By Mark Guarino
Alison Goldfrapp used to wear massive heels, slather on face paint and dress in showgirl regalia and perform to a backline of bikini-clad dancers with horse heads. In other words, subtlety and the music of Goldfrapp was a partnership that was doomed.
“I remember being very confused, thinking ‘what was I doing and why did I just spend four hours in hair and makeup?’ Just crazy thing like that: ‘fucking hell, this is all wrong’. Even though it was something we invented ourselves and it’s fantastic fun, there were some moments there that you wanted to get back to something that feels more human,” she said.
The cleansing is an album Goldfrapp fans might not expect: Seventh Tree (Mute), a group of 12 sensuous, low-lit songs that are less geared for European cabarets than they are the dark British countryside at a time of the night even the sheep are counting sheep. Glitterballs are ditched for moodier fare accented less by synthesizers and stomping beats and more by a chamber assembly of piano, acoustic guitars, autoharp, hands clapping, strings. Goldfrapp, known to launch high-soprano trills capable of slicing and dicing average human eardrums, is less the monster diva of the Diamanda Galas variety and more a homespun, slightly eerier Kate Bush. Her warm, soothing vocals fill these songs — spanning psychedelic folk to Beatles pop — with hushed, hypnotic tones. When she does belt out a hooky pop nugget (“Caravan Girl”), the song is buried at the bottom, almost out of shame.
“I got bored,” she said. “I invented an image of myself I got bored of. It’s a very harsh image. I just felt I couldn’t keep doing it.”
Before it was a band, Goldfrapp was a girl, the youngest of six children growing up in Alton, a small town located in Hampshire, a British county on the Southeast coast famed as the home of Charles Dickens and Jane Austin. Her parents, both classical music lovers, led a creative household, encouraging music and painting in their children. It was convent school where Goldfrapp encountered difficulty, being diagnosed as dyslexic, a condition she remains “dubious” about and blames on simple childhood boredom.
“I was a bit of a dreamer and a bit of a rebel,” she said. “I had such a paranoia about reading. It was forced on me at home and I really hated that it made me really uncomfortable.”
Just before turning 20, she received money from the British Art Council to sing with a contemporary dance company in Antwerp, Belgium. It turned out to be a three-year escape during which she was exposed to experimental classical composers like Steve Reich and the multi-octave singer Yma Sumac, which helped her discover the hidden connections between music and performance. “I was living in Europe and thought it was all so glamorous and sophisticated,” she said.
Back in England, she headed to Middlesex University’s School of Art and although enrolled in painting, she started exploring the hidden intersections between music and performance. The piece which would follow her to this day was one in which she yodeled while — in unabashed Swiss Miss mode — milked a cow.
Notice followed and soon, she was hired by British trip-hop maverick Tricky to sing on his 1995 breakthrough album Maxinquaye (Island), a job that would last through two years of touring. Other offers followed (including a stint in the studio singing with Bryan Ferry), but experiences only fueled her desire to use her voice on music she felt an ownership. Her music finally made its way into the hands of electronic composer and studio geek Will Gregory who worked with Portishead, The Cure, Tori Amos and others. With Gregory, Goldfrapp found a collaborator who could synchronize the endless dimensions of a recording studio to the sound worlds she heard playing in her head.
“He seemed to understand where I was coming from. He was not so interested in what was cool and what was hip, which was really refreshing. So many musicians are slaves to what they think they should be doing and have all these kind of rules and Will didn’t seem to have any of that. He was very into strings which was something I really wanted to do,” she said.
To Gregory, their partnership is less about acting out defined roles but more about “trying to get the other person entertained.” “We found out we need to be (in the same room) for it to happen,” he said. If one of you starts nodding off, the other one realizes they have to buck up a bit. It’s a bit like people who write comedy together and one person is laughing but you haven’t got a joke.”
As Goldfrapp the band, Gregory and Goldfrapp released three back-to-back albums between 2000 and 2005 that grew bigger and more ambitious than the last. The duo built lush, seductive soundscapes, incorporating the in-your-face sexuality of British glam rock with big dance beats, German cabaret, spy movie soundtracks and electro-lounge. Many bands bedded with electronics fail to make a splash far past their laptops, but Goldfrapp used the live stage as their ultimate challenge. While the music did its job incorporating programmed beats with live musicians, the most effective special effect was Goldfrapp, who shifted personas that referenced dominatrix militants to silent screen ingénues to woodland creatures. Her standout voice completed the fantasy — As much as she could convey silky tenderness during the music’s most intimate moments, Goldfrapp used her multi-octave range to power the songs to reach celestial heights.
Yet, after touring with Supernature (Mute), their last and most dance-oriented album, she and Gregory felt what they had achieved lacked balance. For all the high concept bombast they could so easily summon onstage, it became obvious it couldn’t be sustained for long. The music had little room to breathe and they were choking.
“Every available space in Supernature has something whizzing up and zooming down or whizzing across the picture or 400 voices coming in,” said Gregory. “We were scared to let space happen. I would see people with their hair spilling over their guitar strings and strumming without a bit of created atmosphere and I would think ‘why can’t we do that?’”
Goldfrapp shared the need for change. “(Supernature) was fantastic, fun, big and loud and brash,” she said. “But it left me kind of starving a little bit for something sort of the polar opposite. There’s something very nice about sitting in a room with one voice and a couple of acoustic instruments.”
Gregory even envisioned the lifestyle the music they’d might sound best accommodating: “Turn the telly off, turn the lights down, make a fire and have a nice evening with your friends with sing-a-longs.”
There is a steel harp, acoustic guitars, pianos and strings on Seventh Tree, but there is also, just briefly, the sound of an Optigon, an instrument that has driven audiophiles to fight through swap meets, junk shops and garage sales to seek its weird resonance. Created by Mattel in the early 1970’s, the instrument looks like a toy organ but plays celluloid discs (“Big Band Beat,” “Polynesian Village”) of looped guitar riffs and rhythm tracks played by real musicians, ready for manipulation. Tom Waits and Devo are among its devotees but otherwise the instrument has remained a cult phenomenon among musicians seeking the strange.
“I found one on auction, it came from Canada,” said Gregory. “They’re really well made but because they’re so old … it has this really soft focus, sepia, deteriorated sound. Almost a memory of a sound.”
His disc of choice: “Folk Guitar and Other Moods.”
“It had a picture of a teenage couple necking against a soft-focus treescape,” said Goldfrapp, laughing. “The picture’s almost better than the sound.”
Seventh Tree evokes the odd dynamism that happens when rural sounds are channeled through electronic filters. Both synthetic and acoustic instruments were used but because they run together seamlessly, a tinge of mysticism can’t help but run through the music. “Because we hadn’t used (acoustic guitars) before, we were a little scared it would get too pretty or create something quite nice. By combining synthesizers with more natural sounds, it didn’t feel the ground was already too well trodden,” Goldfrapp said.
“We didn’t want to make another Neil Young record because he’s done that,” Gregory added. “And they sound great.”
The pair camped out in a bungalow in Bath, which they converted into a practice space and studio. They jammed, waiting for songs to show up. When they did, they were closer to the folk worlds of British folk troubadours Nick Drake and Bert Jansch, draped with romantic flourishes but also metaphorical dread. The songs on Seventh Tree are stretched across a wide canvass — this is Goldfrapp, after all — but they sound more intimate than anything in their past. While their previous music squared all it had front and center on the dance floor, these songs explore the inner mysteries of the subconscious. Through Goldfrapp’s clouded vocals and Gregory’s atmospheric production, the music begs to be unveiled, layer upon layer, listen upon listen.
The way Goldfrapp sees it, the chance to strip the music down and then filter it through their own manic whims follows where the culture is at right now, from kids usurping the film industry through YouTube to musicians bypassing corporate labels to create music without having to please the usual commercial gatekeepers.
“We all live in this world that’s very clinical, everything’s thought out and sanitized, with the tabloid mayhem and we’re all getting facelifts and want to live until 120 — It’s all a bit much,” she said. “I feel there’s a longing to do something that is much simpler and much more spontaneous. It’s great fun dressing up and screaming. But it’s also good for the soul to do the opposite of that. You kind of need both.”
The next challenge is how to present the new songs live, considering that their audience has come to expect platforms for their music that loom miles above most other bands. How to do it remains under debate although, for Gregory, the perfect scenario would involve “a great forest with dancers and animals and everyone plus the audience would be in costume. Busby Berkeley gone psychedelic.”