Sophie Hutchings: Insomnia & Shoegaze
Sophie Hutchings’ second album of piano instrumentals arose from sleepless nights and a sense of self-discipline that didn’t come easy, learns DOUG WALLEN.
Called “the soundtrack to a film too heartbreakingly beautiful to exist” by our own Andrew P Street, Sophie Hutchings’ Night Sky is the kind of album to grip you entirely, changing your mood so dramatically that you might feel like the protagonist of said film, being pulled by forces outside your control. In other words, it can be quite consuming. Following Hutchings’ first album, Becalmed, Night Sky takes a more sculpted approach to the Sydney musician’s instrumental piano compositions. Working with producer Tim Whitten (Augie March, Powderfinger) and periodic string and horn accompaniment, though, it’s still blissfully dreamy and detail-laden.
Ahead of her album launches, Hutchings discusses the spectre of insomnia and how shoegaze and Rachel’s are bigger influences on her than classical music.
I read that the second record was going to have more vocals. Was that a plan you had that fell by the wayside for some reason?
I think it was a rumour that got started by an interview I had … I think it was with a gentleman from Fluid Radio in the UK. We were talking about vocals and singing. I did do a whole bunch of vocal stuff, and it’s just sitting in the closet. [Laughs] But I find instrumental writing comes a lot more naturally for me, as much as I enjoy writing vocally. The instrumental stuff was what came to fruition. I guess if I had more time I would maybe do it, but then I wouldn’t want to seem [to be] indulgently trying to pursue all avenues of being a musician.
When someone does a lot of instrumental work and then suddenly puts in vocals, it can seem like they’ve run out of ideas instrumentally.
Yeah. It’s always been something that I enjoyed more, so it felt natural to keep doing that. It’s like an artist doing something and then you hear a different record of theirs and it’s completely different. You develop a sense of what you’ve already become attached to in what they do. Not that that’s the reason why I did an instrumental [album]; it just felt more natural.
At the same time, I’m sure you didn’t want to repeat yourself. How do you see these albums as distinct from each other?
Someone asked me that the other day and I find that really hard to answer. Well, firstly, I haven’t listened to Becalmed for so long. It’s good not to listen to what you have composed for a long time, because you get bored of it quite easily. Then maybe if I put it on [eventually], I’ll be quite nicely surprised. Because I do really personally relate to my music, obviously. But it’s all very vague when I write. I can’t actually even recall exactly when I wrote these pieces, because it was a lot late at night. But the difference between the two … I get the same feelings when I’m playing and performing, so to me as a composer it doesn’t feel different. But maybe in the sense that I felt a little more definite in what I wanted to do on this album, more than the last one.
It’s a very general thing to say, but it seems more focused to me somehow.
Ah yeah, that’s good. I was definitely more focused.
You mentioned writing late at night. Is that when you’re most creative, or is it just a logistical thing that that’s when you have the time to write?
I think it’s both. But I’m definitely a night-time person. I’m not a good sleeper, and I was having a really bad bout of insomnia. I would be up wandering around the house until all hours of the morning, so I just put the dampen pedal on the piano and was just playing a lot at night-time. It felt really beautiful to be playing when the rest of the world – well, your continent – is asleep. It just has a different feeling. I didn’t write all the pieces late at night, but most of it was written in that kind of surrounding. So probably a bit more subdued.
And that’s where the album title came from, and some of the song titles?
Pretty much. It was all based around a period of time where I wasn’t sleeping, so I thought it fitting.
What’s your history with the piano? When did you first start playing?
I was really young when I first started playing. I was terrible in my teens – I was very busy having fun. I didn’t apply myself at all, as much as my father [Lee Hutchings] wanted me to. My father’s a really amazing professional musician and has done some really great things. I started playing maybe when I was four or five. I had classical lessons, but then I dropped out when I was in high school and never had lessons again. And then in my earlier 20s, my father really encouraged me to do jazz chord progressions. I can’t write music very really, so if I’m playing with other people I just draw up general chord charts and that’s about all. I don’t generally write my pieces out. I can’t. [Laughs]
So you just feel them out as you’re developing them?
Yeah, I think the thing I have to do is be self-disciplined, because the thing that tends to happen with me is I’m always improvising and I end up indulging that and having a great time and going, “Oh, that sounded really great.” I get up and walk away from the piano and it never comes back again. I think that must happen and occur to a lot of artists, unless you discipline yourself to think about the parts and put a vague structure down. I generally just get a recording device and record it, because sometimes I write it down and I go back and I can’t understand what I’ve written. [Laughs] It takes a bit of discipline, ’cause I love getting lost in the feeling of playing and not having to think about anything. That’s what I like to do in the recording process, too. I always get a little bit afraid; I don’t want to be too stiff about everything. I tend to like to leave things open. [Pauses] Am I veering from your question? [Laughs]
No, no. I forget what my question was.
I generally just have to be disciplined. Something I’ve been improvising I will develop into a piece, and then I’ll recorded it. Then I’ll go back each day to have a little play with it to let it develop a little bit more. Otherwise it just doesn’t become a piece and I move on to something else. It’s sad; I’ve probably lost so many pieces. Because that’s pretty much what you do as an instrumental artist, I think: you just play.
When you perform live, are the songs pretty set or are they still changing and being improvised?
A little bit of both, again. I always play the pieces; it’s not like, if you were someone who knew the album, you wouldn’t recognise it. But I might go off on a slightly different tangent or play the piece slightly differently. But if I’m performing live, it’s to play the pieces, I guess, that people have heard. But it makes a difference if I’m performing on my own or with string players. When you’re performing with your other contributors, there has to be an element of structure.
How do you choose the accompaniment you’ll have for each song, and who you’ll use? How does that get worked out?
In my head. [Laughs] I write all the melodies out on the piano. I’ll get an idea and it’ll stay in my head and I just have to sit down and put those melodies out. The advantages of working with people like [violinist Jeremy Kong and cellist Peter Hollo] is that they’ve got loads of intuition and they have got a really good grasp on the way I think and work. So we’ll sit there and I play them the melodies and the timing, and we work it out from there. We write out bits and pieces.
There’s parts where I definitely want the melody like this, but I also like there to be room for movement. Like Dad’s [oboe on ‘By Night’ and ‘Last Quarter’ and alto flute and flute on ‘Between Earth and Sky’], I definitely wrote them out, because I’m not the greatest writer and Dad is. I got a little frazzled in the studio and they were such simple lines, but I tend to want to change my mind sometimes when I’m in the studio. So it’s a little bit of a mixture of everything. Part of the album was very structured, and then the other half, we just took a day in the studio where all I wanted to do was improvise. Even though I had a sense of what would happen in the piece, I didn’t want it to be set in stone. I knew I wanted a certain vibe, which is where all the tacked piano and harmonium [came from]. I definitely wanted that all there, but I didn’t write anything out as such.
Can you pinpoint the songs that came from that more improvised session?
Say for example ‘The Near Side’: I had this idea that I really wanted to have a harpsichord kind of sound, because I was reading a bit about baroque music and I didn’t know much about it. [Midnight Oil co-founder] Jim Moginie’s studio [Oceanic] is like a musician’s funland: it’s just filled with all types of instruments. He’s got a tacked piano there, and that’s why I thought that would be fantastic. For ‘Between Earth and Sky’, I thought it would be nice to have a drone-y organ sound. ‘Shadowed’, there’s harmonium on that. In the first piece, ‘Half Hidden’, I really wanted to have these ghostly wind sounds. Sure enough, there was this great instrumental that you blew into that made this really ghostly wind sound, which is what you hear on the album. He had this percussive instruments that you could roll around. So it was kind of just rummaging around boxes of instruments and listening to the sounds that they had and going, “Ah yes, that’s what I’ve been imagining.” You meet halfway, if that makes sense.
Which parts were done at home?
There were some cute little piano riffs that I was just recording as ideas. Then I really loved the sound of them, so we just left them in there. The ethereal sort of harmonies at the end of ‘By Night’. On ‘Shadows’, the little xylophone bells. There were just some little bits of piano overdubs. And all the voice-y stuff I did, I did at home.
“If you want to find some really good Chopin or Debussy, the recording is always so uptight and terrible.”
I was wondering about your piano influences. I was reminded of Erik Satie, who’s a pretty obvious touchstone for this kind of music.
Look, I’ll be really honest: when I was playing in my teens, I was more heavily influenced by what my family were listening to, what I grew up on. It was either really alternative indie rock or folk. I never searched out [anything else], because I was really into alternative and really into shoegaze music. But then I stumbled across Rachel’s in my really late teens. It was like finding a new life; I was so excited. But still, up until the last five years, I’ve never really branched out. I think I’m discovering now that the more you listen to instrumental music, the more you crave it. But something that I really connected with is composers like Arvo Pärt and Ketil Bjørnstad – the space in their structure is what really amazes me. I love music to breathe. I like a lot of it to have intensity – I’m a big fan of The Necks – but as far as classical composers go, I didn’t have that growing up.
On the new album, there’s this feel to me of establishing and then disturbing stillness. Is that something that appeals to you?
Yeah, it’s something that I can’t help. [Laughs] I don’t know where that comes from. It’s something that just is. I’ve done it since I was young. I’ve actually learned to control it more; when I was younger, I would always start this really solitude-type piece and it would just end up in this intense conclusion. And I don’t want it to have that clichéd, post-rock-y kind of [climax], and I don’t think it does that. But there’s always a piece where a bit of my intense personality comes through, I guess like ‘Between Earth and Sky’, or ‘Portrait of a Haller’ on the previous album. I listen to a lot of jazz with elements where it’s very free as well. I love all the neo-classical … I like there to be a bit of experimentation, definitely.
Are you comfortable with the term “classical” or “neo-classical,” or would you rather people just think of it as instrumental music?
I don’t really mind. I don’t think about it.
You don’t think there’s stuffy connotations to classical, or you’re not bothered by that?
I kind of don’t view it as being in that category. That’s the problem with buying really good classical artists: if you want to find some really good Chopin or Debussy, the recording is always so uptight and terrible. So the pieces are actually beautiful when you play them, but … that’s what I call stuffy. [Laughs] I don’t feel like these bands like the Rachel’s and people like Hauschka and these neo-classical composers are in that stuffy category. But if someone wanted to call it classical, I don’t really mind because I don’t know that I’ve got a grip on it myself, anyway.