27 May 2022

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Fathom - Album Review: The World To Breathe

31 Jan 2022 // A review by Kev Rowland

I have often said that to me the purest form of music is when a musician is performing acoustically, with no effects whatsoever, just stood on the stage with no room to hide. There is nothing then between the artist and the listener, just their voice and the unplugged nature of their instrument, relying solely on their songs and performance to make that important connection. When it works, it is like nothing else on earth, which is probably why I can be found raving about folk music as much as I can the heaviest and most extreme forms of metal you can find. Having listened to this album I am wondering if I need to add another caveat, in that the musician must also be able to make their own instruments and use them in the recording of an album.

Fathom is the new project from Nancy Howie, who for the last decade has been found working in her folk trio, Tweed. When the first lockdown hit in New Zealand, touring stopped, and she found herself at home with time on her hands. A piano tuner by trade, Nancy decided it would be a useful exercise to see if she could create instruments out of what she had readily available, and the result was a series of bespoke instruments including two hurdy gurdies, one lap steel, an abundance of horns/saxophones and a cello made from a fence post and a tin can. Needless to say, the creation of the instruments combined with a frantic writing phase and the result is The World To Breathe.

To say this is a triumph is a real understatement. Firstly, Nancy has a wonderful voice and a powerful idea of melody and combines this with strong lyrics and striking arrangements to create songs which are memorable and enjoyable on the very first play and then only get better each time the album is repeated. There is little in the way of percussion, which allows for space, and it is not often that one is distracted by wondering what has created a certain sound (I am sure the beginning of Child of Today is multi-layered blowing across a bottle). In some ways it is like Rick Allen, the one-armed drummer from Def Leppard. The first time anyone sees him play they treat him as something strange, and then soon realise he is a great drummer, and the lack of an arm no longer becomes important. It is the same with this album: there are homemade instruments being utilised in different places, but this really does not matter as the important aspect is that this is a great album.

Although Nancy comes from a folk background, that is only one of the styles to be found on the album, as there is plenty of singer/songwriter, some acoustic pop, jazz stylings, and even some acoustic rock. That is not to say that there are no electric instruments on the album, but rather they are brought in for specific purposes. Her voice is wonderful, with a different edge depending on the mood, while the songs are sublime in so many ways. This album is a delight from beginning to end, and I have a funny feeling it will be in my NZ Top 10 at the end of the year.

Rating: ( 5 / 5 )

About Fathom

Fathom is the brainchild of Nancy Howie, singer-songwriter, musician and maker. Hailing from Auckland by way of a nomadic nautical childhood, her latest project is a sprawling bedroom-folk experiment featuring DIY instruments and home-recorded music which tests the limits of lockdown-borne creativity.

Nancy has written and performed with her folk trio Tweed for almost a decade, playing in Auckland Folk Festival, on Radio New Zealand’s NZ Live programme, and for theatrical presentations in which they were commissioned to write the music. However, NZ’s first COVID lockdown forced the band to take a break from performance. Stranded at home, Nancy discovered a passion for inventing and building experimental instruments, beginning with a fencepost-based creation resembling a cello, and expanding to balloon-saxophones, unusual percussion instruments, and an improvised hurdy gurdy.

Her upcoming release The World to Breathe is the end result of a year of DIY instrument building combined with a collection of songs which explore themes of anxiety, self-discovery and unfamiliarity of life under COVID-19. The album was recorded at home during the lockdown, and features instruments handmade in her basement. Her music incorporates influences of ‘70s folk-rock, jazz, and indie, but the sound of homemade instrumentation is uniquely her own.

Visit the muzic.net.nz Profile for Fathom


The World to Breathe
Year: 2022
Type: Album

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