WILLOW BEATS @ THE ROSEMOUNT, SATURDAY DECEMBER 12
I miss the bus stop and, staring desperately as the green machine hurtles on, soon find myself two kilometres up the road. Luckily the sun is already getting low and cooling off as I walk back. Past the servo, past M. Princi’s deli and butcher, past the park. I have some time to kill so I sit in a new Carribean-inspired café, chatting to the bushy-tailed proprietors. Like the establishment’s soon to be unveiled tapas menu, tonight’s music lineup is a spread of unknowns to me. Sometimes, before I even go to a show, I can make a good guess as to what I might write about it afterwards. Tonight’s not like that. I’ve heard little of Willow Beats’ music, haven’t caught Leon Osborn since forever; I’ve never heard Jamyang at all and have no idea what the DJs will spin in this context. But surprise – according to Russian novelist Boris Pasternak – is “the greatest gift life can give us.” So I finish my coffee, flit over the street and begin to unwrap my night-shaped gift.
DJ ANDREW SINCLAR enters the dark, glowing room with DJ GEORGE CAPELAS on his tail. Sinco gets the zone feeling nice and breezy with some slow-growing poolside slabs, before Capelas joins the party and together they up the dynamism. Overall, it’s a mellow and moody set of new and obscure wax-nuggets that leads into the night’s first live set.
Said set comes from JAMYANG (pronounced jum-yung if I understand correctly), which comprises a singer/songwriter/producer named Jamyang but also a live band known as Jamyang (if I understand correctly). Jamyang’s recent ‘Perisher’ EP is (I’ve since discovered) a really impressive piece of work, weaving organic sounding, synth-heavy arrangements together with jazzy rnb/pop songwriting and EDM-informed production. In the live setting, these qualities are very much present but – perhaps inevitably for an early-career live act – less convincing and cohesive. There’s a sort of aural dichotomy between live acoustic and digital sounds, and at various intervals the production values that give the EP its cohesion make way for a strangely exposed-feeling, conservatorium-pop kind of sound. This isn’t to say the set is without its sonic flair or charms; on the contrary, we’re clearly encountering talented players who are keen to engage with adventurous strategies for live performance. There are electronics in the drum kit setup and a talkbox (!) by the keys; when everything gels, it’s a sweet blend. More experience and attention to that coherence will see Jamyang flourish. Meanwhile it must be said: I’m not sure about two Drake covers and twoJustin Bieber covers, all in one set of ostensibly original material. But heck, the crowd seem to like hearing these familiar tunes and cry for an encore – so what do I know?
Over to DJ SPRESSO MARTINEZ (aka Catlips aka Katie Campbell). The prolific and prodigious producer here massages the airwaves with her selection of low-key tropical groovescaping and pared-back, dark-hued house. As icy cool as the blue-white canopy of fairy lights glinting above us. This leads us to LEON OSBORN who takes up the torch of left-field production and artful, often understated beats. He looks a bit lonely all by himself on the big Rosemount stage with only a laptop and APC for company, but there’s no denying the gregariousness of his sparkling sound explorations which come to kiss the cheek of everyone in the room. If you haven’t, please go and listen to his single ‘You Were Gone (feat Barksdale)’ b/w ‘The Map & The Territory.’ Big tunes. Another ear-pleasing accomplishment for Leon Osborn has been remixing WILLOW BEATS’ much-loved single ‘Merewif’; last October, he gave the duo’s futuristic sea-shanty a glitchy do-over with steamy synths and busy post-dubstep percussion. As such, he’s a natural choice of support for the Willowy ones, who emerge now with a cheery, but somehow ethereal presence.
On paper, Willow Beats might appear to be a pretty stock-standard triple J hype band. A fashionable young feller behind a laptop peddling synthetic beat music and a fashionable young lady singing serenely over the top. Look/listen more closely and they’re actually a lot more intriguing than many of their cookie-cutter counterparts, and I’m not only referring to their interesting backstory (Kalyani is actually Narayana’s niece, despite the apparent age similarity; they were raised in a Hare Krishna community; Narayana’s dad, Wally Johnson, wrote ‘Home Among the Gum Trees.’) Their music expands on the intricate yet sparse, song-driven yet dance-oriented model popularized by the likes of James Blake, Mount Kimbie and Flume. Rather than adopt an increasingly omnivorous approach to borrowing from dance genre tropes, Willow Beats look to more pastoral and literary inspiration. Water sounds, nature imagery, the fantastical world of JJR Tolkein and folky interludes all play a part in constructing the duo’s quietly unique sound. Live, they’re unpretentious while remaining conscious that they’re entertainers – there’s a healthy dose of attention paid to dancing, staging and costuming that’s often missing from live electronic pop in my experience. Certain moments see both musicians triggering beat elements; others see Narayana tweaking effects that shift Kalyani’s vocals to an uncanny low pitch; the slow-burn, romantic ‘Blue’ features Narayana taking to the mic, with an endearingly earnest, straightforward delivery. Of course, as far as vocals go, Kalyani is literally and figuratively centre-stage and I haven’t heard such an excellent live singer in a long time (in any genre or context). She doesn’t just boast a pleasant tone, good-pitching and phrasing – there’s a ruthless attention to detail and an apparent investment in the narrative of every song and line that elevates the songs beyond their surface appeal. It’s crucial: you can’t sound half-assed when you’re singing lines like “carve satin markings on my yellow flesh / violet petals flower in the mesh / the moon cocoons a fragile fetus in her swollen cave / wrap me in your gauzy haze.”
Amid the evocative esotericism, there’s room for bona fide bangers, like the hefty ‘Cog Goblin’ and the pulsing ‘Alchemy.’ With the crowd adrenalized and surging, they ride the wave of ‘Merewif’ out – the upbeat, sinister siren-song soaking the room in salty pos vibes. Willow Beats have an energized, open-minded creative vision and the technical talents to see it through. It’s exciting to think what will happen when they begin to augment their palette further and expand their aesthetic/lyrical world. Australia might have its first fantasy-electronica superstars on its hands.