Album: Asha Wells – Water Words

Released back in March last year on Royal Oakie Records, Water Words by Asha Wells is a tender yet haunting gathering of jazz decorated folk which wears its influences proudly whilst seeking new territory to call its own. 

The San Francisco, Bay Area based non-binary artist has crafted a wonderful album wrapped as it is within the careful cover of an emollient and sensitive production; this envelops these delicately beautiful songs with grace and deftness, leaving a lasting impression on the listener; there is a purity and richness too to the subtle and translucent vocals which drift languidly across the album- with an effortlessness that allows these songs to flow in elegant, memorable lines. The bass is often expressive and pushed forward in the mix, adding further to the folk-jazz atmospheres found throughout. The oft-maligned instrument, the vibraphone is used as a common thread throughout but it takes on surprising patterns that, although undeniably jazz-inflected, also hint at something more new-age and ambient and even orientalist at times. 

First song At Night is a subtly sumptuous affair offering a memorable but mournful melody that lingers long after the song is over. Mood Indigo takes those more experimental percussive elements further – making for a curious coagulation of chirrups, wood-block pops and rhythmic shifts- that’s really effective; a fondness for Aldous Harding’s emotionally rich and idiosyncratic take on folk rock filigrees makes sense here- especially in relation to those tremulous and expressive vocals. It’s very beautiful indeed. 

That soft-focus, jazz-folk fusion inevitably at times recalls its musical protagonist, Joni Mitchell- not least in the lilting beauty of that voice and the warmth and lyricism of those melodies, repeating ‘California’ as a chorus certainly lodges those echoes ever more vehemently. But this isn’t pastiche or mimicry- Asha Wells has made something that feels their very own here, despite the familiar influences. 

There is something smoky and sensuous to that smoothly rich voice that is the silken sheet that wraps these songs in careful folds. There is a sadness too and that sense of what has already been lost beckoning you back to the fragmentary moments of the past.  This is intensified in the occasional use of a more spidery electric guitar, that adds a metallic brittleness to the humidity of these songs, which, combined with those open guitar tunings, enhance this ethereal tone. “ A strange melancholy…” pervades. Indeed it does…

The way the layered backing vocals engage in curious self-mirroring conversations within the songs, the beautiful “why, oh, why”s on Drugstore Perfume for example, or the intermittent “hellos” on Bonjour Tristesse, feel like a particular delight. There is a shared language to many of these songs that does place a certain self-contained tonal similarity across the album- but when those collected voices harmonise those aren’t the thoughts that push to the fore- you are too captured by the clarity of sound that greets you. Those early experiences in classical vocal performance and musical theatre makes sense in these contexts. Laura Marling is another reference point at times, particularly on Up in a Cloud’s hypnotic melody. Final track Motorbike takes the listener (and narrator) to a new horizon; it’s an apt ending to this sublime suite of sounds – pointing as it does to the new sonic possibilities future recordings might offer.

Water Words is well worth allowing yourself to be submerged within. It feels like the first night spent with a new love where you realise, to your sudden surprise, that the sun is creeping through the curtains and you hadn’t noticed so much time passing. That’s a nice place to be drawn back to. 

Written by M.A Welsh (Misophone