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Zen Sounds 069: Tirzah
The enigmatic South London singer's new album feels like one long song
Tirzah and her producer Mica Levi have recorded a new album and surprise-released it on Tuesday. “trip9love…???” is technically Tirzah’s third full-length solo album – a fairly short one, devoid of any features or guest production. The cover shows a portrait of the Southeast London-based singer in front of a microphone against foggy grey background.
The week before, Tirzah had announced new tour dates. The Instagram caption read, “sharing the record next week”. Wait, what? A new album, next week already? On Tuesday morning, it was released digitally to no fanfare at all. Tirzah even waited until afternoon to post about it on her channels. “Feels good to be sending this out to you today”, she wrote laconically, “hope it takes u to a nice place”.
The rollout reminded me of the way Grouper likes to release her albums, which she famously compared to secretly sinking a heavy object in a lake: “Find a quiet corner, gently slip it under the surface, watch the ripples for a moment, and steal away.”
In an age when everyone shouts about themselves and their “product” constantly, desparately fighting for eyeballs and attention, it is refreshing when an artist feels almost uncomfortable sharing her work with the world.
Tirzah doesn’t need to shout. When she speaks, we listen.
Tirzah – “trip9love…???”
I’d known about Tirzah’s music for some years, and I generally liked it, but the moment I really fell for it was the fall of 2022. By then the pandemic had officially ended, even if I certainly didn’t feel that way, but all of a sudden I found myself on a plane, traveling to London, a city I’d visited quite frequently that would now become a place where I’d regularly stay and work for a few times per year. I’d stroll along Regent’s Canal in the morning drizzle, listening to Tirzah’s songs, and it suddenly just clicked.
Which makes sense, as Tirzah lives in London, Southeast London to be exact, home to a semi-famous circle of friends that has been shaping the UK underground music scene of the last decade: Her producer Mica Levi, husband Kwake Bass and frequent collaborator Coby Sey, who is the younger brother of producer Kwes. In the ten-minute long “Hive Mind” video, they’re all seen celebrating together; Kae Tempest is there as well, the experimental composer Klein, alt-grime rapper Brother May, and the genre-defying artist Wu-Lu.
Tirzah grew up in Essex and attended Purcell School, a music school for talented children, where she first met Mica Levi. Originally wanting to become a fashion designer, she released her first EP in 2013. It took her (and Levi) a few years to really nail the Tirzah sound, but when she finally did, she released two heavily acclaimed albums, “Devotion” (2018) and “Colourgrade” (2021), both produced by Levi and laced with guest spots from her South London circle.
Tirzah and Levi’s music bears traces of alternative R&B and trip-hop, but never resorts to musical clichés, always looking for an authentic expression through sound. If there ever was a reference point, it might have been some of Tricky’s and Björk’s more abstract mid-1990s work, like the second half of “Maxinquaye”, the Nearly God album or some tracks from “Post” and its underrated remix companion “Telegram”. Because of its dissonance and imperfection, Tirzah’s music has been called “experimental pop”, or even “ambient pop”.
A mother of two and not very active on social media, Tirzah seems like a low-key person. Listening to her music, on the other hand, always feels like engaging in a private conversation with her. Her songs provide a safe space – excuse the cliché phrase – for herself and her listeners. Her unpretentious style of singing carries an intimate quality which Burial once called “girl next door vocals”; they sound as if you’d listen to your neighbour singing under the shower in a council estate apartment with extra-thin walls.
Tirzah and Levi have always been minimalist in their approach, but on the new album “trip9love…???”, they really reduce their sound to its very bare essence. Levi uses the exact same broken trap drum loop throughout most of the 11 songs, just in a slightly different speed and mix. On top of the drums, there’s not much more than some reverbed piano loops and Tirzah mumbling enigmatic lyrics. Both “Devotion” and “Colourgrade” had bigger individual songs; this one feels more like a longform piece, designed to be listened to as a whole.
While “Colourgrade” was a record inspired by motherhood, healing and new beginnings, it’s unclear what this new material is actually “about”. The PR blurb nebulously refers to “poems [that] centre on themes of love, both real and imagined”, and to “a lazy club fantasy zone.” It also says it was recorded mostly at Tirzah’s and Levi’s homes, in South London and in Kent, over the course of a year.
Almost a year after I first felt the true power of Tirzah’s music, I’m walking through a city again, this time it’s Berlin. I’m listening to her new album, which I didn’t even like that much at first, but now I’m heavily addicted to its monochrome sound. I’ve been visiting the Atonal festival for the last couple of days. It’s unusually hot for this time of the year, even at night. Walking home across the city and taking the train at night, I am listening to “trip9love…???” over and over again, and I still don’t know what it’s all about, but it feels like a companion, and I am losing myself in its soothing familiarity.
One more thing
As a huge Werner Herzog fan and former skateboarder, I was quite touched by this short interview snippet. “I’m not familiar with the scene of skateboarding”, says the great experimental filmmaker to an editor of Jenkem magazine. “At the same time, I had the feeling, yes – that’s kind of my people.” He goes on to talk about the acceptance of failure and what music he’d soundtrack skate footage to. (Spoiler: Russian Orthodox church choirs.)
© 2023 Stephan Kunze