Capital Letters and Punctuation
YESTERDAY, I wrote a feature about King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard…
for a couple of reasons. The first (reason) is because they are an Australian band who deserve a much larger following – they are still under-the-radar here and seen as a quirky option. More than that; I wanted to examine the way the seven-piece band reinvent themselves on each album. Whether they are coming up with time-related concepts and acoustic patterns; microtuning and infinite loops – an album where the final track led straight to the opening one (thus, creating a never-ending record!). I hope more people do tune into King Gizzard & The Wizard Lizard’s wavelength and discover what they are all about. The second piece is concerned with London Grammar. They are a trio I have been following since their debut and noticed a change in them. I will look at both of the Nottingham-formed band’s albums and what impact they have made on music. I want to feature Hannah Reid’s voice which is a thing of rare beauty. The main reason for writing this piece is to highlight a group who were put in the spotlight from the off; the relentless touring meant the trio almost split; the critics were expecting a quick follow-up album – putting a strain on the ranks. Hannah Reid, the lead and alluring siren, is at the centre and the focal point of London Grammar.
For anyone who was unsure whether successful and ambitious artists felt strain the pressure of music – they could do well to the listen to the words of Hannah Reid. I will source a couple of interviews she has recently conducted that show what a transformation London Grammar underwent between albums. Back in August; Reid spoke with the Sydney Morning Herald about the band’s crisis-point. She spoke about touring Australia and Japan and the moment she decided things were getting too tough:
"We were going to Australia and Japan, and the trip was we had two days at home and we were meant to fly to Japan, go and do a show, turn around and get straight back on a plane and fly to Australia," she says. "And I was so exhausted by then, I didn't even turn up at the airport. I was like, 'I just can't. I can't. I actually cannot get out of bed.' "
The interview looked at the critical success of their first album, If You Wait, and how big the trio got. Asking Reid how they coped with that – and whether it was expected – she provided her opinions:
"You can't ever anticipate what's going to happen, but we were just so young at the time," Reid says. "I think it happens a lot: you're kids when you start out and you make something really special. It was amazing, but we did need a bit of time at home afterwards, for sure”.
That period (following the debut album) saw continuous touring and strain. It would be hard for established and experienced acts to cope with that demand but for London Grammar – new kids off the block – it was a real eye-opening experience:
"It took us about 18 months and it was really hard," Reid admits. "There was a lot of pressure – I think naturally there always is, for a lot of artists that have successful first albums and want to make a second. But it's probably another learning curve; by the end of it we realised, 'You know what? You can't think about it or you're not going to do your best work.' And I think that's another lesson to take forward!" she laughs.
"I think I both grew as a writer and also shrunk away. I think there are some amazing songs on the second album that I really love, but I view this second album as the stepping stone to our third one. We wanted to find a new sound and there is a new sound in it, but it has the potential to be really, really amazing but it's not quite there yet. That's how I view it."
The debut album was released in 2013 and, until this point, the trio had been airing the material and preparing the bones of their second album, Truth Is a Beautiful Thing. Not only can the physical demands put a strain on the personal relationships of the band but something more precious was compromised: Hannah Reid’s voice.
That might sound glib but Reid’s singing voice was there before she met Dot Major and Dan Rothman: it will be there after the trio, years down the line, go their separate ways. It is the beating heart of the music and leads everything. It is obvious so many gigs would compromise the structure and safety of the voice. For Reid, who was already suffering anxiety and fatigue, that physical weakness would add pressure to an overworked voice. London Grammar are a perfect example of a popular group pushed to the point of breaking, Reid, in the same interview, explained how the level of expectation meant she carried on singing without a thought – not wanting to disappoint the fans:
"I had really bad muscular problems – surviving through that was difficult, because I was really worried about the damage I was doing," she says. "And you don't want to let down fans and to have people who want to listen to your music and have bought tickets – you want to do it and you want to do it to the best of your ability. And that's the mistake we made ... You know Sam Smith, he haemorrhaged a vocal cord; it's happened to a lot of singers.
"It's difficult to be a good singer and also be on the road."
A few interviews surfaced around the time of the second album’s announcement/promotion. The trio were discussing how they had changed since the debut and the reason they had taken such a long time to complete their second album. Speaking with The Guardian; the guys talked about the strains and adventures when London Grammar were on the road:
“It was a whirlwind. You’re just holding on for dear life, really,” says Rothman, a chatty, trainer-addicted north Londoner, before recalling the time their tour bus broke down during a 12-hour journey from Toronto to New York to appear on the David Letterman show. A local taxi driver got them to the studio with seconds to spare: “She was like the Wolf in Pulp Fiction – she knew exactly when the traffic lights would change,” he laughs.
Hannah Reid talked about her stage fright and how the fatigue really got to her:
“The exhaustion really kicked in for me after a year,” says Reid, a friendly but unshowy frontwoman. Her battle with stage fright has been widely reported, but the effects of success were physical as well as mental. “I spent the second year pretty much just hanging by a thread – I didn’t really know what was wrong with me. Then I just got used to feeling that way and I was like: ‘I must have some kind of illness, I must have chronic fatigue syndrome.’ I got tested for a whole bunch of stuff, it got kind of weird. My liver wasn’t working properly even though I was completely teetotal.”
The idea of control and creative expression was discussed. The group looked at how much of a say they had when it came to touring; days off and the limits they go to in order to satisfy the fans:
“The thing about touring is that young artists don’t always have much say or control,” Reid says. “You’re quite naive. You say: ‘Yeah, I want to do everything.’ And you want to please everyone. You’re so grateful, but you get sick at some point because everyone does. You have to cancel stuff, and then that has to get rescheduled. It can very quickly go from being manageable to snowballing into the kind of schedule that can end up wrecking your voice. The worst thing about it is disappointing the fans,” she pauses. “We’re going to do things differently this time.”
It is understandable there was a great weight of expectation and love following London Grammar’s debut album. If You Wait sat in a music world, in 2013, when there was a need for dreamy Pop and soulful blends. Many noted, when the album arrived, the comparisons to The xx and Florence and The Machine. After the band signed with Ministry of Sounds and Big Life Management; the album’s first sessions began in 2012 with Cam Blackwood. Tim Bran and Roy Kerr replaced Blackwood and the trio, assessing the switch, felt it was a natural and ‘right’ unity.
Many sources saw If I Wait as a quarter-life-crisis album because Reid, in her early-twenties, was looking at failed relationships and assessing her lot. The idea of self-assessment and introspection is not a new thing: the power and extraordinary beauty in Reid’s voice elevated the songs into near-operatic and mesmeric things. It was interesting reading the composition/lyrics breakdown on the album. Reid wrote the lyrics for most of the songs: the trio collaborated on the music for most of the tracks (Reid tackled a few on her own; Rothman co-wrote the lyrics for Flickers; the trio brought in one or two others for some tracks). Crepuscular, after-the-bar-closes mystique and moodiness crackles with tense beats and haunting electronics.
Rothman and Major bring atmosphere and incredible scores: Reid provides husky, otherworldly vocals. It is hard to describe the potential, soul and limits of Reid’s voice. It seems mystical and goddess-like; it rises and swoons. It must have taken years to hone but on London Grammar’s debut, it was laid out on songs that talked of wasting youth and unsure love. Even when talking of love; London Grammar managed to bring to elevate it into something divine and spiritual. The album entered the U.K charts at number-two and made them an instant success. It was invariable touring and demands would follow a blockbuster of an album. Whether you see Reid’s voice as the star – or the combinations of all three – one could not deny the chemistry and friendship of the trio. That was almost broken (it was certainly tested) given the popularity following If You Wait.
Many, myself included, asked where London Grammar had gone after their debut. It took four years before they announced a new record. That is a hell of a long time for an act to follow up on a debut. Many could have gone elsewhere but it was what was happening behind the scenes that affected the timing scheduled. They were thinking of new material but were so busy touring their introductory album. Rooting for You was the first single from Truth Is a Beautiful Thing. Released in January; it charted but was not a big success. Big Picture followed a month later and was a minor success. Subsequent singles were unveiled but none reached a high position in the charts. London Grammar’s second album features ten producers in total and there are quite a few bodies in the mix.
Happily, the trio takes to writing the material themselves (aside from the odd co-write) and step away from the Pop of their debut and bring in new elements. Compare reviews of both albums from a common source, AllMusic:
“Once again, vocalist Hannah Reid takes center stage with her powerful, angelic instrument, which can stir the soul at the smokiest depths before jolting everything to the heavens in a fashion much like Florence Welch or Annie Lennox. Dan Rothman and Dominic Major provide lush accompaniment to Reid's voice, creating a gorgeous cinematic landscape that ranges from dreamlike wisps to fully enveloping grandeur. The first half of the album takes time to pick up, as Reid slowly eases listeners into "Wild Eyed," an expansive moment that recalls 2013's "Hey Now." The thumping heartbeat of "Oh Woman, Oh Man" gives the band equal time to shine. Other highlights include the throbbing "Non Believer," the uplifting Florence-esque "Bones of Ribbon," and the sweeping "Leave the War with Me." These tracks provide a much-needed jolt of energy to balance the album's other quieter moments, which tend to lull the listener into a dreamlike haze. While it's an overall relaxing experience, Truth Is a Beautiful Thing is never boring; it's a comforting and often heartbreaking listen that really gets under the skin, especially with Reid's emotive delivery”.
PHOTO CREDIT: Mads Perch
That was the assessment of Truth Is a Beautiful Thing by Neil Z. Yeung. Look at Scott Kerr’s review of If You Wait - and some similarities come in:
“With obvious nods to the unfussy, reverbed guitar motifs of the xx, alongside Hannah Reid's beautiful, emotive vocal ability -- which rises and falls with an alarmingly disarming effect -- the album is a practice in refrain, where each song is pushed to the brink of an inevitable climax and achingly, no further. The percussive production, synths, and basslines provided by multi-instrumentalist Dot Major, build on this sense of drama and urgency and are displayed perfectly in one of the highlights of the record, "Wasting My Young Years."
Its throbbing chorus is chastened by the slow-burning synths and guitars that come together with stunning results when coupled with Reid's vocal delivery. The obvious confidence Reid has in her own voice belies the apparent vulnerability in the words she sings throughout, and the piano ballad "Strong" is testament to the loneliness and heartbreak that encapsulates the brooding feel of the album, which conflicts with the almost upbeat, danceable moments scattered amongst "Flickers" and "Stay Awake." They pay homage to their electronic influences mid-album with a rework of Kavinsky's "Nightcall" that unfolds gently into one of the most boisterous cuts on the record. It's no surprise that Reid's strong vocals are at the forefront of London Grammar's sound, and her voice dominates their music in much the same way as Florence Welch's does in Florence + the Machine”.
Consequence of Sound, when Zander Porter reviewed If You Wait, had this to say:
“Although The xx parallels are undeniably forthcoming, London Grammar’s innovative combinations of vocal and instrumentation are a unique, necessary progression. Though maturity may not be on the trio’s side, If You Wait argues that staying tuned is vital and that patience is a virtue, and one that seemingly will pay off for Reid and those anticipating what comes next from London Grammar”.
It was the sense of déjà vu and familiarity that crept into reviews of Truth Is a Beautiful Thing. Andy Gill, writing for the Independent, highlighted some concerns:
“Though by no means worthless, Truth Is A Beautiful Thing offers such negligible advances over London Grammar’s debut If You Wait that it’s hard to imagine what they’ve spent the intervening four years doing, besides shovelling cash into bulging accounts...
...They’re effectively the Sade of their day, mining a tightly-circumscribed format built around a distinctive, elegant vocal centre, to repeatedly similar effect. Despite the clarity of her contralto and the folksy elisions evoking echoes of Sandy Denny, Hannah Reid seems forever emotionally distant, even when keening and whooping through “Wild Eyed”; and the spartan arrangements created by her bandmates only occasionally develop persuasive emotional momentum, as on the string-laced anthem “Hell To The Liars”. Likewise, the lyrical themes of romantic regret and existential uncertainty – epitomised in the line “I’m scared of loneliness when I’m alone with you” – merely reprise the concerns of If You Wait. It’s pleasant enough, though listeners may experience a twinge or two of déjà vu”.
Personally, I prefer the debut but find much to enjoy in the trio’s second album. I feel they have many albums ahead of them and will continue to evolve and grow as their careers continue. Maybe there has been too much pressure on them: following their debut; they were set on the road and were keen to please demands and do as much as they could. Whilst their second album is exciting; it does not quite have the same magic and potency of their debut. Reid’s voice is as majestic as ever but it deserves a wider range of material and room to manoeuvre. Maybe there is a commercial demand to have the trio repeat the debut and not stray too far from the path. I feel London Grammar will produce a career-best third album but I wanted to highlight them as an act that suffered from the brightness of the spotlight and the demands from the label.
I will finish shortly but wanted to bring in an interview the group conducted with NME back in March. They were asked about touring and how the sounds differ on their latest album:
“Turning to the ‘sound’ of the new album, Dan says fans can expect it to be ‘less moody than the first record’. “It’s maybe less ‘samey’,” he admits. “We’ve tried to provide more variety.”
“We’ve expanded on the filmic, cinematic aspect,” says Dot. “That’s maybe something that’s consistent throughout the new album, but in terms of what’s going on in different songs it definitely varies a bit more.
“The live experience should always feel slightly different to an album in general. The only thing that is different if that we’ve been informed by the experience of actually doing it. Sometimes it would feel so mad to have a section like that at the end of ‘Metal & Dust’, where we were worried that it might have been too far removed from what we actually are as a band. Having experienced that live, it slightly relaxes the band.”
I worry, given Reid’s vocal/muscular issues and stress/anxiety – not forgetting her stage fright – there is still too much pressure being put on the group. The trio’s friendship almost broke when they had to cancel gigs (owing to Reid’s fatigue) and the frontwoman has been put under immense strain since the debut. It seems like they are on a more solid footing and have less stress in their life – one hopes that will not reverse when they tour their current album internationally.
They have a huge following in Australia and, although that has created a huge fanbase and airplay, it means long flights are inevitable. I hope the trio manage to stabilise and in a calmer headspace; that things get on a level footing and they are able to produce and tour music on their own terms. The tale of their first album – and the madness and fracture that occurred afterwards – should act as a warning sign for any label/artist put in a similar position. It is still early days for London Grammar but, if they are able to find a perfect work-private life balance, then they could well be one of the most successful and inspiring acts…
WE have heard in years.
ALL PHOTOS: Press/Getty Images/London Grammar (unless stated otherwise)