Have you ever noticed that, when you experience a very strong and powerful sensation, you sometimes have the opposite reaction from what you’re supposed to have? When some people get happy news, they start sobbing like a kid with a scraped knee. When you see something extremely cute, you’re overwhelmed with the aggressive urge to tightly squeeze and manhandle them. When you touch something extremely cold, it feels like it’s burning. There are biological explanations for all of that, of course, but it’s interesting to see it in action.
Something similar happened to me when I was listening to “Voicething”, the new song by Almanac (singer-songwriter Josh Madine). “Voicething”, you see, is infuriatingly beautiful. Every note of it is gorgeous: every note Madine plays, every syllable Madine sings, every heavenly chorus. Even when the vocal harmonies go dissonant, it sounds like refracted light beaming through a stained glass window. It’s as though the song is incapable of ugliness.
When I listened to “Voicething”, I had my hand over my mouth from the moment I heard those piano chords, gently dancing like dust motes in the afternoon sunlight. When I first heard Madine sing, his voice perfectly clear and choir-boy rounded, I shook my head and took a deep breath through my nose. Then, that majestic chorus: wordless, drifting vocal harmonies, drifting like a wispy cloud across a sapphire-blue sky. I closed my eyes and muttered to myself: “Jesus fucking Christ.” This song was so good, and so absurdly pretty, that it was making me angry.
That feeling soon dissipated; after all, “Voicething” feels like it came from a world where anger doesn’t exist. The anger was soon replaced with awe and disbelief. How could something sound like this? How could something be so pretty without becoming maudlin? How did Madine’s voice sound like that? Why the hell didn’t anyone tell me about him before now?
I can only hope that this article, and its accompanying interview, helps get the word out. This is not a song you want to miss, and this is not an artist you want to ignore.
You’ve spent much of your life in the field of choral music. How does the skill set you’ve developed in choirs translate to indie pop?
I don’t think it necessarily translates very easily. There’s something inherently thrilling about a mass of singers performing together in the billowing reverb of a grand cathedral. When it’s just one person singing all the parts, I suppose it becomes a much more personal affair, but it would be a completely different live experience. Choral music is also not normally associated with electronic music; even when it’s recorded, you expect it to sound pretty similar to the way it would live and it’s rare that synthesizers are involved. I’m quite conscious of this while writing, but it’s exciting to be experimenting across genres in a way that not many other people are.
How does it feel to be making music on your own, compared to being a part of a larger whole?
It can be daunting knowing that all the decisions are in my hands, especially as I’m producing the music too. Sometimes I just want to defer to someone else! But then I always preferred working in smaller groups where it felt like my contribution was greater. The important thing is I’m shaping the sound in exactly the way I’d like to hear it which was the main reason for starting this project.
There are a number of artists who, much like you, fuse classical style and ambition with more accessible song structures—Julia Holter, for instance, or Anna Meredith’s poppier moments. What are some of your favorite artists who do what you do?
I love Laura Mvula’s orchestral pop sound. I’ve noticed she very skillfully alters her vocal timbre between lead and backing vocals to create this seamless synthesis of styles, and her compositions are just gorgeous. Serpentwithfeet’s opera/gospel-inflected R&B completely blew me away when I first listened to it last year. So did Brad Mehldau’s Finding Gabriel, which uses voices as instruments in a really intriguing way that I’d never heard before.
You’ve also spent time in a cappella groups. Would you want to include elements of that in your work as Almanac?
I think I already do to a certain extent. Part of the reason I stopped doing so much a cappella music is I became too intrigued by the possibilities of involving instruments. I didn’t just want to restrict myself to vocals. There are also certain stylistic expectations in the world of a cappella music, which can feel limiting for me. Having said that, I can’t imagine my music without some sort of multi-layered vocals, and I’ll always be a huge fan of Take Six, The Swingles, Voces8, The King’s Singers and many, many others.
What is the significance of the name “Almanac”?
Elbow chose their name after a line in The Singing Detective that declared it to be the loveliest word in the English language. I think ‘almanac’ would be a plausible close second. Often when I’m writing lyrics, I’m thinking about the sounds of words rather than their meanings. And if you say ‘almanac’ very slowly you’ll notice it has a wonderful symmetry. It begins with an unassuming ‘ah’ sound, travels through the mouth only to be halted by the ‘l’ of the tip of the tongue. The slightest meeting of lips provides the ‘ma’ that springs us back to the tongue-tip ‘na’, before ending where we started with a gentle palatal ‘c’. It’s beautiful.
What are your hopes and plans for the future?
I’ve got plenty more music I’m looking forward to releasing and I’m writing as much as I can, but I find each song takes a little while to finish. I’m also exploring how I might perform these pieces live without a huge choir behind me – it’s going to take a bit of technical wizardry but I’m slowly getting there. The artwork and videos are also a really important element and so I’ve been rather fortunate to be in lockdown with a brother who does that sort of thing very well!