In the age of social media and ever-deeper explorations of identity politics, we remain fascinated by the performance of seeing and being seen. 'A woman is always accompanied,' John Berger wrote in 1972's seminal Ways of Seeing, 'except when quite alone, and perhaps even then, by her own image of herself.' Several decades later, we still value art that calls into question the power structures that rise and fall on a gaze. Most of all, we prize those artists who offer a mirror up to our own lives.
Following the critical success of her 2017 album There Are No Saints, Edinburgh songwriter Siobhan Wilson is ready to share her own reflections on new album The Departure. A poignant celebration of independence, it's a record that finds the artist asking questions about fragility and strength, whether addressing toxic masculinity or the divinity of nature.
The concept of making your own choices about identity specifically when it comes to young women carries across the length of The Departure. All Dressed Up Tonight (Better Than I Ever Did With You) addresses the subject of self-objectification and the way we might view ourselves through the eyes of other people. On April, the message that an individual's self-worth should come from within is made explicit: 'Be a model if you want. Reinvent whatever you want. Or be as simple as you want'
Siobhan Wilson is no stranger to constant reinvention: in the past two years alone, she's occupied her time studying for a masters degree, writing, and touring her previous album. 'Most of these new songs were made, written and recorded in trains, travelling, hotels, houses, different studios. Being on the D.I.Y indie-road, involves many cheap hotels and late nights but also countless mornings waking up in fresh new places and new faces with new ideas.' Her community of fans played a part, helping to crowdfund the recording process. 'Writing The Departure while on the move seemed extremely natural and fitting to this time period of my life.'
Wilson spent several years living in Paris earlier in her career, and the album sees the well-travelled musician extending her impressive repertoire of French covers, paying further tribute to her lifelong affinity with French culture. 'I knew the song Ne Dis Rien before I found out it was written by Gainsbourg,' she says, 'whose legendary musical career I respect very much, but whose attitude towards women I find very problematic. Barbara, on the other hand, in this song Dis Quand Reviendras Tu? is a symbol of romantic-goth-chanson that I tap in to when I can.'
Where previous work has tilted towards various shades of folk, neo-classical and experimental songwriting, The Departure signals towards something fiercer. Though her incredibly voice and ear for melody never leaves, the record is scattered with darker tones: from bass to percussion, the sparks that once flew on previous recordings have set alight, and the result is a something occasionally approaching a rock record.
First single Marry You is the perfect introduction to the record's more expansive sound as well as its passionate call for personal autonomy. Marry You was the first single Siobhan recorded with her new Baritone Gretsch, deployed to 'cover a deeper and darker range,' and hits the target on both counts, bringing an impressive full-band sound to her repertoire.
Unconquerable features a powerful vocal co-lead from Honeyblood, and an urgent guitar backing that evokes PJ Harvey at her best. It's also another lyrical odyssey that moves beyond the expectations placed upon women and towards the possibility of thriving in a space outside them. 'You're meant to be modest and humble,' they sing. 'Are we forever to tread the line between being human and being divine?'
Of course, it wouldn't be a Siobhan Wilson record without moments of breathtaking quietude. Reflections and Stars Are Nonzero see the artist show off her ability to weave magic with little more than finger-picked guitar and haunting vocals. The former is a tale that journeys through the sea, earth, and the prospect of returning to a home almost forgotten, it's a reminder that the multi-instrumentalist is capable of producing incandescent beauty from almost anything she lays her hands on.
At every juncture of the record, we are reminded that our choices are our own. Ultimately, Siobhan explains, it's about believing in the power of your own ideas. 'The meaning of April is to deflect society's influence of what you should be, and just be,' she says. 'Always growing, always learning. It's a middle finger at rape culture in particular, and being in control of your own choices. Society can sometimes be really mean on young women in very particular ways I wanted to make a song that's like a little bit of breathing space from that, to encourage to take charge of your own life and not feel led or misled too much by other's ideas.'
More than anything, it's a record that challenges the listener to ignore what the world expects of us, and find out how much we can achieve when liberated from those shackles. 'I burst out into green,' the artist sings on Little Hawk, 'I burst out cos I'm wilder and richer than you had foreseen.' Consider this an advance warning, then: Siobhan Wilson isn't waiting for anyone's validation or approval. She is bursting out.
Tour support comes from Kits. Kits noun, stylised KITS a small fur-bearing animal. KITS is the one-person techno-folk project of Jayson Turner, a computer scientist currently living in Glasgow via Manchester and Walney Island. KITS combines vocals, synths, and various bleepy boxes to create simple and meaningful songs ranging from the ecstatically positive to the devastatingly bleak. Fundamentally it's like LCD Soundsystem, but you can't dance to it.