Glasgow based Clair Crawford has created an endlessly fascinating, deeply personal and genuinely unique record with her debut album Earth Mothers. It may be a debut album but it arrives sounding like an artist who has spent years honing and creating her sound. Earth Mothers is avant-garde in the finest sense and was created during some difficult days recovering from a significant trauma. It was made with the assistance of micro-dosing, magick, nature, sex toys, field recordings and life experience. If that sounds like your kind of thing, read on…
There is a long history of composers using everyday objects in their music, for various purposes. Terry Riley has experimented with kitchen bowls filled with different amounts of water. Adam Bohman has created an entire back catalogue of whacky and wonderful albums made up of sound pieces created with household objects, DIY equipment and children’s toys and instruments. Composer and academic Steve Beresford has been involved in countless projects concerned with improvisation and inventive sound. In music and art the skill and imagination required to turn everyday objects or sounds into magical ones is perhaps rarer than it should be, but is something that has occupied some of the great creative minds throughout history, from Da Vinci to Eno, from Andy Warhol to John Cage.
It’s a tradition that stretches back centuries, beyond the serious academic explorations of musique concréte through circus and folk music all the way back to native people using handmade traditional instruments for entertainment as well as for ceremonial occasions. On Earth Mothers, it feels like CLAIR is part of this tradition. She has used all sorts of objects and instruments not only because it sounds interesting and inventive but also as part of a healing process. These objects of the everyday (mini sowing machines, jewellery making tools), these artefacts of youth (children’s instruments) and these highly personal objects (sex toys) are all brought together to form part of the whole in a way which aligns with the human healing process; that is, overcoming injury or trauma and becoming whole again.
Part of the haunting feel to the album derives from the fact that it contains so many moments in time recorded and used to create extraordinary soundscapes. You are listening to sections of the past made eternal. Earth Mothers feels like a translation of life; it is inviting us into a world of mysticism, nature and healing and yet it is incredibly grounded. Juxtaposition is part of the record, consciously or not. It has a power that can be unsettling, comforting, evocative, healing and even quietly disturbing almost all at the same time. It creates an ambience which suggests you’re inside CLAIR’s home or local vicinity whilst at other times it can feel completely otherworldly and ethereal. It is complex and experimental but carries itself with a glorious openness and simplicity.
That simplicity is probably more a reflection on the production and techniques used by CLAIR rather than a comment on the actual music. The album was recorded at home, using relatively basic audio production software. It doesn’t contain any samples from other artists, only field recordings, vocal recordings and music created by the artist. This approach is perfectly suited to the music. It allows the energies of the whole process to seep subtly into the recording. It makes the record personal and creates the absorbing, often beautiful ambience that makes the music so potent.
In effect, Earth Mothers is also gently subversive. The use of field recordings and unusual objects such as sex toys or blow torches highlight that music can be anything you want it to be. A sound isn’t only beautiful if it is generated by a classical instrument played by a trained musician. Sound is context, it is life and it is energy. CLAIR implicitly makes that point, creating soundscapes that are a reflection of her journey. This isn’t about cultural references or even musical traditions (despite what I said earlier); it is about the sounds, moods and energy of a certain time and a certain period in an artist’s life. What is remarkable is just how creatively, poignantly and easily this artist can use and manipulate those sounds to offer the listener the chance to experience the atmosphere of her life and her world, however fleeting and tantalising that experience may be.
The album opens with Queen Bee, complete with buzzing insects, oystercatcher calls, woodland birdsong, children talking or playing, strange instrumentation that is hard to identify, singing bowls or melodically clanging metal. Welcome to Earth Mothers. This track is an introduction to another world and you find yourself stepping into it, unable to leave until the journey is over. Catnip builds from similar sonic terrain as Queen Bee into something beatlessly euphoric. In a way it symbolises the record in the sense that it is alive. This is a living, breathing soundscape and you’re part of it. Robin redbreast is an enigmatic piece that is hard to pin down. It is one of the shorter pieces on the album and yet contains distinct sections and multiple layers. It sounds slightly different on every listen. The introduction is strange and slightly unnerving. The field recordings are comforting, full of nature and lapping waves. The electronica towards the end of the track offers a subtle nod to Delia Derbyshire whilst creating an almost neo-paganist atmosphere. Altogether it is a woozy, unusual piece of music that indicates the direction the album is travelling in.
Kelvingrove conjures images of an old, ramshackle country house with eccentric decor and ghosts roaming the corridors playing strange, exotic instruments. It isn’t haunting in an uncanny or spooky way. It is the everyday nature of it that creates a slightly surreal, haunting aspect.
In contrast, Tiger Queen is like something from another dimension completely. The devil’s carnival has rode into town, spiked the water supply and the townsfolk are stuck in a mad, bad collective trip, spiralling further and further downwards. It becomes an otherworldly experience that is completely consuming. Unlike other tracks on the album where you feel that despite being part of the soundscape you are slightly removed, listening and observing, Tiger Queen is a maelstrom that engulfs you and psychologically alters you. It is a deep, powerful and not altogether pleasant listening experience but it feels important and meaningful. At over eleven minutes long there is a fever dream ferocity to the track that isn’t matched anywhere else on the record; or at least not in the same way. In a sense, you don’t want it to end and as those final notes give way to a growling snarling tiger the listener is overcome with the sensation of having been on a psychedelic journey unlike any other.
Fergus Trip contains a variety of sounds, working with and against one another to act as a sort of comedown from the power of Tiger Queen. Water sounds, more unusual instruments, haunting vocals, mechanical noise, repetitive piano lines, snatches of children singing, triangle or bell sounds – when written down it doesn’t look like it should work but it does. It comes together to form a piece of charming oddball music, a cross between neo-classical and experimental folk.
The final piece on the album is the first piece CLAIR recorded. A Witches Bedroom Chimes is every bit as unusual and intriguing as the title suggests. The creepy tinkling of a music box or children’s toy opens the piece, complete with the scratchy sound of the toy being wound up. This music is soon accompanied by sensual, almost feral breathy noises, a machine hum and a low constant vibration which emerges and disappears throughout. It creates a personal picture, a glimpse into CLAIR’s world and perhaps into her own bedroom. There’s something almost ritualistic about it, in a way that you find yourself thinking about it at random, hours after you last listened to the record. And then the mechanical music slows and fades, the gasps and breaths and distant anguished cries start to peter out and the electronic vibration stops. The journey is over. The experience is over.
Earth Mothers really is an experience. There will be comparisons to other composers and artists. Terry Riley, Luc Ferrari or somebody more contemporary like Alexandra Spence all crossed my mind when I was thinking about reference points but ultimately trying to force those comparisons on CLAIR feels futile. Earth Mothers is unique. In a lot of ways it is the most interesting album I’ve heard for a long time. I suspect different listeners will interact with and experience the album in different ways. Some listeners will be more susceptible to the energies of the record than others. Some will hear things slightly differently and pick up on the subtle layers and recordings contained within each track that other listeners may miss. That is part of the beauty of the album – the scope, the richness and the possibilities that emerge with each listen. It is a genuinely remarkable work.
Earth Mothers is out now on HotGem records