Photos by Sebastian Nevols.
Of the millions of musicians who’ve opted to discuss love in their art, the overwhelming majority have chosen to focus on the giddiness of that first flush of attraction, the dopamine-hit of the honeymoon period, or the gut-wrenching agony of heartbreak. As a storyteller it’s practically a no-brainer: extremes of emotion facilitate high-stakes drama. So it’s arguably far braver for an artist to attempt to unpick the subtler nuances of relationships, not to mention far harder for them to do so with emotional honesty while simultaneously keeping their audience engaged.
Speaking on the phone from her home in Ladywell, South London, Tirzah admits to experiencing some trepidation at her choice of subject matter. “When I was putting [the album] together it was definitely a case of [me thinking] could this just be way too indulged? Like, how can I make this less indulgent?” she explains in her soft, Essex lilt, adding with a laugh, “But you have to just go with what you’re feeling at the time.”
She downplays the record as, “Just a bunch of love songs; a whole heap of thoughts and feelings.”
Self-deprecation is a defining characteristic of our conversation today, just as you suspect it is of Tirzah’s communications in general. She seems practically allergic to the concept of self-promotion, crediting her career path to serendipity and her artistic achievements in this collection of songs to the skills of her songwriting partner, Mica Levi, who she affectionately refers to as Meeks.
Now 30, Tirzah met Mica at the age of 13 at Watford’s Purcell School for Young Musicians, where they bonded over “a mutual love and interest in music.” Tirzah studied harp and Mica viola, but their first collaborative experiments were born “messing around in the Music Tech lab” and were “quite sketchy and garage-inspired.” She adds, “Without Mica, I probably wouldn’t be pursuing music right now.”
In an interview with Pitchfork earlier this year, Mica described being taken aback on discovering that Tirzah could sing: “I couldn’t believe it. Your friend, who you’ve been having conversations with, has got this amazingly beautiful voice.” Listening to her supple, melismatic singing now, it seems incredible that Tirzah hadn’t capitalised on her talents all her life. Perhaps she didn’t realise how skilful a vocalist she was? “I guess it’s not something that you know unless you’ve tried it out,” she chuckles.
Even now, she doesn’t rate her vocal abilities. “I guess because there are people around me who are technical singers, so somehow it feels like I can’t compare to that. You know, where your body is like a real instrument? Not that everything has to be technical, but because that’s the sort of realm that I came from I guess I maybe discredit [my talents].” When I suggest she’s suffering from imposter syndrome she laughs, “Maybe, yeah.”
However, it’s not up for discussion: from the moment she first unveiled her voice to the public – on 2013’s universally- adored single ‘I’m Not Dancing’ – we fell deep under its spell. A string of acclaimed EPs followed, but it’s still felt a very long wait for an album. Tirzah credits the delay to holding down a full-time job as a graphic designer and to Mica’s successful career scoring the films Jackie and Under The Skin, which left them working in snatched moments at the latter’s house and in various London recording studios.
“It was quite a slow process of trying to work things out, what we wanted [the album] to be,” she recalls. “It was about finding that balance of trying to honour what comes to you naturally, rather than trying to mould it into something else. But also you want to be generous with it.” In terms of the division of labour between her and Mica, she explains that “Over the years it’s hard to tell who’s who and what’s what anymore. You get in such a groove of how you do things and I think I’m able to relax a bit because we’re good friends. She’s managed to make very small, very quiet mumblings into something interesting.” The oldest song on the album is ‘Go Now’, which dates back from 2002, and is reportedly totally unrecognisable from its first incarnation: “It’s way simpler. We kept it as sparse as we could. I can easily overcomplicate things.”
Simplicity has always been at the heart of Tirzah’s music, and on Devotion that minimalism helps emphasise the intimacy of the subject matter. On album opener ‘Fine Again’ mournful organ chords underpin erratic keyboard trills, while Tirzah’s coos act as a balm, promising, “Don’t worry about worries, I won’t let them get you.” Elsewhere, the loose groove of ‘Do You Know’ is driven by sparse percussion and looped guitar, while the haunting atmospherics of ‘Affection’ are distilled from just vocal harmonies and echoing piano. Vocal melodies are mostly improvised, “written after Mica has played me the beats and the loops,” she explains, adding, “It often feels hard to perform them like songs because they almost feel like recorded jams.”
“Just a bunch of love songs; a whole heap of thoughts and feelings.”
Despite previous work with SBTRKT, Nozinja, Mumdance, Bauuer and Tricky, Tirzah’s only other collaborator on Devotion is Kwes’ brother – and NTS-regular – Coby Sey. He appears on the title track, his Sampha-like tones intertwining with spidery, staccato piano arpeggios. Reflecting on her decision to keep album credits minimal she explains, “We did definitely talk about involving more people from Curl [Recordings], but it didn’t cross my mind to have anyone else other than who I knew. And Coby’s a great musician and a great friend so it felt really natural to just want him to be on there.”
This heart-on-sleeve creative approach extends to the lyrics, which are conversational in tone and thrillingly devoid of the sweeping statements and empty platitudes you often find in love songs. On ‘Devotion’ she skewers those clichés in the lines, “I want candle light and romantic notion, I want your hands around me and understanding, yeah / You can come to me with all your charms, you can come to me with those eyes.” Later she sings “I need all your attention / Sometimes I think that’s all I need / But most of all I want your comfort for me,” expressing a refreshing vulnerability not often encountered in song. In keeping with the rest of the album, this candidness is both refreshing and arresting.
As our time together draws to a close I ask for her thoughts on the album now, in one last attempt to coax an admission of pride from her. “It’s one of those things where you’ve done the thing, and now you have to live with it and perform it. And it becomes something else now once you’ve done it.” I’m about to admit defeat, when she adds at the very last second, “But I’m definitely proud of it.”