Hatching Under the Stars
Clara Engel’s new album, Hatching Under the Stars, is a hot, hazy, and lazy summer night. It’s sitting on the back balcony of your flat at 2am, wine glass in hand, your patio lights strung up above you. The neighbours are all asleep, and you are the last person in the world. This is an album for intimate settings, and it is best listened to on your headphones. Engel creates this sonic landscape that is sparse and warm, forbidding and welcoming. They draw you in with the music, the empty spaces between beats and the chords of their guitar.
Engel is a prolific artist, this is their 31st release on their Bandcamp page, a range of releases from single songs to longer albums. And in their long career, the first release dates back to 2004, they have collaborated with the likes of Armen Ra, Siavish Amini, and Aidan Baker. They have been played on the BBC, and they tour a lot. In fact, they had to cancel a Midwestern jaunt due to Covid-19.
Their music is based in folk and the blues, and each track finds them rooted there, but they are not afraid of filling out the spaces, be it a some electric guitar, or a Celtic harp, or lap steel guitar, bass, glockenspiel, clarinet, etc. But only to a point, as there is a limit they are not willing to exceed, the music remains sparse.
‘To Keep the Ghost At Bay’ beings with a gentle guitar pick, all dreamy, and then Engel sings
I’ve been trying to be brave
To keep the ghost at bay
I tried to feed you, starve you, sing for you
Locked you out on the coldest night
But here you are again
Hollow eye sockets filling with light.
And suddenly, you are reminded that Leonard Cohen has departed us. And you realize that no one, not even Nick Cave or Mark Lanegan, can write a song like that. Only Clara Engel. Their voice is only slightly timorous, reflecting the attempt to be brave, because they are strength itself in confronting the ghost.
The gentle electric guitar that opens ‘Oiseau Rebelle,’ gives them space to sing/chant about the passing of time and personal growth: ‘Can a songbird/Ever change/its tune?’ The ambient guitar floating above Engels’ guitar and the drums creates this almost spooky, spectral feel. This might be my favourite track on the album.
‘Old Feathered Devil’ also begins with a gently plucked electric guitar, slowly opening to Engels’ vocal:
Time is putty in your grizzled claw
Old feathered devil, you are
You’ve been kind to me before
So throw me a good scrap
I’m a hungry wolf
Let me out of this cage
Let me run around the glowing lake
Until the morning comes
And I’ll be on my way.
The song is constructed around that plucked guitar, centred on the riff, but Paul Kolinski’s tom drum creates a beat, and Lys Guillorn provides some beautiful lap steel.
Album closer ‘The Indifference of Fire’ is a masterpiece, and a fitting end for this beautiful and powerful album. Built around a sparsely plucked guitar, the song slowly builds up with a synth line under their guitar, as Engel sings us a lullaby. This is the longest track on the album, over eight minutes, as they gently see us get up off our chair on our balcony, pick up our wine glass, and head to the door, where we step through it, and turn off the string lights outside, and go to put our wine glass in the sink, and make our way to the bathroom for our nightly ablutions before heading off to bed.
This is a stunning album. And Engels evokes any number of influences I can hear from Nick Cave to Leonard Cohen to Daniel Lanois to Sarah McLachlan to Feist to Broken Social Scene. And yet, their voice is singular.
They also have a Patreon page, where you can support them in their musical endeavours.