There’s a vastly more interesting topic hidden in full view of Claire Hamill’s unique and brilliant 1986 release: Voices. What is Voices? It’s an utterly fascinating bit of art pop, a middle ground of Cocteau Twins and Kate Bush -stylistic music, that combines forgotten English Folk with nomadic, electronic dream pop. Composed entirely free of instruments other than her own voice and a Sequential Circuits Prophet 2000 multi-timbral sampler (the first of its kind), Voices was created during a wonderful time in her life when everything personal and professional was just clicking and flying in good vibes. A true one off, that if you’re hearing it now, you can hear faint voices of future luminaries like Enya, Grouper, Holly Herndon and more, flowering in the unique foothold Claire explored here.
There are so many cool, little things hidden underneath this album. The mere existence of it being the first. Released 10 years after her debut, Voices really had no business coming to be. Originally, Claire debuted as an English Folk-Rock singer/songwriter more in line with the stylings of Sandy Denny and FOND/SOUND favorite Shelagh McDonald than anything resembling what you’d find here. What started as a promising career with 1972’s epic One Left Standing transitioned into a decade of music of diminishing returns, both critically and financially. Coming back to England, after trying to punch her ticket to fame in America in the late ’70s, had allowed Claire to regain some of the balance she desperately needed to achieve.
1983’s Touchpaper presented her first solid steps in a new direction. Signed to CODA Records, the New Age subsidiary of the massively influential English indie record label Beggars Banquet, allowed her the freedom to investigate technology and bring to fruition musical ideas that few expected she had. Sophisticated, sexy, or funky, yet ethereal and groovy, it was music more in league with artists like China Crisis, Rick James, and Japan. Heck, if ever there was something that should sound like the freaky, sophisti-funk of Freeez fronted by a “with it” Kate Bush, Touchpaper was it, and that’s a huge compliment in my opinion. Completely self-produced, and aided by members of English jazz-funk group Freeez, this album should have served to produce the most unlikely of well-deserved hits, if songs like the single “In the Palm of My Hand”/ “Jump” were of any indication. An entirely slept-on album that someone else can christen mightily on their own blog, went nowhere for some reason.
Unfortunately, English audiences weren’t entirely ready for their own Teena Marie, much less Minako Yoshida, or female Bryan Ferry. If I had more time I would preach more on the brilliance of Touchpaper but my focus is on Voices today. Not much of a success, Touchpaper did prove something. Touchpaper presented seedlings of what was yet to come. Songs like the opening number “The Moon is a Powerful Lover” mixing sampled and multi-tracked vocals with all sorts of intricate counter-rhythms, hinted that Claire could track into far rarer, walked through musical paths.
Not quite New Age, or techno-pop, it was modern art pop more in line with something you’d find in our cut-and-paste era than in the barely-MIDI era of the mid-80s.
When Claire Hamill was thinking up what to do for her next album. Her, then-husband, Nick Austin, director of CODA Records, pitched to Claire the idea of simply creating a record with just her voice and see if he could push for it in the New Age market. The proud mother of a newborn child, Claire instantly loved the idea, seeing it as a great way to tap into this new spirit of happiness and contentment that she fell into. Untied to the expected music styles she had attempted before, here was a new area completely free to play around with.
Rolling all her ruminative, positive thoughts on life, Englishness, beginnings and futures, Voices became this intricate, gentle thing that allowed her to take the spirit of sampling into a new era where anything was possible. Thematically divided into four seasons, there’s a lot to sink into. Songs like the hymnic opener “Awaken (Larkrise)” pointed to new realms English folk was slowly mutating to. The Orinoco Flow-esque “Tides”, another bit of high praise from me, ingeniously uses the Sequential Circuits Prophet 2000 as both beat machine and mini orchestra. Voices remains, to this day, a brilliant blueprint on how to not overdo something that could be easily gimmicky, on paper.
There are moments when we can easily see the strings, 12-bit technology isn’t as forgiving as modern artifact-free technology, but time hasn’t dated the fascinating music you’ll hear in “Moss”, “Icicle Rain”, “Afternoon In A Wheatfield”. Voices, much like Virginia Astley’s work, further advance brick by other brick, the ongoing creation/mutation of this “New Albion” Shirley Collins wrote about just a decade before Claire began her career. Two decades later, it’s still utterly fascinating to me, how this experimental circle of English folk music keeps on expanding.
Let’s end this post, on one last bit of surprise you can find in this album. If you can view the album cover, you’ll see its emblazoned with a sticker on it stating: “AS FEATURED IN THE BBC TV DOMESDAY SERIES”. Do you want to kill two or three days of itinerant web surfing? Do a search for “BBC DOMESDAY 1986”. Somehow, it seems appropriate that this sticker exists on Voices. You see, the Domesday Project – at least the 1986 version of it – was the BBC’s wildly ambitious attempt to capture and survey the feelings of everyday English people in their day-to-day life, much like the 11th century version tried to capture a slice of English life, way back when.
Focusing on written recollections by English citizens and schoolkids, pictures of local vistas, and pouring over tons of collected data counts, it was supposed to be a new historical artifact and archive that one could access to better know about a specific English time, locale, and region. Years before we could zoom in using Google Maps, go down through some Wikipedia hole, or watch nifty videos accompanying our Compton’s Multimedia Encyclopedia, the Beeb tried to release a multi-media depository that would allow any user to navigate history with nothing more than a mouse and a keyboard.
Of course, as we know, not all digital technology is ageless. Released in 1986, on LaserDisc, The BBC Domesday Project now is seen as this landmark of digital obsolescence. One year removed from the creation of the CD-ROM, all the data that was painstakingly collected to fit into the LaserDisc format, in the span of two years had literally no market from which someone could buy into the technology and actually access the information to use. It wasn’t until more than a decade later that technology managed to exist that allowed someone to reverse-engineer and dump all that data into a format we can actually see in our current digital era. It just goes to show, that it’s best to really think all your cunning plan all the way through, at least like Claire did. I’m just thankful, that at the very least, there are still some people rediscovering Claire through the weirdest of time warps.