Woman’s Hour are not your average band. The first clue comes in the name of the London-based swoon-pop four-piece, taken from a beloved female-focussed news and culture show on BBC Radio 4. The second is in their graphic, striking monochrome visuals, meticulously curated in collaboration with TATE and MOMA certified fine artists Oliver Chanarin and Adam Broomberg. These play with shape and texture, much like their powerful, iridescent music. On their excellent debut album ‘Conversations’, this has the intricate construction and intimacy of The xx and the iridescent shimmer of summer-defining indie pop. Pay attention now, or regret it later.
In a sense, we feel like the odd ones out”, explains frontwoman Fiona Burgess of their nose-to-tail approach to their visuals, performance and songcraft. “It’s quite empowering that we’re doing it as four people but we’re not part of a bigger collective.” Indeed, their 360º approach is closer to the art/music crossover of acts such as Throbbing Gristle, Yoko Ono or Factory Floor than most of this year’s indie hopes. Their music — as poignantly personal as pop gets — has a rare singularity and purpose.
Take single “Her Ghost”, which layers a breezy guitar hook with Fiona’s beautiful, sighing lyric of inner turmoil. “I’m interested in the idea of memory and how powerful memories can be, and how powerful some things can be to let go of,” she says. “A lot of my writing is me trying to understand an emotion or situation.” The track’s melody and a message lingers in the recesses of the mind like a box of treasured letters.
Woman’s Hour started to come together one summer, when Fiona started collaborating with her brother, guitarist William Burgess. “I had been to a couple of rehearsals with other bands and it wasn’t very much fun,” says William. “I mentioned to Fiona that I’d like her to sing and we decided to have a go. I went round to her place one day and it turned our that she had a pretty nice voice!” The two recruited bassist Nicolas Graves, who was William’s friend from back home (the pair had played in a couple of “local guitar bands” back in Kendal) and the three began creating their music. Nicolas explains: “We just messed around in each other’s houses for a bit and tried to get a few songs together.
We played our first gig in 2011,” Nicolas continues. “It was at Fiona’s house in Camden. It was a hat-themed party. I remember wearing a beret. Fiona was wearing a trilby, and Will had a sombrero on.” It was incredibly nerve-racking for the trio despite the jolly occasion (“I almost froze with fear at one point” laughs Nicolas), but the gig was a runaway success, and it was there that they all met keyboardist Josh Hunnisett, who was already a friend of Fiona’s and happened to be doing the sound at the event. Even in the shambolic situation, the band were meticulous perfectionists.
The quartet had their first rehearsal in an old vicarage in Dalston. “It just felt really honest,” says Josh. “There was no ‘you can’t do this, you can’t do that, don’t try that — the style of music felt pure and everyone was expressing themselves in the way they wanted. We’ve tried to think about this as a collaboration between four different creative people.” Each band member brings a wholly distinct set of influences to the band — from German cold wave to pop rarities and uncompromising singer/songwriters. Their website even has a section dedicated to recommended reading.
But it was their favourite radio show that was to be have most prominent effect on the band. “When we were first doing demos we named them all after BBC Radio 4 programmes,” explains Nick. “The World at One, Afternoon Play, that kind of thing. I think Woman’s Hour might have been one of them, and when it came to play our first gig (at The Queen’s Head in London) one of our friends suggested using it and it stuck.” Indeed, their jangle-pop first single Jenni, which is quite different to their current material, was named after Radio 4 stalwart Jenni Murray. The band’s first 7″, “Jenni/ Human”, was released through London label Dirty Bingo after the label head tracked them down on online and interviewed them for beloved London zine Loud And Quiet.
Although the single made a splash, things were moving too fast for the band. “Suddenly we thought, ‘should we have had something to back this up?”, says William. “‘We didn’t have any more songs, so we took a year and a half off to write and develop the sound. That’s also when we met Tom Morris, our producer.” The band hibernated, starting from the bottom up. “Let’s get everything fucking slick, how we want it, let’s do everything exactly how we want it ourselves – don’t compromise.
It was worth the wait. When the band put their gorgeously lilting comeback single “Our Love Has No Rhythm” online in 2013, the blogs exploded, in part due to the glossy monochrome video depicting Fiona’s face in close-up, and also the stunning single artwork — an uneasy found image of a suited gentleman falling over. “We’ve been using images that are taken from manuals,” explains Fiona. “Lots of different ‘How To’ manuals from How to Train a Chihuahua to How to Fall Over Without Hurting Yourself. We like the idea of how to look after yourself physically paired with the music, which is a lot less direct.
Perhaps Woman’s Hour’s music does not hammer its message home, but there’s a nuance and craft that’s scarcely found in today’s industry. They followed “Our Love Has No Rhythm”, with the cooing, Beach House-esque “Darkest Place” in which Fiona implores “I don’t understand why you’re not around” over swooning keyboards, with a cooing ooooh-ooooh hook. For the track’s striking video, she’d is depicted in close crop with her eyes closed as an unknown figure attempts to prise them open. “I was finishing a degree in performance studies at the time, and I came across this particular piece by Vito Acconci”, she says of the inspiration for the video. “The original piece is about 20 minutes long, and it’s absolutely gruelling, there’s no soundtrack to it and it’s a piece where you can hear the sound in the room of two people in a physical struggle. You can hear the heavy breathing, the feet, the occasional sounds of resistance.” She endured a restaging of the piece, which she found “very intense and intimate.
Hour have an uncompromising commitment to the unconventional. For them, music does not exist as merely a hummable soundtrack but as a wider and more artistic proposition. As Fiona continues: “A lot of music videos are not very challenging, and I like the idea of them being quite confronting. Our album artwork is inspired by a picture of a woman surrounded by pyramids that was part of a magazine article called The Start of an Era. It was a 1970s performance piece that was performed at the Whitney Museum in New York, and we’ve also designed nine of these pyramids with Oliver Chanarin that we’ll incorporate into our live show when possible.” The Start of an Era? We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.