heka exists between worlds

Francesca Brierley aka heka exists in a world of her own. A place that borders between gently plucked guitars one moment, gliding synthetic harmonies the next and then landing back down on a subtly immersive bed of beats. There’s not a moment that you’re listening and you don’t feel lost in the soundscapes and rich sonic palettes that seem to dance and twirl around the melodic mountains she creates. She’s now returning with her latest project since 2019’s Other Drugs EP, in the form of (a) EP, released today via Ballon Machine Records. We caught up with heka to learn where she draws sonic influence from, the story behind the EP and her parallel growth with Bon Iver.

Over what time and whereabouts was the EP recorded?

Mostly in my bedroom over there! (Points to desk) I had some demos of the songs that were from different times but I started recording the new versions in October. I was doing uni stuff as well so I was pretty much just in front of my laptop all the time haha. It was during the lockdown, so pretty boring just me and the old laptop.

So the songs on the EP are older songs that you re-recorded?

“(a) dab” is probably the oldest one at 4 or years old and “(a) mask” and “(a) wall” are about two years old. So they weren’t the newest things that I’d written but they were songs that I’d been wanting to record as a bunch for a while and finally it happened! I always feel like with everything I do I plan something and then two years later it finally gets done.

Going back over them after so long did you change anything drastically? Or are they fairly true to their original form?

I think the one that changed the most was “(a) wall”. Mostly because it wasn’t just me working on it, I collaborated with Ed Tullet on the arrangement. So the way he interpreted it was different and I thought “Oh that’s really cool, let’s take it into this direction”. I was a bit scared at the beginning about going back into having to figure out these songs again, as I had them in my head as what i’d recorded in the demos. You have to deconstruct that a bit to think “What is good to keep and what is just my lazy brain thinking that this is the only way this can be done”. So I was a bit scared that I wouldn’t understand them anymore and I wouldn’t understand the version of me that had written those at the time. I think the fact that I was recording alone in the dark like a vampire probably helped recreate that connection of intimacy with the songs even though it felt distant at the beginning.

With the main theme of the songs being about relationships, was it weird looking back and seeing how you viewed those situations then?

It’s definitely always that sense of “Oh god” haha. A lot of the stuff I write is personal and it’s a snapshot of a very specific time that I write in. It’s like looking back at old pictures and thinking “Oh god what are you wearing!”. It’s a very funny thing, but I didn’t feel too far away from them that I couldn’t relate to them anymore. That was a worry a little bit.

Is your songwriting more diaristic or therapeutic?

Definitely therapeutic for me to write in general. I think it’s probably a survival situation where I would be insane if I didn’t write haha. But it is also diaristic in the sense that it’s conversations that I’ve had in my head or things that I want to say and I can’t. It just comes from my everyday life I guess.

What was the story behind “(a) dab”?

It’s mostly about when you’re in love with someone and it’s unrequited, so you fall into this pattern of addiction to that person and addiction to the situation and it’s this whole toxic thing going on. I had this very visual idea of the lyrics. I had this scene in my head and I wrote it down which is not something I do very often so I don’t know where it came from. But it was just trying to express that feeling of helplessness and also wanting to be helpless which is what’s the most fucked up about those situations haha.

The song structures for the EP begin with electronic samples and field recordings and then transition into the ‘folky’ ballads. What’s it about those combination of sounds that draws you to them?

I think that’s partly the fact that I went and revisited the songs that were initially very folky and I wanted to create this tapestry of sound that’s a bit more current for me in what I like to listen to and what I like to make. So it was me trying to make those songs more contemporary to how I felt and what I liked. I don’t know if it’s something I accomplished but I really love when there’s a collection of songs, whether it’s an EP or an album and you feel like you’re on this journey where all of the tracks are connected. It’s like a mini symphony. I remember when 22, A Million by Bon Iver came out, that completely changed my life. I remember thinking “Oh my god, this is exactly what I want!”. I want the tracks to feel cohesive and part of something organic and fall into one another. Which is probably the conscious part of why there’s an ambient connection between the songs.

Did Bon Iver influence the folk side of your sound as well?

I have this really funny relationship with Bon Iver where I feel like we’ve grown up together. We haven’t though haha! But I feel like the stages that I found myself at within songwriting were the same as his. When he was doing the more folky side of things I was definitely doing more folky sounding things. And then I gradually evolved into something a bit more hybrid, which was the same with him. He definitely influenced me, but I feel like I was ready to be influenced by him in that specific time. I was like “Yeah you get it! This is what I’ve been trying to say”. So that’s why I love him so much as I have this ‘in my mind’ connection to him in a way.

Are there any other artists who also inspire, even just for the sound?

I’m always really bad at this question. I really like Feist, James Blake and Alt-J. I was really obsessed with Laura Marling at a certain point. But at the same time I don’t say “Oh I’m really inspired by this person I’m gonna do the same thing that they’re doing”. I just really appreciate what they’re doing. It almost feels like we’re contemporaries and we like the same things and I think “Oh you get it”. I don’t know to what extent they influence me, I think I’m influenced by all sorts of stuff. I listen to a lot of different genres and my discover weekly on Spotify tries to keep up but I can tell that they’re struggling haha. There’s house music and then classical, hip-hop or folk or rock. I really like a lot of different things so I can never say for certain what exactly goes into what I make.

It’s interesting you said Laura Marling because especially with her latest album the key part I took away from it was there’s a lot of harmonies. With quite a few of your tracks harmonies play a key part, is that something you try to build in or just the way you write?

So I feel that doing harmonies is probably the most natural thing that I think of when i record. I think it comes from early days of trying to figure out Logic for the first time and what can actually make a song sound better. Just having more voices because it’s the only thing I know how to do haha! At the beginning you play with your voice as a singer and think “Okay this is how I can enrich this sound and this is what I can do”. It’s just kind of stayed I guess. I like to use the voice not just as a vocal. It’s corrupting it haha. So the sound of the voice and making into something that isn’t the voice. In “(a) wall” there’s a line of a really high pitched sound. I don’t know that it’s immediately obvious that it’s a voice, I mean I know. But I thought “How can I make this sound like some weird synth that you don’t know what it is?” but it’s actually a vocal. I think that’s really interesting to play around with the vocals and sound because they just make everything better.

Is that manipulation of sound something you try to achieve in each song? Are there any more easter eggs hidden throughout?

I like to manipulate the sound into something a bit weird. Sometimes when I’ve recorded with other people I’ll be like “Make it darker!” and they’ll say “You can’t hear this now!”. So I have a bit of a weird idea of how things sound and I’ve certainly learnt how not to make everything dark and weird, but I do enjoy it.

There’s a moment in “(a) mask” with this eerie synthesiser that takes a turn from the rest of the song, do you try and hide those eerie moments in there?

I feel like the eeriness comes naturally to me. I don’t necessarily try and be eerie but it just happens. I don’t know that I always love it but I definitely recognise that it happens. It wasn’t on purpose, I think I found these sounds that are cool then afterwards looked at it and thought “Oh that’s really eerie”.

Is there a reason you chose to use the simplistic title of (a)? Or is it from the songs?

It’s from the songs. I like patterns where “Oh these three things are the same and that’s not” so let’s just call it that. So it’s really just a joke.

Your music has been described as entering VR. Do you agree with that? And does virtual reality influence your music at all?

I don’t necessarily write with VR in mind. I’m just about to finish my degree which is in computational art so I do think about that stuff a bit as I do it at uni and enjoy that aesthetic of it a bit. But I definitely think my songwriting is personal intimate stuff rather than technology. I think it comes from trying to explain the idea behind why I don’t necessarily love being pigeonholed in one genre. I like the hybridity of producing music that sounds a bit in-between things. So I guess the relationship between VR and reality being in-between worlds maybe has something to do with that.

With shows hopefully on the horizon, what’s it been like releasing this music without shows to back it up?

It’s been a bit strange. I’ve been quite lucky that a few people have asked me to play in June out of the blue but I don’t have a release gig booked which is usually what I’ll do so that’s strange. I don’t mind having gigs that aren’t necessarily release gigs and just playing the stuff. Hopefully it happens now, I’m itching to play now!

What’s your usual live set up?

It’s usually just me and my loop pedal. I had really wanted to put together a small band for this project and in general I feel like it’s a lot more fun and you’re not alone. You get to share music ideas for arrangement and I think it would sound really cool so I’ve been wanting to do that. It hasn’t been the ideal time though yet, but it will be. I decided to release an EP on the last year of uni and this is my last month of uni so up until now I haven’t even been able to think about what I want to do in a live setting. But I would definitely like to have at least another one or two people to just balance it out.

Thinking back to Bon Iver’s live set up, is that electronic set up of thousands of pedals something you’d want to have?

Yeah! I went to see him in Edinburgh on the tour of 22, A Million and it was so cool. He had this tiny stage above the main stage where he had all his equipment. And all the other musicians were surrounded by equipment and they all work like cyborgs where they’ve got one instrument with 200 keys. So that’s definitely the 10 year plan. For now I quite like simple set ups. I get a bit apprehensive with having too many things to move around. I like to have that connection with the audience which isn’t just me frantically trying to figure out what button to press. I want to look at people and sing with them so that’s my priority, to have the time to connect. And have the mental capacity to focus on that. I like that loop pedal because of that because it’s really intuitive and adds that bit of atmosphere and that minimal arrangement lets me be in the room. And that’s why it would also be amazing to have other people play as it would mean then I can delegate some stuff, the sound would be rich but I wouldn’t have to think about all of it.

If anything, what would be something you’d like to change about the music industry?

There’s so many things. I was just talking to someone about this the other day and I was saying “How is it even legal to not pay musicians when you have live gigs”. Maybe their could be someone who says that’s actually illegal. I’ve been feeling this a lot recently, that we’re such a huge industry but there isn’t that class consciousness of musicians in the same way there is for other employments. Where you have rights and you fight for the rights of that specific job for example. It feels very disconnected. It’s a network but it’s hard to unionise and mobilise in the same way that other industries do.

So for example the whole thing with Spotify is absolutely insane if you think about it. It’s this illusion that we’ve all bought into. Don’t get me wrong I actually really love Spotify and it lets me find loads of music and it’s an easy to use app etc. But they have the money to pay everyone better, and they don’t. And we haven’t been able to do anything about it. It’s insane if you think about it. I would hope for a stronger class consciousness, for a stronger union of people that say “We’re not going to have this anymore”. And big acts saying “I’m gonna take all my music off my service if you don’t make changes”. If hundreds of big acts do that then it’s gonna get to the point where Spotify’s gonna say “Okay, you called my bluff!”. So why isn’t that happening? There’s really rich musicians that can afford to not be on Spotify and help make the change for the little guy. It’s not going to make a difference to them if i’m not on it. But for me it would mean less people get to listen to the music.

(a) EP is available now, purchase here.

Slowthai – TYRON Album Review

Method Records – 2021

Northampton’s prodigal son returns with his second album, prominently titled with Slowthai’s real first name, TYRON is a story of two tales. Whilst his debut album, Nothing Great About Britain soared him to greater heights than perhaps he could have predicted, fuelled by political message and its depiction of modern day Britain for what it really is, this second album takes a more introspective journey into the mind of Tryon Frampton.

This time last year there was controversy surrounding Slowthai after being inebriated and making crude remarks towards comedian Katherine Jenkins at the NME awards, later apologising after a joke went too far. Jenkins herself even went on to say that she fully accepted his apology and didn’t feel under threat. This however lead to a tyranny of backlash, people feeling that the true Slowthai had been revealed. It may seem as though some of the anger felt around this situation continued onto this album, however the likes of “CANCELLED” where Skepta and Slowthai bounce back and forth listing accolades that mean they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon “Twenty awards on the mantelpiece, Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury” were plights of ammunition that had already been stocked up. He did released reactionary single “ENEMY” shortly after the controversy but says that “got all the anger about the event out of his system“.

The first half of this album however is still drenched in this reactionary rage; all track titles being written in capitals. From the haunting soundscape of opener “45 SMOKE” to the siren induced “WOT” as Slowthai sings of absurdist childlike insults “In the rave, drop a eccy with your mum”. This opening half is Slowthai swaggering about, still declaring his worth. On the hypnotising “MAZZA”, which is Slowthai’s way of saying ADHD, a condition the rapper suffers with, he’s trying to break down his newly found fast paced lifestyle. But this front that Slowthai is trying to put on soon breaks down. As the nostalgia induced sound of “PLAY WITH FIRE” sweeps in you can hear him starting to pull back the curtain on his mentality. “I wish I pressed skip, everything is negative, It gets hectic, strеssin’, if you’re from the place I livе” he declares as the verse opens, slowly descending into an almost therapeutic spoken word passage towards the end of the song.

This then leads to the mood and feel of the second half of the album, reflective and self doubting. This mood is even set by the all lower case letters on the track titles, the vail has been pulled back. Throughout the next seven tracks Slowthai gets his most introspective, gritting his teeth through the trauma. “No one I can lean on so I’m limping with a walking stick, People keep talking shit I cut through the thick of it” he raps with a more laid back feel on “focus”. Through this inwards look you see an artist who is trying to come to terms with the position he’s in, no matter what he does he will be judged for it, whether it be holding up a fake decapitated head of Boris Johnson on live television (although this stunt was definitely trying to induce a reaction) or simply releasing a song that attacks cancel culture, the haters will always be there.

But from realising the problem he tries to turn things around, shifting his perspective from the negative, self pitying to the positive, being grateful for what we have. The true pinnacle of this album comes in the form of “nhs”, similarly to his debut album this song very much captures a moment and feeling within British life. Broken down the lyrics reflect on the way as a society we always want that bit more, but one thing doesn’t come without the other, and focusing too much on the negative is “gonna make you depressed”. Aptly titled, this ode to Britain’s health care system is trying to understand why something so precious to us is only truly appreciated when we’re in desperate need of it, still some don’t give it the appreciation it deserves “Jack the lad, only happy when they clap (NHS)”.

There of course has to be mention of the production of this album, though the tracks shift through varying moods and soundscapes there’s always a consistency in its diversity that ties everything seamlessly together. Mainly fronted by Kews Darko, who produces a large majority of Slowthai’s discography, there are appearances from the likes of hip-hop mastermind Kenny Beats on “terms” and SAMO on “MAZZA”. An aspect that stands out are some of Slowthai’s most melancholic soundscapes that appear on the latter half, from the acoustic driven “push” featuring some truly dreamy chorus vocals from Deb Never to the crooning “feel away” that is drenched in nostalgia. James Blake’s ASMR induced vocals not only compliment the slower grit of Slowthai’s vocals but bring a real sense of serenity to the album at this late stage. With the rolling piano line and ambient soundscapes it’s hard not to be encapsulated by each level of emotion that every contributor to this track puts in.

Originally this album was intended to be Slowthai’s third album, with another politically charged outing set for his second, he’s not stepping away from that style though rather saying that “When the time’s right I’ll be there, but now’s not the time” . Instead what we got was an album created during a time where people needed reassurance, and Slowthai is here to give it to them. The technical self-titling of this album serves as a perfect summary of the core of this album, it’s every part, every part of Tyron Frampton, it’s loud, it’s in your face, you’re never quite sure when he’s being serious or just creating a character for himself, but deep within is the intricate musings of a young man trying to take in the chaotic world around him.

James Blake releases new single ‘Are You Even Real?’

Photo by James Kelly for DIY

James Blake has shared his second single of 2020 ‘Are You Even Real?’. This follows on from ‘You’re Too Precious‘ released back in April.

These are the first new singles released since 2019’s critically acclaimed album ‘Assume Form’ which saw Blake collaborate with the likes of Andre 3000, Moses Sumney, Rosalia, Travis Scott and more

Take a listen to the new single below.

James Blake announces new single ‘You’re Too Precious’

Photo by David Brendan Hall/ Austin Chronicle

James Blake has announced a new single titled ‘You’re Too Precious’ to be released on Friday 24th April.

This is the first new music since Blake’s album ‘Assume Form’ which was released last year and featured Andre 3000, Moses Sumney, Rosalia, Travis Scott and more.

The track was first teased on an Instagram live stream on April 20th with Blake playing a snippet of the song before officially announcing today.

Blake is one of many artists using this lockdown period to livestream concerts from home, from which he’s played covers of Billie Eilish’s ‘When The Party’s Over’, Radiohead’s ‘No Surprises’ and Frank Ocean’s ‘Godspeed’.

Click this link to pre-save the single and see the artwork below.