Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Recording engineered by Ian Grimble
The floor of 2KHz at Church Studios in Crouch End, London, is the sort of thick timber that we place on the ground for locomotives to travel across. They are those beefy pieces of wood that will never break or wear. We'd swear that each piece was a whole tree, all its own. They feel immovable and unending as you walk across them. They are imposing and they fit the castle-like look of the darkened (even in the daytime) studio, with iron chandeliers dangling high above the planks. You enter the studio from a narrow walkway that lines the entire backside of this enormous, early 1800s building. Still with a working church in the center of it, everything feels right for Foy Vance, this songwriter from Bangor, County Down, Northern Ireland. He's near enough to the heads and the hands of those religious enough not to understand and he's close enough to a religion, or any remnants of a religion that he likely harbors quite a cautiousness toward. Then there's the lack of light in the place where the microphone that's set up for him stands. There's some candle wax that's been dripped from old sticks of lights that are jammed into the limbs of the chandeliers and Vance's boots are insistent and firm as they walk over these serious chunks of wood. As the Irishman strode in and opened up his guitar case, it felt like the calm before the storm. The hinges squawked when they were bent backward, further than they wanted to go, and his guitar was lifted from its fuzzy home. It took him just a matter of moments before he was using everything around him to his advantage. First it was the illusory soul of his, one that expands out with M.C. Escher-like staircases, going up and going down and somehow fitting together and against themselves in illogical predicaments. It's a soul that is so much bigger than the compartment that it's housed in could ever appear. It's something that - when allowed to do what it wants to do - can expand out to five times its size. It gets gigantic, like a parade balloon, hovering like a storm cloud that will never harm you. It will just send out warning shots of lightning and thunder - the fire streaking across the sky and nailing itself into the ground close enough to your feet that you'll dance a touch and the hair will stand up on your arms. The second thing that he starts to use is that hard wood beneath him. You can't necessarily hear it hear because of where the mics were placed, but the soles of his boots were pounding that floor with a force that could have shaken the dead awake for miles around. It was emphatic and it felt completely necessary to the composition of "Narrow Road," a song that seems to have come from a former life as a sharecropper from Dixieland or a gravedigger from New Orleans, a song so dim and yet smoking hot with cigarette smoke and steaming blood. Vance sings, "When darkness has your sense of place," at one point during this session, and he seems to have it pinpointed. It's all of his nightmares and your nightmares, coming together as one, to form this darkness that keeps you honest and makes you want to stomp it out of you. The darkness is home and when he sings, "When the wind starts to blow/Let it blow straight through your soul," he wants some of those howling breezes to take some of his home with them. Just a little, just enough to lighten the load.