caroline 'caroline' LP
- Transparent LP
- Bonus 7” - 2 exclusive additional songs
- Signed alternative art print
- Foil numbered sleeve
- Limited pressing of 600
Also available on black vinyl.
A version of ‘Dark blue’, caroline’s sublime first single that also opens their self-titled debut album, was written on the day Casper Hughes, Jasper Llewellyn and Mike O’Malley first started playing together half a decade ago. Today, the song is unfathomably gorgeous, a chiming riff that ebbs and flows over gently ticking drums, strings fluttering high like birds on an updraft, but back then the band were something else entirely.
Llewellyn and Hughes had met at university in Manchester, and on moving to London had “decided to start taking our music more seriously,” as the former puts it. They invited Llewellyn’s old friend Mike O’Malley (they’d been part of a drunken Appalachian folk group together as teenagers), to form a scrappy guitar outfit, rehearsing for pittance in the crumbling upstairs room of a rough and ready South London pub. “The floor was collapsing a bit, they sometimes had parties up there and the floor would buckle…” Llewellyn recalls.
Yet as they kept on playing that hypnotic ‘Dark blue’ riff, it became clear that something altogether deeper was emerging. “As soon as ‘Dark Blue’ became more structured, we thought some swoony violin would be good,” says O’Malley. To provide it, they recruited Oliver Hamilton, who had also had a stint on bass in their early days.
He would be the first of many. As the band’s sound kept expanding, so too did their line-up, eventually becoming an eight-piece completed by trumpeter and bassist Freddy Wordsworth, another violinist Magdalena McLean, percussionist Hugh Aynsley and flute, clarinet and saxophone player Alex McKenzie. By the time that cast settled towards the end of 2019, the songs were expansive and emotive pieces, their rich palette drawing on a mixture of choral singing, Midwestern emo and O’Malley and Llewellyn’s roots in Appalachian folk.
On the album, the songs can cascade like an avalanche with the full force of all those instruments, squalling and rumbling on the edge of all-out collapse. At others they slip back into impossibly fragile moments of quiet – a simple bassline or a rattle of snare the only sound amid a dark sea of silence. caroline know exactly the right balance between restraint and release. “Sometimes things sound much better when there’s empty space,” says Llewellyn. “Sometimes you might populate [a song] with too many things and forget that an element on its own is enough.”
“We heavily analyse our music in a way that I don’t know if other bands do as much,” says Hughes. Adds Llewellyn: “We would talk about how we could refine the essence of a song. The best songs were always the ones that made more sense as we carried on playing.” He, Hughes and O’Malley remain the core songwriters of the band, often improvising as a trio or swapping ideas remotely until that ‘essence’ emerges, to be taken to the rest of the band and gradually developed.
Take the pensive ‘IWR’ for example. “Jasper was sending a lot of home-recorded nylon guitar and singing ideas, and then one just stuck because it was just a really beautiful vocal melody,” says O’Malley. They tried singing it in the round, playing it in waltz time, “looping it around and around and doing little riffs all the top,” gradually honing it into shape. “We had an initial guitar-based idea, then we decided that on a certain chord this wall of violins should come in.” They experimented with an idea of “extreme closeness,” recording the guitar as quiet as possible, with the microphone placed right next to it and the gain turned up to the maximum.
Elsewhere on the record the band have employed a collage-like technique, combining snippets of lo-fi recordings from a myriad of different locations – a barn in France, the members’ bedrooms and living rooms, the atmospheric swimming pool in which they also filmed sublime live sessions for ‘Dark blue’ and ‘Skydiving onto the library roof’ – with more traditional group sessions at the Total Refreshment Centre and their studio in Peckham. “For me there’s something about not working in a polished studio environment that’s part of the ethos of the project. Finding the place that’s right atmospherically for whatever you’re doing. It’s the same as playing in a circle,” O’Malley continues, referring to the band’s preferred onstage formation. “We’re trying not to compromise around what we need, and what we think the music needs.”
That translates to the record. O’Malley cites ‘Desperately’, a solo vocal and cello piece led by Llewellyn, which packs indescribable masses of feeling into barely a minute of runtime. “You can tell it’s recorded in a living room with wooden floorboards. It’s not just the sound of the room itself, but also the way it feels to play music in a room,” he says. As Hughes points out, they made the best of their circumstances. “We didn’t have a big recording budget so we did it as we went along, picking up different rooms and environments along the way. I find that more interesting than just going into a polished recording studio anyway,” he says. “We experienced a lot of nice accidents and imperfections, feelings of atmosphere, and then we decided to push them.”
On ‘Good morning (red)’, the only song even older than Dark blue, they bury Hughes’ vocals – recorded at the Red Lion Boys Club in South London – at the back of the mix. “Can I be happy in this world?... We’ll have to change it, it doesn’t suit us,” he shouts from the distance, his voice desperate and defiant. “Those words were originally written after the 2017 general election. In some ways that felt like a hopeful time, there was a sense of openness and a possibility of radical change. I remember wanting to write something that was willing that change on.” In the time since the world has of course changed only for the worse, yet it makes for a more powerful song still, particularly when performed live. “I think I shout it in a more maniacal way now. I wanted the roughness and loudness of it to be a personification of the will to break free, but also the grief I feel now that hope has receded.”
When lockdown hit in March 2020, they’d played just three shows in their current incarnation (including the show where Geoff Travis and Paul Jones of Rough Trade Records first saw them play a whole set, soon after Geoff and Jeannette Lee signed them to the label…), and the membership of their eight-piece line-up was beginning to settle. “The pandemic solidified everything in place,” says O’Malley. “There’d always be a dep in for one person at every gig, but now it’s a set group of eight people.” The break also allowed them to take their time and hone everything that little bit more. “We’re concentrated in a way that I don’t think we would be if it weren’t for the pandemic,” says Hughes.
Not that everything was a breeze. caroline’s perfectionist streak clashed with the realities of mixing a record over three six-hour Zoom sessions a week with John ‘Spud’ Murphy, “listening to things over and over again, little three or four second clips, trying to elucidate with words what you mean,” says Hughes. “It was painful, but also we love being perfectionists. Feasibly we could have carried on doing these songs to eternity.” The main problem the band faced was simply putting a full stop on their constantly, organically changing compositions. “I think we’ve always considered it an annoying tendency we have, not to be able to finish stuff, but that’s only annoying because it’s existing within the construct that you have to finish stuff,” says Llewellyn. “We do end up finishing it, because we have to, but it’s never the top of the priority list. What we’re really interested in, on an immediate level, is us playing together.”
The growth that began with that scrappy guitar band above a pub all those years ago is still happening, then. caroline’s astounding debut album is merely the first step.
Label: Rough Trade