Smells have long been a catalyst for creativity – according to French poets, at least.
18th Century wordsmith Friedrich Schiller kept decaying fruit around his workplace, as he felt the scent created a spark in his creative palate. Now, science is getting in on the act, thanks to recent studies such as those of Japan’s Tottori University, which found that Alzheimer’s patients response to rosemary and lemon in the morning, and orange in the evening has improved cognitive functions. Meanwhile, in Germany, the University of Dresden Medical School has found that those without a sense of smell are more socially insecure and at a higher risk of depression.
But while it’s all well and good if you’re a poet, and not comforting at all if you suffer from anosmia, little has been said about the effect smell has on musical creation. It’s an interesting notion that a city’s stench could influence the creativity of those inside, but it’s something that will affect a lot of musicians in American – thanks to its large number of cities ruled over by giant factories or chemical plants. One example that springs to mind is Cedar Rapids in Iowa, with its Quaker Oats mill representing its nasal presence. Though sadly, aside from David Hilker, renowned composer of timeless film classics Paul Blart: Mall Cop and Wasabi Tuna, the alluring scent of porridge in the afternoon, or indeed any smell, has done little for our musical evolution.
Or at least that was what everybody thought (everybody thought this) before Widowspeak, the shoegaze indie-rock band that first sprouted in Brooklyn, arrived on the scene in 2010. Despite their birth in the big city, the band’s guitarist and vocalist Molly Hamilton started out in Tacoma, Washington amidst a greyed landscape and a heady musk. Tacoma is another city that has a distinct stench. “There’s a bit of a stigma when you say you’re from Tacoma, due to it being a bit rougher than other towns, and because of the port’s acrid smell,” muses Hamilton before noting its reputation as the “aroma of Tacoma”. She continues, “it’s in Washington State so it rains a lot and the sky has that perpetual overcast greyness, and Tacoma doesn’t have that cultural significance that Olympia and Seattle do.”
But while those cities musical legacy, particularly the latter, need no further contextual overview, beyond a notable mention for Neko Case, Tacoma has never been the most generous in providing the world with the gift of music. It’s no surprise that Hamilton made a bee-line for New York, where she eventually met fellow guitarist Robert Earl Thomas, a native of Chicago. The pair, alongside past member and drummer Michael Stasiak, formed Widowspeak, not completely shunning the microcosm of inspiration that a small and grey port-city can be – combining the drearier elements this landscape with the riffier guitars of Chicago and a tinge of Brooklynian dream pop. It’s a combination that worked, and quickly too. Coming to the attention of local label Captured Tracks, Widowspeak went on to release two full-length albums, a self-titled debut, and 2012’s Almanac, before settling down in the second half of 2013 for album number three.
Though by the end of October, Widowspeak were already gearing up for a new release in the form of The Swamps, an EP that sees the band directly after the tour that covered both Europe and the Southern states of the US. The record itself, unlike their previous efforts, matches neither their setting growing up or their current home, but instead reflects an evolving and impressionable writing process, which has come thick and fast and heavily influenced by a hectic touring schedule. Talking to Hamilton, its difficult to imagine where the band has found time to even contribute further to its own discography. She explains the band’s relationship to its label and the freedom it allows them, but the price is self organisation – leaving little time for the day to day songwriting. The touring schedules are easily reflected through the birth of The Swamps. It shows a band highly organised and eager to produce new material, but at the same time easily swayed by surroundings.
Leading with the track “True Believer”, the wandering, mellow shoegaze tinged melodies represent a lazy trip through southern bayous, or a mist hanging statically across the lagoon. It’s a sound that shows a band clearly dragged out from its roots, and then again from their adopted home. It’s a fair stone’s throw from Almanac and its a rockier, more northern sound. Whilst adopting a similar breezy vocal delivery, the music feels far more a product of the city. The Swamps, conversely, is a standalone record for the road.