Think of a capella music and you may well bring to mind Pitch Perfect, The Flying Pickets or The Roches. What you won’t expect is the complex variation provided by singer-songwriter Kate Dimbleby in Songbirds. Whilst this is her sixth studio album, it’s the first that she considers to be truly herself – “Everything laid bare.”
Songbirds is the product of a life explored. From London to Vancouver Island, from riverside benches to forests and hilltops and from break-up to intimacy to self-revelation, Kate’s journeys spill out into lyrics that entice and surprise. Backed by her own voice, looped and layered into technical masterpieces, Kate’s work pretends to be simple, but isn’t. Accessing Americana, blues, jazz, spiritual and folk, Kate redefines her influences through courage sprinkled with genius. Her approach to music has a postmodern twist, as she leaves “room for people to interact by stepping into the space where the instruments would normally be.” The result is an album deserving of the label “groundbreaking,” brought to life via her partnership with producer Lauren Deakin Davies and label boss Helen Meissner.
Ever felt the need to find yourself? “Limbo” locates the moment where change is inevitable, yet slow to arrive. This is an intensely personal reflection which, for Kate, was triggered by her first real heartbreak. She explains, “I sat on a bench by the river in Hammersmith thinking this is a really horrible feeling – this kind of emptiness…I need to move it by singing about it.” Out of that moment of despair came Kate’s first song.
From heartbreak comes joy, so track two reminds us that “Love Can Be Easy.” Born in a moment of simple pleasure with her daughter, which caused Kate to ponder “why do we never sing about the quiet moments?”, we’re transported to the spaces in life where nothing is happening but contentment. If only we could bottle it, but, as the song says “When we see it clearly, then we’re no longer there.”
Many songs have tried to capture the spirit of happiness, none less than Bobby McFerrin’s 1988 “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”. Listen to the playful expression in Kate’s “Happy,” it’s no surprise to find that she had previously worked with the man himself. Kate takes joy to a whole new dimension. Spontaneous and childlike, this is a track to put a smile on your face. Listen at least once a day for maximum benefit.
“Musical Boxes” was released as a single on 27 January and caught the imagination of influential tastemakers, including BBC Radio 6 Music’s Tom Robinson, who included it in the BBC Introducing Mixtape. A chirpy little offering, based on “The idea that we are all little musical boxes with our own themes and resonances but we just don’t listen enough to really appreciate each other”, the backdrop ticks and tocks, encouraging listeners to sing along. Or maybe even find their own song?
Strong and resonant, “Life Is” brings the emotion of Kate’s voice to the foreground. Although more conventionally arranged than previous tracks, this feels more courageous. Written for her husband and her father, it entreats us not to put off until tomorrow the things we should say today. Channelling the sentiment of Shelley’s Ozymandias into her lyrics “…when both of us are over, there’ll be no-one left to know how deeply I loved you, so I’d better let you know” Kate urges us to own our feelings. It’s Valentine’s week. Take a risk. Go do it.
Describing “At Our Best” as a “silly marching hymn”, Kate is in danger of undermining her own genius. Blending country/gospel/spiritual vibes with on-point harmonies, this is 1 minute 6 seconds of anthemic perfection. Yes, we could march along, but we’d best be marching for something worthwhile. Let’s hope this little gem finds its cause.
Revealing a softly nurturing side to Kate’s songwriting, “Whatever” is the story of unconditional support that everyone needs in their life…“When this world seems overcrowded but friendship feels too hard to find…I’ll never be too far behind”. Supported by a jazz of doo-wop, and ending with a snippet of studio chat and a giggle, this track has personality by the bucketload.
Many can sing the blues, but not many can write a strong, traditional blues refrain. In “These Things, They Will Come,” Kate reveals her blues credentials. The track, Kate confesses, runs very deep for her, founded in her personal experience of physical pain and psychological displacement. Reminiscent of Sam Cook’s civil rights anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Kate wrote it as a personal reassurance that there’s a world of support to be found. But with end strangely unresolved, listeners are left suspended in a space for their own interpretation.
Kate is a long-term member of the Society for Spontaneous Singing (yes, it’s a real thing; go join now!) “Harder Than You Think” is her brief response to their stimulus to write a song about/while walking. Why not have a go, and find out whether it is indeed harder than you think? Can you improve on Kate’s tight rhythm and breathy beatboxing?
In an era of instant gratification, the patience required of intimacy can be hard to achieve. “Walk Away” acknowledges the choice to leave while celebrating the prize to be won if we stay. With effortless vocal control and chorally-precise harmonies, Kate transports us to a hilltop where the song came to her “all in one go, pretty much as recorded.” Sometimes these things are a gift.
Closing the album, “Song For A Hill” is a quirky, carnivalesque confection, combining captured sound with electronica. Calling to mind automata and strains of Hushabye Mountain, Kate creates a delicious waltz through traditional toyboxes, distant streets and stormy days. A tiny soundscape to hold in your hand and enjoy.
Disruptive and contemporary, Songbirds introduces interpretation that shakes off familiarity and define the edge of a new genre. Kate’s determination to find her own voice – which can’t be easy, given the heritage that attaches to her name – has found fertile ground in the all-female, all-nurturing team that has assembled around her.
The Songbirds live tour takes flight on 17 and 18 February in Bath, continuing through a launch at the NOW gallery on London’s Greenwich Peninsula on 23 February, to dates around London and the South of England. Kate has teamed up with director Katy Carmichael and Bristol’s Theatre Damfino to create a warm and vibrant one-woman show to be performed in an eclectic range of venues such as churches, art galleries and a spiegeltent. The result is a unique and engaging audience experience, different at each performance. Book your tickets here.
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