Astrid Williamson may be indie rock’s hardest working songwriter – and, perhaps, its most inconspicuous. Since her inception into rock music as the frontwoman for mid-’90s UK darlings Goya Dress, the Shetland-born singer has eluded wider attention from a public that has normally favored a rowdier sort of noisemaker. To be sure, Williamson can sling a mean guitar, as her work in her former band Goya Dress will attest; there was a time when she could fill the sonic space wall-to-wall with layers of caustic feedback. But her tried and true love is, in fact, the piano; not exactly the de rigueur choice of an instrument if you’re cutting a swathe as an edgy provocateur of pop music. Unless, of course, you’re Kate Bush.
Williamson’s musical erudition, however, has ensured the singer an illustrious return that has made her piano a means to charm even the most impertinent critic. Her songwriting prowess has found her tipping the scales of her talents one way or the other – either as a classically trained graduate of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music or an alternative-rock maven who cut her teeth on the wild and passionate squall that was her former band. As the principal songwriter in Goya Dress, Williamson successfully married the piano and string arrangements worthy of Brahms with the tempestuous crashes of alternative rock. The eminent John Cale of the Velvet Underground took notice and it didn’t take much coaxing for him to step on board as producer for the band’s one and only full-length album, Rooms (1996).
Since the dissolution of the band in 1997, Williamson has carried on as a solo artist, still earning critical accolades that have been attributed to her brand of songwriting, yet flying low below the radars of the listening public. The singer showed an impressive hand with her 1998 debut, Boy For You, a collection of electro-folk-pop helmed by producer Malcolm Burn (Patti Smith, Iggy Pop). A muted response from radio and a folding record label would eventually strand the singer with little support and, following her debut, Williamson would write, record, and release her next works independently.
Eight solo albums in and Williamson has learned the ropes that make the indie-machine run. With her latest, Into the Mountain (released on her own imprint, Incarnation), she presents an unwavering hand behind the pen and instrument that create her music. Culled from a series of journal entries and poems found in a once-lost file on her computer, Into the Mountain is a collection of songs that are built chiefly around the chords of her piano. Only a handful of numbers are mere echoes of her guitar-thrashing days.
Wisely introducing the new material with the familiar grounds trodden upon in earlier works, Williamson unveils her latest with the single “Coming Up for Air”, a moody, midtempo ballad full of erotic presentiment and baroque drama. Creating a layered storm that eddies with the clamor of wall-to-wall guitars and the whorls of a string section, Williamson lifts the brooding atmosphere with a yearning vocal that keeps its passion in check. A number aligned with the twilit balladry of her mid-period work, “Coming Up for Air” showcases a talent not only adroit in handling the building blocks of rock music but also a musical classicism that belies her formal training.
Indeed, for much of this album, Williamson flexes the muscles of her classical training, wrapping a wealth of these numbers in a dark shroud of orchestral strings. On “June Bug”, she conceives a luxurious drape of sound that is intensely emotional and funereal, the thick washes of melody wrapping and turning like an artist’s brush saturated with the oils of paint. She proffers a similar effect of grandiose expression on “Corsica”, a majestic siren’s call resounding from a peak on the Mount Olympus range. Beneath a winged melody soaring to welkin heights and Williamson’s lyrical inversions of Greek myths, a Chinese wind gong thunderously signals an angelic call to arms.
Not all of these numbers adhere to the cadences of dirge and hymn. Referring to her previous explorations with electronic music on past albums Pulse (2011) and We Go to Dream (2015), Williamson bedrocks a few of these numbers with synthesized grooves. The electronic pulse of “Body” strides with proud and sensuous ardor, its near-bolero rhythms breaking into a gallop halfway through the song. A lethal eroticism imbues the restless “Eat”, a shuddering, not-all-the-way dancefloor number that barely curtails its pop inclinations. On the lithe “Prague”, Williamson dangerously appropriates a Euro-house rhythm, negating the usual throwaway subject matters of commonplace dance music for a lyric of digital anxiety and miscommunication; genre-conventions are further kept at bay as the song is lifted to an emotional climax of classical strings and E-bow guitars.
Throughout her career, pressures from outside and from within prompted Williamson to explore faster BPMs in order to court radio, resulting in efforts like the rock-oriented Here Come the Vikings (2009), a provocative collection of Euro pop-rock, critically lauded but overlooked by radio. Now unfettered by the restraints of a commercial music industry that once held her in its grips, Williamson forgoes pop-radio tempo and writes at her preferred andante, pacing the songs so that they unfold languidly. When not engaging in a few dancey affairs, the singer often indulges in the dreamlike tempos which consign the listener to a drawing-room repose for much of the album. “In Gratitude”, another single off the release, moves at a pace just below a leisurely stroll, its troubled weather hanging thick with the windswept airs of minor-chord drama.
On “Gun”, the lyrics evoke the sweeping, Romantic dynamism of Williamson’s Goya Dress material. A poem read with unhurried resolve in an unfurling storm of Castilian blues, art-rock, and classical traditions, “Gun” finds the singer enumerating fears and desires under the discriminating lens of her untiring heart. Death and memory are the central themes here, and Williamson stands as a patient matador inside the song, shaking a cape at the staggering mass of anxiety charging at her.
Nestled into the center of the album like a dusky, slow-beating heart, “For Henry”, a piano instrumental, serenely sits; a budding rose that blooms in full as a dark flower of gothic portent – as pretty as it is foreboding. Such languorously-paced rhythms might frustrate those looking for catchier sways, but Williamson profits from the leisureliness to allow generous room for what is arguably her strongest draw: a stately voice to touch wide-open skies. Richly textured and handsomely gnarled like the proud bole of a hundreds-year-old oak tree, Williamson’s voice reaches lofty heights by the sheer stretch of her passions. And, like the haunted, regal instrument of power that it is, all hearts are leveled in the sweet rush of its breath. There is much to appreciate in it on numbers like “Corsica” and the album’s closing track “There Are No Words”, where her voice floats ominously above the spare and spectral piano lament.
In her 14 years as a solo artist, Williamson has skirted wider success. You could put it down to a general indifference to confessional singer-songwriter material in the wake of hipster rock, trap, and other sidelining subgenres, or simply Williamson’s own brand of slightly offbeat, earthy pop. Either way, her material has gained little commercial traction outside (and even within) the European continent. Her songwriting approach and general attitude toward industry politics may certainly have encumbered larger sales potential. But it hasn’t interrupted her drive and desire to create a body of work that is largely the expression of her classical training and her off-the-cuff education of get-up-and-just-do-it rock.
Those who never paid mind may very well carry on without even a passing interest. Those already in the know of her talents will appreciate the honed songwriting, the textures, the storytelling, and, above all, the heaven-bound and singular voice that has marked every one of her releases for these past 27 years.
The mountain was never going to come to Williamson, as it so rarely does for the many still quietly toiling away in their craft. So, Williamson will do what she has always done and determinedly and fearlessly go to the mountain herself.