Spring 2021. As London tentatively emerged from a third and final lockdown, it was more in excitement than expectation that Katie Melua found herself reaching out to violinist, composer and producer Simon Goff. Shortly after its release last April, Katie had bought Goff’s second solo album Vale and felt an almost synaesthetic connection with the sounds emerging from her earphones. “I was walking through the streets of London and it enveloped me completely. I felt like I was inside the instruments, and in particular this beautiful violin, but at the same time, it sounded almost animalistic.”
And yet, prior to last year, Goff and Melua were two musicians who moved in very different musical circles. Based in Berlin where he has his own studio, Goff is more closely aligned to bloodline of artists – Brian Eno, Jon Hopkins, Fuck Buttons, and, of course, Hildur Guðnadóttir, with whom he worked on Grammy-winning soundtracks for Chernobyl and Joker – who move in an area between electronic, classical and post-rock. Artists who make music that can often be profoundly emotional without recourse to the existing conventions of classical and pop.
In her own career, Katie Melua, who spent the first eight years of her life in Tbilisi, Georgia, has travelled far in every sense. Following the hugely successful release of modern standards such as The Closest Thing To Crazy, Melua has released 8 Top 10 UK albums, with her latest, Album No.8, released in 2020 to huge acclaim. A portrait of an artist experiencing a creative rebirth, Album No.8 took succour from new inspirations: the arrangements of Charles Stepney, records by American jazz pianist Brad Mehldau and Bob Dylan.
Happily, Melua found that her connection with Goff’s music intensified when they were actually playing in a room together. Collaborating on two songs for her album of acoustic versions of songs from Album No.8, Goff’s contributions were a quiet revelation: on Remind Me To Forget, a muted Greek chorus to a protagonist seeking to disperse their heartache in nature’s verdant panorama; on Maybe I Dreamt It, a rapt witness to the magic played out in Melua’s paean to influential German choreographer Pina Bausch. What both musicians will tell you now, independently of each other, is that what took place in the studio that day felt like the beginning of something. Quite what that something was, however, neither yet knew. It’s at moments like this that serendipity needs to step up to the plate. After performing Remind Me To Forget in Berlin on a German TV show, the pair visited an exhibition at the iconic brutalist edifice of the König Gallery. “I think we were both blown away by the space itself,” recalls Goff, “And that was what got us talking about the way spaces and, well… architecture impacts upon our emotions.”
“At that point, we both wanted to just start on a project straight away,” says Melua, glancing across at Goff, almost as if to confirm that he remembers it this way too. “You suggested we do a couple of days of writing and improvisation, didn’t you?” Melua continues: “That session, last August, was incredible. I’d never seen anyone work like this in the studio, composing on his instrument in an improvised way, then plugging into all the loop pedals and keyboards. Slowly you see this tapestry being created.”
For Melua, who had spoken about immersing herself in Goff’s most recent album, the challenge of collaborating together was now to do that almost in the literal sense; to be the ghosts transmitting from this extraordinary machine. And what would these ghosts say? An answer of sorts comes in the form in Tbilisi Airport, the first song written by Goff and Melua for the album that became Aerial Objects. As a rising tumult of pensive, unresolved strings peaks, we shift our gaze to focus on the emotional electricity that crackles inside this or indeed any airport. “I left Georgia when I was eight,” explains Melua, “and I’ll never forget what it was like saying goodbye to my extended family. On one hand, I remember thinking, ‘We’re moving to the UK, and it’s our golden ticket to freedom and safety’… but we were saying goodbye to my uncle, who I adored, and as he hugged me, I couldn’t stop crying. Then fast-forward many years. I’m at airports, say, five times a week and they become these functional spaces.” This duality is also what drew Goff to the subject matter: “I find airports really fascinating because on one side, they’re full of hope and promise, but I also often think of them as purgatory, you know, you get stuck there. In an airport you’re not really anywhere.”
There was, perhaps a subtle spirit of subversion afoot, in the job Melua set herself by designating the thematic terrain of Aerial Objects. Experimental pieces inspired by buildings have traditionally been the domain of male artists, from Brian Eno to OMD. The corollary of that is an expectation that female writers stay in “feminine” territory. It’s a binary Melua further seeks to undo with Hotel Stamba, effectively a love song to the eponymous hotel, but in practice, so much more than that.
“We reversed the process by which we wrote Tbilisi Airport,” recalls Goff, “We started with this mechanical bass pulse and that immediately started Katie off on this…” Melua picks up the thread: “…well, to me, it’s an attempt to create a piece of music which makes me feel the way this space made me feel when I stepped inside it. This building that symbolises both the past and future of Tbilisi, a place where the streets are named after poets and writers.”
Both here and elsewhere on Aerial Objects, Katie Melua found herself returning to the endless discourse between humans and the spaces they create for themselves. The diaphanous, sun-dappled rapture of Textures Of Memories uses Melua and Goff’s life-long fascination with New York as backdrop for what is perhaps the nearest we get to a conventional love song on this record” “Something in our kiss/had me at the store/It’s giving me the run around/I’m buying moonlight songs, while you’re working late.” Here, Melua drew upon her personal journals to address what she describes as the “survivors’ guilt” that has shadowed the most euphoric periods of her life – a hangover, she says, from “being an immigrant kid and making it in the music industry.” She continues: “I’ve been fortunate to have met someone in the last few years and be re-experiencing young love” – a love whose elusiveness she likens here to the light which finds its way through the skyline but disappears just as soon as it’s there.
“For me,” adds Goff, “that song is New York and New York is that song. And while, yes, it’s a love song, “I still wanted it to be so much more than that, that sense of infinite possibility. New York was the first place I went to after I graduated from college, and I went to John Cage’s apartment, I went to La Monte Young’s Dream House, I met Phill Niblock. I was immersed into this downtown New York arts scene. That song is hugely special for me, because somehow I think we managed to get the DNA of all those experiences in there.”
As the album reveals itself, so does a picture of two artists both pushing from and revelling in the conventions of their respective musical fields. For Simon Goff, who composed the album in its entirety, this amounted to a renewed respect for the art of lyric writing. “I remember Katie telling me about Lay Lady Lay and Don’t Think Twice by Bob Dylan, how she hears them from a lyrical point of view… why the sound and the way [Dylan] performs is linked so closely to the lyrics.” In turn, Goff sent her Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden which, as Melua puts it, “got me thinking about stretching out the words in different ways and exploring more stream-of-consciousness lyrics.”
On the album’s title track, Melua momentarily allowed herself to step back from emotions she was feeling in the first flush of new love and ask herself why she and thousands of songwriters before her have looked to the sky when trying to convey how they feel. “Once you notice it,” she laughs, “You can’t un-notice it! It’s everywhere, from Over The Rainbow to Starman, from Autumn Leaves to Zoom. Hence beyond the giddy ascent of the song’s opening section, sweet release comes with Melua serenely intoning “Clouds… kites… birds… rainbows… Starman… trees… leaves… fireworks.” In its own way, what emerges is a song which both celebrates and plays with the vernacular of love songs, just as songs by Scritti Politti, Prefab Sprout and Roxy Music have previously done.
One might be forgiven for hearing Goff and Melua discussing Aerial Objects and imagining that a collaboration born of the mutual hunger to experiment might make excessive demands upon the listener. However, for both musicians, the objective was not to notice the ideas that informed the record, more to feel the effect of them. “I’m not against the idea of pouring out your heart on a record, but it’s also important to remember when thinking about the poems and songs we love, that they were painstakingly assembled. I read somewhere that T.S. Eliot had two editors for The Wasteland and the Four Quartets, and there’s a book that chronicles the correspondence between him and his editors – and I thought, “Well, if T.S. Eliot wasn’t above using editors in that way, why should record makers be above it?”
An exquisite case in point is the album’s second song It Happened, which materialised after Melua plucked her favourite melodies from a succession of piano improvisations by Goff. What resulted, once the pair added a combination of programmed and acoustic drums, was a sort of symphonic machine music inspired by the future-facing drive of Herman Mathies and Werner Dutman, the German architects honoured in Melua’s lyric, whose work acted as a catalyst for the Bauhaus movement. Once the lyric was complete, Melua asked acclaimed poet and author Fiona Sampson to cast an impartial eye over it. Sampson’s response was to ask Melua if she considered removing all the words from the section that most resembled a conventional chorus. “And, in doing so,” says Melua, “everything fell into place. It just allowed the whole song to breathe.”
Having begun this adventure in an airport – a location synonymous with progress and modernity – an epiphanic encounter with Nicholas Crane’s book The Making Of The British Landscape hastened Katie Melua to the realisation that this was a record that needed to climax with “the grandest architecture of all – nature itself.” In the wake of his conversations with Melua about Crane’s book, Goff then set to work on what would become the breathtaking sonic panorama of its final track Millions Of Things. In creating a piece somehow redolent of simulated stop-motion footage of landscapes taking shape, Goff latticed myriad rhythms into one rising symphonic swell. However, the grandeur of what you hear strikes a discordantly poignant counterpoint to Melua’s childhood memories of magic hour marvels (“…I was eight walking home from school and it blew my mind in a beautiful/Sea thrift and sedge, Saline marshes…”) and woven among those, a requiem of sorts to Doggerland, the piece of land that once linked Britain to the rest of Europe. The symbolism here is impossible to miss, both in real life and in Goff and Melua’s piece. “In a parallel universe where Doggerland hadn’t disappeared below sea level,” explains Melua, “…our perception of who we are as British people in relation to Europe would be very different; and so, in turn, would the social and political events of the past six or seven years.”
To say that the pair are proud of what they’ve achieved here is something of an understatement. Whilst Melua is swift to hymn Goff’s working method, “where the process of engineering becomes a performance in itself”, Goff is just as swift to single out “Katie’s fearless commitment to exploration”, combined with her ability to locate mesmerising new pockets of melody within his improvisations. In keeping with an album inspired by our relationship with the space around us, Simon Goff asked feted installation artist Sebastian Kite to create the visual language for Aerial Objects.
“Sebastian and I work together a lot,” elaborates Goff, “We share a lot of similarities in our aesthetic and our ideas about what art can be, should be, about its accessibility. On the very first project we worked on, we were very fortunate to work with the late Mira Calix. One of the things she said which we’ve both kept close to us, was, ‘Don’t be surprised at people’s capacity for the challenge. People are so willing to rise to a challenge.’ That was the spirit in which Katie and I entered this. And actually, I don’t want to be presumptuous but I think the feeling is that this is far too enjoyable to not carry forward into future projects.”
An expression somewhere between delight and relief takes hold of Katie Melua. “Really? It’s what I was thinking, but I didn’t dare say it out loud!”