In a career stretching back 18 years, Astrid Williamson has mastered different directions, collaborated with various gifted collaborators and released several stunning albums. But with Pulse, she has moved into another dimension. Haunting, ethereal and magical, with a deep emotional undertow of unrequited love, the album nails everything people have always said about Astrid – a sublime, rich voice, song writing and musicianship, and original to boot. If Joni Mitchell had looked into the future when she was about to record Blue and absorbed the influence of Talk Talk, it might have sounded like Pulse.
Born in the Shetland Isles off the Scottish coast - the isolated windswept romance has clearly seeped into her musical soul - Astrid first emerged as the creative core of the wonderful, sumptuous Goya Dress, one-time Nude labelmates of Suede and Geneva. The trio’s debut album Rooms was produced by John Cale, a tangible sign of the band’s worth, but they sadly split while recording the follow-up, Boy For You. The album was released under Astrid’s own name, and after relocating to Brighton (where she still lives) she’s since released three solo albums, Astrid Williamson (2003), Day Of The Lone Wolf (2006) and Here Come The Vikings (2009).
The first two established an eloquent, graceful and spacious blend of folk-slanted, electronic-flecked tracks before a more tempestuous Here Come The Vikings, inspired by the rockier backing band she had assembled and the desire to change and challenge herself.
This time, the fact Astrid found herself alone shaped the sound of Pulse. “I didn’t have a working band at the time, and I wanted this time to make something different, an album where my voice was central to proceedings, in a lot of space – something more ambient. I also needed someone else to work with, to not be holding the reins for once. I wanted to be challenged again.”
Williamson saw guitarist/ambient expert Leo Abrahams perform as part of Brian Eno's Pure Scenius project at 2010 Brighton Festival and, inspired, sent him a dozen demos. He
immediately responded to the tender and gaunt duo Reservation and Paperbacks, the two tracks that close Pulse. “Astrid is a knowledgeable, literate songwriter in the 'classic' mold, but in some of her demos I detected that she was heading somewhere she hadn't been before – that is pretty much the condition under which I like to work with an artist.” Under such conditions the process began, “It was pretty terrifying to discard more than half the original demos” admits Astrid “ I’d spent a year writing those songs but it was inspirational having to write more. And Leo led me in the direction I wanted to go in.” Leo rejoins “I was really knocked out by how, week after week, she kept bringing in interesting, original and brave songs with ambiguous emotions, all recorded on a great-sounding old upright.”
So after working on four of the original demos, adding Pour and the title track, songs were recorded as they were written; first came Underwater, then Husk, until in October 2010, Connected was the last song to make the cut. While Day Of The Lone Wolf concerned the end of a relationship and the inability to communicate and Here Come The Vikings was a mirror of all the various impulses in Astrid’s life, it’s again affairs of the heart that dominate Pulse – or as Astrid sees it, “an extended love letter. Songs can be the sweetest way to address the things you can and can’t say to people. And you can’t help fall in love with someone. Just as you can’t help writing the songs.”
Inside, you’ll discover references to simple emotion addressed head on (such as Paperbacks) but there is also the joy of word play and suggestion: “I determined not to feel like I was making a lot of sense all the time.” The references to David and Bathsheba in the opening Dance (with its gorgeous pedalling glass xylophone figure) is just one of Pulse’s alluring images while the devotion to the almost religious rapture of love and putting into song form echoes that of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.
But Pulse is not only about love’s labours; outside, trouble is always brewing. Husk was written after Williamson watched the legendary 1982 eco-documentary Koyaanisqatsiand; Reservation after a chilling report on the body count of Iraqi children - “the song was written in the same time it took to play it.”
Pulse is well named for the fact it’s an emotionally charged record, full of highs and lows, and the distances between what we want and what we have. “The thing about being creative, you have to believe it’s real or else you feel a fraud, and there’s a lot of personal truth in there that makes it feel valid.And having spent a long time trying to write the perfect song, I wanted to write songs that weren’t contrived in any way, but just to let it come out.”
Away from recording or touring, Astrid has also busied herself with her own label, Incarnation, releasing two albums by the mostly instrumental art-rock duo OSKAR, as well as working with Electronic, Sophia’s Robin Proper-Sheppard and Dead Can Dance’s Brendan Perry. Since the Day of the Lone Wolf album she has licensed her own music to One Little Indian.
Astrid’s putting a new band together now too, but one that will work best with Pulse’s pared- back currents. So don’t expect many songs from Here Come The Vikings. That was Astrid then; Pulse, and its unique combination of haunting intensity with uplifting light and space, is very much Astrid now.