It’s the sort of moment that inspires frontwoman Brianna Kelly’s songwriting: sublime and tinged with spiritual undertones. Her new solo EP — a split cassette with Utah Drone outfit Sympathy Pain — takes this ethos to its aesthetic extremes. Oceanic pulses of guitar, keyboard and discarnate vowel sounds loop into a tranquil nothingness, sometimes slightly chopped like a lo-fi Hip Hop beat sans drums.
Her solo recording process is akin to meditation.
“I’ll usually ask myself a question throughout a season, or I’ll have a melody pop into my head while I’m doing something really mundane, like the dishes or when I’m at work,” Kelly says. “I’ll try to let it sink in, then sit down at the keys or guitar and loop something, then keep on building. Then I take it to my computer and edit the track and lyrics to it.”
While working on the split project, Kelly spent much of her creative energy thinking about the human need for personal significance and strived for the solace one feels when shedding their self-consciousness. She culled as much influence from Ambient Folk acts like Julianna Barwick and Grouper as she did from the Taizé monastic community, an order of Christian brothers from a wide range of traditions whose multilingual worship songs stress simple, repetitive phrases.
“Sanctus,” a 9-minute track that closes out Kelly’s side of the EP, mirrors the Taizé’s musical tradition.
Based on its titular liturgical hymn (“holy, holy, holy…”), the song was originally more that 12 minutes long. Unsatisfied with the original mix, Kelly reversed the vocals, forming a strange overlapping drone that sounds lost in translation.
Ryan Hall, who runs that Whited Sepulchre label that pressed the split tape, says that the cassette’s two sides work as a cohesive whole.
“Both are comfortable with silence in their work and they both don’t fall into the trap that many ambient or drone artists fall into, which is to mistake movement for addition,” he says. “I can imagine both are coming from two different worldviews, but seem to arrive at a few easily understood musical touchstones.”
The tape comes on the heels of Soften’s solid debut album, seen + unseen, which helped earn the band a New Artist of the Year nomination at the 2017 Cincinnati Entertainment Awards. No less dreamy than Kelly’s solo work, the record is patient and texturally engaging, packed end-to-end with lengthy songs that let woozy chords linger. Imagine Slowdive’s triumphant guitar structures eaten away by a grimy layer of decay.
Comprised of Kelly (vocals/guitar), Corey Waddell (guitar), Jon Delvaux (bass) and Andrew Aragon (drums), the band officially formed a year and a half ago as an outlet for Kelly to let her classical guitar tunes expand into fully-fledged Dream Pop anthems. The project was originally blanketed under her own name, but was christened Soften in August to reflect the full group’s creative input.
Two summers ago, the project began to take shape when Kelly met Delvaux.
“We were sitting on his porch, just trading songs back and forth and hanging out,” Kelly says. “It was the first time I felt like anyone was really listening to my songs — he really took everything in.”
Shortly after, the two shared a booking as solo acts and came together at the end of the night to perform a set of cover songs. Afterward, Delvaux told Kelly he knew a drummer who might be able to help them do more live collaborations if she was interested.
Enter Aragon, who’d briefly toured with Delvaux in the past.
“It’s my third band — maybe my fourth if you’re counting my high school band,” he says, fiddling with a flourescent orange camera. “This feels more like a real band than in the past, when it was more like friends who happened to get together and play music.”
Waddell, who had played in the Art Rock project Comprador with Delvaux, joined shortly after, adding the final piece to the band’s cohesive puzzle.
The pre-name-change incarnation of Soften began practicing in St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Norwood, a dilapidated building now owned by Vineyard Central. Its boomy acoustics are partly responsible for the spacious sound of Soften’s debut. You can place yourself in the building while listening to “See Me,” the closing cut on seen + unseen. Distorted peals of guitar hover like ectoplasmic incense and Kelly shouts a refrain in the form of a rhetorical question: “But what would happen if tonight, you looked me in the eyes?”
Despite its cathedral-capacity scope, the album was recorded in Delvaux’s bedroom.
“That was really the tricky part, getting it to sound big,” he says. “Dealing with a room that size, where there’s no real room sound, most of the time is spent, like, ‘Hey, hit your drum,’ then spending five minutes messing with the equipment.”
Though Soften spent much of the winter playing their album material, Kelly spent her time alone focusing creative energy elsewhere to decompress. Distancing herself from writing more traditional Rock structures produced the material for the Whited Sepulchre split.
In relation to seen + unseen, the split is like an overcast thought bubble forming above the album’s head, dropping snowflakes cold enough to stick. It feels disembodied, but more in tune with the soul than the body itself.
Kelly hopes that the next few months will produce a single. Or three. For now, Soften is focusing on being more collaborative with the material they produce, working creatively as a quartet.
“When we work together, it’s kind of effortless,” Delvaux says. “By and large, we say, ‘Let’s do this,’ and get it done. It’s a new perspective on things — wholesome and nice.”