Interview with Wyndow
"What are your thoughts on castration, people? Are you for or against?" says Laura J Martin briskly as a plaintive howl floats up from behind the door.
Her dog, Eno, has been banished from the room she's speaking from, and he's taken it badly. "He's chewing everything up. He's becoming a teenager, and I think he needs to calm down," she says, with mild despair.
While Laura does her best to tune out the whimpers, Lavinia Blackwall (formerly of folk-rock outfit Trembling Bells) joins us fresh from the Scottish countryside, where she's just bought a hut. We're meeting over Zoom to talk about their brand new project Wyndow, a psychedelic pop band which sprung from the shadows of lockdown. Given the band’s timeline, grappling with domestic distractions has become par for the course.
Unlike most bands, however, Laura and Lavinia have barely clapped eyes on each other since forming. Their collaboration has taken place entirely online, with various snippets of audio flitting back and forth between Liverpool and Clydebank for months on end. It's an approach they describe as "musical postcards".
"Some people could see the difficulty of recording separately as a negative thing, but I put a different spin on it," says Laura. "Having access to different rooms and environments can add up to a different character, or texture, which you don't get when you're defined by just one space. It would have been lovely to be in the same room with Vinnie, but having those limitations can make you more creative in some ways."
"I agree," Lavinia adds. "And I also think that because you're not in the same room you're very free. You think, well this other person's not here, I'm just going to try something out because I know they won't be offended. You know? It's not that I'd be setting out to offend anyone, but you just feel much less constricted, or watched. So you're trying out lots of ideas, which is liberating."
It all started with Robert Wyatt. After meeting at Moseley Folk Festival in 2017, a shared love of his music led to them covering 'Free Will and Testament' together. And then, like all the best friendships, things escalated to trading mixtapes over wine, uncovering more mutual influences and highlighting the artists they wanted to draw on next, like Judee Sill and Virginia Astley.
While both are seasoned singer-songwriters with plenty of releases behind them, the music they have been working on for Wyndow takes a different approach. It's a tableau of restless, interlocking rhythms, tightly orchestrated harmonies, haunting refrains, and the lingering sensation of trying to stay afloat as time marches ruthlessly by.
"One of the key sounds we kept coming back to was the two voices singing in unison," Laura says. "I've always loved the Roches and was struck by those tight harmonies, so I wanted to explore that."
Not that either artist entered into the project knowing what to expect. This wasn't the kind of collaboration where they could bounce ideas off each other in real-time. Instead of holing up at a studio they worked from home: each experimenting with a section, adding layer upon layer until she was happy with it, then sending it over to the other to build on.
By January, they had a first single, 'Take My Picture', with its delicate, ethereal vocals and a spectral piano melody which burrows its way into your head. Next came 'Two Strong Legs', which is — in the words of their Bandcamp — "a tune for whacked out worriers lifting weights in the worry gym". Finally, latest release 'Pulling on a String' is just as stirring, with its slight undertone of dread set against mellifluous, almost fragile, harmonies.
When Laura and Lavinia discuss what went into the songs, their dialogue is as careful and reciprocal as the recording process itself. If one comes out with an observation, she gently runs it by the other, giving her the chance to add her own spin. And if one tries to say something self-deprecating, she can count on being told off. It comes across as a really supportive working relationship, playing to both of their strengths. Laura agrees:
"I've really enjoyed being able to work with another female, and one of the things I love about Vinnie is that she's so decisive. I struggle to come to decisions, and she's a no-mess kind of lady."
You can tell that both are pretty intuitive about each other's tastes and creative approaches, but let's not skim over the amount of trust it must have taken to work like this. With both musicians already established in their solo careers, did it ever feel like a gamble to hand over creative control to another person — even if only temporarily?
LJM: "There is an element of chance in sending off something like a sketch, and then getting an angle on it from Lavinia that I hadn't even imagined being possible. But it meant we had the chance to live with an idea and then craft a response, rather than worrying about how people were going to play it live."
Although they worked together to arrange the songs, the songwriting was often a more solitary process. Lavinia, for example, describes a song she found herself writing in Italy, based on the memory of a man who once lived in her dad's basement. The lyrics became a kind of ghost story inspired by the eerie, enduring image of him out in the fields nearby. As well as this, she says, some of the ideas came from "thinking about time passing, and about mortality, and the way things come and go." Laura, meanwhile, focused on internal discourses and minimalism.
"I didn't realise this at the time, but looking back at the lyrics, there seems to be a theme of how introspective thoughts change when they're externalised and put against the outside world," she says. "The initial spark came from listening to Japanese environmental music and Phillip Glass' Koyaanisqatsi. I'm not sure that it's particularly obvious in the sound of the record now, but it informed the feel of the early demos which were sent back and forth and they developed in their own way."
With so many influences lurking beneath the surface of the work, did they mostly agree on the direction they wanted their sound to take? Who called the shots?
"I'm quite disorganised, and Laura's very organised," Lavinia begins.
"Oh, don't write that!" Laura interjects. "I'm rock'n'roll, Vinnie. Don't say I'm organised."
LB: "It's actually more rock'n'roll to be organised, because it means you get shit done.
"That's what's brilliant about you Laura, you've got this analytical and very precise way of looking at things. That's the benefit of having your capabilities and input: the precision. Total stickler for detail, in a really good way."
LJM: "But then when someone gives me options, I run with them, and I can't put that full stop on things." She goes on to recount a radio session they once did together, where she could have agonised over the final mix until dawn, had it not been for Lavinia firmly drawing a line under it. "Vinnie, you stop my twitches."
By now Zoom has rendered my voice tiny and faint, Lavinia's battery life has nosedived, and Laura doesn't know how long she's got before Eno's incisors sever a cable. As Lavinia mentions heading off to work on her vegetable garden — plans she immediately dismisses as "cliché and annoying" — Laura becomes captivated by the tranquil bucolic existence being conjured up here. We wrap up the call dreaming about huts in far-flung locations, with Laura quizzing Lavinia on the brass tacks of remote living.
As normality returns, and with it the option to make music in-person, Wyndow have no plans to call time on the project. They've found a cadence that really works for them, a back-and-forth of ideas that goes against the grain of more traditional songwriting. There are plans for a full-length album, a tour, and of course, some future cameos on each other's solo work.
But if the hut thing works out and both musicians wind up in splendid woodland seclusion, disturbed only by the occasional breeze rippling through the birches, at least you know their music won't take a hit. Just pray for a strong internet connection so that those fragments of songs can keep on zipping through the ether. Wyndow have made long distance work.
2021. Appeared in Bido Lito