The sound of Hilary Woods is that of an artist liberated. Known to most as the bassist for JJ72, feeling understimulated and undervalued, Woods walked away from the band while they were still squarely in the spotlight. Following some time in the creative wilderness, Woods remerged two years ago to showcase her last EP, Night, a collection of ethereal, sparse, folk-indebted songs, debuted as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival in 2014. Woods’ performances were emblematic of an artist with somewhat more lofty aspirations than the norm, performing in tandem with an interpretative dancer and accompanied by a selection of striking self-recorded visuals. Heartbox, Woods’ latest release, is an even sharper reflection of the experimental zeal that characterised those performances. The record is even further removed from traditional singer-songwriter fare, more concerned with the melody driven atmospherics associate with the likes of Broadcast or Cat’s Eyes. We sat down with Woods for a cup of tea and a deep dive into what drives her multi-disciplinary approach to performance and presentation.
So you have a background in the visual arts, both painting and video work. Have you been applying that experience to the work you’ve been doing directing videos for this EP?
Yeah, I was really involved in the videos for Bathing and Heartbox. With Sabbath, I had the concept in my head and it was just a matter of making it. So I realised I needed some help and I knew a lady, Sandy Kennedy, she’s a painter and director. So I provided the concept but Sandy really took it and ran with it. It’s nice to work with people like that, I really appreciated the fact that she could take an idea and make it work onscreen.
Visual pairings seem to be a pretty vital part of your work. Last time I saw you was your Night performance as part of the Fringe. That was an almost multi-disciplinary happening more than a traditional gig. Is a visual representation of a song, or the idea of having your art occupy more than one medium important to you?
Yeah, I mean there was never any moment with any of the videos where we were like “what are we going to do?” It’s a totally different than coming from something like JJ72 where you are signed to big record label and there are production companies that sell ideas. Obviously it’s a totally different ball game this time around, it’s all very personal. I guess the most important thing is that this time I haven’t been thinking, “How should I do it?” I just do things my own way.
Everything obviously starts with the songs, I’m here as a music maker. I already had some stuff for visuals when I got the Fringe slot for Night but I didn’t really know what the fuck I was doing, I just knew I’d been driving around with my phone on the windowsill [laughs]. At the time it [recording visuals] was sort of sometimes an aid way in making the EP. For me, it was a means of getting an essential feel for what I wanted to do with it. So once that performance was going to be part of the Fringe, I just decided to take all those .mp4 files and project them. I really liked the idea of the EP being presented within a context of how it was made, how it came about. Ultimately though, the record that has to stand on it’s own, it was just when I got that space in Smock Alley it all just felt so visual. Then I got a really great lighting engineer and I was away from there [laughs]. My friend is a great dancer and the window in Smock Alley was just begging to be occupied. It was really exciting to get the opportunity to showcase the music in an environment that wasn’t so conservative or conventional.
Once you adopted your own name you seem to have gotten more interested in exploring the different mediums the project could occupy. Are you still considering your future through the lens of album and EP releases or keeping it broader in scope?
Like I said, it all starts with the songs. But I did spend some time studying film so it kind of psyches me up to have the opportunity to utilise that. Right now I’m in the process of making an album so at the minute I’m all about songs. Some of the songs on the album I’ve been working with for six years. When you’ve lived with something that long the visuals aren’t so far away. Ultimately though what I really want to do is make records…I think! [laughs]
So you say some of the songs you’ve lived with for 6 years. Does it interest you to see how these things evolve over time? Even between the last 2 EPs you’ve got Secret Sabbath on Night and Sabbath, a reworking of that track, on Heartbox. What was your thinking behind that? Was there a broader artistic attempt behind revisiting it or just a desire to have another crack at it?
Well, secret Sabbath was the youngest song on Night and it was just a case of having written it on guitar, laying it in bed, and taking it as it was to the studio. So, having recorded it for Night and having it done and dusted in my mind, I was playing it with a couple of friends a while later, I’d ditched the guitar and was playing it on piano, and it really struck me I wanted to revisit it. There was this whole other energy that I wanted to tap into. So I thought to myself that if I was going to do that I’d do it for Heartbox.
It was interesting to me because it make the transition in sound between the two records very explicit in a way.
Well, I knew I was working toward an album but I wasn’t really sure if I was going to do an album next or an EP. All I knew for sure was I wanted to explore more synth-y sort of stuff before I committed to doing it for a whole album. So that’s how Heartbox really came about, just messing around on my Nord and my Moog and borrowing gear off other people. It was important for me to do that. Night is far more acoustic and Heartbox, for me, is a much more playful record. I was really inspired by Rabbits [David Lynch film of 2002] and Mica Levi’s soundtrack for Under The Skin. I was listening to stuff going, “I’d love to that, I’d love to do this” – so that was what I did. Now I think know where I’m going a bit more than beforehand.
I was wondering about that. If the decision to do two EPs was out of practicality or was there an artistic intention behind doing smaller, self contained releases?
There was definitely an element of buying time. But also, I think the change was pretty natural. I just wanted to do something totally different to Night. Well, not totally different, these are still songs I can play on acoustic guitar. But I was really just feeling my way along.
The decision to do that kind of exploring and experimenting in such a public way, even taking the two versions of Sabbath as an example of that, is pretty brave in it’s transparency. Were you thinking it would be interesting for a listener to see the two finished products side by side?
I didn’t assume people would have heard the original. I don’t think I was too self-conscious about it though. I’m quite good at that, It’s liberating to be quite free and easy about these things, I’m not really over precious about it. I certainly wasn’t always like that. Back when I was playing bass I was kind of shy and awkward.
Well you should know that came off as an aloof cool at the time.
[Extended laughter] I think everyone works through that kind of awkwardness in their 20s. When I decided to go under my own name, I think that was me kind of making the leap away from that. I’m just going to do exactly what I want for the album and if I wasn’t going to do it my way I don’t think I’d be doing it at all. That’s a lesson I had to learn for myself. I left JJ72 because I didn’t feel comfortable. Obviously we had lots of highlights but I felt uncomfortable about how certain things were done so I knew in my bones if I went back to music I couldn’t afford to care too much about what people thought. I also think it can be kind of contrived if you care too much what other people think. You have to trust that if something speaks to you it’ll be meaningful to other people.
Hilary Woods’ new EP Heartbox is out now and can be bought from musicglue.com/hilary-woods/shop and in independent record stores around Dublin.
Photo: Joshua Wright