Since I heard ‘Show Talked Windows’ from Sumie’s eponymous 2013 debut album I have been in thrall to a voice that, at the time, was as pure as a lead crystal glass being struck in church. Song after song of rolling guitar lines underpinning one of the most incredible voices I had ever heard. Sometimes it seemed almost too beautiful; fragile enough to break or evaporate if you listened too much. Then there was a four-year gap, filled with occasional live shows, before Lost in Light was released in 2017 and the bell-like clarity of the voice had weathered in the most perfect way; a tiny sizzle in the throat or the occasional wavering of a note; all adding character like craquelure forming on a painting. You could hear a life lived breaking through the ethereal world heard on the first album.
Now, two years on, comes the Mirou EP. Sumie (Sandra) Nagano says that she “wrote the songs without thinking about them as a package like an album or EP. They all mean different things. Most of the songs are my conversations to someone. It’s mainly about feeling hope, not to give up, and to listen to your dreams if they are telling you something” and that these are the “most positive songs she has written”. But like any good portmanteau book or film the five tracks sit perfectly together like a perfect meal; not too much, not too little. However, Sumie’s lyrics are not always a roadmap to meaning; allusion and allegory add to a lush sense that Sumie has a passport to another, more ethereal realm, bringing back snapshots for us to marvel at.
‘Lucky’ caused a flood of images and impressions when I first heard it. It has the slow canter of a lazy river journey on a hot day or an American landscape viewed from a train window (an impression which chimes with the repeated line “life changes fast”). It’s a band playing in a David Lynch film, it’s laid back and glides like a snake in a dream that turns out to be a silk scarf. There are pauses which hover over a cliff edge; the song holds its breath before leaping off.
‘Moon’ has the feeling that you have got up in the middle of the night and stumbled upon Sumie playing alone in a room. It’s beautiful and reflective and shows just how incredible a voice can be when the control over cadence and sibilance is so impeccable. The lyrics read like poetry “the whispers of a Moon in tune, a Sister lullaby” and the production allows only one other instrument to visit this night sky: a delicate meteor shower of guitar half way through. ‘Lake’ dips below the night sky and leads us in through a narrow passage of delicate voice and guitar before the path opens into a widescreen vista, a “…lake of stars”.
‘Mountains’ could be notes in a diary or an overheard phone conversation, a snapshot of a time in life when the mountains could represent everything from the insurmountable struggles we face to actual mountains we climb to get some perspective on our lives. It feels like a love song born out of self-reflection and has Sumie’s signature: a rolling backdrop of instruments (guitar or keyboards) which act like water over which Sumie’s voice can glide. The EP closes with the title track ‘Mirou’ which, like ‘Moon’, has little fuss to break the spell of Sumie’s voice, just a mournful slide guitar, doubled vocals and harmonies. It seems to falter and nearly fade out which adds to the dream-like state the whole EP creates. Sleep is nearly over, and we must wake up.
Mirou is produced by Filip Leyman and, like the exceptional work he did on Lost in Light, he knows how to enhance, augment and surprise with his production. Filip has an incredible sense of how to add humanity and atmosphere from the mix, placement and choice of instruments and also by allowing imperfection (room noise, hum from amps, the pedal squeaks from a piano) to be part of the vitality of the recording. He is also a multi-instrumentalist who plays everything apart from the guitars played by Sumie and Karl Vento. Karl has an empathic sense of what to play to add colour-wash or accents and his use of guitar on ‘Lucky’ creates the same effect as heat-haze rising in the distance. He can trill, slide or pick out the perfect notes or effects to keep the song floating in the air. He serves the song and not the player which is a rare quality.
Mirou is a dream world. Not everything makes sense but it’s intoxicating and breath-taking and has done nothing to stop Sumie being one of my favourite all-time artists. And if you listen and love this as much as I do then let the dream linger on a little longer and visit previous releases Sumie and Lost in Light.
Sumie and Karl play a rare show in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Friday 4th October at 6.30pm
Review by Paul F Cook