The singer-songwriter Katy Kirby was brought up in small-town Texas and learned to sing at church, where, in the mid-1990s, “Christian contemporary music” reigned. She has since detached from her faith, but something so engrained is difficult to leave behind. Her debut record, Cool Dry Place, doesn’t reference these facts directly, but it does expertly conjure a sense of existential tension.
At first, it might seem as though there is nothing tense at all about Kirby’s soft, folky sound, her triple-filtered-mineral-water voice and the record’s muffled, cassette-tape feel. The album opens with hazy strumming on a barely audible acoustic guitar and Kirby’s voice, which begins on an upwards arpeggio then quickly falls again: “I pray, I pray, for your eyelids.” The track – aptly named “Eyelids” – continues, slowly, quietly, fuzzily, with a bedroom-pop intimacy and the sort of resigned, meandering melodies that soothe the listener into letting out a long sigh.
Though Kirby returns to this sad, reflective mood later on the album, what happens next immediately distinguishes her music from generic melancholic folk-pop and introduces friction. “Juniper” is immediately sunnier and more up-tempo, opening with a fuller-textured guitar melody before Kirby sings, “You don’t need a gardener to know/Which way the blossom’s going to float,” in the same soft tone, but with more sharpness and energy in the delivery. The vocal melody and guitar imitate each other and intertwine as the song dances on, morphing into a bridge of harmonised vocals, the mood fluctuating slightly but the pace kept by the drums. Each verse slows rhythmically in its final line.
Kirby’s manipulation of rhythm marks her out as an exciting and sophisticated songwriter. Though she uses conventional structures and sunny melodies – that early Christian contemporary influence coming through, perhaps – she subverts them with curiosity and confidence. On the gently lilting “Peppermint” she accelerates through each stanza before stalling on the final syllables, slowly pulling back, like a catapult, to snap forward into propulsive motion again.
Standout “Traffic!” chugs along with finger-picked guitar, shaker and catchy waterfall melodies, then launches into the chorus with a sudden displacement, as the whole band falls into a highly syncopated rhythm over the lyrics, “High times, that’s right, red white, black and blue.” The melody echoes the album’s opening “I pray, I pray”; the rhythm does too, but has been pushed off-kilter by the syncopation. By repeating and tweaking these elements slightly, Kirby illustrates the ease with which comfortable emotions can slip into difficult ones. This is a song about frustration, jealousy and privilege: “Nobody has it better than you,” Kirby sings.
“Traffic!” also uses vocoder to distort Kirby’s previously intimate vocals, again playing with convention. On this middle section of the album, littered with faint brass, strings and vocal harmonies, Cool Dry Place evokes the spiky experimentation of Dirty Projectors or Tune-Yards more than the understated folk style of Big Thief.
The latter half of the album returns to a more introspective feel: “Secret Language”, is a slow, shy track that opens with a variation on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”: “I heard there was a secret chord/That David played/That David played.” And while the mood remains more guarded for the remainder of the record, there is always an edge: on “Portals”, Kirby disturbs the soft piano and cello with faint background sounds of metal-on-metal and breaking glass.
This album shows the makings of a strikingly original songwriter with the knack for a catchy tune and a sharp eye for the nuances of internal conflict. It is a mark of her talent that she holds it all in graceful balance.
[See also: Tracey Thorn on ghosts of gigs past]