I’m a big fan of mystery in music. By that I mean, listening to something and not quite knowing what it means, or what the words are saying, or what the melody is doing – but somehow, mysteriously, being moved by it. Bowie is, of course, the master of this, and Kate Bush likewise. But it’s always great when you come across something in the corner of the musical universe that is somehow not quite like anything else. You couldn’t quite say what genre it is, why you connect with it, or why it specifically speaks to you. Rozi Plain falls squarely into that category for me.
I first came across Rozi via This Is The Kit, the Bristol based folk-rock band fronted by the brilliant Kate Stables. And I first came across This is The Kit, bizarrely enough on a Maison Kitsuné chill out compilation sometime in the late noughties, when I was still taking my daughter to nursery, because I remember how much she liked the song ‘Two Wooden Spoons’.
Rozi P is a member of that band and tours and plays with them, as well as forging her own solo career. I’ve loved This Is The Kit for a long time, though interestingly I would say that they are a folk/folk rock/alt folk band. Whereas I’m not sure what Rozi Plain is. Anyway, I first came Rozi via Kate Staples, and at some point, I must have decided to listen to her 2016 album What A Boost.
Everything about that album is ‘unassuming’. The cover art, where Rozi has her hood on a raincoat, back to camera, facing a field. It’s like a not very good camera photo. It’s not artful, it’s very ordinary. She doesn’t look like a pop star at all. She never has, actually. I’ve never seen her do a ‘photoshoot’. Anyway, if I’m being honest, I liked but didn’t love that album. I guess I was expecting This Is The Kit v2, but actually it much more subtle, introspective and – yes – unassuming. It sounded like it didn’t mind if you listened to or not, it was there anyway, quietly existing in it own little corner.
How I underestimated that album. Because in the last 3 years, I bet you it’s one of the albums I’ve played the most. I return to it like a lost friend and I’m always happy to see it. And here’s the thing – I still feel like has a mystery to it, like I don’t quite know what it is. But it got under my skin like nothing else. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to describe her music, and I think that what is has is a lot of SPACE. It’s not folk music at all, the songwriting is pop music, but has an openness and a slight wonkiness that makes me thing of jazz more than anything?! Is that just me?
The mix and instruments are wide apart; it’s not fussy, it’s not trying too hard. It’s intimately produced, everything up close in the mix, and the really clever icing on the top is Rozi’s double tracked (ALWAYS double tracked!) vocal, both perfect and flat and, again, unassuming. No vocal ticks, no showing off. Subtle AF. But my god, it’s effective.
So to this new album, which has moved her sound and the conversation about what she is and what she does on considerably. This is squelchier affair, a lot more synths and swathes of electronic sound. But what remains is that commitment to the subtle, the mysterious and the gently persuasive. I don’t want to get hung up on a whole gender thing and resort to any stereotypes, but I do think this is a very female take on songwriting – it is insistent but it’s not trying to show off. And I get that someone could listen to this and miss the whole thing. To be honest, I was worried when I chose it that you all might feel that way too, and it’s been heartening to hear that she’s connecting with you.
So what’s going with the songwriting. Let’s start with a slightly fanciful quote from her own Bandcamp age:
The music of Rozi Plain has always felt like a freeze-frame. A colourful and graceful snapshot of the world, paused, suspended in time, and then gently toyed with, like stepping out of the linear world as we know it.
Yeah, I know, it’s a bit much, but it does touch on something. The songs kind of in a here and now. They’re about a current conversation, something that’s happening in real time. That’s actually quite unusual!
In Agreeing for Two, she sings:
“What should we call it
If nothing will do?
It’s nothing we’ll do
But what should we call it?”
I mean, who knows what the argument/discussion is about. But we know that feeling, right, about not being able to find common ground in a relationship?
All the way through the album, there are refrains in the lyrics that are repeated so often they’re like mantras:
If it’s a feeling/That’s going/When it goes/You even know/Help for you/Help for you/Help for you..
My god, that could be anything. Depression? The end of a relationship? Trying to help a friend? I love that space these songs give you to make sense of them in your way. Prove Your Good goes even further, reducing most of the whole song to that mantra (note it’s not Prove ‘YOU’RE’ Good but Prove YOUR Good i.e. prove that you have worth).
I’m going to go even further and do the worst thing possible: quite Pitchfork:
Working with minimalist guitar, gentle vocals, and an understated rhythm section, Plain constructs a careful lesson about the awe of being present in the moment.
Back to that thing about time again. Maybe that’s what keeps me coming back to her work. Listening to it puts me in the moment. I’m here and it’s now. I can work to it, I can relax to it, I can think to it. Can’t think of many records that’s true of.
I’m already loving this as much as the last record, and I’m also really grateful that it feels like a significant musical step forward. She’s not staying put, she’s on the move. And I’m very happy to be on the journey with her. Very much looking to your thoughts on this fascinating album!