Immersing yourself in Colourgrade for the entirety of its forty-minute duration is an experience akin to being cocooned in a soft, warm duvet, in a state somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, as reality melts into daydreams and your limbs melt into the bed. The second album from Essex-based experimental pop artist, Tirzah, is an intensely intimate and enveloping listen. No doubt this is because the album was written after the birth of the singer’s first child – and before the birth of her second. Many of the songs feel borne of those quiet stolen moments snatched between midday naps, in that private familial space while the rest of the world happens on the other side of drawn curtains. So much so that on ‘Sleeping’, a scratchy guitar mimics the crackly wails of a baby monitor, while Tirzah croons about her baby sleeping; and you get the feeling the song may have started life as a lullaby to get a restless child off to the land of nod.
Tirzah Mastin’s 2018 full-length debut, Devotion, was a collection of off-kilter love songs that weaved a path between R&B, trip-hop and experimental pop. Colourgrade is at once more unusual and idiosyncratic, and feels like an evolution of the project’s own internal musical-language. A language that foregrounds tone, texture and atmosphere and an almost pre-verbal style of communication, with Tirzah’s half-sung, half-spoken couplets landing directly in your brain beside childhood nursery rhymes.
In interviews, Mastin has suggested she sees Tirzah as a collaboration, between herself, vocalist Coby Sey and producer and soundtrack artist Mica Levi (also known as Micachu). Coby Sey can occasionally be heard providing backing vocals, for example adding a soft croon on ‘Hive Minds’, which combines with Tirzah’s to produce a hypnotic call and response (again reminiscent of a rhyme learned in childhood). It’s tempting to interpret the layered lyrics as an ode to the collaboration underpinning the project, “Given times we sing, Sing different tunes, Said one by one, Two by two, Tethering like hive mind’s do.”
At times, Tirzah’s voice is startling in it’s rich lushness, and is undoubtedly the star of the show, and the unifying thread that runs throughout Colourgrade. The eponymous opening track could be described as a ‘tonal poem’, free of beats or any instrumentation, the singer’s voice is layered upon itself, dramatically down-pitched, as if she’s singing through treacle, and at times unadorned. Coming under three minutes, it sets the scene as a soundcheck, as though Tirzah is tuning up her voice like an instrument.
While Tirzah is often broadly categorised as an ‘electronic’ artist, her voice – and the production that surrounds it – lends Colourgrade its intense feeling of human physicality and intimacy. On most of the tracks, the vocals are delivered so close-up it feels as though she is cooing right beside your ear. The synths warble and weave tones around her voice, at times mimicking it and others producing an alien counterpart – like a reflection coming in and out of focus on the surface of a rippling pond. The other elements – guitars, percussion, bass – are all used sparingly and all in service of the breathy, intimate atmosphere. Rather than a performance, it feels very much like we’ve been allowed into someone’s private space, the inner sanctum where the real business of life and love takes place.
Being the mother of two young children, it’s inevitable parenthood was going to be a huge influence on Tirzah’s song-writing. Although true to its shimmery, slippery nature, many of the lyrics on Colourgrade could easily fit as romantic love songs, for example on Tectonic, “You know I’m yours, And you’re mine, As soon as you meet my face (You see me?)” could be directed at a lover, yet could also be the words sung to a baby in a game of peekaboo. Tectonic is a prime example of the way the production and vocals work together to draw you into Colourgrade’s unhurried world. Beginning with a portentous sustained synth note that plays for forty seconds before a muted drum break picks up, the track is well over a minute in before the melody proper kicks in, by which time you’ve adjusted the volume accordingly. So when Tirzah’s lyrics finally come in at the 2-minute mark, they’re much louder than the rest of the track, a trick which allows her to sing very softly yet dominate the mix.
This juxtaposition of tension and intimacy is pulled off elsewhere on Colourgrade; the rudeboy bassline and kickdrums of ‘Recipe’ imply an impending dubstep carve-up, but then Tirzah’s vocals pour honey on the mix and diffuse things down into a gentle meditation on motherhood (“I will give you, Every memory”) while the bass purrs underneath. ‘Beating’ is beautifully sparse, driven by a fizzing synth and trappy snares – the elements of club music repurposed for the bedroom – and Tirzah’s intimate delivery, so intimate you can hear her clearing her throat before the next line.
Crepuscular Rays is the strange centrepiece of the album; Tirzah’s voice is digitally filtered and manipulated, giving it a strange pre-verbal feeling – something akin to the babbling of an infant. The result is a deeply experimental and dreamy soundscape that unfolds over 6 minutes – sounding like the Cocteau Twins remixed by Aphex Twin – and is the point where any casual listeners might lose patience.
Although it may not be a casual listen, Colourgrade is a rewarding one, and marks a significant step on from Devotion. It’s refreshing as well, to hear something inspired by motherhood and the simple intimacy of being with one other person – rather than the usual universal euphoria so common to electronic music. Although with Colourgrade, Tirzah highlights the irrelevant such pigeonholes are – I’m intrigued to see what she does next.