If a ukulele makes you think of 1960s Hawaiian kitsch pop, then please have a listen to Hannah McPhillimy. The Belfast-based singer-songwriter uses that maligned instrument to bittersweet effect, accompanying reflective poetry and plaintive melodies.
McPhillimy is just getting started on her career, but this is an indie to watch; I predict great things in her future. Her first EP, Seeing Things, came out in 2013, but its five tracks already show originality, intelligence, and delicate taste in musical arrangement. It’s also clear that the composer has a background in the folk music tradition of her native Northern Ireland, plus some classical training on the piano.
And that ukulele! In the song “Kindness,” there’s nothing but raw plucked strings and McPhillimy’s voice serving up self-aware lyrics: “Oh, human kind, be kind to me / I am much more than you can see.” The (uncredited) sound production on “Kindness” is so intensely intimate that McPhillimy almost whispers more than sings. You get the sense of her speaking from inside your own mind.
A similar but more sophisticated song from Seeing Things is called “Homecoming.” It’s a development of the underlying musical concepts in “Kindness,” and opens with that same quiet voice lilting in triple time over the uke. But soon this piece expands into a surprisingly rich sonority as a bowed double bass and cello join in.
The first verse of “Homecoming” contains an example of a McPhillimy quirk I find by turns charming and annoying. Often she will blatantly accentuate a weak syllable in a word: “Hop-ING against HOPE will take LIFE from your YEARS.” That first -ing ending has no business being stressed. Poetic license, I suppose, but it always makes me think of Beckmesser’s hilarious aria in The Meistersingers of Nuremburg, which Wagner purposefully peppered with exactly this kind of metrical misappropriation.
Besides her own song collections, McPhillimy has also done projects for others. It’s always fun to see what songwriters come up with when prompted by new circumstances. The 2014 Disappear Here contains songs inspired by a work of fiction. A friend, Jan Carson, was doing a book tour for her novel, Malcolm Orange Disappears. She asked McPhillimy to join her, singing songs that helped set the scenes or explore the characters.
The novel focuses on residents of a retirement village who meet every week to sing their favorite songs so they won’t forget them. One track, “There’s Worse Places to Leave Your Wife,” is in a comic musical-hall style quite out of McPhillimy’s comfort zone. But the other four songs are more typically gorgeous and mournful. They muse about aging, singing, forgetting, and remembering. Unfortunately, the recording suffers from poor sound balance. The keyboard sometimes overwhelms the voice. The EP can be purchased here for download from Bandcamp, with proceeds benefiting the Alzheimer’s Society.
While most of her lyrics deal with how people relate to each other, McPhillimy has also used her songwriting powers for political commentary. In 2015 she created a number for the &yet conference in Washington state, which proposed to deal with “the intersections of technology with humanity, meaning, and ethics for people who believe the world should be better and are determined to make it so.” McPhillimy’s song, “Just Wait,” warns about humans’ destruction of Earth: “And while we hesitate, we hesitate / not much is left for us to decimate.”
Her latest record, Wind Machine (2016), got some valuable help from well-known producer Julie McLarnon, founder of Analogue Catalogue Studios. This British recording engineer is sought after by folk and indie types for her ability to capture an artist’s unique sound. And the name of her studio means what it says: she uses only analogue recording equipment. Hi-fi geeks, rejoice!
Wind Machine demonstrates a change in McPhillimy’s compositional style that I’m curious to watch unfold over the coming years. Tonal melody now plays less of role, causing the songs to resemble chants, or poetry recitation, or maybe prayers. You can post-bebop jazz influence in the polyrhythms and free song structure. The track “Heart” has this freedom, seemingly shaped more by the text’s emotional content than its syllabic rhythm. The rich and sometimes virtuosic cello playing is by McPhillimy’s usual collaborator, Elizabeth Donaghy, and percussionists David Stockard and Peter McCauley contribute to the song’s longing mood:
One reason I wanted to write this indie column for Copper was to bring talented artists like McPhillimy a little more exposure. Her YouTube videos tend to have under 100 views, so there’s plenty of room for audience growth. As she said from the stage to a 70-person crowd when I heard her at the Irish Arts Center in New York in early 2017, “It’s not often I get to play to more than two people, with one of them being my mother.”