If you live in a city like London or New York – garbage ecosystems running on 24-hour public transport, never ending construction work and kebab meat – silence becomes a rare and precious joy. When was the last time you stepped outside and weren't immediately smacked in the face by a hard wave of noise? Raised voices, sirens, drilling, buses screeching to a stop and puffing away again, a dirge of public service announcements and endless beeping all clog up airspace like dead leaves in a drainpipe. Unless you pay for it, it's hard to find the space for silence, but if I don't experience it frequently enough I start to fray at the edges. Every minor act of irritation grates like one million Jimmy Carrs laughing in unison. Anyone who walks in front of me at an inconvenient pace becomes the worst person to have ever lived. It's no way to be.
I spent 17 years growing up on a street that backs onto one wood and sits opposite another. To the right of my parents' house there is a neighbour with a painstakingly maintained vegetable patch and terrible hearing; to the left, a church. It's the sort of street that falls deathly silent at 7PM, at which point everyone spies on each other through the curtains and relays anything that could be considered "weird" behaviour in hushed tones to the rest of the family. Even the summer holidays felt long, languid and still. It was so quiet I would all but shit myself every time the ice cream van crashed up the road, piercing the air with some mental circus version of "Greensleeves". Overgrown mining land looms over the village like the crest of another planet. Spending more than a week there now makes me lose my grip on reality and I end up frozen in my own anxiety like Jack Nicholson with his eyes rolled back clutching an axe. At the same time, it's also not surprising that spending most of my time in a city can be overwhelming – especially one that can barely go three seconds without taking a sledgehammer to my chill.
We all have our own little rituals to keep us grounded, we all have music we lean towards when we want to sink into someone else's misery, happiness or lust – like a big bean bag because the feeling there resembles our own – but there are also the albums you put on to be somewhere completely different for a while. The ones that take on a role outside themselves and end up becoming worlds to immerse yourself in when the one around you becomes way too much. When you need silence that the city doesn't provide and that your secondary base has in overwhelming abundance, you end up finding solace in places that don't necessarily exist.
Enter: Florist's The Birds Outside Sang, which came out last January. Emily Sprague – the songwriter behind the "friendship project" birthed in New York's Catskill Mountains – wrote it while recovering from a cycling accident that left her with a broken arm and a neck brace. Most of the songs are built around minimal guitars, synth lines and soft, layered vocals that bristle with fragility whether or not you take into account the fact that it was written in a period of physical restriction. To call it skeletal or sparse is wrong, though; the space created is intentional and there's a lot happening in it.
Full of references to colour and light, "tall trees, cold lakes, quiet dreams", Florist's music is intrinsically tied to nature, the body and the relationship between the two. In a track that's straight up called "Thank You", Sprague delivers a monologue in a voice that croaks like an old branch under the weight of itself: "This beautiful thing happens every day it's called the sun, it's called my blood, and it's the only thing making us want to be alive / I'm really grateful for the people I've met but that won't make me die any less / A mound of dust that light somehow seeps through and creates you / Thank you." Nature appears in a very emotional way, helping to articulate the details of a time that Sprague identifies as "full of confusion, physical emotional pain, loneliness and hope." Incidentally, the artwork resembles Ness' bedroom in EarthBound, which is probably one of the most visually lush and emotionally-driven RPGs ever developed.
The Birds Outside Sang often views big feelings through a kaleidoscope, picking up all their intricacies: love is splintered into memories and gratitude, death becomes more about impermanence in general, sadness manifests itself in sensory detail ("Please come quick, I've stuck my head in the banister again / But I just wanted to know what it would feel like / With one part of my body alive"). The best way I can describe it is the way your skin starts to prickle after you've been lying in the sun for too long, or walking into a warm room after you just plunged your hands into a bucket of ice. It is vague and precise, big and small, at once; feeling the room to grow or fade in real time rather than trying to pin it or own it in any way.
There are plenty of reasons to like Florist aside from the ones I've just mentioned, not least because they make good-ass songs, plain and simple. This album resonates with me as the sort of person who absorbs micro-detail before anything else; if we are best friends I may not remember your date of birth but I will know exactly which quotes you will pull out of a viral video to WhatsApp me in all caps. If we made out I will struggle to remember exactly what your face looks like but I will take the brand of gum you chew to my grave. Most of all, though, everything about it – the precision, the patience, the fact that it just feels slow in the way that vast landscapes and daytime naps and floating on your back in a large body of water do – feels like a gift from a future where VR is used as a form of therapy. It's like my San Junipero.
I revisited The Birds Outside Sang after Florist recently announced their next album If Blue Could Be Happiness, which comes out at the end of September. Recorded in a schoolhouse near where Emily Sprague spent her childhood, If Blue Could Be Happiness remembers her mother who died unexpectedly earlier this year and is described as "both a goodbye to a past life and a declaration of great love to a new one. A long mourning song for the death of a mother, and a quiet celebration of the endless struggle that is being alive."
I listened to an advance copy on my way to work on Monday. Sitting on the top deck of the bus by the window, one of the few public spaces in London besides the library where it is possible not to feel suffocated, providing you have headphones on, that same quiet feeling – a combination of significance and relief – settled in again. Just as the title track on The Birds Outside Sang swells into a swirl of fuzzy synths as Sprague sings "Do you and your friends want to come into the field and watch the fireworks shoot up into the air" over and over, the title track on If Blue Could Be Happiness repeats a single line for most of its five minutes: "If blue could be happiness then that's all I want".
Blue is a word with endless meaning. It's a colour that can make you think of sadness, water, the sky, the cold, healthcare, heaven. It's both tranquil – a symbol of trust and intimacy, if you subscribe to personality types – but also terrifying, like the depths of the ocean or space. Florist don't offer any answers. The lyrical detail is symbolic and literal, grappling with the vastness of life while acknowledging our smallness. In doing so, Sprague has created an environment where a hush falls over your internal monologue like a breeze through the woods, allowing you to stand still for as long as you like in the current of it all. In that sense, Florist's albums have become a third home.
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