Photo by Joshua Wright
Hilary Woods’s music is a slippery thing. Over the past half decade, the Dublin-based songwriter has churned out complicated documents of emotional turmoil, slow and dark songs with an undertow of loss—the sort of tracks that are weighty enough to pull you under the surface of the water. “It’s essential for me as a human being to embrace my shadow side,” she explains via email. “I explore darker impulses in my music because that’s what presents itself to be explored, it enables me to be light in other aspects of living, and I’ll always appreciate music-making for that alone.”
It’s been a bit of a circuitous route for Woods to get to this realization. She grew up making music from childhood. She recalls her brother making a drumset out of “biscuit tins” and her parents playing tons of records around the house, from Rachmaninoff to Elvis and all sorts of stuff in between. As a teen, she played in the band JJ72, touring when school allowed and then really taking off when she finished. “Even at that point I didn’t know if music was something I had to do / be,” she says. “I hadn’t applied myself to writing my own songs yet.” She enrolled in art school, and soon after leaving the band found out she was pregnant. “My twenties consisted of juggling motherhood with college, and music was something that gradually came back into my life in a big way.” She started making these small, creeping solo recordings, which formed the basis of two EPs, 2014’s Night and 2016’s Heartbox.Woods’ debut full-length Colt (out June 8 on Sacred Bones), by all appearances, basks in the same gothic glow as the EPs she’s released. She says that she recorded it while “completely broke” in an apartment that’d been “ditched by a landlord who’d gone bankrupt.” She had a studio set up in one room, built around recording equipment she’d accumulated other the years, and was living in another with her daughter, occasionally contending with surprise appearances from representatives from a bank, who wanted them out of the building. It was, by her own admission “anxiety inducing,” and press materials refer to the songs as evoking “grief and abandonment.”
“Intentionally or not,” Woods says. “I feel the songs embody loss, romance, damaged relationships, and the feeling of having to abandon strands of one’s being in order to nurture others.”But it was, and always has been, more complicated than that. Despite the fact that it was kinda tenuous recording in that apartment, it was Woods’s space. Because the themes she was dealing with were so intense and so personal, she felt it’d be tough to play them in front of others. Doing it at home offered some respite from the discomfort. “I found making music [in that apartment] incredibly empowering, reassuring and grounding,” she says. “And there was bliss in that.” Consequently, there’s a deceptive lightness woven into Colt’s dark fabric. Songs like “Black Rainbow,” which is streaming here, offer glimmering piano parts and celestial strings alongside the more grayscale instrumental passages, a placidity amidst the turmoil. Over a vaporous keyboard line, Woods sings of the possibility of hope and love: “I just wanted you to put your arms around me / I just wanted to see your stars align.”Elsewhere, Woods invokes religious icons and whispers openheartedly about how she “long[s] to be free,” suggesting possibilities of escape from the heaviness that the world sometimes offers you. There are more morose passages, but their coexistence feels natural, each coloring the other, which Woods seems to suggest is by design. “In the very act of writing itself—playing music and sculpting songs—[there] is color and the life to be found no matter what the shade of darkness of the material, memory, or feeling you’re drawing from,” she says. “‘Black Rainbow’ was so named because I loved that image, the idea that when that’s all one can see overhead / when a relationship is dying between two people that once loved each other very much—there is no choice but to believe that there is something better for you at the end of it all.”Hilary Woods' Colt is out June 8 on Sacred Bones. You can pre-order it here.Colin Joyce is an editor for Noisey and is on Twitter.