At one point in this interview, when Hilary Woods spoke about her songwriting, she described herself as a beginner and then she corrected herself. I think she was right both times.
In some concrete ways, Hilary Woods is anything but a beginner. She has over fifteen years of experience as a working musician and, outside of music, has turned her hand to prose and painting among other pursuits. Anything to create: “I like the sense of wonder in making things,” she told me.
Conversely, Hilary remains a beginner in a couple of senses. For one thing, everyone who strives continually to create has to start again with each new project. I suppose you would hope that all artists retain that freshness and as I write this I’m reminded of her 2014 State interview, when she spoke of her affinity for “the blank canvas – that sense of possibility.”
In another, more specific sense, in her solo career Hilary Woods has already displayed an artistic restlessness that makes her an unlikely candidate ever to get too comfortable or complacent.
In Heartbox, her new EP, Hilary has moved on substantially from 2014’s Night EP and her 2013 album released under the nom de guerre The River Cry. They were acoustic affairs, coloured in by pianos and pastoral guitars; ‘Bathing’ and ‘Heartbox’, from the current EP, are all electronic atmospherics, played on Korgs and Moog Little Phattys and Oberheim Xpanders.
The songs on Heartbox create a mood that is intense and hard to describe, and, as arises for discussion elsewhere in the interview, if it were easy to describe what songs do in words then songwriters would do it with words. I have decided that this lets me off the hook of having to do so.
‘Sabbath’ is the third track on the Heartbox EP, and it is a reworking of ‘Secret Sabbath’, a gorgeous song first encountered on Night that ruefully recalls a relationship that became less than it should have been – the killer line is “Treasuring you now you’re gone”. Hearing the fuller, more textured version of the song released as ‘Sabbath’, it struck me that the choice to revisit and re-arrange that song epitomises the sonic move Hilary has made, and that is where we began.
Hilary, can you talk about the decision you made to revisit ‘Sabbath’?
When I recorded ‘Secret Sabbath’ for Night, it was a song I played on my own in the bedroom. And then it was a song that almost evolved in the rehearsal room after I had toured it. Playing it with friends in the rehearsal room, I just really wanted to go back and revisit it as a bigger piece. In the rehearsal room, it’d go on and on and on – we’d build it.
Listening to The River Cry, Night, and now Heartbox, you can hear what sounds like an evolution.
I’m interested in more of an electronic sound world and less that idea of I have to go back to the acoustic guitar. I like the idea of throwing everything at the canvas and stripping it back. That’s what happened on this EP more. I think it’s a really good stepping stone into the synth world. I think it’s important for me to explore those sounds before I crack into an album.
Is that what an EP is? A chance to try something?
I don’t know what it is for anyone else. Certainly for Night it wasn’t really that. With this one it was very much – well let’s explore here. And not be afraid of putting out something that’s exploratory. I tend to give my time now mostly to music that… this is going to sound really obvious, but music that moves me.
As an artist, is that your goal? What’s the purpose of making music for you?
Definitely to move. And also the things that move you are the things that you write about. Or energy that you have, or something quite live. So to translate a live feeling is really important.
When you say a “live” feeling – you mean a feeling that’s powerful for you.
Yeah. But there’s different ways of doing that. So a song like ‘Sabbath’ is probably more provocative emotionally than a song like ‘Bathing’. They’re doing different things.
To have some idea of what it is you want to do emotionally, and to be able to use your chords, and arrangement, and whatever you’re using, and to evoke that emotion in another person – increasingly, this seems to me like a fucking miracle.
(Laughs) I couldn’t agree with you more. That’s what I always seek in music, that experience, and that’s what I seek as a music maker. But it is quite amazing because you always know, no matter how much you write, you always know the ones that actually work.
How do you know?
I think you can just feel it. And it’s quite immediate. It’s almost like – to be in a creative space where you can catch something as you’re feeling it. To write as you’re feeling something as opposed to writing retrospectively. And that just can be difficult in an everyday way. As in – you could be busy, collecting your kid from school, or in the shops, or meeting someone, and you feel that you should be at home responding to something. It doesn’t always work logistically (laughs).
Whenever I think about this I think how undervalued this role of the musician is. People walk around all day listening to music, and treat it so disposably, and you’re like – “No no – just think about it for a second! Think about what’s happening here!”
Actually that’s what drew me – the very thing you’re talking about is what drew me to make stuff. As a kid, I used to feel that it was very difficult to express myself. So I’d go and paint, or dance, or something. And I was in fine art college, and I left, I dropped out. I’d been painting and every Friday they’d say “Stand up there now and tell us about your painting”. And I’d feel like a saleswoman and I just couldn’t do it. If I could talk about it, I would, but I’m here to just – say it in another way.
But I think that’s fascinating. I think a lot of people are drawn to the piano, certainly I was, to make up my own little thing, cos I like putting things together. It feels quite physical, creating this way. These sounds, these chords, you know. It’s a way of speaking – secret languages.
If you talk to any six-year-old, it’s totally normal. They can explain their feelings like “I feel like a prickly porcupine”, and you understand. So it’s getting back to some sense of, that everything isn’t logic as we know it. You can enter into feelings or communication in a central way.
Is there any music that you’re experiencing on that kind of level?
It kind of ebbs and flows. I’m crazy about the new Anohni record. It’s pretty full on! It’s amazing but it requires your full attention.
I reviewed it and listened to it a lot for a week, and I haven’t gone back to it, actually.
You’re still recovering [laughs]. She’s really great. Actually she reminded me of why I want to, why I have to, make art. Because she does move me a lot.
But it doesn’t always have to be at that level of intensity.
No, not at all. I was listening to Tame Impala this morning, and so them, or Caribou, or Michael Jackson – it’s a very different energy. Sometimes you write from a place and you wish you were doing a jingle, you know, or a dance track, but somehow, whatever way writing is for you or for me, it doesn’t come from that place, and it can’t be forced to.
Neil Hannon once told me he could never write a totally serious, straight album: “I just don’t think it’s me,” he said. It’s hard to write from a personality that’s not your own.
Or from a place that’s not your own at that time. I think a lot of writing comes from – it can come from that missing piece of the jigsaw. Like Si Schroeder’s album, a coping mechanism, or a secret language somewhere that you can confide in, or an emotional well.
So when you start writing from that place it’s difficult to change where it’s from. Then, when you get into the studio, you can be playful around the sound world and stuff. Although the lyrics might be quite intense and come from a different zone, I think in the playful zone a lot can happen; a lot of productivity. It’s less self-conscious. But I find it difficult to change where it comes from.
Heartbox was different to Night in that way, in that ‘Bathing’ and ‘Heartbox’, the track itself, were definitely tracks that explored, or stretched a few muscles.
Well ‘Bathing’ I always approached as exploring a sound world. Yeah, it is emotive, but ‘Sabbath’ is more lyric-driven. I used to always write songs that were very lyric-driven, I still do, but …
I find as I get older I’m much less inclined to be interested in the narrative ‘meaning’ of a song. I listen to the words less because I’m bringing my own stuff to it.
Oh, absolutely. I mean – I’m listening to Valerie and her Week of Wonders – do you know that soundtrack? It’s from a film made in the Czech Republic in 1970. It’s a medieval feel. There’s very few lyrics in it. And I love it because it opens up so many landscapes and worlds and I’m reading loads of things into it – or not even reading but I’m feeling my own way along.
I really appreciate that in music now, when you are given that space to participate in the process.
Yeah, any track or song that allows that – that can feel really intimate. Because you’re there, and there is room for the audience. Experimental cinema does a lot of that. It’s a different way of telling you the story. It allows the audience to sort of fill in the blanks and join the dots and there’s something very beautiful about that and something surreal; dreamy. I really like that idea in bringing it to my own songwriting. I still feel like a beginner. Well – maybe not a beginner, but I certainly feel like I have a lot to learn and lots of scope to do different things as I go on.
You mentioned an album. Have you any sense of it yet?
I have a lot of seedlings. Get the watering can out! I’d like to be clear on the texture and tone. I don’t think an album is just a collection of songs. I think of it all together. That’s important to me. When that all becomes clear, then I’ll be ready.
The Heartbox EP is out on iTunes and Bandcamp https://hilarywoodsmusic.
Photo by Joshua Wright