Hilary Woods: “I Do Vibe Off Being Thrown In at the Deep End”

Songwriter and artist Hilary Woods has established a fiercely DIY identity, nestled somewhere between shoegaze and electronica. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with the former JJ72 bassist about the process behind her debut solo album, and performing it live at the Triskel Christchurch.

Since returning to artistic practice full-time across songwriting, scoring and theatre, Dubliner Hilary Woods has taken a long and sometimes inward-looking path to establishing and asserting her identity as a solo artist. Across a pair of stunning extended-players, the latter of which, ‘Heartbox’, was crowdfunded to completion, Woods’ own influences and ruminations on the human condition are far removed from her contributions on bass to the sunny, accessible alt-rock of 2000s Irish indie cruiserweights JJ72. Taking control of her artistic destiny, Woods’ solo output has long since outweighed her former project’s, thematically and musically, with an emphasis on tone and texture comparable to contemporaries like Grouper and Marissa Nadler.

Debut full-length ‘Colt’, released last summer via New York indie institution Sacred Bones, saw Woods tie together numerous strands of thought regarding internal monologues, and their effects on perception and mental health. Touring continues for the record this year, but Woods is now living with it as a piece on its own merits, reflective of the circumstances surrounding its creation, but now left open to listener interpretation. “I think my feelings on it change as I gain distance from it. I made the record at a vulnerable time; it’s a personal, intimate record with a DIY heart. I’m not sure an LP is ever ‘finished’, but it’s living its own life now that it’s out.”

The record is indeed weighty throughout, with themes of catharsis in artistic process and making sense of everyday malaise being most prevalent. No surprise, then, to hear that the record is as much a confessional, informed by emotion and experience, as it is a concept piece. “For me, the making of this record arose out of a necessity to address inner currents, and confide them to tape. I never arrived at a concept as such, it was more of a case of the songs imbibing variations of a similar feeling. It has an emotional weight to it, for sure. The record grew and took shape from a long period of time writing and recording at home.”

Woods worked with Corkman James Kelly to produce the album, one of Irish music’s more distinct creative entities, via black-metal outfit Altar of Plagues and solo electronic project WIFE. The process of finishing the album, and working with Kelly on realising what Woods had in mind for the record, was imbued with a mutual understanding of artistic endgoals and frames of reference. “I followed my instinct, and asked James would he like to come on board largely from listening to his Stoic EP, which is a gem of a record. He was very supportive of my aesthetic vision, and we both valued keeping the innate character of my initial recorded takes. I love heavy music, where he was coming from, he has exquisite taste and he understood the core of my record from the get-go and what it needed, which was important to me. Trust played a huge role, it was a gift to work with him.”

As mentioned, ‘Colt’ released physically and digitally via Sacred Bones Records, an independent label out of Brooklyn, New York. A seemingly far-flung journey for Woods’ music to go on, it makes all the sense in the world with a brief perusal of the label’s roster, a who’s who of influential independent artists from around the world in the last two decades. Ahead of putting together her sophomore solo long-player for the label this year, the working relationship has been a harmonious one. “In many ways, I was careful with ‘Colt’, I only wanted to release it out into the world if it was in a way that honoured the enormity of the work that was poured into it. With Sacred Bones I feel at home; we were on the same page artistically from the outset, and they give me the leeway to work in whichever way feels natural. Their faith in me, and my project, means a great deal.”

Work on the record aside, Woods also spent 2017 working in the realms of theatre and film scoring. The former involved building a theatrical piece from the ground up around sound design for the Dublin Fringe Festival as its ‘Wild Card’ artist that year, and in the latter case, creating the new scores to a season of Weimar German films for the Irish Film Institute. “It was the summertime when I delved into those side projects, which presented themselves randomly out of the blue. So I said yes to both, as I felt they were opportunities for me grow as an artist, and to exhale and catch my breath from the intensity of making my record at home. Both undertakings were light in comparison to making ‘Colt’. Making a piece of theatre from sound design was a lot of fun. It was eye-opening to take a peek into another art form, the division of labour in theatre is still something I’m reflecting on, and hearing actors inject my written words and ideas with life, and riff and move and improvise to a sonic palette, was just so new to me, and exciting. Composing and performing solo a live film score was absolutely nerve-racking, but I do vibe off being thrown in at the deep end.”

Woods kicks off her year, ahead of US touring for the record, by playing an intimate show at the Triskel’s Christchurch on Saturday February 9th for Quarter Block Party. The historic surroundings of that part of the building ought to complement live performances of Woods’ perfectly, a challenge she seems to anticipate. “I felt very flattered to be asked to play Quarter Block Party. It’ll be my first time playing in Cork with ‘Colt’. It is a special and rare thing to play an artful, thoughtfully curated festival, that is experimental, and values cross-genre creativity in a wider sense. My pal Juno Cheetal, playing as Flowers At Night, is also opening the show, and the venue too is atmospheric and sits on a Medieval burial site. Perfect.”

Hilary Woods plays Triskel Christchurch on Saturday February 9th. Doors open at 11pm, with individual tickets going for €15 from uTicket.ie. The show is also part of the festival’s ticket bundle deals, with a headliner event and two other gigs going for €25, or two headliners and four other gigs going for €50.

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