Interview: Hands of The Heron take us through new album ’13 Moons’ track by track

At some point along the journey to ripe old age at which I currently sit in my lockdown bubble typing this article something altered within me that changed my reaction to opening the curtains to a pristine blanket of crisp, white snow from an irresistible urge to run downstairs, grab a hat, coat, scarf and pair of gloves and dive headlong into a frosty fantasy-land to a grumpily pragmatic resentment of this harbinger of head colds, transport delays and black ice falls. The sight of this weekend’s dusting of white flakes was met therefore with more of a sigh than a cheer as I logged in to the Joyzine inbox, opened the first of many emails and clicked the streaming link.

The soft, mellifluous sounds that then filled the chilled space around my desk seemed somehow to make the snowdrifts sparkle, remove the nip of cold from the air and ignite a tiny spark of that wonderment I once felt at the thought of a snow day. It would be a stretch to say that I experienced a Scrooge-like transformation and found myself running the local streets shouting cheery well-wishes at passers-by, but I certainly found myself feeling lighter and warmer as a serene grin spread across my face.

Those sounds came from 13 Moons, the second LP from Bristolian alt-folk collective Hands of The Heron. A wondrous collection of curious story-songs, choral singing and carefully layered instrumentation that acts as a conduit through the layers of the subconscious, burrowing past pockets of self-doubt and ennui to a place where the light shines just a little more brightly.

We asked the band to take us through the album track by track and they kindly obliged.

Summer Harvest

Claire: Feels to me like such a core song of this band. We have been singing it since I joined the band and often sing it to open gigs. It feels like we’ve sung it forever but I still don’t get bored of it.

Bea: Bursting out. We start on our journey. Singing with women is the BEST and this song fills me with that sense of togetherness and joy. Look at us. We are women singing together.

Beth: Because we’ve opened so many gigs with it, this was the obvious choice for our opening track on 13 Moons. It doesn’t really fit anywhere else. I always imagine this song as a kind of prologue, a Greek chorus quality that it shares with the other unaccompanied vocal pieces on the album – some kind of grounding narrative function.

Reckoning

Claire: Another song that we began working on ages ago, but it took a very different shape back then. I feel like this song has been on a real journey and has changed shape a lot of times.

Bea: Simmering swells. This is such a sparkly song. I love the interplay between the clarinet and accordion. Working on this song is a very clear memory. Sitting on the garden wall, writing harmonies with Beth. It feels at times like a kind of lullaby for one who is finding themselves, their love and figuring out what kind of existence they want to manifest. At the end we sing “you know my bones” I wonder who the You is. Now that I listen back, I think perhaps Beth is talking about herself: knowing herself.

Beth: This is the first song I ever worked out on banjo. Originally it was about reclaiming myself after a complicated relationship, but it’s very much open to interpretation – it’s intensely personal and also not specific at all. To me this song is proof that it’s possible to write strongly emotional music with a really simple harmonic structure. Bea’s accordion and Claire’s clarinet melodies have such a mood, especially set against the backdrop of Tom’s spangly electric guitar.

Watercolour Fade

Claire: I remember watching Beth, Bec and Liv (our old bandmate) sing this before I even joined the band! It hasn’t changed much but we more recently added some extra vocal lines. I’m glad we managed to record this one in a church as it’s such a deep epic vocal sound now and it needs the big reverb to do justice. 

Bea: This song is a balm for me. I love to sing classical music and have grown up in many choirs and choral groups. The flow of this song with all its intricate sections is so enthralling. A compact journey. It is a slow observation of life for someone who seems to feel slightly removed from their surroundings.

Beth: I remember trying to work out harmony parts on mandolin in the early stages of this song and realising it needed to be fully a cappella. I’m really proud to have captured the album version live, and our producer (Alex McIntyre) converted a sample of the church’s reverb to use across the whole album, so the studio tracks share the same shimmer in a subtle way. 

Skipping Rope

Bea: This one has a watery quality and is childlike in its comparisons to life not being as simple as it seemed to be when you can boldly go forth and skip a rope. Now the rope is more like a confusing jungle of trash and traffic and forgetting to fill in forms for jobs and houses and rent. What happened? 

Beth: Me & Bec were living together when she wrote this back in 2018. She’d just begun teaching herself guitar and I was (and still am) blown away by how good this song is. I love Claire’s soaring clarinet part in the second half so much that it gives me chills every time I hear it.

Copper Green Flame

Beth: The opening section of this track used to be part of another song that was about seven minutes long and pretty meandering. I’m so glad we kept this bit and let it be a raw vocal moment – I hope it gives an impression of the courage I feel when we sing it. I love how it gives way to this dreamlike instrumental where the flute and clarinet really get to dance freely. 

Claire: Another song that’s been on a real journey and used to be so different. I feel like we basically gave up on it because it became so over complicated. And then we stripped it back and got rid of most of the words. I remember spending a long time in a garden in Devon trying to work out a really intense, jaunty, neoclassical style clarinet and flute part which in hindsight was awful. I’m glad we didn’t manage to work it out! 

Beth: Yeah, the serene semi-improvised arrangement we have now is so much better. Back then I expect I wanted it to be this huge Sufjan Stevens-esque orchestrated thing. I remember there were loads of complicated sections with names like ‘white magnesium’ and ‘naked running’ which were hilarious to write but not very good. I feel quite relieved that none of us could remember our parts when we picked the song again up later on. 

Contrary Motion

Bea: Beth had a vision with this song. Imagined it into existence. It was a delight to become part of it and have a unique place to hold in the mix. I particularly enjoy the end, where we all swoosh together in the finale.

Claire: I remember learning this in the campsite of a festival when we couldn’t be bothered to go in and just wanted to sing songs.

Beth: Probably the weirdest and most fully composed thing I’ve ever written… It came into my head driving from Stroud to Bristol and I nearly missed my exit on the M5. We gave Alex loads of abstract descriptions of the shapes we wanted to hear in the mix, and hearing his phenomenally skilful panning was when I started to get really excited about the record.

Softly Spoken Woman

Bea: This song moves me. Stirs my soul. The electric guitar that Tom is wiggling on glistens and brings such an inspired layer into this musical journey. I see such images when I listen. I really enjoy the kick drum also. Bec’s delicate and floaty vocals have such a quality that I can almost see her world within.

Beth: This song gets stuck in my head a lot. It’s so compelling harmonically that I found violin lines I liked really early, and I’ve stuck with them ever since. And I agree with Bea – it feels like such a gentle and persuasive invitation to sit beside Bec and observe her world from within. It’s been amazing to watch this song stretch itself into the world as a single, and hearing stories of all the women who have heard it and connected with it is such a privilege.

Tongue in Twines

Bea: I don’t experience many music/poetry vibes like this one. It’s such a cool idea to have music with a poem. Beth’s tone sounds like she is sitting in the room with me. The saxophone played by Claire is so juicy and emotive. Makes me want to cry. I still don’t really know what it’s about but it makes me cry so it doesn’t really mean anything to rationalise and find meaning in it.

Beth: Bec wrote this thing on guitar that almost sounded Baroque, along with these beautiful lines: “I am a seedling at the end of summer”. I had written a surreal stream-of-consciousness poem as I fell asleep. We showed each other and realised they were somehow companions. Then we showed the rest of the band and slowly built up this very hypnotic sound world. During lockdown, Claire and I spent ages on Logic layering up her sax parts and it was one of my favourite bits of the whole process. I don’t exactly know what it’s about either – art and independence, I suppose. Everyone who hears it can find something for themselves in it. Choose your own adventure.

Claire: My sax part is semi-improvised. We recorded I think four takes, and during editing we accidentally played them all at the same time and they worked so well together! So we kept a lot of it and now I have an accidental saxophone choir. I love it and reckon I sound dead cool. 

Moonbloom

Bea: This is ancient. Like nothing else I have sung. 

Beth: We used to live near a hill in Bristol that always attracts a crowd at full moon and the song was inspired by that, a sense of connection to the old ways. The harmonies were slowly pieced together from the first ‘moonbloom’ melody ’til it became this densely tangled four-part wonder. Every single note has been chosen with careful thought, yet it’s also a hymn to wild intuition. It’s my mum’s favourite track on the album.

Claire: I wrote my part for this in my friends’ boat while I was boat-sitting. I had been out the night before at Rave-on-Avon, up all night having a wild one and stayed at a fellas house. Then I had to get up the next day and write one of the most intense vocal lines I’ve ever written!! The others already had their parts so I was trying to fit in a 4th part around all that. It was a really sunny day and we did a lot of jumping in the river which helped shake off the hangover at least. 

Solar System

Beth: I’ve loved this ever since Bea first showed it to us. It’s become this magical hazy anthem on the album – it feels defiant, even in the loneliness of the lyrics. Having recorded the bulk of tracks in Jan-March 2020 (luckily!), we had to finish a few parts separately during lockdown. We stitched the missing elements of the album together during the summer, and I remember adding Tom’s many-layered electric guitar part into the rest of the project with no idea what he’d made, then sitting with Bec and Claire to listen. I think our jaws all dropped. It’s so galactic.

Claire: This song always makes me feel emotional when I listen to it for some reason, it is so lyrically random and wonderful like Bea. It reminds me of her so much it makes me miss her!

Take Me Outside

Bea: Rich and well rounded. I love how the sections blend together in an almost linear and cyclic journey at the same time. I can taste freedom. Feel wind in my hair and warmth in my heart.

Beth: I have really lovely memories of all five of us sitting in a sunny garden on a writing week, with Claire explaining her ideas for this song. We got raucously excited while writing vocal harmonies (which happens a lot). I really enjoyed translating Claire’s description of string textures into actual written parts, which we recorded in lockdown with Rowan Elliott on violin, viola and cello. So it wasn’t ’til everything actually came together on the track that we could hear how it would sound, and find out if we were imagining the same thing. It was like a crazy sonic jigsaw puzzle.

Claire: I wrote this when I was working as a live-in carer. It was a very intense job with long hours spent sitting inside the house. I had a few hours break in the afternoon and would go walking in the woods most days and it was the only thing that kept me sane. This song just came to me when I was walking one day, it kept me going. This situation has a lot of parallels with lockdown now so this song has taken on a new level of meaning. 

Sorrow Spun

Beth: Ben Osborn wrote this song for us back in 2017. It’s the most comforting expression of grief and acceptance I’ve ever encountered, and singing it has been like medicine for me. I’m honoured to share it as the closing track. Ben recorded a different version under the name ‘Tangles’ for his own record Letters From The Border which I strongly recommend listening to.

Bea: Ben really captured a feeling here. Accepting and allowing feelings – I feel a strong message in this song and it’s done with sublime imagery.

Claire: I think this was the first vocal part I think ever wrote so I am very attached to it! Ben wrote it for us while we were on tour together. I remember arranging parts in the car, singing it in Beth’s parents garden and then performing it that night or the next. 

13 Moons is out now via Cuculi Records and is available on CD and digital download from Bandcamp.

Introduction by Paul Maps
handsoftheheron.com

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