Australian producer and ethereal soundscaper Penelope Trappes returns with the haunting ‘Heavenly Spheres’. Using just her voice, an upright piano and an old reel-to-reel, it’s a remarkable record steeped in phantasmal atmospherics and hypnagogic strangeness

Penelope Trappes remembers quite clearly when she first became aware of the expressive power of her voice and thrilled to the sound of it resonating in her body. Aged 19, with experience in school choirs and musicals and having taken vocal lessons with a woman at her mother’s church, she went to study opera at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music in Brisbane, Australia. The revelation came one day while practising at her parents’ house.

“I sang some classical piece,” recalls Trappes, speaking from her Brighton home. “And when I heard my voice coming back at me, I was like, ‘Woah!’. It really took me by surprise.”

Piano, guitar and synths may comprise a strong supporting cast in her experimental soundscaping, but Trappes admits the voice has always been “number one”. Never more so than on her new album, ‘Heavenly Spheres’, a compellingly minimal set of eight tracks with a haunting, meditative potency. It recalls Gregorian chant, chamber music and the work of Leila Abdul-Rauf and fellow Australian Lisa Gerrard, although the lyrics of her previous works have now dissolved into wordless vocalising.

It’s ghostly music – just voice and piano, recorded on an old German reel-to-reel – both ancient and avant-garde, yet also beyond time, conjuring liminal states and unknowable other worlds. Despite the title, there’s also an air of Gothic unsettlement that is very much a result of where and how ‘Heavenly Spheres’ was made.

In May last year, Trappes spent a two-week residency at 9 Church Walk in Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast. A modernist bungalow designed by the architect HT Cadbury-Brown, it had been the home of composer, conductor, musicologist, educator and dancer Imogen Holst from 1962 until her death in 1984. The only child of Gustav Holst, the composer best known for ‘The Planets’ suite, she was a hugely significant figure in 20th century British music and had worked closely with Benjamin Britten for years both as his music assistant and as co-director of the Aldeburgh Festival.

Although Trappes had arrived with a distinct theme in mind for her fourth long-player proper, the history and spirit of the house conspired to steer her off in a rather different direction.

“That unsettled feeling was probably me accessing aspects of not having been properly alone in a very long time – not since my 20s,” muses Trappes. “I had this concept of ‘home’ that I wanted to explore, but it ended up being just me grappling with this solitude and with things that I had probably never really comfortably gone into.”

The house proved to be a powerful, all-enveloping environment. Trappes sat in Holst’s chair, worked at her desk, played her piano, enjoyed the spring garden and browsed the “amazing library of all these really cool books about Cornish, English and Scottish Gaelic folk music”. She also took long walks in the Suffolk countryside, occasionally in a somewhat altered state.

“I microdosed psilocybin a couple of times,” she says. “Maybe it comes off in the music, because I wanted to access other aspects of consciousness and presence in this new world I’d been plonked into for two weeks. It wasn’t super-trippy or anything. It was just a heightened awareness, like the light was that little bit brighter.

“I did a lot of photography while I was there as well, and even in the photos I feel you can see what I’m talking about. It wasn’t imagined – it was simply my appreciation of it at the time. The light is gorgeous there sometimes, and the landscape is so flat and minimalist. There’s not a hill in sight.”

Spending time in this singular space enabled Trappes to go into more of an immersive, deep-listening mode.

“I would listen to it because it had so much history,” she says. “There were church bells and the hum of the fridge, which was really old. You could simply sit and look. There were some lovely photos of Imogen Holst on the wall, and you could tell exactly where she was sitting inside the house.

“There was a strong presence of what she did when she lived there, but also of all the other people who’ve had residences in the house – a real sense of creative energy in the fibres of the building. I was actually slightly creeped out by the piano room each night when I left it. It’s soundproofed to a degree and it felt a bit haunted when you turned off the lights and closed the door.”

Trappes admits that although she initially found the whole experience a little overwhelming, it fuelled her creativity.

“Many of the people who had sat at the piano before me wrote classical pieces, and that’s what I’m deliberately trying to avoid,” she says. “It’s interesting that it really triggered my rebellion.”

photo: elise d lindsay

That avoidance of classical convention included Trappes’ willingness to go with the flow and her commitment to modern minimalism.

“I wanted to get to some mysterious ‘thing’ I was yet to access by removing any distractions,” she reflects. “I didn’t want it to be any kind of production online using plug-ins and what have you. I wanted it to be very analogue.

“A friend had gifted me this Uher reel-to-reel portable recorder and all these old tapes that came with it. One of the tapes had someone’s recording of a medium at a clairvoyant event, and I don’t think either of them are still alive. I listened to the whole thing. It was really weird.”

Unsurprisingly, it took Trappes a week to acclimatise.

“It was the energy, the whole vibe of being in this house. I had to sort of strip away any preconceived ideas about what I thought I was going to do to get down into the comfortableness of it just being me, the tape recorder and the piano.”

Yet it wasn’t the environment alone that determined the shape and sound of ‘Heavenly Spheres’. Trappes has long been drawn to incantatory and contemplative vocals and otherworldly, even eldritch ambience – music that’s not exactly spiritual, but certainly of the spirit.

“Perhaps the whole Gregorian chants appeal is tied to my first foray into voice studies with my teacher, who was very into sacred music, and to my church experiences as a child. Being in church and hearing – not a choir, because it was just the congregation – all the voices resonating inside.

“I don’t remember the services, but I remember the singing. I really like the purity of that style of sacred music. I love hearing choirboys and the young lead soprano in a boy choir. Heavenly. The minimalism means a lot. To give the music and your heart space to live in that sound is a meditative thing.”

The “rebellion” that Trappes mentions goes much further back than her adventures in Suffolk. In her late teens, she applied to study for a BA at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music, but was accepted only into the Diploma of Vocal Performance.

“It was because my theory was shit,” she laughs. “I was like, ‘Alright, well, screw you!’. At that time, I was very much into contemporary rock music – very Australian of me! I was in a band, and we were heavily influenced by things like Leonard Cohen and Mazzy Star.

“I guess my heart wasn’t really in gaining a qualification, but there was an option to study privately at the conservatory, so I had weekly lessons with a lovely guy called Donald Smith. He’s passed on now but back in the 1950s, 60s and 70s he had been a leading Australian tenor. He told me, ‘You’ll never be in the choir – you’re not a chorus singer’, and that encouraged me to create this sound from my body. I’m not a big girl, but I was making this big sound.”

Despite the positive feedback and her obvious talent, Trappes then put her artistic future on hold to travel extensively.

“I kind of lost a decade in my 20s,” she admits. “I was a bit of a wandering Australian soul, and the long and short of it is I didn’t do a great deal of music after I left Australia until I landed in New York.”

Becoming “romantically enmeshed” with someone who would become the father of her daughter is what originally drew Trappes to the city, and there she found herself plunging into a vibrant underground jazz scene.

Her partner was studying at the Mannes School of Music in Manhattan, and as Trappes had grown up listening to a lot of jazz as well as classical music, thanks to her parents, she embarked on vocal lessons with acclaimed Blue Note singer Sheila Jordan.

“She grew up around Chicago and used to go to Charlie Parker’s gigs, to the point where he got to know her and they became friends,” says Trappes. “So, as a little Aussie country girl, I had these two degrees of separation from Charlie Parker.

“Sheila was really about – and this still resonates with me – the bass. She did a lot of recordings with just upright bass and vocals. I appreciated the minimalist approach and the resonance. So that was very cool, and I guess that’s when it sort of started.”

The Golden Filter set the ball rolling. This was Trappes’ collaboration with US producer and current partner Stephe (then Stephen) Hindman. Together they made gleaming, slightly retro music of a sensual, often brooding bent, ranging across art/synthpop, house and nu disco, and had breakout success with the track ‘Solid Gold’ in 2009. Releases have been steady ever since. Last year they shared a terrific interpretation of The Cars’ classic ‘Drive’, but there are currently no plans for further recordings.

During her time in the US, Trappes also worked with Hindman variously as Lismore, Locke and Priscilla Sharp, all projects she describes as “interesting moments of character development” as an artist.

“In the same way that Cindy Sherman’s different characters aren’t representations of her as a photographer, just facets, I’ve explored as many styles and genres as I have been a fan of. These explorations have helped me find my true sense of self and my confidence as the artist I am today.”

Trappes began focusing on her own work when she moved to London with Hindman in 2014. She realised then that she was done with aliases. For her ‘Penelope One’ solo debut of 2017, she hired a tiny studio in Hackney and started dabbling with just piano and voice.

“I had all these stories – very personal stuff – and that’s when I decided I wanted to go under my own name,” she says. “I just wanted to tell the truth. For a lot of the visual work we were doing with Stephe as camera operator, I wanted to explore the female body, the male gaze. I was getting a bit more serious about everything I’ve been through and everything I needed to tell, whether it was in my personal life, my creative life or life within the industry.”

She describes her own music as her “Yin” expression and the earlier projects as “very much the Yang”. The ‘Penelope’ trilogy (numbers ‘Two’ and ‘Three’ were released in 2018 and 2021, respectively) certainly points to an artist declaring their authentic self. In 2021, Trappes also released ‘Mother’s Blood’, a hushed, drone-heavy version of ‘Penelope Three’ with her vocals filleted out, for which there was an accompanying hour-long film. Considering that record alongside the mostly wordless vocalising on ‘Heavenly Spheres’, a move into complete vocal abstraction seems possible.

“For sure,” she agrees. “Although I still think there’s a lot of power to be had in very specific lyrics or suggestive dreamscapes, while not being tied down to a literal story. ‘Penelope Three’ had a lot of storytelling as it was the end of a trilogy and a bit more autobiographical. That’s why ‘Mother’s Blood’ was specifically, ‘Let’s take this out and just hear what happens’. I guess I enjoyed the process so much that it’s shaping my next however many months, years… I mean, who knows? Maybe the next album might swing back the other way.”

In terms of the immediate future, there’s the buzz of Penelope Trappes’ new Nite Hive digital and cassette label, devoted to women and gender non-conforming artists working in experimental music. ‘Heavenly Spheres’ is the label’s first release, and the next four are already lined up.

First is Portland-based soundscaper Patricia Wolf, in collaboration with Canadian sound artist Chloe Alexandra Thompson. Following on are releases by Pefkin (Ayrshire’s Gayle Brogan, who has a folk background) and two fellow Australians – Karen Vogt (of Heligoland), a vocals-focused artist now living in Paris, and Madeleine Cocolas, a post-classical/ambient producer who hails from Brisbane.

“Nite Hive happened a little bit by accident,” explains Trappes. “A few of the people I reached out to were guys, who were like, ‘I’m busy, I’m busy’. The guys are always busy because they still dominate the landscape. It will change in time, but only something like 25 per cent are women at the moment.

“It’s even worse when it comes to labels run by women. So it’s about fixing what is essentially an injustice.

As much as there’s so much music out there by guys that I love – and I never wanted it to come off as insulting in any way, shape or form – I do think it’s an agenda that needs to change.

“Hopefully, it’s one avenue of helping address the imbalance. I reached out to a few of the people I’ve met to see if they would be up for it, and they were like, ‘Absolutely!’. The general premise is to just step outside of one’s comfort zone – don’t do it like you would normally do it. I obviously can’t control that, but I hope that’s what they’ll do. We’ll see.”

‘Heavenly Spheres’ is out on Nite Hive

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