It’s always exciting when there’s a noticeable difference between what you hear on a musical recording and what you experience at a live performance. For different kinds of music, you can look for different aspects of change. If you’re going to go see James Blake live, you might be taken by surprise when the overpowering sub-bass of some of his songs is fully realized on amplifiers that can handle those kinds of low frequencies. Or, you might enjoy seeing Blood Orange add performance art and dance to his live set, engaging the audience with more than just music. But sometimes, little is added to a live performance, and you see something incredibly close to what you heard on a recording – which can be incredibly satisfying! Indeed, if your favourite musical act consists of solo acoustic guitar and vocals, what more can you really expect from a live performance? Though embellishments that artists incorporate into their live performances are always welcome, there’s something valuable and underrated about the performers who forego the loud and flashy in favour of the quiet and intimate. You will not see some elaborate performance art, nor will you be dancing on tabletops. Rather, you’ll be invited to sit back and take in the music.
Consider a band like Beach House. Many of their songs follow very similar style, tempo, and instrumentation. The mood is often gloomy and lamenting, still the songs are beautiful nonetheless. It’s great music, but it can also put you to sleep if you’ve already had a long day. And yet, in concert, many (including myself) laud the band for its ability to capture your attention with the extremely polished and grandiose quality of the live sound. That being said, chances are that everyone attending a Beach House concert already loves the band. People will watch in utter silence and gawk at the beautiful voice of Victoria Legrand, but for unknown musicians playing in loud, crowded bars, it’s hard to get this kind of attention, especially when their music is already set in affirming its own softness or fragility.
Alexia Avina, a Montreal musician who combines folk with dreamy ambient vocal loops, is one such musician who is worthy of your attention.
Her four-track Bandcamp EP, Kind Forest, accomplishes its modest goal of a short but sweet introduction to Avina’s music. All four tracks are beautiful, quiet folk numbers led mostly by ukulele and layered vocal loops. The titles of the songs alone suggest the EP is a brief glimpse into Avina’s personal life. Titles range from brief reflections on the mundane parts of life (‘Walk Home’) to what could be a deeply personal lamentation (‘Rain + Boy’). Sometimes, it’s hard to tell exactly what Avina is singing about, though it’s a safe bet to understand that the general mood of the EP is that of melancholy and introspection. The instrumentals are simple and beautiful, but if it weren’t for well-crafted and lyrically driven songs like ‘Bedrooms,’ Avina’s music would err heavily toward style rather than substance.
Musically, Avina is not working with much more than a ukulele and a looping device. A brief appearance of a chime instrument on ‘Walk Home’ and some minor backing organ on ‘Bedrooms,’ adds some nice variation. The layered, beautifully-sung vocal lines are reminiscent of artists like Juliana Barwick or Julia Holter, though the ukulele backdrop sets a more acoustic and intimate atmosphere. The sparing, but effective, use of percussion adds some good depth to what is otherwise quite limited instrumentation. ‘Rain + Boy’ is especially pleasant, using a rain-stick to generate an immersive and soothing backdrop for Avina’s layered “oohs” and “aahs.”
I enjoy all four of these tracks, but there’s only so much that can be accomplished with an EP this short. Avina works well within the confines of limited instrumentation that she has set for herself. Because this EP is so effective while being fairly unambitious, I’m optimistic with whatever is to follow.
Indeed, the prospect of Avina elaborating on an already pleasant sound is even more enticing after seeing her live. Instead of an acoustic instrument, she opts for an electric guitar. This replaces the ukulele as a much more robust backing for the layered vocals. The extended range provided by the guitar helps to fill the room and allows Avina to provide herself loops that better support her singing. This change, along with the sheer weight of the multiple layers of looped vocals, creates a beautiful mess of sound that sends shivers down the spine.
A recording might serve as pleasant backdrop for a quiet evening, but Avina’s live performance is something to be admired without interruptions. Similar to her EP, Avina’s performance was short and left me optimistic for an expansion of the musical space she’s carved out for herself. Currently, it’s just a solo performance, but I think that the rather subtle addition of percussion, like on her EP, might round out her set. Granted, this might present a trade-off between the intimacy of her current set and the development of a grander sound, but you can only do so much with a looping machine.
Avina’s live performance is the perfect example of how much a little patience can go when you’re at a concert. The performance is neither in your face nor upbeat, and it’s expressed with nothing more than the music itself. Yet, the enchanting feeling of an entire room joined in their appreciation of someone’s talent is still unique. There is something deeply appealing in the way an entire room is quietly fixed on the intimate. It may not get the adrenaline pumping, but it’s this kind of focused appreciation that creates a meaningful connection between artists and their audience. By all means, don’t force yourself to go to the kind of concerts you don’t enjoy, but don’t underestimate the magic of quiet concerts either.
You can listen to Alexia Avina’s Kind Forest EP here.