“I wanted to make a record that was meditative, compassionate, calm and reflective, as a reaction to the increasingly noisy, opinionated, aggressive and polemic tone of our daily environment,” says Fiona Brice.
The British multi-instrumentalist, orchestral arranger and composer has drawn on her abundant talents to forge an exceptional record that fulfils the brief. Brice’s second solo album for Bella Union, And You Know I Care, is a deep listening experience that raises the post-classical bar, eschewing the genre’s default melancholia for wider and richer dimensions of uplifting and exultant bliss.
Brice has drawn on all her experience gained working with the likes of John Grant, Anna Calvi, Jarvis Cocker, Kanye West, Beyoncé, Katherine Jenkins, Elbow, the BBC Concert and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestras, Royal Northern Sinfonia and the London Mozart Players. She toured with Placebo for ten years, and more recently Elbow, so to say Brice is in-demand is an understatement. But she still has time for her own work. Her debut album Postcards From, a more minimalist, filmic set of instrumentals, was released in 2016. After two purer classical projects (String Quartet No.1 in 2018 and the lockdown-inspired Piano Preludes in 2022) And You Know I Care is a more wide-ranging, ruminating work, and showcases Brice’s voice, lyrics and choral arrangements – and what a gorgeous voice she has, strong and supple, able to hit the heights of a soprano.
To help her create this refuge from modern life, Brice (violin, piano) called on Vicky Matthews (cello), Benjamin Till (vocal on ‘Whose God Are You’) and co-producers Julian Simmons and Dimitri Tikovoï. “Every collaborator on this album is someone I’ve had a long-standing friendship and professional relationship with – including Simon Raymonde and Bella Union,” she says. “This is important to me because it gives the record a personal ‘retrospective’ quality.”
Renowned photographer Rankin is another friend (Brice initially featured in his famous Raw Nudes exhibition) who Brice asked to direct a video for the lead single – and title track after seeing his powerful portrait series Flora, juxtaposing flowers and flame. Says Brice, “I found Rankin’s series resonated with the music, though he’d only done stills: a video was my suggestion.” The visuals’ distilled, flickering beauty combines with the music’s ebb and flow, recalling video artist Bill Viola’s stunning slow-motion work. “I wanted something that could be shown in an art gallery,” says Brice. “It’s an installation as much as a video.”
Brice chose one of Rankin’s Flora images for the album cover. On the rear, she wears a formal black classical concert dress, lying in the (according to Alexander Technique and yoga practice) position known as ‘constructive rest’. “It promotes calming, tension release and relaxing the sympathetic nervous system,” says Brice, who trained as a yoga teacher in 2017 (how did she find time?). “I hope the imagery shows the seriousness of the statement I’m making on this record.”
The album is bookended by instrumentals, “to link back to Postcards From,” but each tells its own story. In the opening ‘Ascending’, a gentle piano prelude is slowly invaded by electronic sound, as if the world is intruding on Brice’s state of calm. The sombre strings of the closing ‘Retreat’ is, “a retreat back into instrumental music,” she feels, but it’s also a retreat into that state of calm.
That leaves six sets of lyrics. Seeking community and empathy in a world spinning out of control, Brice reaches out to a friend in hospital (the title track), understands another’s perspective (‘Through Her Eyes’) and encourages a troubled friend that life can improve (‘Today It Will Be Different’). ‘Nocturnal’ acknowledges emotional pain, “and how long it can take to heal.” ‘We Rise We Fall’ telescopes outward, to lament, “how the world is in perpetual flux. We progress and then regress, and never get to where we could be.” ‘Whose God Are You’ is the album’s darker, cynical chapter, addressing “those people who’ll have you believe they walk on water. It could be politicians, religious leaders, or someone I know being precocious… it’s me saying, I don’t believe you.”
In all cases, the lyrics are written as mantras. As Brice explains, “A lot of songs out there have an enormous number of words – just like people are talking all the time on social media. So, I wanted to break things down to the emotional core. Historically too, mantras in the yogi tradition of repetition soothe the mind and body.”
Music that has inspired Brice along this illuminating journey include Alice Coltrane’s Universal Consciousness (“the sheer ‘otherness’, the way she claims her own soundworld”), Steve Reich’s Different Trains (“repetition, variation and lyrical minimalism creating a strong emotional impact”), Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly and James McAlister’s Planetarium (”the combination of song form and orchestral textures”) and Henry Purcell (“especially Dido And Aeneas and baroque compositional use of ground bass”).
With a similarly questing spirit, rich composition and a commanding vision, Brice has created her own soundworld, and a place for everyone to find a shelter from the storm.