2020 Ambient #9: Emily A. Sprague — Hill, Flower, Fog
Going to the supermarket is an anxious experience for me, as a neurodivergent person — too many bodies in a compacted space, bright lights, mechanical beeping. When I wear headphones it’s like blowing an impenetrable bubble around me, that is controlled by the music I play to make me feel comfortable existing in this space. This morning, when I went to Tesco to pick up some bits for dinner, and supplies for a trip to West Wales this weekend, I was listening to Belle and Sebastian, a band I respect and dabbled in but not necessarily given significant swathes of attention to (although, The Boy with The Arab Strap is a classic). I stayed up until 2am in the morning the night before, talking to my best friend, and sharing songs. Nothing expresses love like sharing songs that make you happy, or sad, or make you feel calm and comforted. We have songs that we call “carpet-yearners” — songs to lie on the carpet and feel to. ‘If She Wants Me’ from Belle and Sebastian’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress album is one such track. But when it played on my headphones while I was picking groceries in this stressful environment, it was incredibly soothing.
Frank O’Hara — a poet whose main themes were friendship and movement — wrote in his 1959 (anti-)manifesto Personism, that the poem should be between two people, not between two pages. And isn’t music the same? What’s the point of music (and poetry) if not to share it with those you care about? Memory is shaped by sound, and we become connected through shared sound, whether it’s a specially curated playlist or live performance. This person I care deeply for couldn’t possibly know that I would rely on this song they sent me, that they enjoy listening to while cooking, to make me feel at ease when I’m in an anxious space. In this moment, we were connected through time and space by a song — a moment in which I realised the extent of our love and friendship.
I was reminded of Emily A. Sprague’s Hill, Flower, Fog in a roundabout fashion. The same friend who loves Belle & Sebastian was showing me some of Frankie Cosmos’ earlier work, specifically Affirms Gently; a collection of (quite twee) folk and bedroom pop songs that mostly clock in at under two minutes. We got onto Florist, who Frankie Cosmos has toured and collaborated with expensively, and I mentioned how Emily from Florist has this fantastic ambient album from 2020 under her own name. I realised that I hadn’t listened to it for a year, at least.
Listening to it again now, at a writing retreat in West Wales, with a view from the desk in the living room of the River Teifi, that flows through Cardigan and into St George’s Channel, I feel like I am listening to Hill, Flower Fog the way it’s supposed to be listened to. It’s almost 7pm, the hottest day of the year, and I have the front door of the cottage open to allow in cool air. There is a garden, impenetrable with weeds, vines and flowers grown taller than me. I can hear the swing of the birdfeeder as goldfinch align to peck at the seeds, birds marking territories and attracting mates through song, sheep bleating from an unseen field, bees hovering over the flowers on the porch. Lewis Gordon, for Bandcamp Daily, wrote that Hill, Flower, Fog sounds like “a garden translated into sound” and right now, that comment could not feel more literal. Hill, Flower, Fog compliments — and aids — a feeling of serenity, and without interrupting the sounds of the natural world. And yet, I am reminiscing the comfort it gave me when I first chanced upon the record in 2020, a hot day not dissimilar like today, but in the garden of a terraced house in Bristol. scattered with fox shit. I am comforted by the album still, but I am also in remembrance of the comfort I first felt, and this weird distance between.
On her solo, ambient records, Emily A. Sprague swaps the lyrical confessions of her indie-folk project Florist for mutable, meandering synthesiser tones, but records such as Hill, Flower, Fog and 2018’s Mount Vision (a personal favourite) don’t let up on the endearing honesty, Recorded in a week in March, in the early days of the pandemic, these six instrumentals were released on Bandcamp just four days after they were mastered (re-uploaded in a new sequence in November 2020 by RVNG Intl.), which is proof of how conscious Emily was, and these songs are, of movement, as Frank O’Hara was in his poetry. The passing of the seasons, the inconsistency of time, and how these are experiences most people will have. The chimes on opening track ‘Moon View’ are soft, dancing on the drone bed like caustic light on bathroom tiles, or a rock pool in the woods, while woodwind leads and bright, colourful shimmers of ‘Horizon’ play out like a soundtrack to a video game; Link traversing a landscape in Zelda: Breathe of the Wild, or the soundtrack Michelle Zauner of Japanese breakfast penned for Sable come to mind. My favourite track off the record, ‘Mirror’, is almost 10-minutes, and doesn’t do much to shake up the palette already established by the past two tracks, nor does it desire to. The rippling refrain is egoless and unburdened, reverberant key tones splashing across a cool surface. While the overall tone of the album is hopeful, it is not in denial of the pain that birthed it. The last album Sprague released under the Florist name was 2019’s Emily Alone, an atmospheric and fragmented conversational record coming to terms with life-changing experiences, such as the death of her mother in 2017. Although that album dealt in two-chord acoustic inquisitions and spoken word poetry, Hill, Flower, Fog isn’t far removed from it. Emily Alone laid bare Sprague’s pain, HFF sees her acknowledge her pain, and move forward — such as on the song ‘Rain’. To smell the grass after rain, observing flower blossoms letting droplets of water fall to the ground. In an interview with Jenn Pelly for Pitchfork, Sprague said that her music under the Florist moniker, and her own ambient music, both need each other to exist: “language just scratches the surface of what we experience”. While Sprague is able to turn her experiences into verse through Florist, her ambient work is an effect outlet for her to communicate experiences and feelings nonverbally and try to make sense of our inner entanglements.
HFF, like all of Emily A. Sprague’s work, is introspective, but what makes this album different, is that it lets go of the immediacy of now. It is connected to all things, past, present, and future. I think I was so comforted by it during the pandemic because it felt estranged from the hyperreality of the now. Not exactly dissociative, but looking inwards to see what comes after. In her essay ‘On Panpsychism’ Rebecca Tamás writes:
“The heavy movement and being of fog slows down my inner monologue, the spacious lushness of a forest in spring fills me with weird and pleasurable expansiveness, the cold shush of snow against the window clarifies me and empties me out. Can anyone really deny that thought and thinking comes from the outside as well as the inside? That when the outside is terribly damaged, the inside will be also?”
Tamás is saying that we need nature to heal, to be ourselves, but it’s not a one-way relationship. When we destroy nature, we destroy ourselves. The title of the essay addresses the theory of panpsychism; that everything in nature has a mind, or at least “mind-like qualities”. I think Hill, Flower, Fog is conscious of, and in conversation with the consciousness of nature. Sprague is aware of the healing properties of “the spacious lushness of a forest”, and how fog can slow down our inner monologue, the anxiety-paced movements of thought. Listening to this album now, reminds me of the connectedness I feel in sharing music and experiences with people I care about, but also allowing myself space to simply be.
Rebecca Tamás — On Pansychism, from Strangers: Essays on the Human and Nonhuman https://partisanhotel.co.uk/Rebecca-Tamas
Philip Sherborne reviews Hill, Flower, Fog for Pitchfork — https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/emily-a-sprague-hill-flower-fog/