I have a friend who views music like religion, i.e. religion is OK if you’re religious, but as he isn’t can you please just keep the noise down.
He’s my own personal challenge. Let’s refer to him as ‘S’.
Just after Christmas last year he demanded that I head out on the rip with him. There must have been a lack of suitable partners for this task – I barely drink. So I played hard to get. The compromise was that I would wash my face and leave the house if a gig was involved in the mix. To seal the deal we hit the bar running at the Sunflower Bar in Belfast, purveyors of fine hot whiskey and host to regular live music.
Rachel Zylstra was the live music that night. She’s alternative-classical folk-pop according to her Facebook page. ‘S’ didn’t care; he ordered another drink. I eventually prized him away from the bar and booted him up the stairs to the gig. It was barely populated up there. I told ‘S’ I hated it when this happens. “Maybe she’s no good” he shrugged, heading for the bar via echo location.
As Ms. Zylstra played however, I noticed how he stopped shifting in his chair. By a few songs into the set he’d stopped trying to engage me in conversation. He was clapping at the end of songs – indeed he was noticing when the songs had ended. Then Rachel was telling us a funny story to introduce the next song, and ‘S’ laughed. I looked at the side of his face and he met my gaze. “She’s great. You’re round”
When he started fiddling with his phone, I remember thinking that the initial enchantment hadn’t lasted too long. I watched however as his phone was placed strategically on the table, between the sticky spills and the open bag of crisps, because he was recording her. “Eh?” I snorted, pointing. “Sssshhhh” was the response.
In October Zylstra released her fourth album The Tacit Turn. Accompanied by drummer and vocalist Alex Paul, and bassist Russ Wedelich, it is a 12-piece collection of piano based songs. Piano based stories that meld old soul and new learning. They are a seasoned mix of youthful dilemma, sage script, grey areas, and candid observation. The lack of answers leaves us to join up the dots with what we would have done, had we been there ourselves.
There are no answers in “Where Was Your Head”. It’s the story of a gorgeous mistake, we’ve all made them. I have, mostly without the gorgeous part to be honest. Zylstra’s mistake though comes cabaret style, with a theatrical build up and plot, on a New York skyline.
“Dark” starts with simple piano, then Zylstra’s voice slices it open. “I know what you’re doing to me…” and layer by layer the band adds characters and backdrop to her words. Their vocals morphing into howling, or haunting, as the song grows longer.
Rachel Zylstra also sings songs about God. I don’t listen to songs about God. In all honesty, that first paragraph was written before I’d sussed any lyrics or got stuck into the research that informed me Rachel is a theology graduate. But there was obviously something bringing us to the same point. “For the Life of Me” is an autumn landscape of a song. Zylstra’s voice is wood-warm, unwavering.
“It seems I keep wasting away/these gifts that you gave/ till I am empty.”
Interestingly these words reminded me of my mum – of her unassuming and hard ass insight into me. I suppose the expansive love that a parent holds for her children is a well-ordered parallel. The song goes on to talk of praise and heaven. For me it didn’t need to. But that’s not the point, just start on the basis that this song is beautiful, and work your way through the album from there.
Engineered by Justin Milner and Dave Brenneman; mixed by Justin Milner.