Imagine you are on top of a hill overlooking a lush valley when you see the grass in front of you stir and then feel the gentle touch of a warm breeze. Such is the feeling I get from Ailsa Tully’s music, like sun on your face or getting into warm water. The pervading sense of optimism and warmth that circulates throughout the tracks on her new EP Holy Isle should be at odds with the fact that they are actually a set of break-up songs. The press release explains:
“Rather than ruminating on anger, bitterness, or a new-found solitude, it finds Tully looking in the rear-view with a rare empathy and open-heartedness, wishing the best for a once-formative lover. Recalling a period where Tully was herself searching for acceptance, she now displays a zen-like contentedness that for many at a relationship’s end remains elusive”
The four songs that make up Holy Isle are languid perfection. Dreamlike and reflective, they inhabit the intersection of waking clarity and sleep; the liminal space where we often work out our troubles. From the opening song ‘Greedy’ (which starts with road noise) to the final track ‘Your Mess’ (which ends with birdsong) we are taken on an emotional arc that starts by talking about “the intensity of new beginnings and transitional stages of life where everything feels very raw” and ends on the lament, reminiscence and tacit acceptance of the way things are.
Tully’s voice has the quality of mist as it floats across the songs, rarely offering any hard edges or resistance as it glides around and through you. I suspect that being a cello player who turned to bass explains why picked notes envelop the tunes like ethereal pizzicato, and the arrangements rise and fall like spring tides in support of the vocals which inhabit the songs completely (like the way the smell of baking can take over a house). Ailsa Tully demonstrates a self-assured restraint in her songs, something most artists find very hard to achieve, and the songs on Holy Isle feel like those last moments of holding onto something; when it is only fingertips that are touching and before full release is given. It’s very easy to get lost in these songs and it took a while to write this review because I would often find I had stopped typing and found I was in a reverie just listening to the songs.
Ailsa Tully (AT) was kind enough to answer some questions for Joyzine (JZ) about break-ups, empathy, and song writing:
JZ: You’ve described Holy Isle as a break-up EP where you have tried to be “open-hearted and empathic”. This is a rare sentiment for a set of break up songs and I wondered if the Holy Isle was a real or imagined sanctuary and if you had any tips for people on how you got from anger to Zen?
AT: Holy Isle is Scottish island opposite one of my favourite places, the Isle of Arran. The song is about an evening I spent there with my ex and evolves to explore what it was like to leave that relationship behind, the agony of that choice and overwhelming gratitude for what that we had experienced together. Each breakup is incredibly complex and unique, but there are always threads which run through them which are relatable to other people’s experiences. Things don’t always evolve the way you thought they would and sometimes you have to break things to be true to yourself. Pain is part of life, it’s raw and it’s uncomfortable but it’s honest. Empathy is a choice, I think we can all make a bit more space for it, even when you have lost so much. I felt that a lot in our final conversations.
JZ: I’m fascinated by the move from cello to bass guitar instead of the more common choice of an acoustic guitar. What did the bass bring to your songwriting?
AT: I loved playing an unusual instrument to accompany my voice, the cello helped me to feel like what I was making was more unique to me I suppose. This meant that when I was looking for something to replace it the guitar seemed too obvious. On the bass I could tune it like a cello, it was the closest I could get to the original instrument, and it still felt a bit more unusual. Because chords on the cello are quite awkward, I enjoyed songwriting beginning with a drone as it creates so much space for explorative vocal melodies. The bass can achieve something similar, but I have really enjoyed shaping the instrument into something that feels really personal to me. My songwriting has grown a lot with the bass, but in terms of technique I am totally making it up! And am definitely playing some kind of bizarre bass/cello/guitar hybrid.
JZ: I love the use of field recordings (domestic and nature) which underpin the songs. Can you talk about what led you to incorporate them and whether you see them as inspiration or simply texture?
AT: I grew up in South Wales and moved to south London to study music. I often felt homesick for the Welsh mountains and I think due to living in such a remote place the intense sounds of London affected me a lot. I became interested in the sounds of places and what they meant, particularly in the black mountains near my home in Wales. I grew up singing in a rural church choir and sometimes I could hear them practising when I approached the church across the fields. The way the choral music interacted with the sounds of the hills was so ancient. I became really interested in recording sounds around me to create atmospheres and a sense of place. Each song on the EP has a ‘field’ recording of where I was when I wrote it or sounds that are meaningful to it. Greedy starts with the sounds of London nightlife, Sheets – the rumble of a washing machine, Holy Isle – Scottish waves lapping on the shore, Your Mess – the sounds of my ex’s garden in the rain.
JZ: I reviewed Lorcán’s single recently and really loved it. How do you two know each other and how did you end up appearing on his track?
AT: Our dads played in a band together and were really good friends! We grew up dancing to our dads playing music in various Bristol living rooms and street parties. Lorcán started following me on Instagram without knowing we were childhood friends and when he realised got in touch about collaborating! My dad has now passed away, so it feels really nice to have carried on that tradition.
JZ: Has anyone influenced you musically and what music you’re currently listening to that you would recommend to the Joyzine readers?
AT: Yes, I am part of an incredibly community of musicians who I could talk about forever. GILLIE (ethereal self-produced dream pop), Thallo (Welsh language jazz infused folk), Another Sky (just been on tour with them, flawless!). The list goes on…
Review by Paul F Cook