“I often get asked about touring and playing live, and although I have traveled to many countries around the world in the past to do shows, I’ve always felt at home as an artist in my studio, as opposed to on a stage,” Steven Wilkinson writes on the post for his “Ribbons Sessions” YouTube video, wherein he recreates three songs from his rustic 2019 album with video layering. “As Ribbons is predominantly an album of overdubbed recordings of real instruments, all played by myself (apart from a few exceptions), it made it far more difficult to translate these recordings to a stage performance, especially when considering my studio recording techniques as being such an important part of my overall sound, I don’t want to compromise on that.”
What’s so unique about Wilkinson’s journey is that while his sound has traversed nearly every corner of both folk and electronic music, his album-to-album aesthetic shifts are quiet, subtle, but all very distinct. While his 2011 breakthrough record Mind Bokeh helped establish his beat-based credentials and broke him through to a wider audience, Bibio’s sound isn’t defined by one song or one record. Dropping a full-bore ambient record in 2017? Why not. Watching the quiet and somber “Petals” off of 2016’s A Mineral Love turn into his most-played song on Spotify with over 50 million streams? It sounds par for the course. There’s no one single entry-point for Bibio’s discography, and that alone is part of the reason why he remains so universally beloved.
Yet following Ribbons with a new record barely a year later? Such a fast turnaround is unusual for an artist who is known for being methodical in his creations, but the summer of 2020 saw the world meeting his new creation Sleep on the Wing for the first time, and it very much paints with similar pastoral tones as Ribbons did. Just don’t, however, consider it another full-length.
“To me, there’s nothing different here as I’ve followed up each Warp album with an EP, usually the same or following year after an album,” Wilkinson tells PopMatters. “Some people are viewing Sleep on the Wing as an album, which attracts different perceptions compared to it being seen as an EP. I’m declaring it as an EP. It might have ten tracks on it, but the overall length is not much longer than The Green EP, as some of the tracks are more like short vignettes. I don’t think of this as an album; it’s a companion piece to Ribbons, a follow up to that album. The next album is probably going to be very different from Ribbons. I can’t imagine I’d ever release an album that’s only 30 minutes long, I’m more of a 45-60-minute guy.”
Opening with the resplendent title track — one of two songs on the record to feature vocals — yearning violins work in harmony with his ever-dynamic guitar work, creating an acoustic wonder that’s cinematic in scope but intimate in feeling. The other vocal track, “Oakmoss”, contains only the raspy words. “Well, I’m sure we’ll get along / Oh, I knew so long ago.” Why so short a repeated expression? To hear Wilkinson tell it, this idea was rooted in folkloric tradition.
“Tracks like ‘Oakmoss’ are influenced by simple fiddle tunes, like traditional Irish music, but with my own approach of course,” Wilkinson explains. “The vocal part is really playing the role of an instrument here, like a fiddle, playing a simple repeating pattern, so the lyrics are few and ambiguous. I think in some ways, EPs give me an outlet for tracks that I might not put on an album, nothing to do with how strong they are, but because they might be short and instrumental and I think those types of tracks can work well when put together as a collection of their own.”
Some have noted that following a series of albums that walked the line between folk and electronic music with ease, these last few releases have been painted with particularly rustic hues. However, this doesn’t mean that Wilkinson is returning to the hushed finger-picked sound of his early records.
“I wouldn’t say [I’m coming back] full circle, it’s just another facet to what I do,” Wilkinson notes. “Twenty years ago, I made music with only a few pieces of lo-fi equipment, which tested my creativity and forced me to come up with forms of music that were engaging, but within the limitations of what technology I had at the time. I learned some important things during those years and still value them very much today, I think of them as my own discoveries and inventions, and they’re an important part of my sound today.
“It’s just that I have so many musical influences, and I’m curious about music gear and instruments and different styles, so my music has become more varied. I got a taste for layered acoustic sounds again, so Ribbons and Sleep on the Wing were quite acoustic-heavy. Right now, I’m making synthpop and disco, amongst other things. What I’m working on now is more like A Mineral Love, but it’s early days still, so all of that could change. I like contrast between albums; I like change. Ribbons and Sleep on the Wing are part of the same chapter in my mind.”
For fans of Bibio, there has been some additional solace to be found in his social media accounts, where he regularly posts artwork, guitar clips, and photos from farmlands, villages, and forests. It’s a perfect visual escape from a world that spent the first half of 2020 locked up in quarantine due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It hasn’t affected me much, some people have had it tough, I’m in a more fortunate situation,” says Wilkinson when asked how COVID-19 has hit him and his loved ones. “I work from home anyway, so it hasn’t interfered with that. I also have a garden and have country walks on my doorstep, so I’m lucky in that sense too. Obviously, not socializing has been strange, and because I’ve been working full-time from home for the last 11 years, lockdown means I haven’t had a change of scenery or a proper break for a while. But I can’t complain, I’ve not been badly affected by it. I’m looking forward to being able to see people again and move around more, but at least for now, I can just carry on doing my thing and enjoy the garden and local countryside when the weather is good.”
And as for putting out a new EP right in the middle of COVID-19? “It was finished last year and was scheduled for release a while back, before any mention of COVID,” Wilkinson explains. “I had some discussion with Warp about whether it was a good time to release it, but we agreed that it’s a good thing to put something positive and creative out there in the world.”
He’s not wrong: Sleep on the Wing is relatively optimistic, with lilting melodies and a genuine warmth within each recording. Yet some tracks veer off the path just a little bit, as there’s a sense of drama mixed into the tones of “The Milky Way Over Ratlinghope”, which, to hear Wilkinson describe it, was the hardest album’s hardest track to create. “I play all of the instruments on this EP, and I’d only had the cello for a matter of months when I made that track. I don’t consider myself a violinist, violist, or cellist yet, but when I’m in my studio, things are different — I have the power to record parts and layer them; I’m not afraid to take on instruments that I’m less proficient in. It’s a case of working within my abilities on each instrument, although there was definitely more of a push with this track, more of a challenge I set myself.”
Also, just like with Ribbons, a move towards lush acoustic layering doesn’t mean he’s abandoned his love for loops and electronic elements entirely. Sleep on the Wing contains the late-album wonder “Crocus”, over which a simple bass line gets manipulated and digitally terraformed into a quiet, beautiful shape that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on 2013’s Silver Wilkinson.
Photo: Joe Giacomet / Courtesy of Pitch Perfect PR
“‘Crocus’ is very minimal, in that it’s bass guitar through a tape echo, Mellotron strings, and a turntable,” Wilkson explains. “One day I was recording some bird song from a vinyl record I had, I was putting the turntable through a tape echo, the turntable wasn’t spinning, and I moved the platter with my hand, to spin it in waves to manually play snippets of bird song. I loved the effect, so I added it to the track. That track is very minimal in layers and melodies, but it’s all about the textures. Sometimes you have to ease off on the layering to allow those textures to breathe. Otherwise, they can get smothered; they can get buried in the mix. I thought the bass tone through the tape echo was particularly gorgeous like the notes have a coating of dust and fluff around them.”
To hear Wilkinson explore new sonic textures with such enthusiasm is nothing short of joyful, as his love of music has helped listeners get through rough days and explore new sounds they may not have normally been exposed to. Some may still connect deeply to his countryside Instagram posts as a way of escaping the confines of global quarantine, but to hear Wilkinson tell it, the sounds would be the same no matter where he stationed himself.
“I think a lot of people enjoy those and connect with [my Instagram posts], regardless of whether they live in the city or the country,” he notes. “I get asked often about the influence that the countryside has on my music. It certainly has an influence, but it comes from a place of longing, so it’d be there no matter where I lived, in fact, I came up with the ‘Bibio’ project when I lived in London. I think even if I lived in the heart of Tokyo, I’d still make music that reminds people of the countryside because it’s where my dreams often take me. That’s the purpose of my music really, to be immersed in and dream.”