Woodpecker Wooliams – The Bird School Of Being Human

Woodpecker Wooliams - The Bird School Of Being Human

Woodpecker Wooliams – The Bird School Of Being Human

Gemma Williams trained as a midwife, moved from London to the rural west of England where she learned to play the harp and The Bird School Of Being Human is her second full song collection (after 2010’s Patryoska). Hers is a sound that fuses traditional folk and electronica alongside some keeningly expressed lyrics, and it’s a remarkable and innovative one. Wooliams (to use her chosen musical name) takes as her inspiration the notion of people taking on aspects of different species of bird life in their own personalities, and each song on the album is a representation of this both musically and lyrically and while in less skilful hands it’s a concept that probably wouldn’t get further than the ideas stage, Woodpecker Wooliams realises her own ideas fully, and the results are an involving, brilliantly performed and occasionally startling display from a quite genuinely original talent.

Album opener “Red Kite” establishes Wooliams’ approach with its plucked harp and taped birdsong introduction, interspersed with keyboard and some other sound effects, ending in a chaotic percussive collapse, a series of conflicting elements that meld together seamlessly here. Wooliams and her collaborators make what is an involved and intricately performed song appear almost effortless and her voice, at once breathless and sharply phrased, contains the potential to dazzle. Which it does, along with its musical backing as the album progresses.

Wooliams has chosen to release second track “Gull” as a single from the album, and its deftly played harp jars against the jaggedly erratic electronics that provide the songs backdrop, much like an actual seagull haphazardly tearing apart a binbag. “Sparrow” relies more obviously on the electronic side of Wooliams’ music and around here some listeners might decide to stop interpreting Wooliams bird/human concept and just take what they can from the music as it stands. Some, but not all. The Magpie (a type of Jay) is a bird surrounded by folklore, traditionally known as a thief attracted to bright objects and one its very unlucky to harm or kill (this was actually made illegal in the UK in the 1980s). A bird with an obsession, perhaps, and the song Wooliams has written for it is a lullaby of sorts, a moodily atmospheric declaration of motherly affection that verges on the unbalanced, whether it’s addressed to a child or an adult. Wooliams isn’t holding anything back on us, her music contains a depth and resonance that can make for a sometimes less than comfortable listen.

Only sometimes, though. “Dove” has Wooliams showing us her skill as a harpist and doesn’t do much to alter traditional ideas about what doves are and what they represent, or does it? As the track breaks up in a melee of frenzied drumming it could sound as if Wooliams is also (metaphorically) smashing her harp up and you may need to replay the track to catch exactly what the lyrics are, to really gauge the depth of her lyricism, some of which does get lost in the frenetic musicianship (a printed lyric sheet would prove useful here) although the complete sound of the track, including what is Wooliams most fragile and emotive vocal performance, goes some way beyond requiring a too literal interpretation.

It isn’t a difficult album to listen to, but The Bird School Of Being Human contains a near bewildering rush of ideas and images that will require repeated hearings to appreciate fully. Woodpecker Wooliams and her fellow musicians don’t hold much back, either in Wooliams own harp playing (which is exceptional) or in the abrasive electronica and chaotic percussion that provides a backdrop to this. And the idea that underpins the album, that of combining bird types and human personalities, and telling stories based around these ideas, sort of drifts out of focus amongst the musicality although that is, I decided, only where the music and words really begin with former midwife Gemma Williams, her harp, her synth, and her collection of metallic objects.