Heavy of atmosphere, rich in melody, rippled with an air of malice and flowing female and male vocals, the eponymous debut album from onDeadWaves is immediately arresting.
You haven't heard them like this before, but you already know the two members. One is James Chapman, better known as Maps, whose critically acclaimed debut We Can Create was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize in 2007, and whose latest album Vicissitude, came out in 2013. The other is Polly Scattergood, the electricallycharged singer-songwriter who signed to Mute aged just 22 and whose second album Arrows was released in 2013.
In their solo careers, each is known for their own branch of electronic music.Together, the parts add up to an unexpected whole, thanks in part to the two artists finding a different way of working together. "We'd both previously spent a lot of time alone and introverted in the studio," says Polly. "We enjoyed this new experience because it was all a bit unknown."
The seeds of the creative partnership were sown in 2011, at a special event celebrating Mute at London's Roundhouse. The night saw different collaborations with Mute artists and Polly and James paired up to perform each other’s songs.
Though each had primarily worked alone before, there was something natural about the chemistry between them. "The gig was one of the most enjoyable I've done" says Polly. "And as soon as we finished, we said it'd be cool to do something else."
It took some time to clear space in schedules, but James and Polly reconvened in February 2014 to make good on that idea. James' home studio in the countryside provided the perfect location. "I think because we'd both had quite intensive releases we wanted to do something which had no pressure on it whatsoever, something just for fun, so I just went up to see James and hang out and write a song together and see what came of it," says Polly. "I went for a day and ended up staying a lot longer."
The environment soon started to shape the sound of the music, the sense of calm feeding into the disquieting feel of the album. "James' studio and house is very chilled and calm – I've never even seen anybody around there," says Polly. "There are no distractions because you can't go out anywhere. We didn't actually leave the house ever, except when a guitar string broke and we had to venture into town."
Starved of social contact, the landscape provided inspiration. Launch track Blackbird, Lauren Laverne's MPFree pick on announcement, was inspired by a frequent, feathered visitor. "When we were writing we hadn't seen anybody - sometimes for a few days and you go stir crazy," says Polly. "I did sometimes feel like the blackbird was staring in at us."
It was Blackbird and another track, Never Over, which were written in quick succession, and which provided the key to the onDeadWaves sound. "I usually write with a keyboard and then put the guitar on later, but we started with the guitar, and once we found a certain sound we liked we limited ourselves to the same things," says James. Those ingredients: guitar, reverb, synths and two vocals.
Until an album was clearly taking shape, the pair kept their expectations low – it was never officially planned for release, and with no external pressure, the sessions were surprisingly harmonious. "It was definitely a different process, because whatever I'd done in the past it was me on my own, in isolation," says James. "Letting someone else in straight away just brings a different way of working."
For Polly, that resulted in a feeling of freedom in her words, too. "I often would write lyrics on the train going there, leaving everything else behind and just going into a creative space felt good. I've always written lyrics quite quickly, but for this album I tried to be more focused on really telling the story - crafting each line - really thinking about what we were saying.”
”We recorded a lot of tracks, but decided to make it a short album and selected nine original tracks and one cover. The last track we recorded, Winter's Child, is the last track on the album and gave a sense of finality to the project. It's got all the elements in one song," says Polly. "There's an undercurrent of darkness, a feeling of loss; it starts off very sparse and goes to this big epic ending. We were like: OK, we're done now.”
The duo are now preparing to make their live debut. Also in the works is an exhibition to coincide with the release of the album, in which a series of images will bring each track to life. Speaking about the influences behind the album, the pair cite art and imagery – from Edward Hopper's sodium-lit scenes to Gregory Crewdson’s skewed suburban landscapes – which seemed more important to the feel of the album than any specific musical influences.
The exhibition – at Mario's Café in Kentish Town, near their practice room – will represent that fact, and be an in-the-flesh version of the album.