Tirzah’s New Album Draws You In Past The Point Of Comfort
The UK experimental pop act's upcoming Colourgrade applies their knack for eerie intimacy to motherhood and much more
Colorgrading is the technical editing term for the process of bringing an image closer to life: saturating shadows, illuminating an object’s glow, heightening contrast, deepening the colors that a camera would miss without digital amplification. Colourgrade, Tirzah’s new album scheduled for release at the top of next month, speaks to the rich emotions and deep hues of a life fully lived. It’s a bold step into the experimental realm, intentionally more avant-garde and darker than her previous releases.
When I talk with Tirzah Mastin over Zoom from her home in London, the room is softly lit. Tirzah’s curls are matted on her pale pink shirt, her phone camera lighting her face from below. I can hear the crackle of a baby monitor murmuring from off-screen. Occasionally, something rumbles from the walkie-talkie and we pause our interview, anticipating a longer interruption from the newborn sleeping in the other room, but it never comes. Tirzah is a little sleep-deprived but exceedingly kind, offering a generous gap-toothed smile to almost anything I say and bubbly, circular explanations for the creative decisions behind her forthcoming album. She assures me, “We can talk for however long we need, I promise I have nowhere to be.”
Every turn in our conversation is punctuated by Tirzah’s easy laugh. I hadn’t been expecting such a lighthearted interview, or the easy feeling of calling a friend, because it contrasted so sharply with Colourgrade‘s shadowy tone. Unlike Tirzah herself, Colourgrade is a remarkably serious album — at once disarmingly intimate and eerie, human voices harmonizing with robotic ones. It explores themes of love, community and motherhood in unexpected ways. It has a sense of gravity.
Love and community are common subjects in most genres, but the maternal reflections on Colourgrade have drawn such attention because familial themes, especially motherhood, are so rarely expressed in techno or other forms of club music. Electronic music comes from a social scene that’s not especially family-friendly: nocturnal young people convening in loud and dark clubs, under the influence, subverting our day-to-day social relations and expectations. But on Colourgrade, it belongs here, bringing a deeply felt tenderness to the sometimes-alienating distortion.
Motherhood is an essential part of the new album but decidedly not its singular focus. That the album was written and recorded between having her first and second child is circumstantial, but Tirzah’s artistic sensibilities have not shifted in the way you’d expect. She shrugs, “Your life changes — but it always does.” In the project’s press release, she says it’s inspired by “a type of love that is shared between a mother and a child for the first time, whilst simultaneously working as an artist.” Even so, Colourgrade balances the profound experiences of motherhood with the mundane. She recounts the difference through an exchange she had with her friend and art director Leah Walker: “The album artwork started to represent the spiritual side of motherhood, with the everyday reality, when I was just at home with the bubbas washing and changing diapers.”
This album steps away from the comparatively playful, pop-inspired club beats that were the foundation of Tirzah’s 2018 debut, Devotion, towards darker, more experimental boundaries. Throughout Colourgrade, Tirzah and Coby Sey — the group’s new third member alongside Tirzah and the acclaimed film composer Mica Levi — bring their voices lower, sometimes audibly distorted, sometimes remarkably unfiltered, quivering with each note. On “Crepuscular Rays,” which Tirzah says is the defining cornerstone of the album’s structure, sound seems to ooze out from a tube, every imperfection heightened in its abstraction.
Devotion came together in less than a year because many of the tracks had been accumulating “over 10 years worth of playing together, and hanging out.” The abundance of material made the album a curatorial process rather than a production-oriented one, but because there was so much to choose from, Tirzah felt that “each song had to be 100% standalone.” She feels now that it gave the album a “theatrical” effect, something polished and dramatic. On the contrary, Colourgrade was written all at once, recorded in the year after touring Devotion. “It was a buildup of diary entries, and dictated as a whole piece, as opposed to picking individual songs,” she says. The sound is coherent throughout, a “subconscious snapshot” of recovery, gratitude, and new beginnings. It’s a concept album at its best, made between three friends.
Exactly what the concept is, Tirzah doesn’t articulate. She says, like any magnanimous artist hesitant to intellectualize their own work would, “I love how I can make something and people interpret it in totally different ways.” To me, Colourgrade is about the borders of our bodies, touch that you can feel but can’t replicate in movies, photos, writing, or even memory. “The body became quite important visually,” Tirzah says. “Going through pregnancy and birth and motherhood, the anatomy found its way into all of the songs.” The album gives a sense of limbs entangled, corporeal and material; its accompanying music videos invoke guttural and visceral feelings of your own body, just as Tirzah intended.
In the one for “Tectonic,” the viewer travels through a digitally rendered ear canal, around the creases of limbs, amongst bodies resting together. It’s a world of soft limbs in pale whites, deep browns, and eerily digitized sleeping people, their faces a serene assortment of pixels rendered almost real. In “Sink In,” a couple dances tango in the water, a spotlight illuminating the dynamic interaction of their bodies. In “Send Me,” movement artist ãssia clutches Tirzah next to a moving train, their faces pressed together, rocking back and forth as one. Throughout the album, there’s a sense of bodies coming together in elegant and sometimes unsettling ways.
These unnerving sensations are why Colourgrade itself is not always an easy listen, fluctuating between disorientation and serenity. It also feels like a natural progression of Tirzah’s work, away from the underground pop hits she gave the world. When she sent the album to a friend to listen to early in its development, they told her, “This is actually what I thought the first [album] would sound like.” Tirzah agrees; it feels more honest to the abstract sounds she is naturally drawn to, reminiscent of her old mixtapes on YouTube.
Tirzah originally trained as a harpist at Purcell in London, where she met Levi, her lifelong friend and collaborator. As Levi began gaining recognition in the underground music scene in London, Tirzah was working at a graphic design firm, and Levi encouraged them to write music together again. Today, Levi is an incredibly accomplished artist in their own right, performing under the pseudonym Micachu and earning an Oscar nomination for scoring Pablo Lorrain’s Jackie. But Tirzah says their studio sessions are still “just hanging out until we feel like it might be time to get to work.”
Sey, who was featured on a few of Devotion‘s tracks, also joined up with the group for the tour supporting the album, and then for the new LP as an official member of the creative braintrust. Though the band is named after her, Tirzah insists it’s a truly collaborative effort: “It’s never been my thing, it’s our thing.” When Sey joined, their sound shifted once again, aided by the natural heft of his voice, both Tirzah and Sey stretching their vocal ranges towards the unknown.
Of all the tracks, “Beating” is the purest love song on the album, soft words delivered over muted synths that sound like waves rippling up onto a beach, interrupted by an unexpected top hat drum. Tirzah clears her throat and intones, “You’ve got me/I’ve got you/ We made life/ It’s beating,” over and over. In the next track, Tirzah talks about the baby: “She’s sleeping/ Ooo, my baby’s sleeping tonight.” It’s a lullaby like I’ve never heard, distorted guitar growling under her breathy soprano. Throughout, melody seems like an afterthought, her voice wandering up and down scales without direction.
In a Guardian piece around the release of Devotion, Damien Morris called Tirzah’s work “frighteningly intimate, lived-in as an unmade bed.” She contested that notion in a recent Fader feature, arguing, “It doesn’t feel more personal than anything else.” But I continue to argue for Morris’ description of her music. It has always felt strikingly intimate, especially compared to the usual contextual anonymity of electronic music and techno. The discrepancy, I think, is that it feels intimate but not necessarily personal. She whispers, her voice trails off, she clears her throat, she hums, she murmurs off-mic. Her lyrics capture the diaristic poems she’s transposed into melodies, things she’s too shy to share even with Levi, her best friend and close collaborator. Even when her lyrics aren’t revealing, her voice feels like a cry of relief, always on the verge of cracking.
In the extended music video for “Hive Mind,” out today, this tendency expands beyond Tirzah herself. As the 10-minute film opens, Tirzah enters the room with a bouquet for a celebration; it looks like it’s someone’s birthday, and they are partying after-hours at a gallery. Tirzah hands the viewer a flower, moving slowly but not quite deliberately, taking her time, fumbling with the bouquet, and always laughing. Scenes of a house party are juxtaposed with a butterfly terrarium, with long walks through a park, swings on a playground, running around a studio, driving electric scooters through quiet London streets, images of young children; everyone is trying to make the baby laugh. It’s a loose juxtaposition between humans and insects, the animal world and her own, scurrying around and bumping into one another. Colourgrade is a meditation on where you end and someone else begins, on friendship, on love, and the profound experience of motherhood, bringing a baby into the world and watching them grow. How do you make a representation closer to life?
Colourgrade is out 10/1 on Domino.