MUSIC

From The Understory / Alice Boyd’s immersive debut EP

The acclaimed sound artist talks theatre, field recording, and ecological metaphysics.

Alice Boyd. Photo by Kanahaya Alam
Alice Boyd, who released her debut EP, ‘From The Understory,’ this month. Photo by Kanahaya Alam.

review + interview by Jay Richardson
24th April 2023

★★★★☆

When I met Alice Boyd in a South London park in early 2023, the interview itself quickly became a field recording. Between musings on her debut EP, From The Understory, there’s a lot of sound. Clinking mugs and creaking benches betray us both restlessly fidgeting to stay warm in the weak late February sun; a tiny dog barks desperately at nothing; and when we move to the chaotic, echoey inside of a café, half a dozen young families merrily struggle to navigate flat-white-laden trays and fall over each other’s pushchairs. You can’t get away from sound.

It’s a fitting context for Boyd, who made her name with a genre-defying mélange of theatre, radio, and experimental sound art. After the pandemic temporarily knocked out live performances, her work took a bewildering explosion of new forms—including a minimalist PICO-8 game soundtrack. And now, almost out of nowhere, an EP. Why?

“It just felt clear that it would be an EP,” she says. “But also that it would have this collaborative edge. The other singers, the music video with Studio Gruff, and the live shows—I’m working with Natasha Kaeda, who’s writing interludes between each piece—it has an edge of the theatre. It’s an EP, but it also has these other things around the outside.”

I’m curious about how the music video for ‘Separation’ came to be. It’s hand-drawn, full of swirling shapes and colours and mind-bending landscapes. Boyd concentrates on her relationship with the studio. “Just meeting them and—it was all done on a shoestring—just completely trusting them with whatever they wanted to create in response to the song, and honestly, I was like, ‘What the hell? This is beautiful!’”

The details make From The Understory worth listening to on repeat. It’s flecked with ear-catching field recordings and electronic rumbles, held together by a cohesive mesh of ever-returning voices. Two tracks are paired with music videos so intensely imaginative they’ll give you instant daydreams. The trancelike second track, ‘Growth,’ is pervaded by birdsong, haunting siren-like wails, string drones, and trills—all under the surface of its light, breezy harmony. ‘Sister, I do not know/How not to grow,’ it lilts; ‘Still I must go/Towards the precipice.’ It makes light listening after ‘Separation,’ the unearthly, ambient opener, with the spellbinding, spacious quality of a feature film soundtrack.

Which, as it turns out, is not a coincidence. “I wanted it to have a narrative,” says Boyd. “I wanted the story of the EP to start with the separation of animal cells and plant cells and the increasing individualisation of humans and the growth of cities, and suddenly nature feeling distinct from us, and then the second half of the EP is bringing it back together and the realisation that we’re all reliant on everything here. And that we’re not necessarily the ones in control.”

A vinyl edition of ‘From The Understory’.
Nature metaphors abound: the word ‘understory’ refers to the forest layer between canopy and floor. It’s hard not to compare the EP’s title with Richard Powers’ prizewinning The Overstory, a sweeping arboreal epic. “I really love that book,” she says. “But the understory is the layer that’s up to human height, and I wanted the EP to be about the layer that we humans naturally walk around, and have the most direct contact with in terms of what we can see and feel.”

The narrative plays out in track titles—‘Separation,’ ‘Growth,’ and ‘Imbalance,’ then ‘Connection’ and ‘Symbiosis.’ Is that too much like a fairytale? Yes, in a way, but it’s a narrative for tracing out a philosophy of connection and continuity. She brings up Guattari and Deleuze’s theory of  ‘assemblage,’ in A Thousand Plateaus (1980), from her geography student days.

We move inside the café, out of the wind chill, and I wonder how we managed to take a turn to metaphysics. “I don’t bring that much academic theory into my work,” she laughs. “But I suppose those ideas have sort of been the backbone.”

It’s an apt enough reference for a musician who works across so many methods, and draws such varied material experiences into her work. Perhaps, after all, metaphysics is a useful way to understand what From The Understory is, and is supposed to be. Deleuze considered an ‘assemblage’ to be a set of material relationships, an ephemeral and unique layout of people and circumstances that combine to produce material reality. A metaphysics of change, temporality, and materiality seems inherently attractive to field recordists, who spend most of their time thinking about materials, the sounds they make, and the often surprising and random arrangements they take.

The phrase “the interconnectedness of everything” comes up more than once as we talk—as does the feeling of intense joy that comes from singing with other people, encompassing practices like Sacred Harp as much as the band practice that produced the EP. Even if it’s a stretch to say it embodies a philosophy of continuity, From The Understory certainly has an aesthetic of connectedness, togetherness, and reflection. Moments feel like hearing matter itself—leaves, birds, electrons, voices—come alive and self-organise, another of Deleuze’s hobby horses, although he was perhaps more interested in the mathematics of dynamical systems theory than in band practice. But his emphasis on the agency of non-human organisms and ecosystems is one that environmental thinkers have taken up with particular enthusiasm.

Deleuze aside, the result of all this deep thinking is a beautiful 22 minutes of controlled chaos—right down to the eco-mix vinyl, made from the spare wax at record factories so that each copy has a different and unique colour. Deleuze and Guattari asked readers to treat A Thousand Plateaus as they would a record, and From The Understory is its own kind of unique assemblage, at times unpredictable, but somehow, unfailingly, convincing. It’s a collision of ephemeral circumstances—singers, plants, electrodes, arts institutions, Earth Day 2023, theatre, the faintly hallucinatory cyanotype cover art by Amy Pezzin—that all combined at this particular moment. And for Boyd, the important parts are often the materially, tangibly real. “It would be really cool to know that the vinyl’s out there in people’s houses and that they’re listening to it,” she says, gazing off as if a record might present itself in the middle distance.

A vinyl copy of From The Understory.

I ask what sounds she most wants to hear, a deeply personal question, and we quickly land back on assemblages of a different kind: protest and collective action. “The sound of governments saying, ‘It’s all going to be fine and we’re going to finally do loads of action on climate change!’” she laughs. “As a teenager I used to go on a lot of climate marches. I kind of wish I’d joined the Dartmoor walk, the Right to Roam, but I didn’t. I’d love to feel like there was more collective action. And that’s myself included.”

If togetherness takes on the role of spirituality, she adds, then so be it. “Those moments where you can connect outwards have something of a spiritual feeling, I think.” From The Understory has played to audiences at the Eden Project in Cornwall, Thames Ditton Nature and Climate Festival, Avalon Cafe in Bermondsey, and the Barbican Conservatory. More will come, and not necessarily at music venues. “I presented a snippet of the recorded music at the Royal Geographical Society, and it was so cool having the full circle back to geography, and suddenly being surrounded by geographers being like, ‘What? You make music?’ And taking it into environments with people who may not traditionally feel very connected to the music scene.”

Not that it’s a perfect experience: the middle tracks, with the longest stretches of field recordings, lack some of the textural clarity of the opening ones, perhaps because they lack voices. The EP never quite recovers its playfulness. It’s brought home to rest in ‘Symbiosis,’ which Boyd compares to a ballad, and it certainly feels honest-to-God: “I was scared and ran away/Too proud to go back home/But now I know/I’ve always known.” It’s perhaps one gear change too many in a five-track EP.

But it strikes me that field recording, more than any other discipline, sits at the precise meeting point of music and geography. “It’s definitely one of my favourite parts of the work I do,” she smiles. Like any good field recordist, she readily cedes her attention to the soundscape, inviting sonic contributions from people, organisms, and objects outside her control. 

And in its own way, she adds, data sonification also pushes the boundaries of music-making. “The device gets that wave of data and applies it to pitch and frequency. It was an interesting process—I love how it’s a way of taking a stream of data and producing melodies that you wouldn’t have otherwise thought of yourself. And it’s quite a playful way to interact with a plant and show, like, this is actually an active thing, there’s stuff going on in this plant.” She compares its revelatory power to the 2022 BBC documentary The Green Planet, which shows high-resolution, stabilised, exposure-matched timelapse footage of plant growth.

“I think seeing that, you go, ‘Oh my God, yeah, it’s just on a different time frame to what we’re used to.’ One of the things I’ve come up against since is like, okay, what does the conductivity actually mean—is it a helpful dataset in any way?” As it turns out, that points us quickly back to the philosophy of what can be known—or, in this case, heard. “How can you document sounds—the hidden sounds or the unnoticed sounds, underwater or subterranean field recording, ultrasound and infrasound—beyond human hearing, what can you hear? So I think that’s where I’m going next.”

Yet another vinyl copy of From The Understory.

Boyd says she spent sessions with her mentor on Sound and Music’s New Voices programme, Gawain Hewitt, learning to solder the electronics that would eventually form the custom Arduino board she uses to capture plant conductivity data. “You put two electrodes on the plant leaf and it passes a small electric current through it, and the Arduino device measures and records the changes in conductivity and the resistance of that plant to the electric signal—which changes as the plant photosynthesises and as water and salts move around the plant. In how we see the plant, it may look fairly still or static, but there’s stuff going on inside.” Naturally, the plants will perform at future live shows, passing their precious stream of conductivity data through a tangle of electronics. For most listeners, that creates a new and more direct sensory connection. And for Boyd, new ways of sensing harmonise with a particular way of working.

“It came out of the artist residency at the Eden Project. I spent a week there. And part of it was spending time in the rainforest biome, collecting that data, but then other times I would just go on a walk and think about what I wanted the EP to be. I had this sort of epiphany moment that was like, ‘Oh, wait! Work doesn’t have to be sitting down and looking at my laptop. It can be going out on a walk and just thinking.’ On one of the days of the residency I went on a two-hour walk to this river. Occasionally a little bit of tune would pop into my head, or an idea for the narrative of the EP.”

From The Understory feels like it was produced by wandering, and would make good company on a walk: it’s a listenable, changeable journey, with an emotional range two years in the making. “First and foremost, I wanted to make music that did feel accessible and you could hopefully just enjoy it as a song on its own, and then maybe as you hear it more you hear the environmental message. But I’ve definitely made music that is more challenging to listen to, I’d say. And I’ve sort of come back again and been like, ‘Oh wait! No, I really just like making music for singing and I like making things that I think are… nice.’” She laughs at the last word, a tame way to describe the EP’s sheer creative energy. But it’s a more apt word for the extended universe of experiences, and fleeting combinations of people, that have led up to this point—and lead outwards from it in ‘lines of flight.’

It doesn’t mean Boyd has escaped the struggle of making a path through the early-career arts landscape, and she’s still grappling with what her job actually is. Somehow, as artsy twenty-somethings, neither of us yet feels that we can escape the vice-like grip of Mailchimp. “There’s a lot of behind the scenes admin days,” she sighs. “I’d like to find ways that I can do that less on my own.”

What’s clear is that Alice Boyd is unlikely to sit still. She’s already making plans for the next project, maybe from a different biome, maybe based on upcoming underwater recording sessions. She talks energetically about how microphones, and especially underwater hydrophones, can reveal sounds your ears wouldn’t hear on their own—and how none of us, even with the most eclectic tastes, can discover every possible sound-world.

“The thing I really, really love is finding people whose work I like and collaborating and seeing what comes out of it,” she says. “For the future of my music, it’s finding ways to get funding, or any way to get other artists involved, because I think that’s when the really cool stuff happens.”

As she does in most interviews, Boyd brings up Dirty Projectors, the Brooklyn band/collective that quickly became a touchstone of indie rock in the late naughties and early 2010s. “Every time I listen to them, there are songs that I’m like, ‘Yeah! This is so good!’ And I think my aim with my music is like, I want to try and make a song, maybe one day, that has that same feeling.” I ask if she means euphoria. “Yeah, that’s the word.”

It’s not a stretch to say she’s already on the way there. The dynamic shape of From The Understory is perfectly judged, a tangle of synthetic and human voices, silences, field recordings, and unearthly gurgles that challenges as much as it immerses you, and lands you somewhere emotionally different from where you started. “On a personal level, having these moments where I know I need to be still for two minutes or longer to record this thing—whether it’s putting electrodes on plants or recording stuff with microphones—any way to have that more a part of my life, I’m like, ‘Yes!’ I want to do more and more and more.” From The Understory feels like one of those precious first albums that contains the untapped energy of everything that could happen next. °

This article was updated at 4:07pm on 24th April to correct a reference to the 1995 BBC documentary The Private Life of Plants, which should have been the 2022 series The Green Planet.

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