Lydia Cole is a little wisp of a woman, with a little wispy voice. At a recent intimate performance at Simon Burt's Cannon Heath House Concert, she showcased her considerable songwriting skills with compositions that verged toward the soporific before fading away entirely. But rather than relying on the kind of catchy, hypnotic hooks exemplified by Beth Orton, she also had the grace to make a joke about it. The itinerant Kiwi troubadour was joined by partner and bandmate Timothy Armstrong, who added some muted electronic echoes reminiscent of John Martyn and suggesting an extra dimension that could be productively developed. As a self-described “sensitive” singer-songwriter working from a template first molded by the inimitable Joni Mitchell, she still has the advantage of youth and charm on her side. Those of us with a little more mileage on our odometers, however, know all too well that this is a fast-fading commodity and might advise her to explore some funky, fast tempo songs with a more acerbic bite in their lyrics. While lacking the power and range of Mitchell's vibrant contralto, Cole mines a similar vein of deeply personal songwriting demonstrating an uncanny ability to produce finely wrought word scapes that convey a depth of wisdom, maturity, and experience far beyond her years.
After being nominated for a Silver Scroll, the Auckland folk musician has returned to Aotearoa to play songs from her critically acclaimed 2017 album The Lay Of The Land, alongside a selection of new material and more familiar favourites. She returns to New Zealand not only laden with new songs, but also a new outlook on life and some new instruments on board. While still built around her spaciously soft acoustic guitar, The Lay Of The Land introduced a welcome expansion into synths and electric guitar. “After Me & Moon [her 2012 debut album] and touring that, I just really felt I needed something new,” Cole explained to Greta Yeoman in an interview for NZ Musician. On The Lay Of The Land, Cole played three tunes on acoustic guitar, two on piano, and three on electric guitar. Although the move from playing acoustic guitar to an electric “felt different,” she still writes what is essentially folk music - “not a groundbreaking genre shift,” as she herself acknowledged. She wrote Time Is A Healer on a nylon-stringed guitar and its traditional simplicity meant that longtime producer Nic Manders could play around with it, adding drums, piano, synth, and even a backwards electric guitar solo from Cole. “I feel quite proud of that,” she admitted. The pair have worked together on all of Cole’s records, including her previous EPs Twenty Years and Love Will Find A Way, but it was the first time they had recorded in Manders’ home studio.
While Love Will Find A Way and Me & Moon were both recorded at Auckland’s Roundhead Studios (the first funded by a grant from NZ on Air and the latter paid for her by former management), Cole’s newly self-managed career and limited funds demanded a tight budget. Which is why, almost five years after her last release, Cole put out a call to crowdfund the album via Kickstarter and raised over $15,000 in a campaign that had originally aimed for $10,000. Cole says its success gave her the confidence to book three Australian shows and schedule the current New Zealand tour, having been busy touring Europe over the past couple of years - “I’ve actually been up to what has felt like quite a lot. In the first year I got to play shows in Spain, Netherlands, Denmark and Germany. I also got a cafe job which only lasted about six weeks. Then in the second year I got to Belgium, Switzerland, Ireland, the UK and more of Germany and Spain.”
“Through 2015 and 2016 I went through a couple of deep and quiet struggles in different areas of the New Zealand industry which showed me an uglier side to a community I’d always been so trusting of. As well as that, I did want to stretch myself a bit. I’ve always been aware that New Zealand is in some ways a paradise and felt grateful for that. At the same time I’ve known that millions of people in the world have such a different experience of life and I wanted to get my head around that in a way that I don’t think is possible while living on an island that is so out-on-a-limb that many world maps forget it.”
“Since arriving in Berlin I’ve been playing shows as a duo with Tim. He’s a real gadget person so he’s really enjoyed researching, buying, and arranging pedals, keyboards, and synths to create the most compact set-up that can produce the best bed of sound for my songs. I stick to the guitars and he flits between electric guitar and keys/synths. At venues where we score an upright piano then I happily tinkle there for a couple of songs. We’ll be playing songs that we’ve been touring since 2017, as well as my new single The Sacred and a handful of other fresh ones.”
Living abroad has given Cole a broader perspective not only on her compositions, but also the global music industry, providing an outside look at Kiwi culture - “I think being here has really drilled home my understanding that there are simply so, so many good musicians and artists in the world. There are tons of them. It’s insane. A lot of them are doing well making a living, but most aren’t, and maybe never will. I’ve realised that I may never break into any 'next level'. I’m beginning to accept it too and just focus on making good things - and caring for myself, others, and the planet.”
In a recent RNZ interview with Kirsten Johnstone, the thirty-two year-old Cole, who had never even been to Europe before moving to Berlin, described the move as quite a culture shock -"I would get so uptight just going to the supermarket, like - 'what if the person scanning my groceries says something to me? I will have no idea what they're talking about' ... Survival there still feels quite hard for me. It's gotten easier over time, but that's my reality." A renewed reconnection with the visual arts was one reason Cole uprooted her life in Auckland, after seeing several Kiwi friends manage to make a living in Germany. People had been asking her for years when she was going to move to LA, Melbourne, or London, and she finally decided to transport her life to a new city where she could pursue visual art and also hit the streets busking in a city where “it is encouraged and … respected.”
She went on to explain how this led to her writing The Sacred - "In the first year, I felt so cloudy in my mind, and in a more depressed state. I didn't even feel like I could write, in my journal, or music or anything - and part of me didn't want to capture that feeling. I was just kind of holding my breath, hoping to come out the other side, and start to feel that there was colour in the world again. To feel like myself and that maybe I wouldn't feel so uptight."
Cole became more comfortable by the Summer of 2018, when she and the soft-spoken Armstrong started touring Europe, and she found herself able to write about that difficult period of adaptation - "I do believe that every feeling and every phase is important and that in the future I'll look back and be really glad that I captured that feeling. I wrote The Sacred as Autumn had really taken its hold, and it was starting to get quite cold, and the days were getting very grey and heavy. I wrote it in the kitchen, looking out the window to the trees shedding their leaves. It's been funny rehearsing this song in the last few weeks, it requires a lot of breath. And I didn't notice that when I wrote it, I was just kind of calling out, crying out. And now I'm home, it's summer, I've got all my friends and family around me, and I'm not in that same difficult place where I'm calling out - which I'm grateful for."
Cole is returning to Europe for more shows throughout the rest of the year - “Less than a week after our tour of NZ and Melbourne we’ll be getting on a train from Berlin to the Netherlands to do a string of shows there. Then at some point this year a special EP will be released that I co-wrote with British songwriter Hailey Beavis in 2018. We were both lucky enough to have been invited to collaborate for a project called Among Horses. It’s a co-writing project run by a great little Barcelona-based label called Son Canciones. Our EP will be the fourth Among Horses release - six other artists have already been involved and had EPs released. Last year it was Haley Heynderickx and Max Garcia Conover - brilliant stuff. The whole project takes place on a Catalonian farm up in the hills where retired horses laze about happily and a scraggly gang of dogs beg for attention. We spent three days writing five songs, and then another three days recording. On the last day we recorded in a tiny thousand-year-old chapel made of stone. It was a very, very special experience.”
On the remaining run of her New Zealand shows, Cole will be accompanied by Armstrong, Manders, and Tobeck, with Jol Mulholland playing keyboards and synths and Luke Oram on guitar. She will be supported by California indie-folk songsmith Mimi Gilbert and joined for one Auckland date by her brother Laban.
Sunday, 3/3 - Newtown Festival, Wellington
Tuesday, 5/3 - Meow, Wellington
Saturday 9/3 - Kumeu Live, Auckland
Sunday 10/3 - Edge Kingsland, Auckland (w/ Laban Cole)