For Ulli Mattsson the water has always been synonymous with home. Growing up by a river on the border of Swedish Lapland, she has lived for the past six years aboard a former peat-transporter on the River Lea. This century-old barge has doubled as both abode and arena, acting as the stage from which she recently launched debut album Feral and its accompanying tour over the course of three intimate nightly shows down in Hackney Wick.
Feral’s invocation of the waterways acts as an antidote to homesickness that delves deep into the tradition of Scandinavian folk music. Beginning with ‘Blue Whales’, an elegiac waltz of blunted guitar cut through by pining strings, it is a song saturated with a yearning for landscapes of her past, for blue whales and other organisms not usually found in the depths of the Lea.
‘Mother’, the record’s lead single, similarly follows this notion of loss and yearning but with more dynamism in the music. The guitar is upbeat despite the bleakness of the narrative, and this renewed vigour propels the album forward.
Lyrically, the album seems to take its inspirations from folk oral traditions. Mattsson’s vocals, though minimal in range, materialise with a raw tenacity that conjures fragments of her homeland into a collage of aquatic ecology, oceanic mythology, and her own existence.
It is an album of stories that find their sources in both the individual and communal tales of sea-faring creatures, from the account of the lonesome ‘Riverwoman’, to references to Queequeg and the Sirens found in ‘Winter’s Waiting’.
Whilst the first half of the record pays due reverence to traditional instrumentation, the song ‘Magpie’ ushers in a change of scenery. The sudden deluge of electronic instruments that appear in the middle-eight presents an interesting contrast to Mattsson’s personal take on the old ‘One For Sorrow’ nursery rhyme. It brings out a clear sense of divergence from what has come before, thrusting the record into new waters.
Subsequently, tracks such as ‘Wandering Lights’ and ‘Last Song’ offer some of the most surprising and interesting musical moments on the album in a honeyed cohesion between deep, ritualistic percussion, and the flash and twinkle of modern programming.
It is through this mixture of old and new, here and there, that Mattsson uses Feral to draw original noises from traditional sounds, urging new water through old riverbeds.