Josephine Foster Paints a Mystical Wonderland with No Harm Done LP

Photo Credit: Matthew Schneider

There’s something otherworldly about Josephine Foster’s music. The Colorado-based folk singer creates transcendental states with her voice, and the eight tracks on her latest album No Harm Done are no exception, spanning from a conversation with the holy spirit to meditations on a kingless world.

Foster’s distinctive vocals have both a sweetness and a darkness to them on the album, which was first released digitally in August and comes out on vinyl and CD November 20. Many of the tracks sound like something between witchy spells and spiritual hymns, half-hummed, half-chanted against mystical harp and guitar.

In “Leonine,” her voice swivels and swerves through poetic lyrics — “Leonine lean lean on me/Leonine spring/spring on me” — painting an enchanting picture of a land ruled by no one, “where none is king…and all is blessed lioness.” The song is about “the fantasy of not being ruled by a patriarch, or just a way of life with shared leaders, guides, and more feminine presence,” she says. “It certainly feels like the earth is calling for that stewardship.”

Spirituality is a thread tying the songs on the album together, which for Foster is intrinsic to her art form. “I think the act of singing is spiritual,” she says. “It’s sort of decorating the breath and giving meaning with the words, bringing intention to the breath.”

She considers the biggest theme on the album, however, to be love. Perhaps the best example of this is “Conjugal Bliss,” an erotic love song she’s often played at weddings, featuring delicate harmonies against calm, peaceful guitar. “In he I blend/in me he binds/In he I wed/in me he winds,” she sings, in what sounds almost like a verse out of the Song of Songs.

Foster actually wrote “Conjugal Bliss” after she was separated from her ex husband at the U.S. border and he was sent to Europe. “I was waiting for him to return for a couple months and was thinking about him, and it turned into a song,” she remembers. Despite its overtly sexual subtitle, “69,” the song is also deeply spiritual. “It’s about lovemaking and being entwined with somebody you love,” she says.

“Sure Am Devilish,” a bluesy folk song about “the rise and fall into the same circumstances and learning the same lessons over and over,” was also written a while ago — 20 years ago, to be exact. “Sometimes, you like something and it just sits in the cellar, just like when you harvest grapes and put them down in the barrel, and then you might not want to drink that for a few years — give it a little chance to find its moment of uncorking the bottle,” she explains.

In perhaps the most haunting song on the album, the seven-minute, 21-second “Old Saw,” Foster’s voice operatically soars over the phrase “holy spirit,” addressing this being, “I would like to talk with you.” With an almost freak-folk style, she conjures the image of someone rising from their deathbed, about to commune with the angelic realms. “It’s a dialogue with your soul,” she explains. “It’s funny how we’re able to kind of unify ourselves and also have a duality in ourselves, so it comes and goes, and it’s really just a meditation to try to induce that state; it’s a repetitive series of chords.”

“Old Saw” was unfinished when Foster took it to the studio, then much of it was improvised. “I was surprised and pleased by the little that it has lyrically and harmonically, that it seemed to pass through a threshold and honestly transmitted the spirit of the song,” she says. “And just the repeating of ‘holy spirit, holy spirit’ — when I sing that, it feels so good. It just feels amazingly good to sing that little fragment, and then there’s an acknowledgment of having glimpsed at the whole, my whole self.”

The rest of the album ranges from the piano-driven, almost cabaret-like “Freemason Drag” and “How Come, Honeycomb?” to the country-inspired “The Wheel of Fortune.” Recording the album in producer Andrija Tokic’s analog Bomb Shelter studio, Foster played the guitar, piano, organ, harp, and autoharp and was accompanied by 12-string pedal steel and electric bass by guitarist Matthew Schneider, who she quarantined with in Nashville this spring. Currently, Foster is taking a break from recording new music and enjoying other art forms, like painting and gardening.

It’s been 20 years since she began self-releasing her first albums, including There Are Eyes Above and Little Life, and she feels she’s become more fully realized as an artist since then. “I think over time, you become more and more yourself more deeply,” she says. “That’s the gift of time.”

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Gyda Valtysdottir Taps Impressive Array of Experimental Icelandic Composers For ‘Epicycle II’

A dichotomy is often drawn between classical music that one might learn in school and popular music people listen to today for their enjoyment and entertainment. But Icelandic composer and multi-instrumentalist Gyda Valtysdottir seamlessly bridges the two, with compositions that surprise the listener by drawing from classical conventions while also experimenting with fresh new sounds.

Her latest album, Epicycle II, is no exception. The collection of eight songs, recorded in collaboration with eight composers — Ólöf Arnalds, Daníel Bjarnason, Úlfur Hansson, Jónsi, María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, Kjartan Sveinsson, Skúli Sverrisson, and Anna Thorvaldsdóttir — creates an atmosphere that is at once ancient and modern, familiar and novel, comforting and unnerving.

The album is a sequel to her first solo album, 2016’s Epicycle, which featured works from composers like Schubert, Schumann, and Messiaen as well as contemporary ones she admired; she selected Harry Partch for his “absolute unique musical world which you cannot categorize,” George Crumb for his “sensitive and highly organic soundscapes,” and “Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus” by Oliver Messiaen, because it provided her with profound musical experiences while she was in school.

But the second Epicycle album focuses solely on contemporary composers, many of whom were favorites of Valtysdottir’s and all of whom she worked with directly. “I wanted it to be more collaborative, hence the aliveness of the composers,” she says. “Also, although I do not look at the previous record as a classical one, it has its feet in that realm. I wanted this one to be even more undefined. I also wanted to let go of control; each musician had full freedom of what they wanted to create and how much of a collaboration it would be.”

Though Valtysdottir was open to working with composers from all over the world, she ended up finding many in Iceland she wanting to work with, and so the album’s composers are exclusively from Iceland, making it “a map of the world that influenced and shaped me,” she says.

Perhaps Iceland’s mystical terrain lends itself to otherworldly-sounding music; from Bjork to Sigur Ros, the country’s most well-known artists all seem to have an ethereal, magical quality to them, and Valtysdottir also belongs on this list. Many of her songs sound almost like they were recorded in nature, but on another planet. In “Morphogenesis” (Hansson), string instruments call and answer to each other like birds. “Unfold” (Sverrisson) sounds like it belongs in a film soundtrack, accompanying a scene of majestic mountains. “Mikros” (Thorvaldsdóttir) has a suspenseful quality to it, better suited to a chase scene.

But the highlights are the tracks where she sings; the verses of “Evol Lamina” (Jónsi), “Safe to Love” (Arnalds), and “Liquidity” (Sveinsson) sound more like incantations, with her hauntingly echoey, operatic voice delivering powerful lines like “I feel the force in you of nature” and “until you feel that liquidity there is infinite space to be found.”

This theme of exploring the ways our lives revolve around one another fits with the album title. “Epicycle,” a term used to describe the planetary orbits by ancient Greek astronomer Ptolemy, refers to a specific shape: a circle moving around the circumference of a larger one. When Valtysdottir learned the word, she’d already drawn the first album’s cover artwork using a kid’s toy she got on the streets of Istanbul, and she realized what the toy had produced was epicycles.

While much of the album is abstract, it cumulatively tells a story about “the interconnection between us all, how we are shaped from our connection to others, and how we find our own authenticity by embracing others,” Valtysdottir explains. “Also, [it’s about] the unique space between each one of us. I become someone slightly different with each [collaborator]; they pull different aspects out of me. I love that — it makes me feel more free and universal.”

Each composer underwent a slightly different process with Valtysdottir: Thorvaldsdóttir wrote the piece herself, Sveinsson sat down with Valtysdottir to compose, Jónsi began by recording cello and vocal improvisations, and Hansson wrote the beginning of the piece, then they improvised the rest. She and Kjartan had a band recording with them in the studio, and Úlfur played analog synthesizers. Bjarnason’s piece was already released, and Valtysdottir fell in love with it when she heard it.

Valtysdottir has also been on the other end of this type of collaboration and appeared on many other artists’ albums. Visual artist Ragnar Kjartansson even formed a “twin project” band consisting of Valtysdottir, her twin sister Kristín Anna and Aaron and Bryce Dessner, the twin brothers in The National. They’ve created a video installation featured in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and they also have an album on the way.

Other projects Valtysdottir’s fans can look forward to are a duo with American folk singer-songwriter Josephine Foster, several old and new songs of hers recorded with Lithuanian band Merope, and ambient pieces she composed during lockdown.

“I’d like to bundle [them] up into an album, but it’s more challenging in the bright summer nights here in Iceland,” she says. “I’ll wait for the dark days to finish it.”

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