Last year’s Nastavi, Calliope EP from Babehoven was one of 2021’s finest releases, an eclectic collection of heart-on-the-sleeve songs that swept across electronica, country and drone-pop with a singular, leftfield take on introspective songwriting. Nastavi’s dense, often claustrophobic, sound, however, has given way to a very different sonic approach on Sunk, the first Babehoven EP for new label Double Double Whammy out on 4th March.
Maya Bon and long-time collaborator Ryan Albert say they were heavily influenced by Elliott Smith’s 1997 album Either/Or before and during the creation of Sunk. Either/Or’s wide-open spaces, intimate songwriting and artful chord transitions certainly brought rich inspiration.
Bon, who started Babehoven in 2017 in Portland, Oregon, says: “We wanted to create as contained and precise a sound as Either/Or, which is a tough task to take on. It was, in the end, a motivational effort that transformed our approach to recording.”
This new EP has a lean, lo-fi indie sound, with gently strummed guitars and hushed drums. It sounds beautiful and has been elegantly produced by Bon and Albert. Individual instruments leap from the mix in three dimensions, each with space from the others to stand apart, yet together creating a richly textured soundscape.
But what’s most striking about the unadorned nature of the recordings is how they place Bon’s songwriting and her voice firmly centre stage. Such a stripped-back approach heralds a growing confidence in her songs, something that began with breakout EP Demonstrating Visible Difference of Height in 2020, reached new heights with Nastavi, Calliope, and seems to have climbed even higher on Sunk.
Bon has an uncanny ability to write songs that weave narratives from overlapping perspectives, both zoomed-in and wide-lensed at the same time. Letting them under your skin is a compelling, off-kilter experience.
The stripped-back nature of the recordings on Sunk gives her songs more room to breathe, to slowly unfurl and reveal their complexities. And her voice floats to the surface of these new arrangements, brighter and clearer.
Lyrically, Sunk explores well-worn Babehoven themes, grief and loss bouncing against everyday observations and societal reflections – often in the same song. For Bon, songwriting is an act of self-love and self-care, and her stream-of-consciousness approach reaps a rich seam of rewards.
Through Sunk, Bon seeks to answer a simple yet ultimately life-changing question: what would happen if, rather than constantly fighting against the immovable tides of unfixable things, she gave herself permission to stop struggling altogether? What beauty might life attain if the choice to give up – to become ‘sunk’ – was reframed as an act of self-care rather than one of defeat?
Bon says: “On an emotional level, I’ve felt in my life I’ve continuously had to tread water in order to stay afloat — “sunk” is an effort to accept that I have given up in some regards; I’ve given up trying to swim frantically in an attempt to achieve some semblance of stability, I’ve given up on certain relationships, on certain paths that have left me exhausted and desperate. Instead, as I’ve floated to the bottom, I’ve found through sinking a new world at the seafloor […] there are ways to move on from the parts of ourselves and our lives that feel unmanageably difficult and hopeless.”
Lead single ‘Fugazi‘ kicks things off, guitar and drums clattering slowly, finding their own pace, the rhythm gently locking into place. Settle in, they seem to say, we’re not going to rush things here. We’re taking things steady. It’s like a cat stretching languorously after a long afternoon nap. With the help of some simple synth lines half-way in, and a growing crescendo from the vocals, the song builds into an emotional tour-de-force, with Bon railing against a type of misogyny depressingly common in indie music scenes.
‘Stapling‘ builds from just vocal and acoustic guitar, with synth and a fuzzy electric guitar creating a lush lo-fi sound, against which Bon sings of a relationship where she opens all of herself but gets nothing but ‘locked doors’ in return.
Second single ‘Get Better‘ flows on from the doomed relationship set out in ‘Stapling.’ Here, Bon seems to accept its end while releasing herself from any blame for its dissolution. Its soaring chorus and atmospheric guitars swoon into leftfield indie rock, with ghostly backing vocals (or they could be synths) and drums that sound like they’ve come straight from a procession. The song’s production shudders to a halt at its conclusion as Bon delivers a final promise: “I won’t keep going. But please get better.”
The second half of the EP sees Bon zooming out from the personal to the global, with climate crisis dread weaving its way into every second of ‘The Way That Things Burn.’ Dealing with the widespread fires on the West coast of America, Bon wrote the song midway through 2020 when she was leading an online workshop about focusing perspectives of the growing infernos on Indigenous leadership and stewardship of the land. There’s a despair in the song, and it follows the previous two beautifully: instead of a relationship that’s burning to the ground, here it’s the entire planet. The personal and the political in the run of songs combine to devastating effect. And there’s some beautiful guitar effects in ‘The Way That Things Burn,’ making it sound like a saxophone, mournful and foreboding.
On ‘Creature,’ it’s back to the personal, with Bon laying out her feelings in the plainest of terms. “I don’t know how to love anymore,” she confesses as she confronts someone’s cruelty, their ‘cruel creature’. “I don’t know what love is.” Just gentle guitar, hushed drums and a beautiful vocal. Nothing more is required.
The EP reaches a dazzling conclusion with ‘Twenty Dried Chillies,’ perhaps the greatest Babehoven song yet. It’s long and winding, over seven minutes long, and a beautiful example of Bon’s stream-of-consciousness songwriting. Beginning with a description of the room where she was writing the song, dried chillies hanging in the windowsill, it spools into memories, longings and anguish, all seemingly connected to her family. Backed by a looping, almost country melody, each fragment appears like a ripple from a stone skimmed across the surface of a lake. Drums appear half-way through, but so gentle, stirring up the water and ushering more thoughts from the deep. The music pauses briefly four or five times before the looping acoustic melody starts again and yet more images come tumbling forth. Vocally, it’s mesmerising, with phrases and lines elongated and stretched, twisted into extra layers of meaning and emotion.
With Sunk, Babehoven has thrown away the playbook that made Nastavi, Calliope such a resounding success. Yet in the process they’ve found themselves anew. As this stunning EP proves, when you sink you can truly soar.
Photo credit: Jessica Chappe