Though she has roots that run through the music history of Manchester and helped to shape some of the sounds associated with popular British music of the last two decades, Jane Weaver is just now taking her own turn in the spotlight. Her last three releases — The Silver Globe (2014), The Amber Light (2015), and Modern Kosmology (2017) — channel some of the styles she’s explored since the late 1990s. But it is a trilogy of records that evokes a singular vision. Across these releases, she combines psychedelic folk, electronics and analogue synths, atmospheric soundscapes, and pop-songwriting. They are thematically linked by a love of nature and quiet contemplation. All of it interlocks like a kaleidoscopic tapestry of sound and color.
Undoubtedly she has broken creative ground. She seems to have also broken out somewhat commercially — although she’s not quite sure why. “You can never predict what other people’s reaction to that will be. That’s the thing I find strange because I’ve made a lot of albums and it’s only the past couple ones that have become popular, and I think, why’s that happened? They’ve all got a similar theme to them as far as I can see. I don’t know. It’s pretty strange,” she tells PopMatters. “It’s a lovely surprise and I’m grateful for the way it’s happened. I mean, it could’ve happened when I was in my 20s when I really slogged my guts out! But it’s just kind of happened and it’s a nice surprise.”
Adding to the mystery, for Weaver, is the sense that her own history does not feel remote. She’s been a prolific solo performer since 1998 and was at that time deeply embedded in Manchester’s music circles. One example sufficiently illustrates the point. Her first single, “Everyone Knows Everyone Else” (1998), was a collaboration with two key Manchester artists: one was Andy Votel, now her husband, but who in the 1990s co-founded the influential label Twisted Nerve Records, original home to Badly Drawn Boy and Weaver’s own group, Misty Dixon. The other was Doves, who released their breakthrough record, Lost Souls, two years later. Scratch at the history of Manchester in this period and one will eventually encounter Weaver’s music.
“You’ve always got to take a nod to the past,” she says. “The stuff I did with Twisted Nerve and with Misty Dixon — sometimes when I’m writing stuff now, I think, ‘God, that sounds like Misty Dixon.’ At that time in Manchester in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there were a lot of independent labels, a lot of independent artists, everybody started getting noticed, and everybody sort of became slightly cool for a minute! And the cool magazines would want to take pictures of you, and you’d think, whoa, this is really strange. But it was a very, very creative time.”
Though no longer based there, she still characterizes it as a creative hub. “There’s just a lot going on in Manchester,” she says. “I live slightly outside Manchester so I don’t get to go there all the time. But I do know that there are shows that are put on by certain companies and they’re really creative. There are a lot of labels there and a lot of artists there still.” Such generalizations probably remain true for the whole of the north of England. “I think there’s a certain feeling from the north that you can be industrious and you don’t have to go to London if you’ve got your own industry here. That gives you a certain kind of creative freedom.”
Musically and conceptually, her recent material exhibits elements of the past but strikes dramatically into novel territory. It’s difficult to overstate the variety of styles that Weaver has incorporated into her music since The Fallen By Watch Bird (2010). Then she merged a broad folk music orientation with textured art rock, somewhat untethered to conventional song structures, like Hawkwind, but imbued with inventive melodies and a sensibility for pop music, like Kate Bush.
More recently, one of the creative accomplishments Weaver affects with The Silver Globe and Modern Kosmology is how the folk and art rock of her earlier work gently shades off into a truly extensive and idiosyncratic array of styles. They are often electronics-based influences — motorik beats, drone, flashes of EDM — but not exclusively or disorientingly so. It’s the sound of an artist with a probably huge record collection teeming with lost 1970s progressive and Kraut-rock classics.
It’s all anchored in place by that clear English folksinger’s storyteller voice. Is there a strategy to arranging the music in this way? “It’s natural and it’s a bit of a curse sometimes because I love pop music, I always have, and I love traditional song structure. But I love a lot of weird stuff,” she says. “I like unusual music, and I like experimental music, and psychedelic music, and heavy metal. I like all sorts of stuff. It’s just that every time I try to do something very experimental it always gets drawn back to the song. I always have to try to get a song in there.”
“It’s weird with pop music now though. My daughter listens to Kendrick Lamar, and a lot of what is popular, and the song structure has sort of changed in modern music. It just seems different. I don’t know if it’s because it’s more electronic now. Like Kali Uchis — she’s Colombian, she’s amazing, she writes amazing songs and works with different producers, I think she’s worked with Kevin Parker — her album is very song-based but then other stuff is quite unstructured and unusual. But I’m interested in modern music and the future and how things are going and what kids are listening to. And I do listen to a lot of that stuff as well too! Maybe that will seep into the next album, subconsciously, just because it’s interesting to me.”
When I remarked that her recent string of solo performances, in which she is in command of all instrumentation and musical textures, looks technically challenging to execute, she agrees. “It is quite stressful! A lot of people now will have a laptop and they’ll trigger things on their laptop. That’s absolutely fine but I didn’t want to do that. I’ve done that before. But I thought it would be nice to redo backing tracks and make dubplates and then play sections. I tried to do it as analog as possible, basically, and the Roland Juno-6 synth is the one that’s not programmable. So everything every night is me flying by the seat of my pants. You know the arpeggio is going to be slightly different and once you trigger it, it’s like, please be right, please be right! Then I start singing and I think, on no, that keyboard is over there, and I can’t adjust it. It’s always slightly scary.”
There was a spontaneity present in the creative process for the last three records as well. “I have a lot of ideas on the boil, and then I’ll go into the studio and then probably do three times as many songs. [I wouldn’t] go into the studio and say, these are the ten songs that I’m doing to do on my album. I just think that’s not creative at all because along the way, even though you’re trying to transfer what’s in your head into the studio and out there, so it’s an actual solid song, things happen while you’re working.”
“It’s always unexpected,” she continues. “There are songs where I’ve thought, this is a great song, and it’s gonna be on my album, which I’ve then ditched and never gone back to. When people say, ‘I wrote the album for a few months and then I went into the recording studio and recorded the album, I’m just like, that’s really efficient!’ That’s really efficient to do that because mine’s all over the shop.”
She stresses that it’s an approach to composition that requires time and perseverance. “People ask me why I don’t go into the studio with the band and just record the song. But I don’t think that’s interesting to do. It’s not trying enough. It just seems too boring, really,” she says, adding: “You’ve got to live with it for a while. And then you can think of something better.”
One senses a patient frame of mind with Weaver. It manifests in her workman-like history as a touring musician. It manifests in how her songs unfold: they range from around two minutes to eight minutes, never hurried. But it also underpins how she came to perceive the forces that inspire her. “When I was writing Modern Kosmology and didn’t know which way we were going, I discovered the artist Hilma af Klint and her story and became pretty obsessed with it.”
“She was middle-class in Sweden in the late 1800s, early 1900s,” Weaver explains. “She had this group called The Five who were also artists would do séances and were involved in spiritualism. They would do automatic painting and drawing and receive messages and codes from a higher plane which they used in their artwork. It was like — this is amazing! — as a story. She stipulated in her will that she didn’t want anybody to see her work because they sort of weren’t ready for it. So when she died nobody saw her work for 40 years after her death.”
The idea of Klint waiting on direct contact with otherworldly muses inspired a trip to the Isle of Anglesey, Wales — where, in fact, two place names appear as titles on Modern Kosmology — to be immersed in the environment and to get in touch with her own muses. “There was a house there when I was a kid and it was on Ravenspoint Road — that’s why I wanted the song to be called Ravenspoint — it’s this spooky, ghostly house. I sat on the beach there and was trying to channel energy about this island! Another special thing about Anglesey as well is that it’s one of the first places the Romans invaded and they killed all the Druids and pagans. So it’s got quite a weird vibe, and I was just channeling lyrics, really. There was a place nearby called Valley as well. That’s what I trying to tuck into, and the questions about life and death.”
“There’s a lot to be said for just daydreaming and doing nothing,” she adds. “Our lives are so bloody busy and distracted, especially now with social media. I think the kids should sometimes just stop and daydream and do nothing and look out the window and just think about the thoughts in their heads! Drift away.”
Klint and Anglesey and drifting away helped her to get a grip on some of the album’s lyrics and also framed another key overarching idea. “When I was writing there were the stresses and pressures of the politics in the UK and America, all the things you see on social media, the war and what’s happening in Yemen, and terrorism, and all these things that you see on a daily basis. You feel like you’ve got no control over them.” Worse still, “we forget about joy and we forget that we can find joy in small things.” But, she says, “to try and get a handle on it, you’ve got to be more mindful of everything. You can’t control all these things but you can control your own life and do something good.”
When I remarked that the idea of mindfulness is neatly reflected in so much of her lyrics (particularly, for example, “we’re on our way to dust / open your eyes”), she agrees. “And that title, Modern Kosmology. Cosmology is the study of the history of the universe, and I was thinking about the study of your own universe. Even though you can’t make a dent in these big things that are happening, you have to try and control what you can control every day. Do something that you’re good at, be kind, and share.”
And ultimately, she says, “You’ve gotta kind of get on with it because you’re not here for long. I sound like a hippie, don’t I? I don’t mind that!”