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Bess Atwell Sequoia Ziff 2

On the Rise
Bess Atwell

25 March 2022, 13:00
Words by Jen Long
Original Photography by Sequoia Ziff

Brighton-based singer songwriter Bess Atwell turns her loneliest moments into gorgeous songs with a comfortable relatability.

Bess Atwell smiles across the video call from her Brighton bedroom, turning the laptop to include her cat, Max, in the frame. “We joked about it on the album tour, that I could only say, ‘I miss my cat’ once every day in the van. And it was funny, but inside I was like, it’s not funny,” she says.

Atwell released her second album, the gorgeous and cuttingly introspective Already, Always last autumn through Lucy Rose’s Real Kind Records imprint. It’s a beautiful and impressive collection of songs telling the story of internal dilemma and relationship tumult. Songs like the instant earworm “Co-Op” shine a light on the mundane but impactful frictions that arise between couples, while “How Do You Leave” is a gut-kick of questioning guilt and grief. Delicately crafted production lifts Atwell’s matter-of-fact delivery across a record that’s tender but direct.

Atwell has previously spoken of a fraught upbringing with parents who struggled with depression while caring for her younger sister who has severe autism. “It informed the record in a way, but not in a direct way,” she explains. She spent her teenage years in a little village in Sussex while attending school in Brighton. For Atwell, music was an escape, but also something that was encouraged and supported by her artist mum and her dad, who chose a career in medicine over his university band. “He still writes on the piano, just for pleasure, really,” she says.

Both she and her sister were enrolled in piano lessons at a young age, but Atwell found she couldn’t connect in a formal setting. Her dad tried again with guitar lessons when she was thirteen, but instead she took the basics and began to teach herself in her bedroom. “I was just really bad at being taught anything. I just had to want to do it on my own,” she smiles.

By the time she was nineteen she had a full management team in place, was playing a residency at a bar in London’s Soho and releasing her debut album, Hold Your Mind. Looking back, it’s a record that Atwell feels doesn’t truly reflect who she is as an artist, but more who her previous team thought she should be. Around the release of Already, Always, the debut album was taken down from streaming platforms, and has only recently been reuploaded. “Not because I’m ashamed of it,” she clarifies. “I just felt like it wasn’t that representative of the new record. I was just a lot more hands on for this record.”

Shortly after the release of Hold Your Mind in 2016, Atwell left her team and began managing herself, playing shows and self-funding an EP, 2019’s Big Blue. “I just stripped it all back and decided to do everything myself, manage myself, form my own band in Brighton and I did that for a few years, and that’s when things started going well,” she says. Around the release of that EP she met her current manager, and they began putting together a plan for her next album. In early 2020 Atwell was on tour with City and Colour. Lucy Rose had previously toured with the Canadian singer, and was in the audience to see Atwell. The two met backstage and arranged a follow up coffee in Brighton where they “fell madly in love.”

The introduction of Real Kind Records and Rose had a big influence on the outcome of the new album. “It was really quite a cobbled together process because I started independently funding it myself, doing it in dribs and drabs when I could afford it, so it took years to record,” explains Atwell. “But then Lucy got on board halfway through and she simultaneously helped me realise my vision I started with a bit more, and also helped it grow into something more organic in parts.”

Not only did Rose help Atwell shape the record, but she gave her the confidence to allow her songs the space they deserved. “I went into the record quite preoccupied with not wanting to do something boring or safe or obvious, because I’m a girl with a guitar,” she says. “But at times that stifled me creatively because I was trying too hard instead of just serving the song. She would reign me in again and give me the confidence to know some of those songs were good enough as they were.”

As striking as the paired back production and Atwell’s effortless vocals are, it’s the record’s lyrical themes which jump out on a closer listen. Telling the story of a breakup from the protagonist’s point of view, it’s heartbreaking and painfully familiar, a narrative that’s often untold. “It’s a way more complicated and interesting role to come at it from the perspective of the bad guy,” she says. “It was all about trying to untangle platonic and romantic love and work out how to love someone. It’s exhausting.”

Already, Always tells the story of the tail end of a long relationship, a break-up which was drawn out over two years, rekindled and then extinguished after the release of the record. “The album sounds like a breakup record but it was still ongoing while releasing the record, all those same feelings,” she shares, before admitting her ex still plays in the band. “We’re like Fleetwood Mac, just less successful.” Atwell released her album just as live shows and touring came back to the UK, allowing her a few months on the road after a long period away. “Anything you say about playing live just sounds really cliché and scripted, but playing your own music to your own audience after that time, it is life-affirming,” she smiles.

Atwell is now gearing up for a summer of festivals, and this week shared the stripped back live clip for album track “Silver Fir”. Shot at Firle Cricket Club, it’s surreal trip of quaint backdrop and unnerving performance, Atwell’s ethereal live vocals pitch perfect. Filmed in just two takes, the setting brought a meaningful juxtaposition to Atwell’s performance. “Little village cricket grounds are really nostalgic to me because they remind me of the happiest days of my childhood. It was so simple, you’d just hang out watching the dads play cricket and everyone would bring sandwiches and cakes, and that was basically the reason I liked it,” she laughs. “The song is a stream of consciousness of some of the happiest times of my childhood but with a dark tint.”

Bess Atwell plays Black Deer Festival this summer; tickets are on sale now
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