Painted Girl - Familiar Trees of the North West
Familiar Trees of the North West
May 22, 2022
It can be difficult to describe the music Claire Rousay creates. Not able to settle on one particular word, it seems fair to say that her sound is a carefully-crafted, minimalistic construction, sweeping around the peripheries of music as we hear it and know it in the classic everyday sense. Hailing from San-Antonio, the artist showcases a markable confidence in bringing the worlds of musique concréte and alternative rock together, her releases (of which there are around 25 on her Bandcamp) are inescapably meditative, striking at the nucleus of very personal feelings. Loneliness and melancholy feature frequently, as do moments of quaint and touching positivity.
It is an exciting prospect to witness how this sort of music finds its way into a live setting. Especially since it is the artist’s first ever UK appearance. Where else to carry out this debut but Dalston’s Cafe OTO, a home for all kinds of experimental music, both with the venue’s live space and digitally through their releases under Takuroku (which houses Claire’s most recent album).
Organ Tapes begins proceedings, sending subtle phased guitar through droning lamentations as the act commences. As background noises wither away and become interludes, the jangling guitar becomes the central factor as the artist pushes through poppy laments made bitter and saccharine simultaneously with the application of autotune. With a baseball cap obscuring the artist’s facial features for the most part, the performance is dignified and thoughtful. The sounds of the 56 bus to Whipps Cross fill the venue as the artist plays through a few tracks from recent Tobago Tracks’ release Hunger In Me Living. A cover of Jackson Browne’s The Road brings a particular nostalgic warmth to the set, the singer-songwriter's lyrical melodies fed through Organ Tapes’ artificially wavering tones. The comforting thrum of the guitar and classically constructed melodic narratives are welcome aspects that may not be as readily accessible in the night to come.
Softly spoken, Claire thanks the venue, Organ Tapes and the audience for coming out, before almost being cut off by a disembodied voice. A text-to-speech program rushes through a stream of consciousness passage, personable in its content but detached in its delivery. Strings and piano begin to circle, the faint tinges of instrumentation and recorded sound materialise. Much like her releases, the performance is a quiet and solemn walk toward a place of unique vulnerability. At points it feels like a ritual involving very personal actions and memories. An atmosphere of everyday sounds and almost incidental performative movements create a sort of receptacle into which she can pour feelings and thoughts.
She begins to talk about friendship. What makes someone a best friend? What if a best friend found out you had been talking about them? A series of questions, focused on social politics and directed out toward the silent space. A stark contemplation of loneliness; a meditation on what that situation would mean and what might follow. There is a moment where she ensures the audience know this isn’t merely a one-sided monologue, insisting that she knows that people in Cafe OTO have talked about friends behind their back, plainly stating it in a jokey and conversational manner. This is the first example of what sets apart the performing Claire Rousay from the recorded one. When listening to her material, we walk parallel with her wherever she goes. We hear voices conversing, even talking to themselves, but very rarely see ourselves as anything more than an invisible spectator. Here we sit on opposing sides, the situation a lot more adversarial. This lunge toward the fourth wall is a personable jab though, a joke between friends.
Voices begin to bleed through the speakers above talking about the same subject of friendship, and blurring the perception of what is spontaneous and what is part of the performance’s routine. The artist glances up at the speakers with a warm expression, like some wholesome version of Krapp’s Last Tape. The monologue’s run in tandem and have a therapeutic edge to them. It feels as though the performance goes someway to run imaginary lines from the UK back to Claire’s home in the US. In a classic performance, a band or artist might sing out lyrics concerning their home and their friends. With Claire, it feels as though those people she has recorded are in the room, and that place where she lives is just outside the walls of the venue.
The second moment that separates the live from the recorded Claire comes with the admission of waking from a nightmare a day or so prior to the performance. Reported as an epiphany, it is a precious crystalline moment of sincerity gifted to the audience.
The amorphous performance is gifted structure as Claire takes to her guitar once again, sending jagged, plosive notes and singing out in an electronically warped and abnormal style. Referred to before as ‘emo ambient’, she leans into this label wholeheartedly by falling into a slow and laboured fragment of A Little Less Sixteen Candles, A Little More Touch Me before its lost within flowing euphoria.
The performance slows almost to a complete stop, as the artist gets snagged on emotive notes and vocal melodies before settling back into her chair. What looks like a sudden burst of texting is actually revealed to be the set’s swan song, specifically Baby E’s Nothing Left to Say as it leaks out of the phone speaker and into the microphone. A fitting end to a deeply oratorical performance.
It must be a strange time to tour abroad, especially for a more experimental artist such as Claire Rousay. To venture out into the world peddling an introverted and personable style of performance at a time in which people are feverishly rushing to escapism and are actively stifling thoughts of loneliness or mortality. The performance not only encourages introspection, but welcomes it as a natural part of life. Just as we hear voices of vulnerability and sincerity in her releases, Claire constructs a special atmosphere of admission and warmth within Cafe OTO’s space, the feelings of doubt and loneliness notwithstanding. The poise with which she implements that beautifully liminal sound is undeniable, and is a privilege to watch unfold in a live setting.