Hello everyone! Katie here again. I’m not going to lie, we’ve got 3-5 inches of snow on the ground, and I am protesting. Feel free to join me. (*I’m only half-kidding: I started using a hashtag, jokingly after the Mountain Goats, #katiemullinsagainstwinter, and several people have joined me already.) All you have to do is wear seasonally inappropriate clothing, pretend the sun is out, and ignore anyone in a parka until they take it off. I haven’t started sunbathing yet, but I’m beginning to feel a little bit like Klinger on M*A*S*H: maybe if I act crazy enough, someone might send me to a nice island?
What I’m saying is I could really use something warm right now, which means it’s perfect timing to introduce you to our next musician, Amy Vachal. Now— there are three different types of reactions you could be having right now— one where you’re excited to hear about a new, exciting artist, who has just released a beautiful, lilting LP, Strawberry Moon, that feels a bit like Alison Krauss (yes, you know all of this, just enjoy this ride); one where you are closing your eyes and trying to place her name because there’s just something about it; and one where you’re going, “Wait, Amy Vachal from The Voice?!”
Hey, what can I say— we like good, and America already knows how good she is. Because yes, that Amy Vachal. Usually I spend a few paragraphs describing what is unique about a singer’s voice, and while I still intend to do that, as Amy absolutely deserves that, many of you already know what she can do as a cover artist. You know that she can move from a breathy longing to a strong, burning desire in the middle of a line. She has the ability to sing something clippy and playful, but she can sing long, stretched out notes that feel either sexy or sorrowful depending on the spin she puts on them. Like a pitcher, every note is supposed to land: she is quick to spin from self-reflection to an application in a current relationship: It’d be easy enough to write a song called “You Can Have Me,” and either slowly slink through it as an appealing offer, or you could be self-excoriating and use that kind of pain in your voice— instead, like in the lyrics (which she sings back and forth with Drew Robinson, whose voice matches hers excellently), she explores the past while projecting the future:
I never thought about people I hurt
I only thought about people who hurt me
Never pardoned anyone
As a youth, I was cruel, violent at school
Hit my brother at home, and then I told Mom
Nothing happened, never apologized
These moments in my life, whether wrong or right
Still it all comes down to you:
And you can have me
Those are the first stanzas, and they’re from her point of view (he does sing, “You’re so beautiful I want to touch your face/ But I’m afraid because everything I touch, I destroy” next) so while she’s not the only one airing their dirty laundry, she kicks off the tone. You wouldn’t think that telling someone all of the things you’ve done wrong in your life would be a great way to start a love story, but honestly? There’s something that rings truer here than in what I would consider a “traditional” love song: on my first date with my husband, I immediately knew there was a connection we didn’t understand (we recently realized we missed it, but we just rounded the corner on the decade mark around that first date— I’ll hold for your applause). Instead of immediately trying to make myself look better, I started to tell him stories— usually stories my friends didn’t even know— about tiny manipulations I’d pulled, small mean things that no one had ever caught, the times I said something to my sister I couldn’t take back. And instead of questioning it, he immediately began doing the same thing. It was almost as if we knew there was no turning back from this moment, that if we were going to back out or there was a reason to do so, we really needed to find it then, and we needed to be able to move forward already knowing whatever small things that could “blow it.” “You Can Have Me” has that same atmosphere: one of confession, but not to feel better— to feel closer. To grow in love with someone instead of fall. And Robinson’s vocals have the same effect. This is an interesting way to build a love story, and one that a lot of writers don’t have the guts or even the ability to try.
Though there is a lot of sparse instrumentation on this record, Vachal did so very much intentionally: she wrote and either produced or co-produced every track on the record. She also plays some of the piano and plays steel and nylon stringed guitars throughout the record. Even on the songs where she isn’t playing the piano, though, the fact that she is a pianist shines through: she knows how to best utilize her own voice with and against the instrument, which I think is an important distinction. In “Wait,” she initially sings with the piano, falling melodies and sparse words to match the open space—
Falling like seasons
Falling like seasons, I’m changing my color
Golden and green and
They lost their feeling and he was the weather
So wear me out
I’m coming clean
I’m putting down pictures of when we were together
I’m falling like seasons
And he’ll never see
At that moment, the music picks up in intensity— the backing vocals stop following her lead and create an almost holy vowel sound surrounding her new strength, though she still sounds heartbroken—
I was gonna wait for you
But now I’ve waited too long, baby
I was gonna wait for you
But I can’t change where you are
The narrator has been living and growing, waiting for him to look up, to notice, to create a world they could share. She’s built her part and she’s waiting for him… and he’s not going to join her. She’s created almost an entire relationship. By the end, the cacophony has built to multiple voices singing with and against her, a bridge that actively fights the tone of the rest of the song and employs her punchier range, and a full swell that feels a bit like waves crashing, but not in a comforting way. It makes the way the music drops out after, “I can’t change” and “where you are” almost as strong as an actual punch in the guts.
There are so many different types of lovely songs on this record, but don’t mistake Vachal’s lovely voice to mean that she is only capable of one type of song. She’s playful, funny, heartbroken, silly, reflective, creative, engaged, and in some songs, completely self-effacing. She’s got an edge to her— often women like her are called “girls” in journalism, and I’ve seen that in a few of the articles I’ve read. I don’t know how to begin to explain what a mistake it is to de-fang Vachal, who, even in songs like “Darling You” has a fuzzed out, messy guitar solo in the middle, because she is so multi-faceted. She’s also not just writing about one person. She’s doing some persona work and I can’t begin to tell you how fascinating that is from a writer’s point of view. You’ll to want to watch Vachal and her beautiful voice— but again, reducing her to that is a mistake.
What you absolutely can’t miss is watching her shapeshift as she becomes the different lyrics on the record, embodying their lives, their sounds, and sure— their voices. Welcome to the family, Amy!