Hoping against hope: the soft, exquisite sorrow of Daisy Chapman

What is it, i’ve often wondered, that makes melancholy such rich, fertile inspiration for art? Perhaps because in its impossibly deep, dark furrows—in the troughs of our experience—there simply is nothing else an artist can do, but (in whatever guise) sing. Art, after all, captures what words alone cannot; it goes beyond them and taps into something more honest, that must be expressed; E. E. Cummings alludes to this idea in one his poems, powerfully distancing it from mere speech: “wild (at our first) beasts uttered human words | —our second coming made stones sing like birds—”. Yet there is also, i would venture, something essentially optimistic, something hopeful in the very act of turning such black honesty into art: the fact that an artist sings, rather than—like most—simply curling up or lashing out, betrays more at the heart of it all; Cummings again, in the final two lines from his finest poem, says it best: “where everything’s nothing | —arise, my soul;and sing”. And from just such a place, doing just that is Daisy Chapman.

Her first EP dates back to 2006, the title of which—Hymns of Blame—captures well both the essence and ethos of Daisy Chapman’s art. Her songs—set to lyrics composed by her former partner, Greg Simmons, charting the difficulties and demise of their relationship—feature just voice and piano, with no obvious digital jiggery pokery, giving them an unadorned simplicity that is achingly authentic. It opens with stark, sparse chords, over which, low and half whispered, these words emerge: ‘I shovel dirt on the roses you sent | Along with the promises that were never meant…’. Thus begins “I Sang Your Praises”, a bitter railing against a past love, that keeps itself relatively restrained until the second chorus, when suddenly Chapman’s voice takes on surprising force, and as the song continues, her voice audibly wavers under the strain. This kind of honesty is very moving, all the more so due to the religiosity of which the lyrics speak: ‘I sang your praises | I sang your hallelujahs … | I sang your quiet amen’ (the religious allusion of the overall title pervades all four songs)—love, indeed, can often seem to assume sacred proportions—and when love is lost, it can often bring about its own crisis of faith. Structured in similar fashion is “The Last Procession”, a song that speaks of dashed hopes, and where even God Himself is not immune from criticism. After two such caustic songs, it’s a surprise to see the next entitled “The Joy of Love”. But joy is the last thing spoken of here, except to contrast with a more tragic reality: ‘But listen, jilted lovers: there’s a story you can take | For every happy home, there’s a poisoned wedding cake … So if you’re feeling lovesick, stricken with the blues | Remember, the joy of love will die before you’. Beneath all of this, the piano recites a sombre, almost dirge-like chaconne that features the note C in every chord; it’s a static, ominous chord sequence, suggesting an obsessive going over of events. To finish, the religious theme continues with one of the most well-known of all songs, Leonard Cohen‘s sublime “Hallelujah”. It’s a brave choice, yet one that she pulls off tremendously; indeed, it sounds as though it could have been composed by Chapman herself. She’s made a selection from the most familiar verses, which she sings with utter conviction; the final verse seems to be a fitting summation of the EP as a whole: ‘Well maybe there’s a God above, but all I’ve ever known of love | Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you | It’s not a cry that you hear at night, and it’s not somebody who’s seen the light | It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah’.

i said Hymns of Blame is unadorned; in fact, it’s more than that, there’s a slightly rough, home-made quality to the recording. And in my opinion, it’s not without its faults: the first two songs both could do with some structural extending, and a little more imagination at their endings, but this in no way dilutes the acidic content of these songs; they burn fiercely. And it’s a tribute to Daisy Chapman’s vocal skill that such dark themes should not, in fact, sound as though all hope were lost; ‘cold and broken’ maybe, but still an ‘Hallelujah’.

Last year, Daisy released her first album, And There Shall Be None. It begins in the soft crackle of old vinyl, out of which arises the astonishingly mature “Song for Assia”. Both title and lyrics make clear references to Assia Wevill, the woman who began the 1960s by becoming poet Ted Hughes’ mistress and mother of one of his children, and ended the decade by taking her own life (imitating Sylvia Plath’s own suicide) along with the child. Chapman picks over such delicate subject matter carefully, showing restrained sympathy for Wevill, while bluntly referring to Hughes as “the tyrant you thought you suited | Managing his house with passion muted”. The song contains a wealth of melodic beauty and invention, of such quality in the way it unfolds that the different sections seamlessly become a single unit; it’s a huge leap forward from the EP. The second track, “Words of Dirt” is no less impressive, a heart-rending expansion of the sentiments heard in “I Sang Your Praises”. It’s captured best in the short but emphatic bridge passages: ‘Cause dirt is dirt is dirt is dirt is past is past is past’, but it sends mixed messages; the claim is to have consigned the former beloved’s words to the ground, but clearly the memories of those words are somewhat harder to expunge. Introspection takes over in “07.07.07”, and with it, confession: ‘Should have tended to my wounds | Should have found the good in you…”; it’s nice to see this kind of parity appearing in her lyrics, revealing there’s much more to her than just a tendency for tirade. Especially effective is the extreme high melody at ‘Relieve this stress so I can catch my breath’, a passage that clearly pushes Daisy to the limits of her own range, and expresses the sentiment perfectly.

The album’s sole cover version comes courtesy of The Divine Comedy, in the form of “Our Mutual Friend” (from Absent Friends). In transforming the string textures, she sensibly keeps it relatively simple; for all its gloss, Neil Hannon’s music is disarmingly straightforward (and all the better for it). Once again, Daisy triumphs in turning another’s words into her own, although she surprisingly refrains from letting rip vocally at the end; after the pivotal verse, revealing the new love’s infidelity, i feel the song is crying out for more violent keening than she allows herself here. It’s followed by, in my opinion, her best song to date: “Happy New Year”. Beginning with all the simple portentousness of a Schubert lied, it develops into an acerbic anthem of failed expectations and half-hearted new beginnings: ‘So here we go again | Promising that maybe this year will be our year | And if we don’t make it together | It’ll just be another tale for all your friends to hear’. For me, it’s the most poignant of Daisy’s songs, conveying a profound tiredness; in the choruses, the word ‘happy’ has never sounded so utterly hollow. Of the remaining two songs, “Erase the Frown” is melodically interesting but lyrically somewhat obtuse (and some of the lyrics are pretty hard to make out), whereas “Home” is a laid-back blues number, sounding like the last song before the club closes, and perfectly bringing the album to an end.

i was lucky enough to see Daisy play live recently, at a small bar in Bristol, and her 40-minute set was compelling throughout. She has a potent stage presence, takes an imaginative approach to the way she performs the songs, as well as creating a rendition of Rihanna’s “Umbrella” that entirely outclasses the original (not that that’s difficult). She has a new album in the pipeline, to be released later this year, so in due course i’ll be interviewing Daisy about that and hopefully giving a preview. Meanwhile, these songs of hers are too brilliant to ignore; they are the perfect blend of vitriol and poignancy; their soft, exquisite sorrow ever communicates something biting, but beautiful.

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