LIKE HER SINGING STYLE, which is unadorned and not seeking perfection but simultaneously captivating and attractive without obvious flaws, Natalie Jane Hill’s songs hold themselves both within and outside of a natural world.
Her metaphors are drawn from nature, her allusions cerebral; even as plants and flowers dot the landscape of her lyrics, a song from her recently released second album, Solely, called Plants And Flowers That Do Not Grow Here seems to capture a dissociative state where it’s not clear whether this is someone who has let go of control or who has no control.
She only semi-jokingly refers to her years living in Alabama and North Carolina – having grown up in Austin, Texas – with a wistful memory of “It’s just nice to be in a place that has actual seasons”, but there’s nothing but seriousness in the subtext of addiction and the need for roots to hold you when seasons and time and relationships beyond the next fix lose their shape.
“[Plants And Flowers That Do Not Grow Here] is about losing a part of yourself and trying to find something that is tangible and that you can hold on to that can help you figure out yourself again,” says Hill, who has resettled in Austin where she recorded two albums in less than two years of Covid time. “It starts with having a sort of out of body experience and sort of questioning what’s real and what’s not in this fog. Since I do write a lot about the natural world and plants as metaphors, what I do know is that the plants and flowers in my area, I pinpoint certain feelings and memories to those things.”
Wherever she’s been, Texas is always home, and the environment has always played a significant role in her writing and in her thinking.
“I sort of grew up in places that I always have the option to be in nature. I was never in a lot of big cities; it was always small towns and there was easy access to parks or maybe we would live on a piece of land,” Hill says. “I think it’s what I’m used to, especially once I started travelling and experiencing more of the world, it was easier to make that realisation that this is what I’m supposed to be writing about. Or this is what I was supposed to be entwining into my own poetry, I guess.”
One thing that can be said about folk music is that, probably more than country and blues, it connects with this natural environment. The language is more likely to turn to seasons and the impact of nature on our lives, and the metaphors of nature seep into the poetry.
“I don’t know what it is about folk music that there is this cohesiveness, this organic naturalness to it in some way. I think there is something joining the two and I think about listening to Karen Dalton and her lyrics and when I first heard her how it was like ‘oh wow, this is what I am trying to sing about’. It’s cool that there is such a connection.”
Dalton, a contemporary of Dylan, Judy Collins and Dave Von Ronk in the early ‘60s Greenwich Village folk scene, an interpreter and re-teller who recorded very little over a 20 year career but stands alongside the likes of Sister Odetta as foundation stones of modern folk, is never an idle example.
There’s something quite raw and untamed in her, as if all the layers have been stripped back both lyrically and vocally, the kind of things that a sensible person would keep to protect themselves. Was that ever an issue for Hill?
“Yeah. And is still something that I feel that I’m struggling with,” she says. “It’s like I’ll write a song, maybe put it out there, and afterwards be like, why did I do that? I’ll be rethinking the whole thing: that was too vulnerable. I’m learning, the more I write, to accept that vulnerability and that that’s not going anywhere for me.
“For me, I don’t have the full band backing me up or other attention or focus; it’s all on you. I think that people pay more attention to the words, which is good, I want that, but it’s also intimidating.”
Another thing Hill has in common with Dalton is that it’s not even the words, is beautiful as they often are: the exposure comes in tone and notes. This is a voice that betrays all feelings.
“I get told that a lot, as far as the emotion that comes out of my voice. I think it’s just another instrument for me and I feel more confident with my voice then guitar. Being able to show that same emotion, if not more, into singing, can be really powerful. I grew up singing my whole life and the something so intimate about it, but also I feel like I can listen to a beautiful instrumental piece and still feel that same emotion without the words.”
Instrumentally, but not emotionally, Hill’s language has changed since the guitar/voice debut that was 2020’s Azalea. On Solely, produced by fellow Texan, Jason Chronis, you’ll find vibraphone, autoharp, pedal steel, cello, piano, Wurlitzer. It is not short of instrumentation and yet it seems more spacious than the intense closeness of Azalea.
With Azalea her plan was to introduce herself with an intimate record of just voice and guitar, “and a piano here and there”, to showcase lyrics. With the new record she knew she wanted more instruments but didn’t want to give up the solo side, so choosing instruments that were more “fluid”, that filled in gaps rather than took centre stage, was important.
“Pedal steel was the first instrument I wanted to be on the record, and then cello. And after the first song we recorded with pedal steel and cello I was so excited because I hadn’t heard my music with other sounds before,” says Hill. “The whole time I never wanted that to take away from my part in it and Jason understood.”
She also discovered that metronomic is not her middle name.
“I learnt through this that the way I’m playing [guitar] is following my singing rather than a steady beat,” Hill says ruefully. “There are some things we really couldn’t do unless we rerecorded the guitar. We wanted to add percussion to a song and we had a drummer come to the studio and he tried to play along with the guitar and he said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this’. That’s just how I play.”
It’s worth noting that there are percussion credits, but no drum credits on the album: colour and rhythm rather than anchoring beats.
“That was deftly something that I had to figure out. There are a couple of songs that in my head I thought would sound cool with a drum kit, and very different from what I’m used to. But very quickly Jason and I realised that that wasn’t meant for this album. The light percussion that we do have still has an acoustic sound to it that works, and I’m glad that we stayed on that route.”
There’s something about this which brings us back to folk music’s connection to nature, a place which we are told does not work in straight lines and steady tempos and neat arrangements.
“I have a love for recordings that still have this rawness to them. With this record, maybe I be the only one who would notice it, there’s some background stuff and some creaks and guitar stuff, but I kinda wanted to keep that in there because it felt more real to me.”
More real. Natural.
Solely is out now through Dear Life Records.