Having finally finished the MA essays that have pretty much been my life over the last couple of weeks, I wanted to get some thoughts down about a show I went to last week: Josephine Foster at the Norwich Arts Centre.
First up was Mat Riviere in support. He opened with a kind of performance art piece: a choral loop, over which he read a poem from his smartphone. Then he launched into a set which combined some pretty catchy songs with bursts of noise and extended bits of drone and experimentation. It reminded me at points of The Microphones, and some of the noisier stuff by Atlas Sound. Those interested in contemporary poetry might know his brother, Sam Riviere, whose most recent book, Kim Kardashian’s Marriage, came out with Faber a couple of years ago. I was chatting to one of my professors in the interval who noted that Mat’s music and Sam’s poetry share a certain tone and feel. My favourite number had the central lyric: “I was born in this house; there’s a black X across my mouth.”
Next up was Foster herself. She slowly wandered onto stage, meandering towards the microphone. The set-up was simple: just her and a powder-blue electric guitar. Her silhouette was picked out by soft, orange lamps that recalled torchlight, giving the whole room a smoky, intimate feel. And this carried through to the music, which, like her recent album No More Lamps in the Morning, reimagined many of her older songs in a slower, hazier style, stripped back to their basic elements, stretched and warped like taffy looping in a taffy machine.
It was her first time in Norwich; she was a little confused why we don’t pronounce the ‘w’. As a recent arrival in the city myself, I couldn’t help wonder what she’d make of Costessey (pronounced “Cossy”) and Wymondham (pronounced “Windum”). People in Norfolk seem to have a habit of leaving the middle syllables out of words. It was also my first time at the Norwich Arts Centre, which is a charming little venue in an old church, complete with interactive art exhibits in the foyer. It’s been around for decades, and has had quite a few big names play there over the years.
Foster opened with ‘Waterfall’, a personal favourite from Blood Rushing. But whereas the take on the original album is a sprightly, bouncing thing, backed with close harmonies and springing noises, the live version was hushed and brittle. I was hit straight away by that voice. Of course I’ve heard it on record before, but to hear it live is something else. There’s a grain to it, a character, which just draws you in, magnetically. I felt like a sailor being drawn to the rocks by the sirens. You never quite know where it’s going to go; even on the songs I was familiar with, I found it travelled in unexpected directions, twisting words elastically up and down. It’s as though the songs are there to be reinterpreted every night, played and toyed with.
The whole evening, Foster kept things on the soft side. Whereas on record she’ll sometimes let loose with her voice and her guitar-playing (something like ‘Fertile’, say), everything on Thursday was kept very subdued. Nothing broke the spell, the silvery web she gradually wove over the best part of an hour. Perhaps this could have resulted in a slightly monotonous set, but at no point was I anything other than enraptured, captured by each unfolding moment. ‘A Thimbleful of Milk’ was particularly gorgeous, with that wordless cooing chorus. And she saved the best till last. The ballad ‘Magenta’, which she introduced as ‘a love song’, was utterly engrossing. And then ‘I’m a Dreamer’, in which she finally broke out the harmonica that had been hanging around her neck for half the set.
The show gave me more of an appreciation for No More Lamps, which takes a similar approach to old songs from throughout her now rather extensive catalogue, slowing them down, stretching them out into new shapes, keeping everything soft and smoky. If you fancy getting a taste of what the evening was like, I highly recommend checking that record out.