Portishead’s Beth Gibbons New Album Exclusive: “It’s a psychedelic, pastoral, soft explosion.”

Portishead singer Beth Gibbons’ first album of new material for 22 years is out in May.

Beth Gibbons on stage 2017

by Ian Harrison |
Published on

THE LAST RECORD Portishead singer Beth Gibbons released was 2019’s Henryk Górecki: Symphony No. 3, which she sang with The Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in Warsaw in 2014. Unknown to all, that year she’d also begun work on a new solo record. That LP, titled Lives Outgrown, is released in May.

Her creative foil this time is ex-Talk Talk drummer Lee Harris. She first worked with him in 1994 with .O.Rang, the group he formed with fellow ex-Talk Talk man Paul Webb. It was Webb who produced 2002’s much-admired Beth Gibbons & Rustin Man album Out Of Season.

“First, we just got together to start looking for sounds,” Harris tells MOJO. “Beth had a few things, but it was all too normal. We had to look for a way that she could feel natural and comfortable. We went through loads of stages, gradually building up our palette. When we found that, that’s when we actually started writing tracks.”

Anything familiar was out, he says, with an ineffable organic beyondness of sound the objective. Consequently, they used a cardboard box full of curtains as a bass drum, sought out the most ancient, dullest guitar strings, and played piano strings with spoons. This exploratory approach complemented a sporadic working pattern where Harris went down to Gibbons’ barn set-up in Devon, and later State Of Art studios in Bristol. After four “bitty” years, says Harris, they had 10 stylistically varied tracks with what he calls, “a similar vibe, like a psychedelic, pastoral, soft explosion.”

Pre-lockdown, Gibbons’ label Domino contacted James Ford, producer of Blur, Depeche Mode, Arctic Monkeys and more.

“They said, ‘They need some help to get over the line,’” says Ford. “It was all pretty kind of deep and dark and pagan – mainly acoustic guitar and her voice, and these sort of quiet, polyrhythmic drums. Some of it was quite well formed, and some of it was pretty loose.”

Completed in Bristol and London over the next two years, and with Ford contributing musically, the finished, synth-free album includes contemporary classical string arrangements, violin by Kate Bush’s nephew Raven and myriad acoustic textures, including a Chinese bass ruan, hammered dulcimer and layered woodwind. Vaporous lead track Floating On A Moment features Gibbons’ kids on backing vocals.

“Floating On A Moment is probably one of the cheerier ones,” says Ford, who says they didn’t talk about Portishead except in passing. “It kind of goes bleaker from there. It’s related to real stuff and it’s from a real place, to the point where it’s almost painful to listen to sometimes. But there’s a beauty in the sadness.”

“My fifties have brought for ward a new, yet older, horizon,” said Gibbons in a statement. “It has been a time of farewells to family, friends and even to who I was before, the lyrics mirroring my anxieties and sleepless nighttime ruminations… I wanted to draw away from breakbeats and snares, focusing on the woody fabric of timbres, away from the sugary addiction of high frequencies.”

Other songs may be called Blue, Reach and Burden Of Life. At the time of writing, Gibbons was rehearsing to play them live. Due to Harris’s back problem, Ford is on drums. “I went down for a few rehearsals just before Christmas,” says Harris. “It’s sounding good!” He’s also looking for ward to more music, with three tracks awaiting completion. “Beth was quite keen to book a studio a few months ago,” he says. “So there is a possibility of another album.”

Harris adds that her voice is a different instrument these days. “On this album she’s really explored more of her lower tones,” he says. “She hasn’t really used all her range before, and there are no ‘character’ voices. It’s definitely richer and more stripped down to just her, you know? She was afraid of going there before… now, it feels like she’s landed.”

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