Caught by the River

Solitary Meanderings

8th December 2020

As Bella Union release a new 6-track EP by Laura Groves, Anton Spice talks to the artist about the paths, rivers, and landscapes — both built and organic — which shaped it.

Every day during the first lockdown, singer and multi-instrumentalist Laura Groves would leave her house in South East London at the same time and make the same hour-long walk past her local recreation ground. “There is a path around the edge,” she explains, “but there’s also one that has been worn away down the middle which isn’t official, it’s just one that people have been drawn to take.” The unofficial path cuts across the large rectangular field towards a row of tall poplar trees. “When you do the same thing every day, you notice small changes in the leaves, or the flowers that have come out,” she says. “Walking down the central path to these trees felt like this symbolic thing that I had to do.”

Laura’s path is reminiscent of a ‘shul’ – the Tibetan word for ‘track’ which Rebecca Solnit traces to mean ‘a mark that remains after that which made it has passed by’. ‘A path is a shul because it is an impression in the ground left by the regular tread of feet,’ Solnit writes in A Field Guide To Getting Lost. ‘As a shul, emptiness can be compared to the impression of something that used to be there.’

This fascination with memory traces and resonance is central to Groves’ new EP A Private Road, and the Desire Paths zine and NTS radio shows which accompany it. Inspired by her solitary meanderings across the city, and assembled from layers of home recordings, it was imagined as a soundtrack to walk with, an ode to setting off without a destination in mind. ‘In your own time, take your first step. It’s ok to be blinded by the uncertainty of this path,’ writes Joviale Tshabola in Desire Paths. ‘What is more seductive than the dark turns of mystery that await you?’

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The first time I heard Laura Groves was on a 2013 cover of Linda Thompson’s ‘Lover Won’t You Throw Me A Line’ by Nautic. I had just received the kind of news that demands movement, where to keep still is to go under. With Nautic on repeat, I went for a walk, down to Embankment and across the river, her soft falsetto ringing clear: nothing to see but the water.

“I don’t know why I’m so drawn to the River Thames particularly,” Groves wonders. “There’s lots of subterranean water flowing underneath London that we don’t even think about.” I get the sense that water runs through Groves’ work like an underground river, present but rarely seen. In 2009’s Blue Roses, she longs for the ‘coast of the East of England’, her work with Nautic, as the name suggests, is steeped in references to the ocean, and her solo debut Thinking about Thinking begins with the shimmering ‘Inky Sea’. For her birthday last month, she decided to walk to the Thames Barrier. 

With roots in the North West, Groves has long been exposed to desolate landscapes. She draws comparisons between the liminal, estuarine expanse of the Thames and the “bleak, sprawling” Pennines in West Yorkshire. “It’s a bit hostile and a bit unforgiving,” she says. “There is something about it not owing you anything that I like.” Her mother’s family are from the Cumbrian town of Barrow-In-Furness, her grandparents from the adjoining Walney Island, a split-like extremity between the Duddon Estuary and Morecambe Bay, joined to the mainland by the Jubilee Bridge. All around, nothing to see but the water.

But perhaps I’m reading too much into it. When I ask her about the field recordings of the sea in ‘Faking It’, she tells me that what I’m hearing was in fact recorded under the Westway in London. “The sound of the sea is very much like white noise,” she reassures me. “If you don’t have a visual element, you could think it was something completely different.” To hear the ocean in an overpass is testament to mist-like alchemy of Laura Groves’ music.

I suggest that there is a field recording of a train at the start of ‘Foolish Game’, only to discover that it is actually a pitched-down mic test. She laughs. “I like all those ambiguous sample sounds. They are there for other people to perceive in different ways.” Although A Private Road has been framed as inspired by her walks, it is not a record about walking. “I went to certain locations that were quite specific,” she explains, often jotting a melody or an arrangement as a voice note on her phone. “I know it’s the Westway, but it’s not that important that everybody else knows where it is. As long as I know it’s there, it ties it to that place in my head.”

A line from Desire Paths comes to mind: ‘You know the landscapes and orange scattered lights aren’t going to look after you (why would they?) – none of it owes you anything but there’s comfort in knowing the roads.’

Some places she describes as “quite mundane and banal”, others, like the Walled Garden in Fulham Palace, or the Barbican Centre, are more obviously evocative. “The city can be really isolating and lonely, and I was just exploring that feeling and embracing it a little bit,” she says, remembering late nights spent navigating the modernist estate’s labyrinthine high-walks. A scanned page from her notebook captures “the strangeness of being this little anonymous dot in the middle of the City, surrounded by banks and ruins of London Wall, wondering how people were living behind the glowing windows.”

“I couldn’t really put my finger on how this love for exploring and all these thoughts were connected,” she muses. “It’s this vague, nebulous feeling that you get.” To ask how she transposes these ineffable experiences into such crystalline pop songs feels clunky at best, but I can’t help myself. 

“It’s obviously not a literal translation of a feeling,” Groves replies, “but I’m drawn towards modulating sounds, ambiguous sounds and chorused sounds, where you can hear frequencies wavering and wobbling.”

This sonic palette is consistent across her three solo EPs. There is an intaglio quality to her recordings, a resonance of layering and etching which alludes to the overlapping narratives of the city. “I’m trying to create this feeling, this world, where the sounds and the production are as important as the lyrics and the melody,” she explains, as if heeding Patrick Keiller’s exhortation to build “a bridge between reality and imagination” from the opening moments of her first radio show. For Groves, meaning resides less in the words themselves, but in the fact that they have been written over.

Like her walks, these six tracks were embarked on without a destination in mind. But for the bass of Ben Reed, additional vocals from Fabiana Palladino and the studio mix with engineer Tim Allen, A Private Road is Groves’ alone. “I’m personally fascinated with the process of how people get to where they’re going,” she explains. I ask if it is too literal to read the act of walking as a metaphor for as the unexpected paths life takes.

“You can take the metaphor as far as you like. I suppose that’s the whole point of the name of the record. I love architecture and the built environment, but it’s more about the remnants of other people who have passed through those spaces and the layers of things that have been left behind or have been experienced there. The things that get erased, almost taped over, like an old cassette.”

I am again reminded of Rebecca Solnit, who writes that ‘each of our lives traces its own map onto shared terrain.’ When they overlap, a path is worn down to the poplar trees.

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I first spoke to Laura about this record in 2019, before it had been completed. She described it then as “mini soundtracks to journeys, or going home late at night.” Hearing it now, it seems to me less an accompaniment to a solitary exploration, and more the embodiment of one. A Private Road glows like the light behind a window at dusk. There is a comfort in its seeing its shadows play against the curtains as you pass.

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Laura Groves’ ‘A Private Road’ is out now.

Anton Spice is a writer and former editor of The Vinyl Factory. You can follow him on Instagram here.