words & interview by maria sledmere
photograph by jack garland
There’s an Emily Dickinson poem that begins: ‘One need not be a chamber to be haunted / One need not be a house; / The brain has corridors surpassing / Material place’. Famously a recluse, Dickinson wrote poems that might be thought of as slices of time, photosensitive shards that shift their tonal glow according to every diurnal turn of light. There’s a sense that the internal chasms of the mind contain many hauntings, a resounding atmosphere of labyrinthine longing. Former woes and traumas clot along nerve passages, memories attach to the many rooms of the mind. We might struggle to access them right away; we can’t look at our psyches with the geographic reassurance of a map. Memory is something dragged, gelatinous or hazy through the present, reforming itself around what’s in front of us. Memory is a haunting, a reminder that being is sometimes Other: sometimes the trace of what we thought we’d forgotten; what now seems both strange and familiar, wrong but true.
The debut LP from Many Rooms, There Is A Presence Here, released on Other People Records, is a kaleidoscopic voyage through the myriad chambers of the heart—the heart as it is haunted, split apart, bled, made half whole again. 22-year-old Brianna Hunt has released something as fragile and glistering as it is diamond-hard when held beneath the relentless glare of day. Moth-like, flickering and soft, Hunt’s voice wavers towards moments of hope, unafraid of what might extinguish the self in the night. Produced and recorded by Randy LeBoeuf (of Trade Wind), her songs craft unusual, rippling structures over layers of guitar and minimal piano; melodies moving wispily through fine-tuned moods. A quiet epiphany might blink among steadier reverie, a fleck of gold dust glimpsed and then gone. With her pared-down lyrics and feathery trills of electric guitar, her cobwebbing reverb, Hunt evokes a house whose boundaries shiver, whose walls are full of secrets that slip like rain through her words.
Many Rooms sings of haunting, of being haunted; of striving for a space to be okay in a home that is haunted. Sometimes her lyrics address another person, reach out as if for connection; other times, they recall the introverted aphorisms of a diary. There’s a slip into unity, sometimes a severing. Spoken so softly, sung so pale and understatedly sweet, Hunt’s words acquire a sort of enchantment, drawing the listener into a womb-like dwelling which is warm and safe, even as its boundaries seem full of draughts and hollows. Her voice weaves a silky web round the wounds in the world.
The intimacy is alluring, certainly, but Hunt’s gossamer lyricism is no cotton candy, not simply a sugar coat for life’s brittle truths. On songs like ‘Nonbeing’, she asks hefty existential questions, addressing a power beyond the confines of herself: ‘What if I die and nothing happens / Will my soul cave with me?’.
‘Which Is To Say, Everything’ is the sonic rendering of standing at the edge of a shore in your sleep, watching the lake’s undulations carry back the colours of other dreams, the same dreams over and over again, bleeding. Watching them grow transparent, reaching for what then eludes and must die. Languorous harmonies echo towards distance, as crystalline guitars make their lilt into dawn. Throughout the record, there’s a constant oscillation between the unalterable fact of sadness, its stasis, and something that melts and flushes with hope.
Such an album, unique as it is, invites less musical comparison than recourse to abstraction. I listen to it, eyes closed with headphones, and I see clouds slowly wash away the lilac from a sky that blushes impasto orange, swirling thickly, becoming tropical fish in a luminous aquarium. I feel the little sparkles in my chest. Many Room’s adoption of minimalist ballad, lisped with ghosts, has much precedent: from the earnest croons of teenage Gabrielle Aplin to the swathing, pulsating grey-scapes of James Blake’s self-titled debut; from Grouper’s faintly soulful, wraithlike shimmers to the misty, eerie realms of Slowdive’s Pygmalion. Tracing Hunt’s edges amidst the dissembling aesthetics of such sonic landscapes, what emerges is a figure whose clarity depends on the ability to both dazzle and vanish, whose vocals shift, nearing the front of the mix then again receding. A figure who, on ‘Hollow Body’, delivers lines from ‘Hurt’ (a Nine Inch Nails song famously covered by Johnny Cash) to fill in the shadows of another story; who moves with devotional yearning from room to room, scene to scene, breath to release.
Jacques Derrida once said cinema plus psychoanalysis equals a ‘science of phantoms’. Visually evocative as that famous NIN line, ‘my empire of dirt’, the lyrics of There Is A Presence Here form the tissue that connects each memory, throbbing and familiar, with the uncertain worlds that tessellate around every word. This is a record of intense introspection and reflection; a record of startling vulnerability, generosity, growth and spirit. A record of corridors and folds, of presences and aporia. You can listen to it with close intensity, or give yourself up to its ambience. It rewards re-listening quite unlike anything else I’ve ever heard before; each time weaving new layers of meaning, without ever becoming too cloying or thick. Wanting more is maybe the point. The last song, ‘When I Find You In The Flowers’ draws the record to a close with the sound of footsteps leaving a room. In that quiet shuffle, soft and spectral, you pick up the steps to find life again.
GoldFlakePaint caught up with Brianna Hunt over email, ahead of the album’s release on April 13th, just as the flowers in Glasgow were starting to bloom, at last, through remnants of snow.
How long did it take you to write the album? Are these recent songs or from across a longer period?
The writing process for me is strange and I have the energy, or inspiration, or motivation to write maybe 2-3 songs a year. So this record wasn’t like me sitting down and planning out something structurally sound, it’s more the accumulation of three years of random, spur of the moment songs that came from an emotional reaction to something happening in my life. I think two songs were written in the studio. It’s honestly a miracle (or divine) that they’re cohesive together but I definitely have my producer Randy to thank for that.
You have a very distinctive vocal style, like glass whose brightness might soften or harden, waver or gleam, depending on the light. I particularly love the way harmonies are used, fading in and out, on ‘Danielle’, or the subtle vibrato on ‘The Nothing’. There’s a sense of presences gathering then departing, all contained in your voice—its flickering between singularity and plurality. What other vocalists inspired your singing?
That’s the coolest use of metaphor to describe anything about me, thank you. Honestly the earliest vocal influence I can think of is Hayley Williams, I listened to a Paramore record when I was like 15 for the first time and learned how to sing vibrato because of her. And then when I was 16 or 17 my life was changed by As Cities Burn and I wanted my voice style to be similar to Cody Bonettes in its raw, honest vulnerability. It felt real and I wanted to be real to people.
Your songs are very dreamlike, shimmering on the brink of different states of mind. Do you write at a specific time of day; do you have a routine for songwriting, or is it more spontaneous?
Like I said in that first question, the writing process is strange, very chaotic, absolutely unstructured. If inspiration comes I’m gonna write something. If I feel no inspiration or emotion I won’t force it because anything I write that’s forced I end up hating and not finishing. It’s so flakey and always terrifying because I have to scramble when it’s time to record.
Could you talk a bit more about the ‘hauntings’ of the album, the implications of the title, There Is A Presence Here?
I was initially going to call the LP “Numen Inest,” which is Latin with two meanings, either “there is a presence here” or “this place is haunted.” I came across the phrase while reading a book called The Problem Of Pain by C.S. Lewis, he talks about humanity’s need for religion, and addresses this inherent dread of the unknown that everyone instinctively feels when we come across something spiritual or paranormal. It’s like the subconscious fear of God. I think thematically it was great because the record circles around the shaking of my faith and then the faint, daunting feeling that something I can’t shake is there. We decided to call it “This Place Is Haunted” because it’s a little more memorable (and easy to pronounce!).
Your songs follow unconventional structures, often catching the wisps of a certain mood and working with that. What tends to provide the kernel of inspiration for a song?
Usually something instils an emotional reaction, and will cause me to think of something small, a line or a progression that I can build off of. Sometimes it comes from a book or a movie or a song, sometimes it comes from nowhere.
What does courage mean to you?
Courage looks like loyalty to friends who are not at their best in the hopes of seeing them at their best. Courage looks like forgiving those who don’t deserve it (because no one really does). Courage looks like choosing joy when it seems wildly impossible to do so in the midst of suffering.
On ‘Hollow Body’, you allude to Johnny Cash’s cover of ‘Hurt’. The way it’s woven in feels almost like hearing the song from a lost point in time, almost from underwater.
It’s an important lament to me. It’s a cry out to God that I break my own heart, and I break His as well. I know that was probably most definitely not Nine Inch Nails’ intention in writing that song, but when I heard Johnny Cash sing it for the first time that’s immediately what I felt.
This is a very intimate record, its quietude recalling the closeness of a bedroom recording, the delicate tones of a handwritten diary. However, there’s also a sense of maturity and distance throughout, like the songs themselves are shaping and giving form to emotions that might be too difficult to bear on the surface. Do you find songwriting achieves any sort of separation, transformation or catharsis in that sense?
Absolutely, all three. It’s a huge release. Like a sigh of relief once I’m able to properly convey what I’m feeling in a shape that does it justice. And sometimes a song will change meaning for me as I grow or learn something new, and it becomes that much more important.
How do you picture the emotional arc of the album?
It starts with suffering, and doubt, and unanswered questions about who God is or if He’s even there. It goes into death, and dying to self (basically the stripping away of my religion/things I formerly believed about God), and ends with resurrection. New life coming up from the soil of the grave, a new identity because I believe God has revealed himself to me in a way that I had never seen before, because I’ve been transformed. It’s the coming of spring. It’s the planting of flowers over dead earth.
There Is A Presence Here strikes me as a record that could work beautifully live. I’m picturing an absolute stillness that allows the sound to take shape in the air, subtly, slowly. Your voice in the darkness the silver ribbon guiding us through these amorphous, emotional stories. Are you planning to play some shows for it and if so, what will the setup be like?
Of course! I’m looking forward to playing new music live. For now I’m still sticking to going solo and simple and letting the songs tell their own story.
‘There Is A Presence Here’ is out now, buy it here