This joke is going to be funny for maybe 10 seconds. Or perhaps not at all. But I’m going to tell it anyway. When I ask Peter Brewis, from the Sunderland art rock Field Music, and Sarah Hayes, of the indie folk Admiral Fallow, the origin behind the name of their new musical project, You Tell Me, Brewis chuckles and smiles a little. “When people ask, ‘what’s your band is called,’ you say, well…” he stops. “You Tell Me!” I exclaim! To me, in that brief moment, it’s genius. What a perfect joke about the silliness of band names and the currency and self-importance of being in a band. Brewis and Hayes sigh, saying the joke wears thin very soon after being told. It’s true that upon repetition it falls a little flatter, and flatter still, but the imprint of how cheeky and unserious Brewis and Hayes are about this very serious, spectacular endeavour lasts a little while longer.
You Tell Me’s self-titled debut, out January 11 via Memphis Industry Records, is a glistening, dramatic album that will devastate and cheer you up in one swoop. Each song feels episodic, as though you’re listening to a musical production—not simply rising and falling but furiously climbing and collapsing. Amid the drama, the tracks are linked together cohesively, Brewis tells me, with little markers at the beginning and end of each to loop the whole thing together, making it a little less chaotic and experimental.
Hayes assumed more control over the lyrics for most of the tracks, though both adamantly say that it is a deeply collaborative project. But Hayes’ stretch into lyrical writing—learning a new method from scratch—was a creative challenge. The record is deeply personal, she says, and honest; concerned largely with the many different types of relationships one person can have and how one communicates in each of them. Even during our interview, Hayes points out this is a specific type of communication and relationship (interviewee and interviewer) and how one might overthink it after it’s done. (Which is true. I very much did).
From there, Brewis took Hayes’ tracks and amplified the drama, extending the emotions contained within them. They took an unconventional approach, too, often assuming personas to try and infuse the tracks with imprints of music they both love. For example, Randy Newman came up quite a bit as an influence. As did Kate Bush, which seemed inevitable since the pair met at a Kate Bush celebration concert where they both performed, and Brewis was struck by Hayes’ rendition of “This Woman’s Work.” The playfulness that marks some of Kate Bush’s tracks was applied to the duo’s lightest track on the record, “Water Cooler.”
“Water Cooler” is marked by its zippy keys—plentiful in attitude—and Hayes’ quieted vocals acting like an echo against Brewis’ crooning. While the record thematically deals with communication, its most compelling aspect in showing us that is how Brewis and Hayes communicate to each other via their own instruments: their voices. Lower octave, for example, or harmonizing, even this kind of echoing. These additions give a layer of complexity to a track, both will admit, that’s not really complex at all.
Brewis will tell you right away that there is no grand metaphor or purpose for the song other than it being an ordinary interaction between ordinary people who meet and fail at their romance. “Me and Sarah had been talking about metaphors,” he says, “[and] we think about them all the time. You’ve got to be careful with them. I had the idea that, ‘oh, we should write a song that… sounds like it could be a metaphor but it isn’t.’”
That didn’t stop me from trying to pull out a deeper meaning of the track from them, though. “Even though it’s a funny situation... it’s not overt, but there is a deep, meaningful thing either going to happen or not going to happen. The person is saying, ‘you know if you need someone then you know where to find me. If things are going wrong and you need someone to blame or you need someone to talk to or anything, you know where I am. I’m going to be here for you.’”
“You know, there is a moment where the conversation dries up, as a metaphor…” Brewis trails off, laughing at his own joke yet again.
Sarah is on Twitter.