CLAIRE HAMILL: VOICES, 1986

This week’s record is a curiosity in every aspect, occupying a strange space both in visibility and in the context of the artist’s own discography. It’s been reprinted only a handful of times resulting in little exposure but sites such as Discogs and AllMusic still recommend works by estimated, well-known artists like Pink Floyd, Kate Bush and Tracy Chapman as similar. A very disparate bunch which does not exactly help you imagine what this LP really sounds like (and which also begs the question who exactly listens to this?).

The album we’re talking about is Claire Hamill’s gorgeous Voices from 1986. A sparse collection of, well, not much … voices arranged and manipulated to sound like more than voices and a few subdued drums. It sounds all more captivating than it may seem to you now. These are avant-garde, experimental new age tunes with a subtle pop nature. The later making all the difference here. You know all those flute tones that are in every other dancehall-tinged new pop song, right? Put on “Moss” and you’ll have a hard time figuring if it’s really a sax you’re hearing or some flute or Hamill’s distorted, stretched voice (it’s the latter) and it’s not any less pleasant on the ear. Decades before Kanye West began mutilating, deforming or manipulating voices on record and the whole pop elite followed it with their own spin, Hamill had already done all of it on her sixth LP and it clearly influenced more ambitious pop artists such as Kate Bush to experiment with vocoders or voice manipulation on their own songs, resulting in some of those artist’s most interesting artistic ventures.

It’s therefore not very surprising that Hamill would eventually become an influential figure for musicians while experiencing little commercial success; even if she initially seemed to be set for stardom: Her impressive debut album – a collection of folk songs released at the tender age of seventeen and which clearly belied her age – drew comparisons to Joni Mitchell and was even advertised in Time Out with the tagline “When most girls are frantically hunting husbands, starting work in Woolworths or learning to type, Claire has finished her first album”. Although hopes were high, her records fell under the radar. She would move on to ditch the folk for synth-pop, electro and even art rock, creating stunning LPs along the years, but it never brought her work much public attention. (Her biggest success being probably an opening slot for prog rockers Jethro Tull and working with Wishbone Ash on two of their later albums.)Voices was no exception, even falling deeper through the cracks than her other records. Maybe even partly due to her life at time: a reclusive, serene existence in the English countryside while taking care of her new baby. However, arguably without that peaceful life and motherly joy, Voices would have probably been never made and we would have lost quite a bit of beauty in the world. Entirely self-written, self-produced and featuring just a bit of synth and drum machine, Hamill uses merely her voice to fill the air. Her voice is not only used as a choir but also as strings, keyboard, flute and saxophone – basically, texture. It’s clearly the work of an artist in her emotive and technical prime. Voices is many things at the same time: ambitious, empathic, serene, soothing, occasionally devastating but never oppressive. There are moments in which it seems to stand as tall as a king’s gorgeous palace but with less pomp and with more grace and myth beaming from its walls. But it all eventually collapses again, as if the palace falls into ruins in a matter of mere seconds only to rebuild itself in order to repeat an urgent, anxious but gracious cycle. There’s the sense of bucolic ethos which lesser artists would need an entire orchestra for to create but Hamill does it alone and even without words.

Kate Bush’s emotional fluency, Cocteau Twins’ cavernous Goth sensibility, Virginia Astley’s youthful choir vocals, Enya’s Celtic-tinged multi-tracking and even Julia Holter’s electro baroque can all be traced back to this record, so therefore, if you want to acquire a deeper understanding of how female musicality evolved over decades and how it inspired itself then there’s simply no way around this piece. And even for those of you who obviously don’t want to go that deep into musicology, just enjoy to dive into this wordless spectrum of feeling – I promise you won’t regret it! It’s a wonderful fluid experience. It never slogs even with its repetitive motive, it just moves and moves on. A unique, unsung stroke of brilliance!

The record’s not on YouTube but you can stream a few disparate songs on there, but you can hear it in its entirety (as well as other LPs by Hamill) on Spotify.

You can also buy it here.

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