Despite the challenges currently facing the city’s incredible creatives, the calibre of Bristol’s musical output is stellar
Political messages, freedom and empowerment, escapism, fantasy and images of better times; these have dominated the music of some of the most turbulent periods throughout history and helped people to get through them. The value of that, and the impact of the creative arts more widely, cannot be underestimated. The music being created during tumultuous 2020 – the corona canon, perhaps – is no different. Despite the challenges facing their sector, Bristol musicians have squirrelled themselves away, continued to do what they do best, and panned for gold. Lockdown also spawned new collaborations and projects that finally got the time to breathe and develop. Our current listening recommendations, from established homegrown acts to the up and coming, are as follows…
Yola – Hold On
One of the West Country’s most successful musical exports of the moment, Yola is due not only to open for Chris Stapleton at Madison Square Garden in New York next year, but to make her headline debut at The Ryman Auditorium. She’s just released empowering self-penned song Hold On, raising money for the MusicCares and National Bailout Collective and featuring members of The Highwomen including Brandi Carlile and Natalie Hemby on backing vocals.
Hold On is inspired by conversations Yola had with her mother while she was growing up, explicitly warning her of the systemic racism, colourism and unconscious bias she would experience in life as a Black woman. Lyrics include the lines: Mama said to me stay bold / No matter what they tell you girl, stay bold / Everyone that seems alright / Has a soul that’s hurting, deep inside.
“Hold On is a conversation between me and the next generation of young Black girls,” says Yola. “My mother’s advice would always stress caution, that all that glitters isn’t gold, and that my Black female role models on TV are probably having a hard time. She warned me that I should rethink my calling to be a writer and a singer but, to me, that was all the more reason I should take up this space. Hold On is asking the next gen to be visible and to show what it looks like to be young, gifted and Black.”
Give this uplifting tune a listen for the layers of evocative harmonies, beautiful lead vocal – oh, and Sheryl Crow, no less, on the old Joanna.
Emily Breeze – Confessions Of An Ageing Party Girl
On all digital platforms via Sugar Shack Records, the second single from Bristol chanteuse Emily Breeze’s forthcoming album retains her beautifully crafted pop noir trademarks. A glitter-drenched gothic disco anthem as slinky as a Blondie classic, its tough, world-weary melancholy recalls cult weepy bangers like Amanda Lear’s Follow Me or Agnetha Fältskog’s Wrap Your Arms Around Me.
Breeze’s 2019 album Rituals saw comparisons to “a 21st-century Patti Smith” (Tom Robinson), “Nancy Sinatra on ketamine” (Louder Than War) and “the seedy kitchen sink romance of Pulp, the glamorous artful tragedy of Nick Cave” (God is in the TV). Now, swimming in luxuriant synths and whipped along by a minimalist beat, Breeze sashays through the dancefloor casualties to deliver a vocal of beguiling depth on joyously sad cut Confessions Of An Ageing Party Girl. Billed as a sing-a-long torch song for those who should have left the party three hours, five drinks, or possibly 10 years ago, it goes out especially to those who could never resist the yearning to stay out late and fall in love under an out-of-focus glitterball.
Wïlderman – Who Wants To Be An American?
A wheezing Trump on the White House balcony; a tech giant insisting that theirs is a utopian workplace; armed right-wing militia protesting lockdown; a chief medic silently aghast at the suggestion of injecting disinfectant. These are the images that inspired Wïlderman’s debut offering as a series of unfortunate events, bookended by the beyond-bizarre 45th US presidency, unfolded across the pond.
Wïlderman is the alias of Bobby Anderson – son of singer and composer Carleen Anderson and grandson of James Brown’s right-hand man, Famous Flames founder Bobby Byrd. An intrinsic part of the fabric of Bristol’s live music scene for 15 years, Wïlderman is known for a seemingly effortless command of distinctively raw, soulful vocals.
Born in Los Angeles, California, but moving to the UK aged nine, Wïlderman counts himself a Brit but has always felt keenly his US heritage. It was this feeling of duality – akin, he says, to watching a load of toxic drama transpire among a group of friends he no longer drinks with – that led to the penning of the track. “We’ve always held the US up as the pinnacle of Western society, but they’re just making it up as they go along. This is a different way of viewing a subject we’ve been batting around for so long; of distilling and articulating all the ideas floating around between us to try and make sense of things.”
Tinged with Americana, its lifeblood a powerful vox that doesn’t fail to deliver a shiver, the folk-flavoured Who Wants To Be An American can be seen as a peaceable protest yarn. A philosophical commentary set to archive footage of everything from the civil rights movement to the BLM protests of today, it illustrates Wïlderman’s knack for lyrics that communicate what everyone’s thinking but hasn’t quite worked out how to say yet. “The frustration and uncertainty of the times we’ve been living through fuelled the songwriting, and lockdown gave it the time, space and imaginative oxygen to breathe,” Wïlderman explains. “People are sick of having beliefs shouted at them and told their opinion doesn’t count. I hope this track can open some conversations.”
Encouraged to embark on a solo project by a long-time collaborator, Massive Attack’s Stew Jackson, Wïlderman cleared out his spare room to create a studio and departed from the safety of band parameters to find his own sound. With influences that include Bob Dylan, The Strokes, Credence Clearwater Revival, and a hint of Cyndi Lauper, what he found was pretty multifaceted. The diverse sounds on the forthcoming album include krautrock, haunting uke riffs, soft, dreamy sonics and soaring choral harmonies, with themes spanning politics, heartbreak and obsession.
IDLES – Ultra Mono
The hugely successful Bristol act have just scored their first UK number-one album with Ultra Mono – recorded in Paris, produced by Nick Launay (Nick Cave, Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and Adam ‘Atom’ Greenspan (Anna Calvi, Cut Copy) and sonically constructed to capture the feeling of a hip-hop record. Across 12 tracks, the band double down on the vitriolic sneer and blunt social commentary of past work, with themes of active presence, inclusivity, class, gender inequality, nationalism, community and toxic masculinity remaining ever-present. Listen out for vocals from Savages’ Jehnny Beth and contributions from Jamie Cullum.
“We wanted to write a song that embodied self-belief, and gave us self-belief – a counter-punch to all the doubt we build up from all the noise we so easily let in,” said frontman Joe Talbot of single Grounds. Model Village, meanwhile, decries often dangerous small-town mentality. “I hated growing up in a city that was really a town that was really a fishbowl,” Joe elaborates. “I left as soon as I could, only to realise the fishbowl didn’t exist… just the fish, and they’re everywhere.”
‘West Country girl in a West Country world’, Katy releases her debut album on 13 November via Heavenly Recordings – a re-entry into music-making after a previous collaborative project with her brother fell foul of the pressures of a major label record deal. “I didn’t write for about seven months,” she reflects. “I was just like: nope, I’m gonna become a gardener, this isn’t happening. Return is about the whole experience of beginning to enjoy writing again.”
Between her Bristol bedroom and community arts space The Island, Katy honed her solo craft, learning to rely on her creative instincts, and bringing forth an album just as shaped by the South West as the rich musical history of America’s southern states. “These are the most honest and proper songs I’ve written; from my own being, rather than a room with a guy prodding me to tell a traumatic story of my life.”
The songs evolved in a live setting – including in support of Cass McCombs on tour – before being taken to the studio of PJ Harvey producer Ali Chant. The result is 10 tracks sliding between lovelorn country, lo-fi folk and glistening pop. Wheedling strings and warm brass herald opener Tonight; sleek, country-inflected ballads bleed into sparse acoustic heart-renders; mechanical drum beats and synths are counterbalanced with baroque incidentals and pastoral imagery – think Stevie Nicks taking a dip in a West Country river.
Suchy Sha – Miss Brown
Born and raised in Bristol, vivacious singer Suchy cites influences ranging right from D’Angelo to David Bowie, Tupac to Timbaland. With a performance style that’s fiery and audacious, engaging and entertaining, and a compact alternative R&B/soul sound with catchy melodies and a Latino twist, Suchy has performed at the world-famous Webster Hall and cut her teeth on the UK festival circuit, including Glastonbury and, even closer to home, St Pauls Carnival.
Her latest release Laylow, with its Latino-leaning guitar line, sea of South American strings, ska horns and energised drum and bass moments – perfect, in the words of Ujima Radio, for a pre-curfew-six-person-rave – recently topped the Amazing Radio and Ujima South West charts. If you see a Laylow poster around Bristol, you can tag Suchy (@suchysha) in a photo of it for a free download of the track.
The next single, complete with punchy horn section and cutting lyrical rawness, reflects on real-life experiences of the highs and lows of addiction; a dream-like, melodic chorus designed to reflect the sense of comfort craved.
This local soul singer forges a powerful noise that is all her own but meant for everyone.
Apparently Stephen Fry’s mum thinks Bristol experimental pop artist Isoldé is ‘out of this world’ – and that’s good enough for us. We’ve never met her but we’re guessing that she’s a sensible, intelligent sort. Isoldé fuses soul and electronica and incorporates in her self-produced EP field recordings collected while travelling in India and Nepal. The first track, Elements, available to stream from 1 November, is mixed and mastered by Aneek Thapar (Ninja Tunes), accompanied by a video made during lockdown with local artist/filmmaker Simon Abel (Cabel). It was decided that the track would be released on the first day of the seasonal year – between Halloween and Day of the Dead – to signify a new life cycle.
The story of Next Time starts in India, with a dying stranger on the streets of Kolkata. Too late to help, an outsider grapples with how to honour the life of one who is seemingly nameless, alone and otherwise forgotten. Gathering crackles from the crematorial fires, and words from silent conversation with his spirit as it leaves this world, she brings together small offerings into a process of reconciliation.
Back in the UK, Isoldé found herself between seasons, key moments in history, a way of living that we have known and one that is drastically uncertain. After a delay due to Covid-19, the making of the video became a wider response drawing parallels between the time we are in and the travel experience the video was initially about. Incorporating a practice of writing and burning grievances which hold us back, and sending new prayers out on their smoke, it’s a cathartic audio-visual space to reflect on all that has been brought to the surface during this time. In the spirit of lockdown limitation, the video embraces the experimental nature of DIY creativity: working with what you’ve got, even if it means cold water swimming at 6am in a second-hand bridesmaid dress. Challenge can be overcome, personal power can be reclaimed, loss can become gain, and beauty can still be found, even in mud voguing.
Born into a family of visual artists, classically trained but exposed to electro thanks to her DJ dad, Isoldé’s experience of sound has always been colourful and textured, drawing upon nature, travel and an early initiation into choral music. With a ‘Björk-like’ desire to facilitate union between the organic and man-made, she explores art as ritual and ritual as art, and the anatomy of sound with inquisitive music production underpinned by the beats and bass of an urban upbringing.
Tiny Dyno are a two-piece pop band from Bristol. Having self-medicated on a diet of Nirvana, Sylvan Esso and The Strokes during the 2020 lockdown, Emily Gardiner and Tom Kuras eagerly set about writing the songs they never heard on the radio. Without the old distractions of past life, Kuras began writing, maintaining “it was always on my to-do list, but I guess I always found a way of talking myself out of it.”
Gardiner and Kuras came together through the Bristol music scene, finding common ground in their love of the infectious tones of indie pop. Music has always been at the centre of their friendship and when the duo put their heads together to make original music they discovered a unique sound, combining their indie influences with an underlying sense of anxiety.
“Since the very start, a great song, and anxiety, have always been a huge part of our connection. Tiny Dyno marries the two in some sort of cleansing ritual,” says Emily. Debut single Fiction beautifully demonstrates this, combining Kuras’ ear for lo-fi synth pop with a strong and haunting lead vocal from Gardiner. Produced by Kuras, mixed and mastered by Bristol’s Robot Club and Sonic Mastering respectively, Fiction is woven to express a feeling of cathartic release on the everyday suffering of social angst.
Tungz – Why Do Anything?
With influences ranging from Herbie Hancock to Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, Tungz are making a name for themselves as a vibrant emerging act. The Bristol outfit will look to cement the positive ascent with new EP Why Do Anything? – previewed by the bright, bedroom-pop tinged Somebody To Get Shy With – released 30 October with independent label Heist or Hit.
The latter, which has a breezy sunkissed-psych aesthetic, sees the group team up with fellow West Country act Bad Sounds – tipped by the Guardian, MTV and Wonderland. “We’ve been fans of Bad Sounds for so long and always felt a spiritual connection to their vibe,” say Tungz. “We got to know them through the Bristol scene, going to each other’s shows and hanging out afterwards. So when the Tungzphone rang and the gang wanted to do a song with us we were buzzed as fuzz.
“We’ve only ever produced music at home so it was crazy to see the Bad Sounds mothership and sit side by side, exploring new musical worlds. It was so cool to get to know the guys better, and bring into real life the connection we’d felt to them both as fans and Bristol music people.
“The song is about changing relationships: falling for a friend and not knowing how to deal with your new feelings.”
The two bands found common ground in taste and DIY mentality, say Bad Sounds. “But the things we’ve each naturally discovered on our own that work for us are really different so we were attacking the same problems but from different angles, with different techniques.”