introduction by trevor elkin
Since we introduced the ghostly DIY folk of Nancy Kells, aka Spartan Jet-Plex in our February Focal Points feature she has been recalibrating the meaning of ‘prolific’, with not one but two more albums completed in as many months. One of these, ‘Touch Tone’, has been hand picked by the wholly dependable Fox Food Records for a cassette release in May and it’s our genuine pleasure to share it with you.
In many ways ‘Touch Tone’ is special and unique: the product of an almost improbable collaboration between Kells, a former teacher from rural Virginia, and the Mirfield-based handmade tape label. It is honest and simple music, yet intricately latticed with a richness weaved from life experiences and memories.
“Just yesterday I watched an old Larry King interview he did with Prince in 1999, and Prince was saying how he doesn’t really look at the past and lives in the now. He doesn’t reminisce, etc., and it made me realize how damn nostalgic I am. I really do strive to live in the now, but my mind often wanders backwards and forwards.”
There’s a persisting sense of connection with her music, despite its transience and fading imagery, like leafing through a forgotten family photograph album; the smile of a long dead ancestor that resembles someone we know, the sudden shock of welcome colour vibrating from an out-of-place polaroid or the black card frame snapped around a dark empty patch where once a wedding portrait was stuck.
“A lot of what I write is a reflection on the past, what is happening in my life or in the world. I tend to be drawn to the dark side of things. I have struggled with depression and anxiety all my life and, although I am in a good place in my life, I still occasionally have episodes but they don’t last long and I can get myself out of it now. I think a lot of my inspiration comes from those dark moments or times that I’ve had in my life, but I think hope is also a common theme in my music.”
It’s true ‘Touch Tone’ also feels more like an album than previous ‘My Time’, more accomplished and without any sense of the constraints of theme or form one sometimes encounters. Kells’ voice is stronger somehow, transported and summoned into each song through a spectral gateway. With it pass through the echoes of her previous work, in the form of samples, breathy rhythms and reinterpreted melodies.
“In general, I would say I think a lot of inspiration also comes from my sense of humor and love of just playing around and experimenting, having a good time. Music and art is fun for me as much as it is an outlet for me to reflect on and hash out living life. It keeps me grounded so I can continue doing all the things in life I would much rather not have to do.”
Album stream & track-by-track guide
words by Nancy Kells
I guess ‘This’ is sort of about that push and pull in relationships and the struggle to maintain a sense of self and being seen and also feeling like an individual alone. We are all really alone despite close relationships or regardless of having a life partner. Musically, I was playing around with back-up vocals and so forth as well.
This is about being alone. I have a tendency to shut down and close myself off if I feel hurt or sad. I think a lot of people struggle with that – pushing people away when they’re feeling depressed. It’s an old habit and I am always working on it. I used to be very sociable, but now I just enjoy time alone working on projects or whatever and sometimes this gets in the way of my relationships. I really like who I am now, and I find peace and solace spending time alone.
This is like ‘Meant’ but has a more hopeful feel to it. It’s also about the haziness you have trying to describe or reflect on a dream or trip. It’s impossible to explain to someone except for bits and pieces of detail which just sound stupid out of context, but sometimes you can feel like you really learned something profound,
4. The Best
This is kind of about being at your worst even though I named it the Best. It’s also about that dark place you go to when life gets shitty, when you’ve hit rock bottom and all you can see is the worst of everything. I rarely go to that place anymore, but there was a time a long time ago in my teens and twenties in which I was deep in it almost on a daily basis. I had a small moment in time like that right around the time I wrote this one. It’s a good reminder to myself to instead strive to be my best.
This one is just about having fun and experimenting. I was trying out things vocally, etc. I also bought a Boss Dr. Rhythm DR-770 back in probably 2000. I never really utilized it then, and I barely am now either, but I have been incorporating it in some of my newer songs. I often like to use a combination of the drum machine or Casio beats with hand percussion as well.
6. Run Me Down
This is a really dark one. It’s about bad relationships in general and I basically channeled every awful or dysfunctional relationship I’ve had or have been witness to in order to write this one. I think everyone can relate to that and has felt similarly to the voice of this song.
7. Aware of the Flaws
Nothing lasts forever. We all will lose loved ones and they will lose us. Time is fleeting, but that’s okay. I think it’s about acceptance and trying to do our best with the time we have, recognizing the good and bad in ourselves and others and accepting and embracing that. The song title is from a demo Brian (my writing partner from our other project Noxon Light University) sent to me to work on, but I never used the lyrics for one of our songs. The title he sent me inspired me to write this one though.
Sometimes love is not enough to keep people together. The struggle between truly knowing someone and being a couple and also maintaining individuality: I see it all the time, and I certainly have experienced that myself in the past.
9. No Shame
I was raised Roman Catholic and I spent way too much of my life feeling ashamed about things. I think losing faith was really difficult for me, but would like to think I am still a spiritual person. I think I’m much better at not feeling ashamed than I used to be, but I really cannot say what I believe in. I do believe there are many things we cannot understand and I want to believe there is an afterlife. I want to be with my mom and other loved ones again. But I just can’t believe God has gender or is even anything you can explain the way religion does or if God even exists. I do hope that life matters in some way that is beyond our short time on earth.
‘Sport’ is about the struggle to strip yourself bare to another person by letting them see all of you- the good and bad. It is also about hopes and dreams. I used to have all these dreams or ideas about my life and what I was going to be and do, now I think I am happiest just focusing on what I love: music and art. Just working at trying to be my best at it and enjoying myself in doing it. Money and fame is what most people see as success. I certainly did as a kid. I just don’t think that truly is success.
This about miscommunication again, about communication that really isn’t good, honest or effective. I’m talking about smartphones, texting, social media. People living life through their phones. It seems like the majority of people are not really in the moment – for example when at a gig. They are filming, recording and posting about it on social media. People sometimes feel entitled to immediate responses to calls and texts. We all fall victim to this at some point if you have a phone, living life with a ball and chain that we also depend on.
This one is a lot like Wild in that I was just experimenting and playing around musically and vocally.
13. The Present
I guess this one is about loving and losing someone and looking back on it, but then realizing you’re in the present and leaving what’s gone in the past where it belongs.
Life can be amazing and beautiful, but it is often difficult, and it is difficult for everyone. No one goes through life without struggles, pain, hardship or loss. Some certainly get dealt a worse hand, but in most cases no one is alone in their struggles. Somewhere, there is someone who felt and struggled with the same sort of thing as you and if you are fortunate, you have good people in your life to help you through the bad times. At the same time, no one can really know how you feel or what you are going through, so we are all alone and not alone at the same time. We all struggle and sometimes we need to be our own helping hand, and other times we need to ask for help.
Touch Tone is released today on limited edition cassette via Fox Food Records, with original hand-drawn artwork by Nancy Kells.