The story told goes something like this: while on tour for her debut album, There’s Always Glimmer (2018), Gia Margaret lost her voice, which forced her to reconsider the compositional possibilities of her music. The result was her sophomore effort Mia Gargaret (note the switched first letters) from 2020, a beguiling work that marked a tentative reinvention as the LP’s title subtly suggested. In place of more conventional songs guided by her voice and lyrics were a set of tracks that moved intuitively through tone and mood, utilizing piano fragments and the sampling of found sounds to articulate emotional experience.
Margaret’s new album, Romantic Piano, refines this approach. Like its predecessor, the defining feature of this LP is its minimalism, with vocals kept to only two tracks out of 13 total. Yet the word “minimalism” may also be misleading. The songs on this album are indeed quiet. However, as such, they conceal multiple layers of piano, field recordings, synth loops, and percussion. Margaret has referred to her music as “sleep rock”, though one gets the idea this description is a bit facetious. The net effect is that Romantic Piano asks you to huddle closer, to consider what makes a song work and what even makes a song a song.
The opening track, “Hinoki Wood”, is a good example of this approach. Barely over a minute and a half in length, it consists of Margaret on piano, softly playing simple variations of a ragtime blues melody, with an unobtrusive synth providing a low audible backdrop. With its elements of dream-like nostalgia and calm presentism, the sound imparted is both familiar and new at once.
Subsequent tracks build upon this elemental foundation while avoiding the pitfall of repetition due to restrained technique or limited material. Erik Satie is referenced in the publicity materials, which makes complete sense. Her use of field recordings, in particular, allows Romantic Piano to move into different spaces and times of the day. For example, “Cicadas” uses the sound of these insects to invoke a feeling of childhood summers at dusk. “2017” has the sound of a playground with its din of children shouting and playing, accompanying Margaret’s piano. Rainfall is the pronounced element in “Cinnamon”.
“City Song” is a standout as one of two songs with her vocals. Her lyrics are what you might imagine: precise and opaque at once. They are designed to map feelings rather than offer firm conclusions. Her lines consist of fragmented thoughts that form a collage of memory and solitude. “And the birds fly high/ we stay up all night,” she sings, “With one arm reaching out I can almost feel you / I can almost feel you. I can’t really say where the memories fade.” A climax comes in the form of a dream: “In a flashback, I saw you / With so much to tell / The revolving doors hit in a tentative spell.”
These lyrics, which navigate the physical and imaginative worlds, reflect how the music hovers within the liminal space between consciousness and unconsciousness. Nostalgia is posed as an intermediate feeling to work things through. Though Margaret is based in Chicago, “City Song” has the careful detail and evocativeness of a poem in The New Yorker, with its ability to capture the ordinariness and beauty of city life. There is an urbane quality to her work that differentiates it from that of similar singer-songwriters of her generation.
Listening to Romantic Piano had me going back to her past work to understand why. Her debut, There’s Always Glimmer, is the most conventional of Margaret’s three records, with her vocals and standard song structures found across the album. Songs like “Birthday” have a bold pop-rock presence. Though field recordings are not absent from There’s Always Glimmer, her second LP makes fuller use of this practice for the reasons explained earlier. Snippets of overheard conversation (“Barely There”) and water crashing gently along a shoreline (“Lakes”) are part of the mix on Mia Gargaret, adding touches of context that ground her compositions in a relatable world.
In this regard, Margaret’s work has a definable human presence. Despite existing perceptions, it does not fall completely into the world of ambient music, at least as exemplified by Brian Eno and, say, Kraftwerk. The liner notes for Romantic Piano state that its field recordings were taken in Frankfort, Michigan; Bainbridge Island, Washington; and Chicago. It’s this technique, her strategic use of documentary sounds, that distinguishes Margaret’s work. It also creates anticipation. When her voice does come in, like on “City Song” and “A Hidden Track”, it has the effect of being quietly show-stopping. You pause to listen.
Music like that found on Romantic Piano stirs reverie and subjective free association. Margaret’s voice may remind the listener of Chan Marshall (Cat Power), though it possesses the interiority of an internal monologue, like someone whispering to themselves. Compositionally, Romantic Piano recalls the Louisville, Kentucky, project Rachel’s, helmed by Christian Frederickson, Rachel Grimes, and the late Jason Noble. Their album The Sea and the Bells (1996) and especially its opening song, “Rhine & Courtesan“, seem like important precursors to Margaret’s aesthetic. More distantly, I am reminded of Paul Klee’s ambition to master simplicity and to return to a child’s worldview, as seen in drawings like Twittering Machine (1922) and Fish Magic (1925).
Taken together, this album is informed by sentiments of innocence and experience. It has gorgeous moments that replace silence by reorganizing the background sounds of everyday life, which is arguably what all music should do. With Romantic Piano, Gia Margaret has perfected her voice. She had to lose her voice to find it.