Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Clara Engel connects distant people to create immediate minimalist folk

May 4, 2020

We are all haunted at this moment, reality oozing with the uncertainty regarding the shape or substance of the future. History will reflect on what is left behind from these times, with each representation of reality a snapshot in time. Eclectic independent artists often define the moment best. Clara Engel’s self-released Hatching Under the Stars is one of those unique talents, offering up a stunning expression of minimalist folk.

Jack White once said it’s a bad thing to have music remind listeners of another artist. I beg to differ. Occasionally truly rare craft emerges, but most work needs a touchpoint for audiences to grasp its genius. Such is the case here. Much like the gothic folk of Brooklyn’s Charming Disaster, Engel’s talents align with those of The Decemberists, whose Hazards of Love captured the attention of academics at Harvard.

This new album was recorded live in the space of two afternoons at Lynx Music in November 2019. Paul Kolinski handles drums on all songs as well as serving as an engineer. Engel should be noted as a multi-instrumentalist. Vocals are their primary instrument, yet they also cover electric guitar, Hammond organ, keyboard, acoustic twelve-string guitar, chromonica, harmonica, and banjitar. Creating a communal release, artists leveraged the power of technology to add to the album from homes or studios.

Art is prophetic, music often most of all. “To Keep the Ghost at Bay” lays the groundwork for the prophetic road ahead. Mitchell Girio’s bass adds depth that resonates through Lys Guillorn’s lap steel, creating the framework for the music’s voice to soar. “Oiseau Rebelle” directly references Prosper Mérimée, who wrote the source text of Bizet’s 19th century French opera Carmen. The songwriter extends the imagery of love’s gypsy warning, breathy vocals guiding the way deeper into this gothic fairy tale. Tsinder Ash contributes accordion, Celtic harp, and backing vocals, while Sylvia Haynes’ bass, electric guitar, and ocarina help create a transformative experience.

Haynes arranges Stéfan Hoïme’s clarinet, which merges with Brad Deschamps’s ambient guitar on “Preserved in Ice.” This is a masterclass in collaboration, featuring strong musical talents working separately—recording each overdub at homes or studios, exemplifying the nature of the times. Haynes’ classical guitar and bass join Engel’s vocals, questioning the frozen moments aching to find life. Whether plaintive, biblical, or fairytale—this poetic commentary is a waltz of genius. Shifting gears to “Baby Alligators,” Engel offers a real touch of beauty, oozing with imagery. Heavy support from Haynes on glockenspiel, toy piano, electric guitar, and backing vocals reveals a real connection between the artists. Girio’s bass is a steady presence here, along with Chloé Seyrès’s violin and Anne-Marie Soucy’s backing vocals. 

Like an ode to black widow spider, the minimalist perfection of “Any Creature” enters with Girio’s steady bass and Piers Oolvai’s bass clarinet. Theatrical, expansive imagery sheds its hypnotic, dreamlike state on each note, redefining this gothic folk into some sort of self-created performance piece waiting for the stage production. “Old Feathered Devil” starts sonically redefining this record, allowing Engel’s voice to seemingly shift up an octave. This may be a deception created with brilliant instrumentation, featuring Guillorn’s lap steel and Gregory Wilson’s synthesizer. 

Contrasts are key on “Seven Minutes Past Sunrise,” maybe more so than anywhere else on the album. Michael Thorner’s only album appearance is on piano, along with Astor Wolfe contributing violin and backing vocals; Alexander Paquet lends guitar and whale sounds for an unbelievable connection to the lyrical message. Despite the methodically paced nature of this album, this track screams. Authentic, aching spaces between each note fill with longing, connecting us all in our humanity. True poetry uses sounds to express the writer’s experience, and “Little Blue Fox” is rich with symbolism, suggesting a connection to the dream world in this poetic journey. Josh Marchant’s ambient harp brings back feelings of medieval fairy tales: Brad Deschamps’ ambient guitar and onde magnetique add magic known to be used by Nine Inch Nails’ Alessandro Cortini. A fine line between magic and noise exists with this reverb instrument, successfully wielded here. 

We are all wondering what the next news cycle brings: chaos, crisis, or maybe some good news? “The Indifference of Fire” is the record’s swan song, clearly sweet and hopeful. Of course, Engel’s tour was canceled in support of this album; they, like so many other musicians, are finding a way to forge ahead. Luminous, yet with restrained instrumentation, I am impressed that all of the contributing artists recorded together yet apart, physically distant yet musically connected. Hatching Under the Stars is a work of art, best savored numerous times from beginning to end in order to fully feel the full poetry immersion. Regardless of where we all are in this global community at the end of 2020, this will be one of my top three albums of the year.–Lisa Whealy

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Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.

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