Given her classical training, her sensitivity and her instrumental versatility Heather Woods Broderick has long been a sought after collaborator and touring companion for the great and the good among stateside indie-folk and Americana acts. Bands she has worked in/ toured with over the last 15 years include Horse Feathers, Laura Gibson, Alela Diane, Efterklang and Damien Jurado, not to mention her longstanding association with Sharon Van Etten.
Coming off tour in 2018 Broderick chose to return to Oregon where she cut her teeth, rather than Brooklyn, and focus on herself and her own music. She settled in Pacific City. The resulting record Invitation came out on Western Vinyl last year, providing the impetus for a European tour. Tonight’s venue is the Hug and Pint, who’ve been trying to book her for years; the affection is mutual – both her brother Peter Broderick, and sister-in-law Brigid Mae Power have played here in the recent years, so it’s a family affair.
As with the album, the set begins with A Stilling Wind, Broderick’s lilting finger-style guitar lines advancing and receding. She sings:
Further north than where I spent the year
At the north of the cape, feet swinging in the atmosphere
A stilling wind, thick with fear
Picked up all the tiny pieces to redeposit them here
A stilling wind.
Lyrically, this sets the tone for what is to come. I don’t think I’ve encountered creative work so deeply indebted to its place of origin since Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees. Where Dillard writes about Cape Cod, here we are way over on the West Coast, in abandoned swathes of Oregon coastline. The ‘here’ in that lyric is very much the physical space of this song; this verse aside Broderick eschews the straitening conventions of rhyme in favour of something more ambitious: an attempt to render in sound this borderland where the yearning self meets the nonhuman world. It comes off like a sort of aural Terence Malick film, with the accompanying visuals adding to the equation, all grain and hue, weather and light.
It doesn’t always come off. The lyrics can, at times, feel a little too earnest, new-agey and diaristic; a beachcombers diary spliced with The Artists Way. Occasional dissenting mutters creep in from the back of the room. At it’s best though, it is sublime. The band members are totally in sync; the lush arrangements on Invitation are confidently yet sensitively recreated by tonight’s three-piece. Chains are dragged intuitively across the cymbals; harmonies simultaneously float in, and create, space; extra choral layers are added courtesy of a couple of vocal processors. Indeed, some of these tracks feel more muscular live; on record the new, mantra-esque single Hummingbird Skylight gets a little lost in a space of it’s own making. Tonight it’s streamlined and polished, one of the most well received pieces in the set.
Between the songs the mood is light; Broderick has the quiet confidence of someone used to bigger stages, even if she’s normally off to one side of the spotlight. She professes a love for Dougie Maclean – another songwriter famously in love with their landscape. This is subtle, granular music, at the dreamier end of dream pop – they’re watercolour songs, replete with washes of synth and sweeping arpeggios. It’s no surprise to discover that Glasgow’s own dream-pop merchant, C Duncan is among the fans tonight. In Nightcrawler Broderick seems to give a 4th wall wink to the lack of immediacy in the lyrics.
‘I pitch my falls to where my mind is running to
I take it my words are getting lost, rolling over my tongue.’
The song floats by on updrafts of oohs and aahs, with Broderick’s commanding voice soaring above it all, reminiscent of Laura Veirs. Just as it threatens to break into the pop stratosphere it’s called neatly to a halt; subtlety first, yet again.
As quickly as the spell is formed, it’s broken and the set is over; the musicians leave the stage definitively, and you sense that something quietly remarkable has just come to a close. At a time when the climate crisis necessarily exerts increasing pressure on our collective consciousness, the way we think and talk about the natural world can often feel shouty and didactic. Away from the chatter it’s heartening to witness an artist putting their considerable talents to use in service of something subtler and more elusive: a genuine, restless act of communion.