When you have Conversations, the debut album by London-via-Cumbria four piece Woman’s Hour, on on your headphones, it’s hard to escape the gorgeous Lake District burr of singer Fiona Jane Burgess. It’s that familiar (well, to another resident of Northern Britain anyway) elongation and “oooh” sound to the vowels in a word like “love” that to me brings a disarming honest to the soulful songs on the record that is sure to mark out the band as one of, if not the, British band to watch over the next few years.
Conversations is brilliant; a perfectly realised sonic and artistic template showing that Woman’s Hour already find themselves in the position of appearing completely mature and without first-record nerves…yet delve into this collection of intimate, late-night tales and you’ll find uncertainty, questions and ambiguity – and the album is all the better for having this terrific depth.
It’s the subject of accent, though, that begins my conversation with singer Fiona (the band is rounded out by her brother Will on guitar, Josh Hunnisett on keys and Nicolas Graves on bass) who is only too happy to talk about anything and everything, once pleading with me to interrupt her or she’ll just keep talking…but I could listen to that voice all day long. So I have to start by asking about the honesty that’s created through singing in your own accent:
“The truth is, for a lot of musicians who end up releasing their debut record and are lucky enough to get to that point,” begins Burgess, “I feel like they’ve spent a lot more time developing their sonic identity. Maybe they’ve done other musical projects and tested stuff out, and found a way to communicate in a style….so for me it’s kind of weird to reflect on how it happened.” For someone who exudes a definite calmness on stage no matter what’s in front of her, Burgess reveals that she wasn’t always so serene: “When we first started singing together I was completely lacking in confidence and was almost either whispering the songs or screaming the songs! I was just experimenting and I was doing that due to fear, in a way. I was experimenting but also so scared to actually try and sing that I felt if I did weird stuff with it, it would be less noticeable that I couldn’t sing.”
With the point looming for Burgess to actually commit her voice to tape, her brother and the band’s guitarist Will gave her some gentle words of advice. “I had this idea that I really didn’t know if I could sing and I was nervous to really give it a go,” she explains, “because when you do that you make yourself so vulnerable and I guess that kind of experimentation is actually about holding back or covering up. And then I remember my brother say, in a really honest way during one of the rehearsals, ‘just try and sing…sing with your accent’. It was just a comment that he made, at a time when I was just beginning to try and sing in a way that wasn’t forced or wasn’t covering up…it was very exposed and a lot more delicate than what I had been doing.” Fiona has already mentioned her whisper, and it crops up again: “I said I was almost whispering the songs - and it was in an excruciatingly shy way. But it just stuck and as soon as I started to sing there was this weird confidence and I knew the only way to confront this fear was to do it honestly. Because I wasn’t a trained singer - or at least I wasn’t then, I’ve since had vocal coaching - I didn’t learn to sing through imitation so I didn’t see the point in trying to sing in a certain style or certain accent.” The subject of accent is something close to Burgess’ heart, so we continue to talk about this. “It kind of bugged me when I listened - and I think it’s more common in mainstream pop music - to hear fake accents,” she explains, with passion, “and it always irritated me when artists felt the only way people were going to listen to them was to put on this accent.”
Burgess now provides an example of a song that annoyed her in this way. I should point out that we talked about the singer in question by name, but I’ve not included the name here as the artist was only mentioned in order to make a wider point – not to criticise a particular singer. She says: “In fact, I even remember recently, just after we’d done the Bruce Springsteen cover of “Dancing in the Dark”, it was a couple of weeks later, and ironically just before we released our version, Josh had come across a version of the same song – in a live session. I remember listening to it and I immediately got my notepad out and started writing, and I just couldn’t stop! I’d started writing down why, when I listened to it, and I hadn’t really thought about it until I’d heard that version, I hadn’t thought about my own singing style in relation to other artists in this accented way. I was listening, and thinking that [the artist] was singing in such an Americanised accent!” I ask if she thinks it means there’s a lack of honesty in the singer or the song: “I think it’s a shame in a way that if you’re going to sing in a certain style,” says Fiona, “and make reference to other artists that you’ve listened to and admire, you don’t need to imitate them - take something and then actually make it your own. It made me realise that my relationship to my accent was quite important and I didn’t realise it until I’d heard the same cover done in this way. To me, it was important to try and shake off this American, almost kind of Pop Idol/X Factor generation of artists who feel the need to pull on people’s emotional vulnerability…maybe that’s not right, maybe it’s not emotional vulnerability - maybe it’s just they’ve been told this is the recommended way of singing!”
Honesty is something that is clearly important to Burgess and it’s not just evident in her beautifully accented singing, that’s delivered without flourish or adornment, but also lyrically where being honest means that not everything is always black and white. Conversations is an album where questions are being asked by Burgess – questioning herself, questioning the relationships that she has in her life and whether being in step with someone is always a good thing. She explains that it’s not always a conscious decision to address these subject: “It’s funny because often when we write the songs, and it’s not always even a conscious thing, what happens with a lot of the songs is that a lot of them contain this ambiguity where it’s not clear whether or not a song is directly positive or negative.” I say that’s what makes Woman’s Hour so attractive to me, that it feels right to have this “unresolved” atmosphere around many of the songs. “I guess the reason there is this ambiguity is probably because on the record I feel as though what we’re trying to do is…not untangle the complexity of certain feelings and thoughts and ideas and emotions,” explains Fiona, “but almost accept this tangled situation where nothing is black and white. So, with a song like ‘Our Love Has No Rhythm’, we didn’t want to create something that was very clear as to how it was supposed to make you feel, if that makes sense?” It definitely does, I say. It’s a song that makes me feel a little imbalanced, if you know what I mean? “It’s an incredibly fluid song, whatever state you’re in,” she agrees. “It can be incredibly positive or incredibly negative in terms of whatever way you read it. This idea of rhythm; in some respects I think this idea of a relationship being ‘in a rhythm’ is seen as being this positive, healthy thing. People say you should be in tune with each other, without even speaking you should be able to understand each other and your lives should fit together in a way that it has a constant ebb and flow to it…..and that can be positive but also it can be negative! That can be incredibly monotonous! When I say ‘relationship’ I don’t mean boyfriend/girlfriend/partner relationship, this is so relevant to all sorts of relationships. On the record I wouldn’t say it’s about ‘lovers’; it’s very much a reflection on people in our lives and our own minds and strength of thought.”
The notion of rhythm is one that’s there right from the opening bars of the record, but then of course our lives are made up of a series of relationships…“If you’re in a relationship and there’s a rhythm to it which is negative…if things aren’t being talked about, and it’s creating this tension, but this rhythm is tension as well! That’s not a good rhythm and,” says Burgess, “actually, in the song “Unbroken Sequence’ I would say that song is very much about this rhythm that’s never been broken - but it’s a negative rhythm. You get into patterns with people and it’s impossible to get out of these patterns! And somehow you desperately want to change what’s happening, and we always end up in this situation where we’re unable to have a rhythm that’s not this unhealthy repetition or cyclical thing. In a way we wrote the songs to make sense of the situations, but they don’t have any answers to them - it’s a reflection and a stream of consciousness.”