The original plan for Sophie’s latest release was to record in Nils Frahm’s studio in Berlin, however, the pandemic had other plans. Instead, Sophie returned to her home of Australia and spent a week in the Byron Hinterland. The Hinterland is a stretch of rolling hills and untouched bush inland from Byron Bay, Australia’s most eastern point. Sprinkled throughout the Hinterland are hiking trails, waterfalls and quaint towns, those typical of a Banjo Patterson poem. After being presented with an unfamiliar piano in a shack, smack bang in the middle of nowhere, over three short days Hutching’s got to work creating the masterpiece that is Echoes in the Valley.
Without even knowing the story behind the location or the piano, from the first track, Along the Boundary, you are instantly transported to another world. The natural soundfloor of the bush outside, coupled with the mechanics of the piano, make you feel like you’re right there inside the piano, as Sophie’s floating, meditative melodies swirl around you.
Being presented with an unconventional piano to record an entire album on can be daunting, but in true Australian fashion, Sophie ran with it and turned it into something beautiful. In conversation she mentioned,
“There were a few little weird characteristics of the piano that were bothering me, and I was like, okay... I’ve got to make this thing work. It's funny, initially, I was a bit stressed about the personality of the piano, even after it had been tuned, but strangely with the environment and the setting, I was like, this is going to tell a story.”
And tell a story it does, it reflects the story of the year that the world stopped.
I asked Sophie about the concept of the album, whether she had the concept of this rustic, organic sound before she decided on the Hinterland as her setting, or if it was something that developed out of the location and the circumstance.
Sophie: “So I was set to go on to my European tour last year for Scattered on the Wind, and COVID blew up and that got cancelled. With all the chaos that the whole globe was being thrown into, I wanted to change the concept and make it something really different and unique. I wanted it to be in a setting that was so opposite to what the world was going through. So when I had that recording experience, I felt like I wanted that experience to be captured. Music conveys so many emotions so I wanted the whole entire peaceful experience to be handed over to the listener. It presented its challenges, but I wouldn't change it for the world because it was just a very organic experience that I just let kind of evolve on its own.”
The album flows seamlessly and transports you to another, more calm world than that of our own, whilst still providing plenty of the emotional depth that Sophie mentioned. The track Billow Gently is contemplative and even mournful, whereas I Used to Live Here is earnest, with the arpeggiated left hand, which sits just below the sound of the right, reminiscent of cinematic classic Gabriel’s Oboe from The Mission. On a track like The Lighthouse, the natural creaks and clicks of the piano create an almost metronomic sensation that pushes the piece forward, grounding the aerial melody lines before evolving into the perfect accompaniment for Glass-like repetitive motives. Incorporating the natural sounds of the piano, which ended up being the defining feature of this album, was apparently not planned according to Sophie…
Sophie: "I felt like it really grew into its own and then the more I listened back to it, it reminds me of when you're sitting around an open fire and you see the glow of the flame… and it hypnotises you. But when you hear the crackles and the pops of the embers, that's what makes the experience really real. And I kind of feel like that with this piano. The glow of the fire is like the emotion and the melody that's conveyed, but the cracks and pops of the embers, like the personality and the sound and the mechanics of the piano is what makes it feel so...real."
The introspective state that Sophie’s compositions send you to is something that every artist strives for. That feeling of an artist handing you their work and instantly removing you, even if it just for three short minutes, from the world you were just in. For an artist to be able to achieve that, it is a hugely rewarding skill, but from a listeners perspective, we rarely stop to wonder how the artist manages to whisk us away so easily. I was curious to see how Sophie worked. I asked, “What is your process for getting into the groove of recording? Do you have these ideas in your head that you just sit down and record, or have you got a structured way of approaching recording these pieces?”
Sophie: “I always find that a really hard one to answer because I think everything for me comes from a very subconscious place that I'm not aware of. I'm always absorbing my surroundings and what’s going on, whether that be a book I'm reading, or an experience, or the time I spend out in natural open spaces. I have a very blank canvas/splash musical paint approach, there's no specific structure until I'm writing a full album, now I have learned to make it a little bit more constructive.”
Echoes in the Valley rounds out with Hold My Hand, a contemplative and quietly optimistic track. The repeated motive would’ve been a fine ending to this closing track, however, the final rising line leaves us with bated breath, hoping for just a drop more of what Sophie has to offer. And that is just the question we want to know, what is next? When we can have more?
Sophie: “I think I'm going to put touring on hold for the time being, and then...well, it's always nice to create a little bit of anticipation for your fans by not saying exactly what you've got in store, but I will say I've got an interesting collaborative project on the way I'm really enjoying solo piano.”
So I guess we will just have to wait and see what is in store!