in nature, introspection and turning heartbreak into music…
“I’ve had people ringing telling me they’re in floods of tears, says Lauren Kinsella. “‘I just have to let you know that I can’t stop crying’. It’s amazing that people feel like that towards our music. I’m completely humbled.” It’s a week after the release of ‘The Therapist’, the first single from new Snowpoet album Thought You Knew (Edition), and Kinsella and Chris Hyson, the writing partnership at the heart of the group, are sat across from me in a north London coffee shop. Hyson’s girlfriend, Hannah, has tagged along. Their silver dapple Dachshund, Mouse, dozes by her side as we talk.
The response to ‘The Therapist’ may be humbling, but it’s hardly surprising. Thought You Knew is a devastatingly beautiful album and Kinsella’s lyrics – poetic musings on love and loss – are disarming in their vulnerability. “It’s really all about love,” says the Dublin-born singer, who was named Vocalist Of The Year at the 2016 Jazz FM Awards. “The grief of love, the joy of love, the questions in love. It’s the most personal thing I’ve ever written in my life and that’s fuckin’ scary. Scary and liberating.” She holds my gaze for a beat longer than feels comfortable and then breaks into a smile. “I know I’m getting quite intense.” “I’m loving it,” says Hyson. “Sunday afternoon enlightenment.” Kinsella’s lyrics are certainly more exposed than on the group’s self-titled debut, released on Two Rivers Records in 2016, and their sound has evolved to match. It’s still a genre-fluid blend of jazz, folk and creative pop – all lilting singer-songwriter guitar loops and ethereal textures, but it’s noticeably sparser and less electronic.
Hyson, who produces the London-based sextet as well as playing bass and piano, has stripped out most of the synths in favour of an acoustic sound palette. His aim was to highlight the purity of Kinsella’s voice and allow the instruments – Nick Costley-White’s wiry guitar, Matthew Robinson’s piano, Dave Hamblett’s padding drums and Josh Arcoleo’s tenor – to shine. String flurries, played by guest violinist Alice Zawadzki and cellist Francesca Ter-Berg, add to the sense of fragility. The overall mood is one of introspection. That’s clearest on ‘It’s Already Better Than Ok’, which starts off spoken rather than sung.
Listening to it is like eavesdropping on Kinsella’s internal monologue. “That was an improvisation,” she reveals. At the end of that track you can hear Chris take a breath inwards. I remember him turning round and being like, ‘I think I think we have it’.” “I feel like the album is inside your head,” explains Hyson. “Those conversations you have with yourself when you go through a huge change in your life. Those questions you ask. It’s the inner dialogue.” Kinsella rummages in her bag for a notebook. “Sorry. This ridiculously amazing quote…” She reads a few lines by Irish poet John O’Donohue: ‘In postmodern culture the ceaseless din of chatter has killed our acquaintance with silence. Silence is a fascinating presence. It’s shy. It’s patient. It never draws attention to itself.’
“We have a lot of patience with each other, and if there’s an idea it’s just like press repeat again, again, again. It’s about letting things unfold. Sometimes the most magical things happen in that space.”
“I hope the listener is drawn to that sense of innerness,” she says. Alongside love and introspection, nature is another recurring theme in Thought You Knew. There are lines about finding solace in the natural world and many of the tracks feature field recordings – fragments of birdsong, the murmur of the wind and the quiet rush of footsteps through tall grass. The duo’s writing process reflects that. They composed most of the music in the summer of 2016, meeting up in parks around London. “There were some lovely evenings in July and August,” Kinsella recalls, “and we just sat there in the sun. We have a lot of patience with each other, and if there’s an idea it’s just like press repeat again, again, again. It’s about letting things unfold. Sometimes the most magical things happen in that space.”
The duo first met on the postgraduate course at the Royal Academy of Music in 2012. “There was a vibe straight away,” says Hyson, who describes his process as being “like colouring in”, adding musical context to Kinsella’s lyrics before taking the tunes to the rest of the group. “It’s not just a bit of me and a bit of you. It’s like something new happens in the middle,” he explains. “It’s also about not having ego problems – feeling safe in Lauren saying, ‘I don’t like that’, without it being personal. It’s just making choices to serve the music.” “It’s happened a few times,” laughs Kinsella. “I’ll be singing and he’ll say, ‘take out the word “heart” cos it’s too fuckin’ cheesy’. And then we take it out and it’s like, yes! It doesn’t give the answer to the listener on a plate. That’s one of his amazing skills: to keep people guessing.”
They see their differing tastes in music as another strength. Kinsella was obsessing over folk singer Olivia Chaney’s The Longest River when they were writing Thought You Knew, while Hyson listens to a lot of electronic music. They were agreed on the album’s two covers though, the mysterious ‘Snow’ by Icelandic singer Emilíana Torrini and ‘Dear Someone’ by country singer Gillian Welch. Both tunes fit with the album’s themes, which are universal, after all. “There’s that line in ‘The Therapist’,” says Hyson. “Everybody knows this.” Kinsella nods. “People around the world have moved through extreme heartbreak, and if you can capture that in music it resonates with them. I guess that’s why everyone is calling me in bits. They’ve been through the same thing.”
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