Dubbed as “minimalist holy blues from another galaxy” and “folk noir”, Clara Engel has released albums with boutique labels in Europe and North America, with several songs being played on the BBC, Italian National Radio and PBS in Australia. Clara has collaborated with artists such as Aidan Baker, Thor Harris (Swans), Armen Ra, and Siavash Amini. On their new mystical sounding release, Their Invisible Hands, the Toronto based singer-songwriter makes the album’s barest, most stripped moments into an incredibly powerful, strikingly beautiful offering, registering as a genuinely transporting cycle.
Older, wiser, and more ambitious than ever, Clara finds a musical artistry that rises to the level of their lyrical perceptiveness. They have made a thoughtful work that rewards you further with each repeat listen.
O Human Child
This started as an instrumental for talharpa and melodica. The idea of singing Yeats’ words came to me later. “The Stolen Child” is a well-known poem, and other people have set it to music before. I’m not one to idealize childhood; that part of life mainly makes me think of an overwhelming openness to the world. With that openness comes an enhanced capacity for joy and wonder, but also for uncertainty and fear. I chose to begin the album with this piece because it feels like a slow pull to another world, towards another way of seeing.
Dead Tree March
A talharpa melody, a single repeated chord on the cigar box guitar, and a rhythm that I played with a soft mallet on a wooden trunk. It makes me think of big old dead trees that I see on my walks, all in various states of returning to earth. I can imagine a ragged procession accompanying this song, so it could be a march in the musical sense, or it could be the month of March when everything is melting and freezing and melting and freezing again.
The first song I wrote for the album. Something about it makes me think of the band Tinariwen – I love their guitar sound and had a chance to hear them live in Montreal in 2019. It wasn’t a conscious emulation, and it might be an associative thing that only I hear. The lyric came to me earlier, separately from the music – but once I had the guitar riff everything fell into place. A few songs on this album came to me as single powerful images that I then built everything else around – in this case it was a glowing golden egg.
A meditation on flight and on the life forms that fill the sky. The guitar part is dancing in a plucked rhythm and I am singing in fluid long phrases on top of that. It makes me think of the way birds soar but also make quick and surprising darting movements: legato and staccato all in one form of life. I spent a lot of time observing birds while I was writing and recording this album. This one is for the birds.
I plucked out this melody when I was improvising on the guitar, and happened to record it; it wasn’t pre-meditated. I added the talharpa lines later. The atmosphere made me think of the animated show Mushishi, which is beautiful and quite profound – it talks about deep issues that transcend time and culture, (estrangement, grudges, depression, vengeance, forgiveness), and has a fantastical folk-tale approach to story telling. The animation is also stunning. I only managed to see a few episodes, but they left a big impression. The main character’s name is Ginko, so this song is for him.
I Drink the Rain
While writing the album I was getting over a bad bout of insomnia and anxiety; I took lots of walks in nature and started feeding the local birds from my hands. Tree roots and dirt and forests and decay all found their way into the album, maybe even form the basis of it, but it’s most overt in this song. The guitar is distorted and moves cyclically, and I wanted it to be rough sounding, like peeling tree bark. A poet I return to often is Theodore Roethke, and I can feel the influence of his voice on this one.
An amorphous interlude for plucked talharpa strings played through a delay pedal, and my makeshift wooden trunk drum keeping time in the background. Totally improvised, and unhinged, but in a gentle way. I think one reviewer complained that it is too long, which made me happy, because I really didn’t want it to feel short. It’s a slow burning swamp voyage with no destination, and it takes time to get lost.
High Alien Priest
This song came out of some stream of consciousness writing, which I then edited into a micro-narrative. It wasn’t intentional, but High Alien Priest feels like a reply to another song I wrote many years ago called Madagascar, which appears on my album Secret Beasts. Both feature a being from elsewhere who makes an appearance (an angel in Madagascar, an alien in High Alien Priest) and then disappears. In the process, there is an invisible change visited upon the narrator/witness. This time around there’s a deathly and world-weary tenderness about the otherworldly being, whereas in Madagascar there was definitely more romance and adventure. My songs aren’t literally autobiographical, but I think these characters reflect losses and inner transformations I’ve gone through in the intervening years. Also, my singing style has changed a lot.
My existential pop song. Initially I tried to write it for guitar and voice, but it didn’t work for me, so I threw everything out and spontaneously made a riff with tongue drum and wooden trunk. I don’t usually use double tracking on my vocals, but I did two takes in a row and then laid them on top of each other on a whim. I really like how they sound together, especially when they don’t quite line up. It’s a bit of a toe-tapper, which is fun (and surreal if you tune in to the words).
Rowing Home Through a Sea of Golden Leaves
This one came about in a similar way to Ginko’s Blues. It started as a guitar improvisation, and then I built everything else around that. In my mind it conjures up a trip home through autumn light, with burned and vivid colours mixed together.
This one came to me as one vivid image: a glass mountain. Something impossible and impassable, that can’t ever be comprehended or fully reckoned with. I like the way that devastating events and mortal conundrums of various sorts can be made tangible in stark fairy-tale imagery. I have no interest in writing purely autobiographical or confessional songs, because I find imagery far more interesting. The fingerprints of my self will be on everything I write, whether I like it or not. I think my own feelings of defeat and loss, and trying to make new meaning in the wreckage of all that, come through strongly here. Another person could find something else in it though. The guitar sound is distorted and a little gnarly on this one, which I like in combination with the more airy vocal.
The Party is Over
I deliberately left this as a skeletal arrangement, just voice and guitar. A lot of the music I love is for human voice and an accompanying instrument. I’m thinking of folk and blues music with no overdubs, like Skip James, John Jacob Niles, the Carter Family, Washington Phillips, Robbie Basho… in a different vein I also love John Tavener’s music for small ensembles, which I guess is some sort of neo-ancient modern classical. (I’m not great with genres.) His album Eternity’s Sunrise was an important discovery for me.
Sometimes it can be effective to insert various overdubbed parts that pop out and offer new textures and timbres, but if it becomes a default approach, it starts to feel formulaic. Even more troubling for me, it starts to feel like a compulsive pandering to low attention spans, and a relinquishment of my own convictions.
If there is some sort of massive solar flare or other cataclysmic event that makes electricity less of a given, I’d be able to perform totally acoustically. This song would sound good unplugged, in a cave.
The Devils are Snoring
I thought it would work well to bookend the album with two pieces for talharpa, melodica, and a vocal that is more of an incantation than a melody. The words are from a nursery rhyme, and I tweaked it a little: it’s raining/it’s pouring/the old man is snoring. I substituted “the old man” with “the devils” which changes the meaning in a way that I like. Perhaps if the “old man” is God or a father figure etc, then “the devils” are more amorphous and personal. Who couldn’t use a break from their various devils – a good sleep, like a good heavy rain, gives us a small reprieve.