Track by Track: ELA STILES – SONGS ON HARMONIUM WITH VOICE (SELF RELEASE, 2020)

Words: James Frostick and Ela Stiles
Artist image and cover art: Cait Burgoyne

Today marks the official release of Songs On Harmonium With Voice – the new seven-track album from Ela Stiles. Comprised of old and new compositions – reworked utilising a spartan sonic palette – the record presents a haunting reimagining of tracks born at the opposite end of the musical spectrum. Experimental and pop-driven compositions become grounded and solemn, unveiling a hidden beauty discovered via Ela’s powerful vocal performance. 

Usually when an artist enacts a stylistic pivot, they typically funnel the new ideas into the genesis of fresh material. Few look back at their established catalogue and elect to rework old songs, but there aren’t many artists like Ela Stiles. On Songs On Harmonium With Voice, Ela looks back at her previous EPs and records (as well as some compositions intended for a forthcoming pop album – some background info can be found here), plucking a selection of songs for some canny reconsideration and reconfiguration using a minimal palette of sounds – in this case, voice and harmonium. Ela’s previous works have incorporated everything from droning synth to vocal loops, but now, freed of fripperies and presented in this spartan context, new magic reveals itself.

By stripping away the instrumentation of previous tracks, Ela has given her songs a new life, imbued them with a new essence, cast them in a new light. They’ve become different songs entirely, with added nuances and characteristics to examine and fall in love with all over again. The newer compositions hold promise of further reinvention, too. Tracks like ‘Memory Can’t Help’, ‘Lover’ and ‘Silence’ are introduced to us on this record as sombre arrangements, but they all hold the promise of a further evolutional step. Though each newcomer boasts a shadowy beauty, I can’t help but envision what they’d be like when bathed in the prismatic light of pop. That’s for another time, though. For now, these seven tracks of melancholic sound make for an intense and emotionally resonant listen – a fully realised and perfectly executed idea that stands on its own as a striking work of art.

Ela Stiles has kindly shared some words on the record – the beginnings of songs and the meanings behind them.

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‘S.B. Mantra’
‘Sanctimonious Bitch’ wow. This song has some pretty angry themes. “Never think of me, you bring bad luck“. The lyrics to me are quite surreal, but also I think I was feeling pretty dark when I wrote it
and all my insecurities and anger went into it. This song was originally on my second record ‘Molten Metal’ and featured harsh drum machines, tape loops and strange metallic sounds. I think of it as a pop song, but I can understand it being called ‘experimental’. I think it sounds more pop performed on harmonium though. This song won’t be getting a reprise.


‘Memory Can’t Help’
This song was originally written and recorded as a pop song for my next record, where it’s actually a clubby, techno, pop song; so this harmonium version is a preview of what’s to come. “Are you ready for me cause I am ready for you, for you, for you” – performed on harmonium it sounds quite sad (as with most of the songs) but its actually a bit of a sassy, playful pop song.


‘Molten Metal’
This song came about when I made a tape loop of the lyrics:
I seethed like a pot, dark as a grave, molten metal I’m feeling afraid“. The rest of the song happened around that. I released it on a tape in 2015 then it had a reprise on my second record as the title track. It probably won’t be getting another reprise unless I get around to releasing a remix I made of it ages ago.


‘Lover’
This one was also written for my new pop record and its nothing like the harmonium version! Again, it’s a club song. I don’t think I had even finished the lyrics when we recorded this. Harmonium makes everything sound sad. I think its about a very unthoughtful person who is stringing someone along in the name of ‘love’. It also has a bit of a ‘fuck you, I deserve better’ element to it – “You think you’ve won. You think I’m dumb. You. Don’t. Know. Me“. So yeah, again, classic pop themes.


‘Kumbh Mela’
This song was on my first S/T album, originally performed a capella.
It was written with my old friend Steve, who was my bandmate in my first band ‘Songs’ way back. We were working on music together, trying to make something to release but we never quite got there. I stole this song from that.


‘Hit Hard’
Anger rose like in a dark wall, blackening the sky, when I’m mad like sheets of black glass waiting in my eyes“. It’s about being so angry and sad and just seeing black.


‘Silence’
This is the final new song, written for and featuring on my pop album. It was the first song I wrote when I decided to make pop music. “All you’ll hear is silence, from me and all you’ll see is an outline of me.” I really hold a grudge, so if you wrong me I very rarely forgive.

Songs On Harmonium With Voice is out now. You can nab a digital copy via Ela Stiles’ Bandcamp page.