I got into Kathryn Williams fandom in a pretty strange way. As a blogger for Manchester Literature Festival, I was asked to cover her set at Halle St Peters when she was promoting her Sylvia Plath-inspired album Hypoxia. I said yes. I then realised I had double booked with a party at fellow Picky Bastard James Spearing’s house, so decided that I would make a gig sandwich with trips to the party as the two slices of bread. Bad idea. I drank so much that night that when I got home (somehow) I crawled into bed, woke my partner, told her that I was ‘just a foetus’ and ‘nobody loved me’ and then laughed until I passed out. I still don’t know what that was all about. But, anyway, I tell you this because I woke the next morning with barely any memories of the gig I had attended and a review to write. I went on a Kathryn Williams binge. Hungover as hell, I listened to albums, watched videos, and read reviews until vague recollections returned and I felt able to write.
Kathryn writes the perfect music for a day like that. Calm and measured, soft and gentle, but off-kilter enough to keep you interested and awake. She soothed me that day and I thank her for it. But the reason I’m talking about it in the context of that review is that, from that day of listening and the many times I have returned since, I felt like I had got Kathryn Williams’s music down to a tee. Acoustic. Largely based around the mellow power of her voice. Not many layers, but each instrument and vocal flourish produced to perfection. Almost the definition of modern folk.
And yes, some of that still exists and is central to Night Drives. But almost from the opening beats of this album you can tell that there is going to be a little bit more to the sound, that maybe we have a more experimental Kathryn at the wheel. The synths that hum under ‘Human’ produce an intense and brooding atmosphere that I’m not used to in her music. Second song ‘Answer In The Dark’ also feels more layered, heavier somehow – a meat to the guitars that take it away from her usual genre. But she sounds like she has belonged in these realms forever. And while ‘Chime Like A Bell’ takes us back to something that’s a bit more traditionally Kathryn, it’s followed by ‘Radioactive’ – one of the songs that most defines this musical evolution. There’s an eerie, transfixing feel to the song – the new layers being added slowly as we build to a big finish.
One of the most impressive things about the album as a whole is how it shows several sides of Kathryn as an artist and performer, yet also feels like a complete whole. ‘The Me For You’ suggests a softer side. ‘Night Drive To The Lake’ offers something a little darker, maybe even slightly sinister. Album highlight ‘Put The Needle On The Record’ shows an angrier side, but brings with it the grooviest tune I’ve ever heard from Kathryn. It’s a song that really demonstrates her ability to let go of constraints and create something that makes you want to move. ‘Magnets’ is perhaps the most thoughtful, philosophical song on the album – and also maybe the one that would fit most closely with her older work. And then we end with the rather gorgeous ‘I Am Rich In All That I’ve Lost’, a nostalgic and contemplative set of lyrics over uplifting instrumentation. A lovely way to round out the album.
Anyone coming to Kathryn Williams for the first time is unlikely to categorise Night Drives as experimental music. It isn’t. But it is an established genre artist pushing her own boundaries to create something rich, compelling, and new. Kathryn should be applauded for that. And on a personal note, after getting into Kathryn in such a strange way, this is the first full album that has lifted her above those memories to define her to me in a new way. It’s the most exciting and full rounded project she’s put out to date.
Words by Fran Slater