(Photo by Bridgette Winten)
TECHNOLOGY FAILURES ARE INTERRUPTING Hannah McKittrick, but they are as nothing compared with her hacking cough and turgid chest – no, it’s not Covid – that keep crashing into and over her answers like clodhopping footballers on the dancefloor. Subtlety be damned. Which is more than unfair, because her second album The Day Has Again Bruised Me, shows McKittrick is at her best in ambiguity and the understated, with a powerful emotional after-effect.
Think of it musically as much David Sylvian as Sibylle Baier, the ghostly portents of cosmic folk crossing paths with pop that carries its aches just below the slow surface, delivered in a voice that insinuates and then lingers. Think of it lyrically as the after-effects of familial frankness and an open heart in equal measure and equal impact.
There is no way that you could put on The Day Has Again Bruised Me, and think you can just listen and then move on – the clue may be in the title – but yet she works in nuances, leaving open interpretations about individuals and their intent, which can be frustrating for people who want an answer and an explanation neatly provided rather than to be set adrift between states of being.
“I’m really drawn to elements in music they may be just elements in the world that are cloaked in mystery. I feel like as an anxious person I seek clarity almost possessively; in music I am drawn to things that I can’t tell exactly what that sound is,” McKittrick says. “When we were making the record, because there are a lot of electro/acoustic textures, Theo Carbo, who produced it, had a lot of ideas about making a synth kind of emerge from a piano sound and with all of the worlds smudge their distinctness into each other. I just love when things take their own time to reveal themselves.”
That “smudging” goes beyond the sounds of course, especially the further McKittrick goes into these multigenerational relationships. The nuances are partly because there is a question about what’s the right thing, who has done the right thing, when is the right time, and where are the faultlines in these relationships, amplified by that soundscape.
“It’s hard because the songs are so personal and I often feel like when I’m singing them to an audience that I’m just talking to them, because it’s from my own voice and I’m describing things that happened to me in the kind of detail that feels really personal,” she says. “But maybe it’s an act of encompassing that with some mystery so it feels like there’s room to interpret as someone would like to. I’m interested in that kind of opaquenes.”
While her debut album, 2018’s Slippery, is a work of minimalist classical and sometimes vigorous jazz-leaning compositions that belie her relative youth at the time, this new material isn’t entirely new territory for McKittrick. Both records let space spiral out, allowing for interpretation, while emotionally open-frame older songs such as Glacier and Theatre Of Gesture could be precursors to the new direction.
“I really love the structure of conventional song form, in that there are movements you go to, but I guess with Slippery I was studying patterns in Western art music and I was thinking about repetition and pattern. [The songs] were all led by that as the focus, as opposed to stories,” explains McKittrick. “To me that record I started reaching for things that would become my tastes, in terms of palette and texture, whereas this one I was led more by the emotion, which feels far more rewarding to me and honest. I can’t imagine I’ll write that way again, for a while.”
The connection between these two records can be discerned retrospectively, in a comment she made in 2018 that “Consciously, I am inspired by the expansiveness of the ocean, the liminality of time, the intimacy of gesture, the nuance in our reactions, the ambiguity of mood, the people I know and the people I don’t know.”
She could be talking about The Day Has Again ….
“I’m listening to that and thinking, that sounds like my press release for this one,” she concedes with a chuckle.
The starkest difference remains the way in these new songs the characters – if we want to erect some separation from what in truth is McKittrick, her family and friends – often are saying either ‘there’s a hole in my life, an emptiness’, or ‘I am repairing myself’. This may sound positive, for self-repair is perceived as a universal good. However, self-repair is always tricky territory, fraught with wider harm, creating potholes along the way for the people around as much is the person in the process of changing. Being alongside someone doing it is bloody hard too and we might all recognise that.
“That’s something that I think about, feeling myself change and observing the consequences that has on relationships that have known me for a long time, like family. It’s feeling in the dark for where things belong and I have quite a fractured family and it often feels like we are each on our islands and there is nothing to join us together; we are distinct pieces of land that have no real bridges,” says McKittrick.
“Of course, there is [a bridge], but since I have acquired a hint of skills in setting boundaries and that kind of thing I feel like that’s put me more on an island than I thought it would. I think a lot of the songs come from that place of being like I don’t want to change who I am at all because I feel healthy now, but I also don’t know how to relate to some of the things that I never used to question.”
McKittrick sings at one point “It hurts to love you through this”, and it could be being said by her and to her. It has such power because there is empathy and understanding but also a sense of I can’t continue along this path with you. There is a preparedness to be hurt and a recognition that there is a limit to that.
“I wasn’t thinking about this when I wrote that line, it came from a genuine and maybe even reactive place in me, but if there is an openness to it as you say, which I hope there is, I’m glad that it is difficult to say where that’s coming from.”
Balance that with a line from a different song, maybe/maybe not about a different relationship, where she sings “Your own suffering is a licence to hurt me”. Damn, people are difficult; relationships are tricky. Hannah McKittrick is unafraid to show both.
The Day Has Again Bruised Me is out now. https://hannahmckittrick.bandcamp.com/
If you're in Melbourne, you can see Hannah McKittrick at the Fitzroy Pinnacle on Sunday, January 15, from 3pm.