As part of a new series I’d like to start analyzing records which I doggedly love or hate, as well as records by friends of mine who I think are wonderful, I offer up this consideration of Liz Fullerton’s project Honey Watts as a first installment…
Full disclosure: I’ve been friends with Liz for a couple years and played on the Honey Watts debut record. I’ve played live with her. And I’m not going to try and evoke the pretense of objectivity here. Liz is a great artist. What I am going to do is tell you why and try to give you a context in musical pop culture history in which to place her. As a synthetic thinker and a cultural genealogist, the more interesting one’s creative lineage, the more interesting they are. This isn’t always the case but…well… here…just keep reading.
Honey Watts self titled debut marks the first studio offering of Philadelphia songwriter Liz Fullerton. Folks may know her due to her involvement with the trip hop project Dutch (featuring Stoupe of Philly rap collective Jedi Mind Tricks as DJ). And you can hear elements of Liz’s background in trip-hop on this record. But in unexpected ways. Because this record is decidedly NOT a trip hop record. What it is, is one of the most startlingly plaintive, atmospheric, and dark (as in earth-toned, not goth) folk/country records you’ll ever hear.
Sonically it hints at PJ Harvey, Under Byen, even Kate Bush just with the inclusion of very subtle and able acoustic guitar. It really blends the warmth and emotive quality of folk and country with avant-pop atmospherics. It’s got the integrity of low-fi but with the high production quality of the aforementioned artists.
It’s sonically like PJ Harvey because it uses similar ambient sounds common to much of her early work. She doesn’t use the processed beats, but a lot of the white noise Jeff generates with the Juno and the icy reverbs remind me of her early stuff.It reminds me of Under Byen because the arrangements are sparse enough to leave space for the more plaintive/introspective moments in Liz’s voice, yet layered and not-simplistic. Liz’s instrumentation isn’t as varied as Under Byen’s though (lack of mallet percussion, conventional drum sounds). It’s sonically like Kate Bush because so much of Kate Bush’s 1985 record Hounds of Love was influenced by Peter Gabriel’s early 80’s solo work. Gabriel was aware of the record (Hounds of Love inspired him to use Kate Bush on “Don’t Give Up” on his 1986 record So. Some of the vocal processing, some of the atmospheric/electronic pads and washes are reminiscent. Also, the way Jeff treats the piano reminds me in some ways of a less 80’s sounding version of the piano on certain songs on Hounds of Love (e.g. “Mother Stands for Comfort”). The production’s similarity with Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, PJ Harvey, and Under Byen is not surprising. Jeff Hiatt (our able producer) is a great admirer of Daniel Lanois and the other great producers of that era of avant-pop (Lillywhite, Eno, Padgham), but he adds a distinctively modern and personal spin on the production. He gives the record depth and air, grain and polish, and then let’s these seemingly conflicting elements engage in dialogue throughout the record which is why the record can be both so unsettling and so comforting.
Another interesting comparison is Coco Rosie. Emerged from the freak folk scene, but pretty early on tended to throw in dark, atmospheric electronics and even (on their last record) hip hop as a part of the production. The two girls who front the band’s voices are also similar to Liz’s (though they lack her richness and resonance) in the sense that they too revel in odd note choices and trilling, melismatic phrasing….melismatic by the way is a great adjective to use when describing some of Liz’s vocal turns. But really, these comparisons are just a way of getting you to become pre-emptively familiar. It’s difficult to really prepare for or describe the instrument that is Liz Fullerton’s voice, however.
Her voice is unique, not quite jazz, not quit country and her songwriting has a certain darkness to it at times and a certain whimsy at others. Some of these unique voices/artists you could reference: a less minimalist—i.e., maximalist—Scout Niblett; Jolie Holland; Beth Gibbons; Kate Bush; Cat Power—historically, the sort of unique approach to phrasing and the unique timbre of her voice might even reference people like Billie Holiday, Karen Dalton and Elizabeth Cotton. The reason I mention Billie Holliday, Elizabeth Cotton, and Karen Dalton is because all three singers took simple melodies (jazz standards, blues, folk/country respectively) and found ways to alter phrasing or throw in an odd note choice and make it work within an established traditional style of vocals. Those three genres (blues, jazz, folk/country) are the three operative touchstones, in a traditional standpoint, of Liz’s record. The 4th is 80’s/90’s avant-pop/trip hop (same style, different name for different decades) a la Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, PJ Harvey, Massive Attack and Portishead.
The Kate Bush comparison however is particularly instructive. The vocal qualities she shares with Kate Bush are the keening quality of her upper register, the way in which her note-shaping and enunciation is used as a stragecially emotive device…the way she draws out a vowel, or muffles a a vowel, or gets a little lazy on a consonant or snaps off a crisp consonant in a quiet moment is all a way of manipulating emotion and Jeff’s treatment of her voice highlights that. BUT, the difference is while Kate Bush’s voice is VERY trebly, Liz’s voice is more resonant. That resonance and soulfulness is what reminds me of Cat Power. Beth Gibbons, the lead singer from Portishead, is another good reference because she and Liz both use the spaciousness of an arrangement (pads, drones, ambient noise) in order to develop motivic ideas thru phrasing. You can turn an odd note choice when you’ve got the sonic room and open harmonic space. Gibbons did that expertly in Portishead. Liz learned from it, I think and brought Bush’s hermeticism and sophistication to it.
Lyrically, the thing Liz does so well is find interesting ways to relate personal experience to the listener without being trapped in the singer/songwriterly “I” (a more annoying persona has yet to be developed in pop music by the way than the courageous, solitary singer/songwriter)—whether it be tragic or joyous—and write songs that clearly reflect that experience. She does so by using very hermetic imagery or very evocative, allusive language. It’s not confessional so much as it is EMOTIVE. The “I” in her lyrics is complicated by the aesthetic and imagistic edifice of the lyrics— “chattering stars”, “palace of owls”, etc. And it’s fascinating because this symbolism and dense imagery is than juxtaposed with stark declarative statements “shut their mouths”, “i don’t live here anymore”, “this day was perfect”. The whole record jumps back and forth, from song to song or within the same song between these two poles.
Lyrically, that sort of subtle hermeticism (intensely personal symbolism and stark imagery) and direct address & it’s diffuse confessionalism reminds me of Kate Bush (who hid her own thoughts about her sexual awakening within a song entitled (& about) “Wuthering Heights”), Joanna Newsom, Coco Rosie, Scout Niblett (who I mentioned earlier…she tells personal tales and wraps them in alchemical language—and there is a sort of alchemy going on in Liz’s lyrics too), and even early Peter Gabriel (I’m thinking of songs like “Here Comes the Flood”). But ultimately, what would her songwriting be without that voice. That voice is what carries these songs off into the ether. Liz knows how to use her voice and use melisma, and ambiguous voice leading, and cryptic melodicism to work as a PART of her lyrics, as an instrument within the song. It is in this way that her lyrics transcend mere poetry and become music themselves—as if transubstantiated by that voice of hers. And sure, Liz’s songs have quirks, and humor. And her voice reflects that. The difference is her voice isn’t just quirky. It’s strong and pure and displays an impeccable sense of pitch awareness, control, and resonance…but her ear for things like phrasing, melody, and note choice as a composer is what makes her voice “quirky” or unique. It’s a matter of aesthetic choice and of feeling, not some ironic hipster pose. Liz’s voice is sincere and you can hear it in every trilled vowel, every elided consonant, and every modal shift in her melody. What’s significant about that is the following: All of these things (Liz’s voice, her compositions, her lyrics) are not a gimmick—they are evidence of the surprising precociousness and unquestioned ability she displays as a composer and melodist.