By Phil Scarisbrick
Giving you a front row seat to the theatre of her existence, Katy Kirby utilises her past to illuminate her present to stunning effect
American life and religion are two fundamentally entwined entities. Religious dogma is ingrained into the oaths people take when holding public office, and is even emblazoned onto dollar bills. In some parts of the country though, it goes even further, and is as fundamental to people’s existence as elemental necessities. Growing up in the American ‘Bible Belt’, Katy Kirby was introduced to music by the Evangelical Church, and its own brand of Christian Contemporary Music. As is often the case when people move away from that environment, the music that she makes now rails against it. But rather than discarding it completely, she has taken the essence of what hooked people in, and added her own brand of wit and rationality to create her stunning debut album, Cool Dry Place.
The lo-fi, gentle strums of Eyelids promise something that this record veers away from rather swiftly. Its lightness of touch takes the listener through a hundred seconds of skeletal yearning -with Kirby’s voice subtly underpinned by a delicately tapped piano, and the aforementioned acoustic flickers. So when Juniper kicks in with its much fuller arrangement, it catches you totally off guard. As you continue through Cool Dry Place, it is clear that Eyelids is merely the deep breath before the storm.
Juniper has a defiant message of self-efficiency as Kirby sings, ‘You don’t need anyone else to tell you/ What’s gonna grow, you’re on your own’. They say that God created man in his own image, which is probably what she is describing when she says that ‘You don’t need a reprimand to know/ Just when a vengeful god will strike her blow’. Traffic! uses its autotune-drenched vocal to lament an acquaintance’s mawkish self-pity by telling them ‘Nobody has it better than you’. The effortlessly catchy melodies betray a saltiness to the lyrics that are as hilarious as they are hard hitting.
Secret Language co-opts Leonard Cohen’s masterpiece, Hallelujah, for its opening line – ‘I heard there was a secret chord’ – but rather than moving into an all-encompassing testimony about the human condition, it seems to loop around an eternal Chinese whispers-insinuating ‘I heard that…’ to start almost every line. Its chorus hook is one of the strongest on an album not short of strong hooks, and is another example of how Kirby uses sweet melodies to amplify her words rather than to sugarcoat them.
Portals is a beautifully evocative, emotional pein that lets the listener spectate on the beginning of the end of a relationship. Combining a chord structure that has been utilised ad hominem with angular sounds of metal and strings, the soundtrack creates the juxtaposition between pain and hope that fuels the track. ‘If we peel apart/ Will we be stronger than we were before/ We had formed ourselves together in a temporary whole? she sings – trying to reconcile her swirling emotions around the impending demise.
The album’s title track sees Kirby yearning for the protection that every human needs. As it builds, there is a real joy that comes out of Kirby’s vocal. The music becomes ever more sporadic and disjointed as it all starts to fall apart at the end, before swirling around a sweet organ melody and sudden stop. It feels like it captures the essence of the whole record: to expose Kirby’s inner feelings in a very matter-of-fact way, but delivered in a way that will feel completely real to the listener.
Ernest Hemingway said that when he was writing he was trying to ‘get the feeling of the actual life across. Not to just depict life, or criticise it, but to actually make it alive.’ This feels very much like what Kirby has achieved with Cool Dry Place. Everything that we hear her sing etches a distinct image; she isn’t just describing her life and emotions, but giving you a front row seat to the theatre of her existence.
In a year where her label, Keeled Scales, have already set a very high bar with their releases, Cool Dry Place may just be the best of the lot.
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