An artist harder to define, and more brilliant, than you might imagine.
Chris Parkin 2013-01-09
Serafina Steer plays a harp and sings in a dew-fresh style that lends itself well to storytelling. Cue regular comparisons, then, to any and all women who play music that rightly or wrongly (mostly wrongly) is defined as quirky folk pop, such as Beth Jeans Houghton or, as always happens with harp pluckers, Joanna Newsom.
Forget them all, though. She goes her own way, does Steer.
Steer’s 2010 album Change is Good, Change is Good didn’t reach anything like enough ears, but it did get those in the know excited. Including a certain Jarvis Cocker.
So bewitched was Cocker by a sound that was part faeries-in-the-city psychedelic singer-songwriting and part library music electronica – a result of her harp being nicked – that he agreed to produce this third album.
Steer’s other wingmen here include Capitol K, Pulp’s Steve Mackey and, excitingly for anyone fond of mad-as-a-hatter pop, The Flying Lizards’ David Cunningham. Really though, we’re just namedropping, because Steer still sounds like the singular – nay, peculiar – talent she always has, only bigger and fuller.
Things remain pared back, but an ambition nurtured by classical training keeps things interesting. There’s the pulsing, Philip Glass-goes-antifolk of Lady Fortune; a spooky, organ-led psychedelic anthem to breaking up (The Removal Man); and an indie-disco Saint Etienne by way of Cecil Sharp House (Disco Compilation).
Elsewhere, a denouncement of trendy Brick Lane with notes of gospel (Ballad of Brick Lane), and cosmic guitar picking (Alien Invasion).
And as for that laydee-folk tag, perhaps Anne Briggs is an influence, if only because Steer’s voice is so nakedly itself. And there is a flash of Jackson C Frank’s My Name is Carnival in spartan opener, Night Before Mutiny.
But there’s nothing else mossy about this. In fact, like the droll yet odd tales weaved by David Thomas Broughton, Steer sings deliciously barbed songs about the city – and, you know, space abduction, skinny-dipping, that sort of thing.
Steer asks for too much when she wants to be aligned with Alice Coltrane instead of “this folky-girly-pigeonhole-harp-thing”. But she is harder to define (and more brilliant) than you might imagine.