Sophie Hutchings has created a stunning piano-driven, instrumental album that crosses genres in the most unexpected way. Becalmed conjures up any number of visual responses in the listener, from autumnal landscapes to fire-lit seaside nights. It may produce an unconscious wry smile of remembrance or unsuspectingly bring you to the verge of tears.
Growing up in an intensely musical household, her father has supported the likes of Frank SInatra as a jazz musician, and her brother Jamie fronts Bluebottle Kiss as a singer/songwriter. It’s no surprise then that Sophie’s debut album sounds so assured as it does.
I caught up with Sophie on the eve of her debut release to try and decipher the origins of her album; to work out if her family are genetically blessed or if the simple act of musical immersion from an early age was enough to foster the imagination behind Becalmed.
In preparation for our interview, Becalmed was on repeat for the preceding days and I’ll admit it did foster moments of introspection. En route to our rendezvous I follow a girl up the stairs to a bar presuming Sophie is a few minutes early for our interview. The girl in the camel coloured woollen coat has her straight hair pulled into a loose ponytail at the nape of her neck. A soft, pastel blue scarf at her collar is the only hint of colour; her petite frame slightly rounded at the shoulders as she casts her eyes over the small crowd from the top of the stairs. Striding up the last few steps I call out “Sophie. Hi.” The girl turns to me and her slight smile slides downward and her brow knots as she says “Sorry?”
I introduce myself and watch the confusion mount. Oh. She is not a pianist. And no, her name is not Sophie. Right.
I stride around the bar looking for any other woman sitting alone and come up with nothing, except my own amazement at my ability to construct a cliched version of a classically-trained pianist.
Bagging a table I take up my pen and reporters notebook and stand back at the top of the stairs. Soon, up comes bounding a woman with short bouncy curls and a beaming smile, her blue eyes accented with mascara. I only get a moment to take it all in as Sophie grabs my hand and swiftly takes charge. “You must be Jennifer, I could tell by your notebook that you were a journalist,”she says.
“Please stop me if I get carried away, I get extremely chatty. I am that person who talks to anything that moves” Sophie tells, her fingers waving precariously close to the glasses of wine we’ve just sat down to. She seems to be the antithesis of Becalmed as she melds ideas in streams, weaving tales in and out of conversation. Her excitement about the album is infectious as she tells me of the interview she did last night with Robbie Buck on ABC 702 radio.
Chatting away about music and family was the highlight, but switching from lively banter to live performance wasn’t as easy. Lit by harsh studio lights with a production team crowded behind, an unfamiliar digital keyboard and her interviewer looking on expectantly proved intimidating. “I found it really difficult in that setting, because my music has always been that part of myself that I don’t share with the rest of the world. People I know are always surprised to hear I get shy and nervous about playing because I’m basically such a flamboyant, outgoing person and my music is totally the opposite,” she says with a laugh.
Her father and brother are the most obvious musical figures in Sophie’s life, so it’s natural to query the presence of a musical gene in the Hutchings family. Sophie’s parents met while her father was touring Chicago with an American band. “Mum always says they fell in love through music – although she doesn’t play an instrument, music was what brought them together.”
The youngest of the Hutchings clan, Sophie was exposed to all types of music: her mother favoured Neil Young and Johnny Cash, her father preferred jazz and her brothers were all about alternative rock. “I remember raiding my brothers’ record collections and them sharing new stuff with me like the Ramones and Talking Heads. Conversations at home were always about music.”
So what was it like being constantly surrounded by music growing up?
“Noisy,” she wails, and then bursts into giggles. With her father up one end of the house playing jazz and the boys enjoying indie and alternative at the other, stereo wars played a large part of her upbringing. “So my environment absolutely had a huge impact but I would say it’s also genetics in our case.”
Oliver Sacks, professor of neurology and author of ‘Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain’, discusses both genetics and environment in his book. Sacks observes that synesthesia, a fusion of the senses where people may “see colours in response to speech or music, for example, is strongly familial. He also tells of synesthesists feeling their “condition to be central to their musical identity and playing a most active part in their process of composing.” Those with synesthesia, Sacks summarises, “feel that their situation is so natural that questions like “what is it like?” are as unanswerable as asking “what is it like to be alive?”
Whether the answer in Sophie’s case is genetics or a childhood immersion in “noise”, it’s the subtle beauty of her debut that best provides an answer. “My Dad had a piano that he used occasionally to write charts on and Mum says they would often find me tinkering away in my own little world at that piano.”
The opening track, “Seventeen” came from a piece that she wrote at the same age. “Seventeen” I actually wrote when I chucked a sickie. I hated playing in front of people at home, even around my family sometimes. One night all my family were going out and I said I didn’t feel well because I really wanted to play piano and that’s when I wrote “Seventeen.”
“Portrait of Haller” could have quite easily slipped into the soundtrack of the Italian film I am Love. The sense of possibility and tension leads into an expansiveness that could easily be likened to riding a bicycle along a windy country road in autumn, something that could easily place Sophie’s work in a cinematic context.
“I would love, absolutely love to do a score for a film but you know so many people are out there trying to do that, so I don’t know. But I have a very realistic view of life in the music industry. My father played with amazing artists but he still needed to earn his bread and butter to bring up us four kids with a mortgage. HeÃ’d play with Sammy Davis Junior one night and do a pub gig the next.”
Despite her almost idyllic childhood, Sophie’s teenage rebellion centred on music. “I left home being really annoyed that I was rammed jazz down my throat all my life, now my collection has loads and loads of jazz and I love it.”
She loved the infectious sense of discovering new music through her brothers and got into a lot of the stuff around in the early 90s but she still hadn’t had her own musical epiphany. That is until her brother came home with My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless.
“Jamie came home with this album and told me he’d found something that I was going to fall in love with. I was mesmerised by it, I taped it and played it in my Walkman on the way to school everyday for weeks and weeks.” A pattern starts to emerge as we discuss more recent additions to her musical collection like Sun Ra, Brian Eno, Boards of Canada and her favourite composer Johann Johannsson. There’s the occasional record store purchase but lately, Amazon has been the source. “I need to have the whole package with the artwork and the liner notes so I don’t buy off iTunes.”
Her collection points to a love of the atmospheric and experimental – evocative, perhaps, without a whole lot of what we might traditionally associate with the classical label. That said, Becalmed isn’t entirely classical either. “Portrait of Haller” is definitely not classical, it gets quite chaotic and has a lot of textural sounds going on. Track 7, “Aftermost”, that’s a very ambient piece mainly driven by organ and cello.”
Most of the piano tracks on Becalmed are somewhat meditative, like the pulsating concentric rings caused by a pebble entering a spring. Others swell with cello, violin and percussion to create more movement and dynamism, though their repetitive structures never result in an idea occurring time and time again. It’s an idea she picked up from The Necks and their debut album Sex. A gift from friend and The Necks producer Tim Whitten, it was a turning point: “that album was a revelation for me. It was the first time I’d heard these repetitive patterns used so intensely and I really connected with it.”
Becalmed was produced in two parts, one with Tim Whitten and the other with Tony Dupe in his home studio in the serene surrounds of Kangaroo Valley on the South Coast of New South Wales. “Going from recording in that setting to Tim’s city studio I found really difficult actually. The studio just felt so mechanical. My music is really quite intimate and I need to have atmosphere to create these sounds,” she says. After a couple of takes in Tim’s city studio they decided to mix things up. Curtains were drawn, the piano moved around and lamps were brought in and strategically placed to create a different atmosphere. “Once I have more experience with recording I’m sure it will get easier, but that change really helped me feel more comfortable.”
Aside from the opening track “Seventeen” most of the songs on Becalmed were written only three weeks before the recording process began. “My main motivation for recording the album was that I never document any of my compositions,” she says, continuing on to note that the only way a piece stays with her is if she plays it over and over, as she had done with “Seventeen” over the years. “There’s 3 pieces I wrote on that album that had been floating around in my head, and the tips of my fingers I guess, for a few years that I never did anything with.”
Structuring a composition around pieces that have been floating on the periphery brings a complete sense of calm and respite. “When I actually create the composition, there is nothing in mind whatsoever. It’s such a great thing for me because my mind never stops, I’m chatting away to people all the time and I don’t sleep well generally… my music definitely comes from a subconscious, from within, and the way the piece comes out is obviously a part of me that I don’t really share with people, it’s definitely a strong part of me. It’s only after I’ve actually composed the piece that I will start to relate to something in it on an emotional level.”
Becalmed is a collection of compositions that you might listen to as a background piece but it’s not un-evocative. It is subtle and soothing at times, yet on closer inspection tension filled and almost chaotic, but in a kind of quiet way. It reaches in seeking a soft emotive response from the listener yet was created by a vivacious, talkative and enthusiastic young woman with boundless energy. Becalmed is an exciting and surprising debut whose elegance and whispering subtlety may surprise, especially those who know Sophie.
Becalmed is currently available through Preservation.