Bess Atwell is your new ethereal folk-pop princess.
Folk-pop with rock elements is a combination of three genres not usually considered complimentary, but singer-songwriter Bess Atwell brings them together to create an elegant and graceful sound. With inspirations including Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver, as well as experience singing in school choirs and musicals, Atwell’s light, supremely pretty vocals dance across guitar melodies to create a poetic sound. Writing observational lyrics on identity, the difficultly of navigating social media (her track “Hold Your Mind” explores the complicated concept of digital existence) and self-dismay, Atwell’s sound is soft and ethereal, her light vocals sung over pensive melodies and guitar riffs.
Her debut album “Hold Your Mind”, recorded in both London and Atwell’s hometown of Lewes with producer Michael Smith, consists of 12 songs that have an ethereal first impression, but delve into deep and dark topics. Describing her music as reflective as opposed to immersive, her delicate guitar chords are present in all 12 songs of the album, breathing life into her honest and emotive lyrics that fit so well with the gender-neutral voice that she adopts in her writing. Her debut single “Cobbled Streets” describes Atwell’s ambiguous relationship with small-town life, and the sense of community that the human consciousness so desperately craves. Relationship-based content is prevalent on the album, and explored through tracks including “Resolution”, where lyrics such as “is your body just a hollow shell or can you be whole?” are sung gracefully over intricate riffs and rumbling drum beats. Her objective and observational stance is expressed in a soft, poetic tone, through honest lyrics and carefully thought through melodic arrangements.
We caught up with Bess Atwell to talk about the recording of her debut album, the effect of social media on social connections and the importance of Bon Iver.
You have a very poetic, soft tone to your voice, would you agree? How did you develop your sound?
I suppose so. I don’t like to lose a song by overcomplicating the vocals so I try to keep it relatively simple and natural, with emphasis on phrasing and the words. I think once I started embracing what came naturally to me as a songwriter, that’s when I developed my own sound.
How did you first come to pursue music?
I used to sing in school choirs/musicals as a child, and always appreciated the power of words. Rather than deal with confrontation, I would often write letters to loved ones when I was a child, but it wasn’t until I started teaching myself to play the guitar that I ever considered putting words to music. The breakdown of my parents’ marriage was the first experience that got me writing, aged fourteen. Songwriting became a way for me to communicate not just my thoughts but the way that they physically felt, simultaneously. I began gigging aged 17.
You travelled to two places whilst recording of your album with producer Michael Smith: London and the countryside. Where was the best place to record your music and why?
Half way through the recording process sessions stalled due to some personal difficulties so Smithy packed up the essentials and travelled down to Sussex to record with me. We recorded in an empty garage, in the tiny village of Barcombe, and also in my own sitting room. Being in the studio in London was so much fun, having all the guys that played on the record there. It was the first time I’d ever been surrounded by like-minded people and musicians, and it was amazing to hear the songs that I’d written alone come to life with the band. However, having the time away from the studio, and going back to basics, reconnected us to the album and helped me regain ownership of the songs that I felt I’d lost a little. Those two sessions were when we developed the sound that I’d always wanted for this album, and reignited our excitement.
Your single “Cobbled Streets” is about your relationship with a small-town existence. What impact does a close-knit community have on your music?
I think, for me at least, there’s an illusion with a close-knit community that it’s everyone else, and then you on the side. I’ve always found it hard to feel part of a community, despite currently living in a small town, and I think this more observational stance comes across quite strongly in my songs. The music is reflective rather than immersive. The notion of restlessness, and a desire for more, is also present in many of the tracks.
The sense of ‘home’ and feeling at home is a big thing for you. Do you feel more at home being on stage or in a studio?
I’ve never thought of myself as a natural performer, so I wouldn’t say I feel at home on stage. However, it definitely makes me feel alive and able to connect. I think performing wouldn’t be so liberating if it felt safe.The studio is a comfortable and creative place for me, as long as there aren’t too many opinions being thrown around. I consider myself primarily a songwriter so I’m most at home during the creative process.
Your family moved around a lot as you were growing up and often felt the need to belong. Do you feel like the music industry, and belonging to a folky genre brings you a sense of “home”?
I think I definitely did as a teenager. That was one of the biggest attractions to a career in music as I had a romanticised idea of what it would look like. Hopping from festival to festival with my banjo-playing friends in an old camper van! It still provides a sense of belonging, but as the reality of the industry set in, the good and the bad, I have found a sense of home in the connection that music brings to people, outside of genre or community as well. Though the festival-hopping still sounds great.
I’ve heard one of your biggest influences is Bon Iver, when did you start listening to him and what is it about him that attracts you to him?
Yeah, again in my teenage years, Justin Vernon had been a big influence on me. It was the other-worldly nature of his music, and the painfully beautiful melodies that he effortlessly seemed to create. I also love how his voice seemed to bridge the gender gap. In a similar sense, I have tried to give my songs a relatively gender-neutral voice, (not sonically, but sentimentally) in the hope that they can speak to as many people as possible. His music transported me away from my own world, while at the same time acknowledging my pain. I remember thinking in my early teens, “if my pain had a voice it would sound like this”. Only later did I realise that it did have a voice, but only I could let it speak. Melody is just as, if not more, important to me than lyrics and I discovered that through my love of his band’s music.
The track “Hold Your Mind” challenges today’s digital existence and you say that “social media isn’t very accepting of being a mixture and a contradiction. It’s like you can’t really progress.” What’s your view on how social media affects society?
One of the main concepts of the album is the desire for connection, and I think social media can hinder real connection. Most of my friends have admitted at some point that Facebook, for example, makes them feel sad. We’re all addicted to scrolling endlessly down reels of the highlights of everybody else’s lives, and therefore victims of comparison more than any other generation. You’re also constantly faced with this false version of who you’re meant to be, on your own profile, along with the pressure to update it – because of this it becomes second nature to most of us to try to capture moments instead of enjoying them for ourselves. I’ve tried deleting my profile several times but it hooks you back in by almost denying your existence if you’re not available online. Invitations for events and parties go through Facebook, as do gig opportunities etc. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it comes with many compromises.
I saw your tweet saying that you deleted you Facebook app on your phone. Does this distance from social media integrate into your songs?
I still have the profile but I don’t have it on my phone anymore which has saved me lots of self-destructive scrolling! I’d like to think it does because one of my main aims is to connect to people and celebrate what it means to be human, and as I said before, I feel social media can hinder that process, while disguising itself as a helper.
You recently performed at The Great Escape, twice, what was the energy like?
Wonderful. I did a show for RYP Recordings, with other bands and friends from London so it was great to see everyone. I also performed for Folklore, run by my friend Jacko Hooper. I always love playing Folklore’s intimate shows – Jacko has a true passion for the acts he puts on, and there’s always a very respectful crowd. Different vibes for each show but both were lots of fun.
What three artists are you listening to right now?
Leon Bridges, Max Jury, and The War On Drugs
Your album “Hold Your Mind” comes out on the 15th July – we’re so excited! What can we expect from it?
Thanks, me too! There are 12 songs on the album, all written by myself over the last three years. I picked these specific songs as I knew I wanted to record with a band, and I felt they lent themselves to a band sound. You can expect honest lyrics, relationship based content, and themes on the undercurrent of domestic life. I’d say it’s folk-pop with darker, rockier elements.