Words: James Frostick
Artist image and cover art: Cait Burgoyne
On October 7, Naarm/Melbourne-based singer and producer Ela Stiles will release Songs On Harmonium With Voice – a seven-track album featuring old and new songs reconfigured into solemn and austere compositions. ‘Lover’ is the album’s first single – a haunting and enthralling work that sees Ela manipulating the sparse palette of sound to make it feel all-encompassing – a frisson-inducing swell that could fill any vastness, physical or incorporeal.
Ela Stiles is an artist that has no qualms with stylistic pivots. Her career thus far spans genre (Ela’s fingerprints can be found on releases from the likes of Songs, The Rangoons, J. Mcfarlane’s Reality Guest and Bushwalking – not to mention her stint with Scott & Charlene’s Wedding), but it’s her solo output that perhaps showcases the most sonic shapeshifting. In 2014 Ela dropped her debut solo LP, which boasted a collection of bewitching a cappella songs that showed ample compositional ingenuity. This introduction was followed by two cassette releases, 2015’s Preparation and 2016’s Black Metal, which featured experimental explorations with harmonium, vocal loops and synth drone. By the time her 2016 LP Molten Metal arrived, Ela had expanded her roster of instruments to include guitar, drums and drum machines – crafting textural pieces that boasted some extra oomph, while still maintaining the experimental lean of previous works. Between then and now Ela has been putting in work on the next gear shift – a pop record! In hindsight, there were signs that hinted at such a move as far back as 2016 (just listen to Molten Metal standout ‘Fuck You‘) but it turns out Ela is making one more stop before pop. Songs On Harmonium With Voice is a concept album, of sorts – a record that reimagines old tracks and gives a curious glimpse at some of the new ones. I wouldn’t consider this a mere cursory detour – Songs On Harmonium With Voice (recorded and mixed by Jack Farley) is a strikingly singular record that not only shows Ela’s musical malleability, but also her knack for taking established material and giving it new life with some canny recontextualisation.
‘Lover’ is the album’s lead single and is also one of three new songs to be featured on the album (the other four have appeared on Molten Metal and the self-titled LP). Here Ela has stripped her songs back to humble elements, ditching the instrumental repertoire she’d accumulated over time in favour of two components she’s perhaps most familiar with – harmonium and voice. With the former, Ela is revelling in the pump organ’s unadulterated sound, which is robust yet melancholy. The harmonium’s resonant timbre forms a broad foundation for the second key component. Ela’s voice is, to me, the most remarkable aspect of the song. It’s a voice that cuts to the quick and hits a sensitive point deep within that’s only accessible via incredibly affecting movements. It’s by turns ghostly and ethereal in its delicacy then arresting and awe-inspiring in its clarity. Even on previous releases, when obscured by drone and distortion, her voice held a discernible power – here it’s breathtaking. ‘Lover’ is the kind of song that leaves my body humming – a head-filling experience that makes the ensuing silence all the more profound. While it might be hard to fathom these tracks as anything other than this, Ela’s proven that she’s more than capable of reworking material to great success. While I’m excited for these tracks to be born again in Ela’s pop phase, I’m perfectly content to linger in this mellow moment for a solid while. Listen here:
Songs On Harmonium With Voice will be released digitally on October 7. You can pre-order it here.