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Exploring the literate, genre-dodging songs of the Bergen born singer-songwriter, scouring away at the surface of butter-wouldn’t-melt-blokes in the process.
In the video for SARA WOLFF’s recent single Cotton Socks, filmed by Mimi Šerbedžija, the camera meets Wolff’s gaze as her eyelids flutter in time. Her head appears framed, as if on a platter. She then tucks into a dessert buffet of jellybeans, muffins, doughnuts and a lovely looking Victoria sponge, Bruce Bogtrotter-style. It all ends with Wolff in a sugar coma, face and hands covered in jam, looking like a cannibal passed out at a crime scene. For a song that sounds like drowning in honey, this saccharine display fits her barbed, sickly-sweet lyrics perfectly.
While society buffers, we’ve had ample time to ponder what we’ve missed, as well as clarity to address some serious issues surrounding inequality. And, although it might have been written long before our current winter of discontent, Wolff’s debut EP When You Left The Room remarkably still captures the zeitgeist, as Sara chews over that which she’s willing to stomach and spits out the rest. Cotton Socks flaunts this in all its glory.
Couplets such as “Oh bless your little toffee heart / don’t you let them sting you when you tear their hive apart” and “’Cause they are little bumblebees without a single clue / they are bumping into everyone ’cause they don’t know what to do” find Wolff biting back. Softly spun melodies and wonky, woozy arrangements might draw you in, but it’s the cunningly reflective songwriting, with its pointed humour and carefully crafted narratives, that’ll keep you hooked.
“Cotton Socks is a song about feeling underestimated by someone,” she begins, speaking over video call, with no traces of jam to be seen. “It could be about toxic masculinity, a person who maybe has a skewed view on women in general. It comes back to, I guess, the expectations of women, or your feelings not being taken seriously, being brushed off as someone who’s all over the place. It’s a reaction to that by saying: ‘I know exactly what’s going on and why you’re behaving this way… and I’ll sting you any day’,” she explains, with an effortless lyrical charm.
Through addressing men in this sympathetic, mollycoddling manner, Wolff is able to poke holes in a privileged sense of security. It could even be seen as an impression of the belittling tone some do actually take around the opposite sex. In this way it feels like a predecessor to the equally eerie Scarf Song. Directed by Wolff and Andy Martin, Scarf Song’s monochrome music video has a more Lynchian slant with Sara and co appearing onstage like mannequins. Yet it still serves as an uneasy commentary about the treatment and objectification of women. And when Sara dreams of retaliation in the chorus (in this case, a light garrotting by knitwear) it’s hard to blame, frankly.
Fiona Apple’s lyrics for Relay from last year’s groundbreaking Fetch The Bolt Cutters spring to mind: “I resent you for never getting any opposition at all / I resent you for having each other / I resent you for being so sure / I resent you presenting your life like a fucking propaganda brochure”. It’s a directness Wolff finds particularly refreshing.
“My favourite song is definitely Ladies,” Wolff responds, “she’s singing to her ex’s new girlfriend and it’s all about women standing together. She says: ‘There’s a dress in the closet that you can have because it will look way better on you, it was actually left to me by another ex who was there before me’. I feel like sometimes women can tend to fight each other, or there can be this culture of competition. Usually you can see that with any marginalised group, if there is a sense there’s not space for you somewhere.
“I suppose in a male dominated music scene,” she continues, “there’s less space for women to begin with. You suddenly have women turning against each other because you’re fighting for those few slots that are available for you. [Fiona Apple] definitely touches upon something very important there. We’re just so much stronger if we stand together and lift people up, rather than tearing each other down.”
“Being a woman musician isn’t a genre. The amount of line-ups I’ve been put on billed as ‘Ladies Night’ or times it hasn’t made sense that I’m opening for a band. The only similarity is our gender identity,” Wolff explains. However, she is keen to note the supportive aspects of Liverpool’s scene and the groups looking to tackle unequal diversity. One of which she highlights is Where Are The Girlbands, who she commends for their promotion of female musicians, opening discussions, covering the scene and connecting creatives.
“Maybe this time is what we all needed, a little reset and then we can come back with more objectivity,” Wolff ponders in response to the prolonged pause of live music. “Knowing that we’ve had some space to think about what’s important to us and what we really want the scene to look like: more inclusive, interesting and accommodating.”
In September 2019, Sara visited Manchester’s Eve studios to track the EP with her live band and co-producer/engineer Adam Rothschild. Replete with vintage synths, analogue outboard gear and even a cat (also named Adam), 16-hour stints of recording found the pair entirely submerged in the project. Since then she’s swapped what was “basically an old mansion” where King Krule, Everything Everything and The Orielles record, for the familiar makeshift duvet vocal booth.
“I was just recording all of my vocals under my little duvet castle in my bedroom. There were dogs barking outside the window, loads of construction work going on, plus my interface was really shit, so whenever I had my computer plugged in it made a buzzing noise,” she illustrates. “Somehow still, it’s nice, I always feel most comfortable in my own surroundings.”
Thankfully, persistence and time invested honing these tracks – the liquefied All We Are feel of Hands having evolved significantly over the past six years – means we’re now hearing Wolff at her most self-actualised as an artist. Her stay at Eve and the room for experimentation this allowed has only pushed her sound further as well. A minimalist at heart, in-studio Sara opted to either extract guitar parts in place of synths, noise machines and the distinctive 1960s Farfisa organ, or instead fed them through effects units, such as the Roland Space Echo used to produce the delay we hear tripping over itself on off-kilter standout You Like Talking About Yourself.
Charged with all the manic energy and queasy cutesiness of a carnival funhouse, in Wolff’s words You Like Talking About Yourself is “a silly song about someone who loves themselves too much and sucks all the attention out a room”. In the chorus the kit actually breaks down for a bar or two, mimicking the blowhard losing steam, or rather his victims losing the will to live. By the time we reach the bridge, it’s looking more Dismaland than Disney, as Sara sings, “What have you done? You ate my firstborn son” as raving voices pile up against a wall of distortion.
Sara’s conscious use of contrast calls to mind Aldous Harding and Cate Le Bon, but it would seem she’s not as easy to corner on influences as that, as proven when she elaborates on her process.
“You have to always strive to diversify what you hear,” she says. “I try to take influence from as many things as possible because I think it’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of following trends. If you do that you get lost in what you think people want to hear, instead of what you really sound like. The thing is with trends they always go away.”
She elaborates further, breaking down the concept into a simplified form: “People might not like my music now and might not resonate with it now, but sometime there may be someone who will. That’s enough for me. I’m just going to do my own thing, listen to as many different things as I can, then hopefully I won’t steal something by accident.”
There’s method also in the juxtaposition of creaking eeriness and wide beaming smile that much of the EP carries. “I find when I write about a particularly dark subject I like to wrap it in a nice little soft package instead,” she says. “Maybe it’s the shock factor? Sometimes it can relay the message a little easier. [On the EP] I was definitely playing a lot more with contrasts than ever before. I was going for more angry and distorted sounds because I feel as someone who works within the folk genre and as a woman, sometimes it’s like the ‘generals’ just tell us what the desirable traits of being a woman are: quiet, polite and modest.
“But, on the other side of the spectrum, you have men who are allowed to express their anger more in music – shredding, playing heavier – that’s normally a very desirable trait in a man,” she adds. “It’s considered sexy, whereas if a woman acts the same way it’s considered bitchy. So, I guess I’ve been trying embrace this anger and stop being so careful all the time.”
For Sara to think of her music as a time capsule that might someday make an impression is underselling its charm and relatability. Take Bad Thoughts Compilation, for example. This deep dive into despondency with its delicate guitar work and bobbing melody recalling Rozi Plain, could quite easily soundtrack a clip show of 2020’s most tedious, thumb-twiddling groundhog days. “Let’s stay at home, not follow through. Let’s burn the spark right out of you” she sings, before ending the record with the refrain, “I think I need to get away for a while”. They’re sentiments not lost on us.
“Get Away For A While became more a goodbye to past selves. ‘It happened when you left the room and I think about it every day’. It’s like when you realise that something’s changed, that something’s over, that you’re going to have to adapt. I feel that’s what songwriting is for me in general: just looking back at things I’ve experienced with more of an objective view and reflecting on changes that were maybe quite difficult when they happened, but they’ve brought me to where I am today and have offered a new perspective.
“That’s something I’ve felt this year more than ever, just being by myself. Just feeling feelings very deeply with nothing to distract you. Really coming to terms with things and reflecting on who you are as a person. I lost my job, I got out of a relationship, but lockdown is the thing that’s taught me the most so far in my life. Just letting go, allowing things to happen and just accepting it. I feel like now, more than ever before, I have faith that things will turn out in the end.”
On a record so fraught with goodbyes it’s comforting to see Wolff’s found such room for growth. In letting go she’s gifted a record that could not only help others feel seen, it has the potential to aid us all in some small way, as we each weather our own personal shitstorms.
When You Left The Room is available now.