Tipped by the Guardian as “The new Scott Walker”, Oldham’s Keeley Forsyth is bringing her haunting new folk album to St Michael’s in Ancoats on 5 March.
Nico, Nick Cave, Beth Gibbons… the comparisons kept coming in the lead-up to Keeley Forsyth’s 2020 debut album Debris – all of them colouring us intrigued. Up until then we knew Forsyth only as an actress, having featured in well-known TV series including Happy Valley, The Casual Vacancy and Waterloo Road. Her bleakly beautiful, avant-garde debut album took everyone by surprise.
An intimate, raw document of profound personal change, Debris’ eponymous single was released in the wake of paralysing mental health issues that Forsyth faced in the years preceding. The lyrics piece together fragments of that tumultuous time, while minimal piano and murky string arrangements by pianist/composer Matthew Bourne place Forsyth’s deeply emotive voice front and centre, where its low-pitched, drawn-out vibrato seems to haunt its surroundings.
The rest of the album charts similar territory – minimalist, ethereal folk that soundtracks turmoil. The Guardian was right – there are definite shades of Scott Walker’s avant-garde record Tilt, particularly in the arrangements. The arid landscapes and gothic melodrama of tracks like ‘It’s Raining’ and ‘Butterfly’ conjure whole worlds with just a few elements (the instrumental palate doesn’t stretch far beyond lute-like guitar, accordion, piano and strings, all arranged and played with great restraint). And it’s that restraint that gives Forsyth’s elemental voice all the more magnetic presence as it brings life to these desolate places.
There are a couple of tracks, though, that go a little further in terms of instrumentation, and these are among the standouts. One is the title track. Another is the closer, ‘Start Again’. ’80s synth pads and an electronic kick give the song an immediacy we don’t get elsewhere, and the texture grows uncharacteristically dense as layers of reverb-drenched synths bloom ever upward, like a cold wind spiralling the spire of a gothic cathedral.
We hope to hear more of this expansive sound on Forsyth’s follow-up record, Limbs, due for release on 25 February via The Leaf Label. Judging by the lead single, ‘Bring Me Water’, which dropped in November, it seems we might be in luck. “The song picks up where ‘Start Again’, the final track on Debris, left off”, says Forsyth. “It comes from a similar place, approached at a different angle, with the line ‘let me begin again’ central to that. It plots a journey from a place of darkness, but marks the point at which we choose to grow. Bring me water. Give me light. These are the basic things required to start that process.”
While there’s a haze of unreality to Debris, one that taps into Forsyth’s state of mind a few years ago, and into lyrics like “Is this what madness feels like?”, Limbs, we hear, will be a little different. “The world I wanted to create needed to be anchored firmly in reality,” Forsyth says. “At the same time the music needed to open free, poetic spheres for the listener, allowing room for their own associations. Limbs that marked out traces of time, in motion rather than static, allowing me to inhabit and flesh out the daily drama of existence precisely.”
We can’t wait for the album, and for the live show at St Michael’s church – one of our must-see gigs of 2022 so far.