Wilsen’s ‘I Go Missing In My Sleep’ Is 2017’s Finest Folk Debut

Wilsen’s I Go Missing In My Sleep is the finest folk debut of 2017. That’s almost all you need to know about it, the record itself will suck you in with the tenderness and quiet of Tamsin Wilson’s hypnotic voice before you even know a single thing about the band. Most reading this probably don’t, but the group first emerged back in 2013 and have been steadily and meticulously constructing their fully-realized dream-folk debut ever since. In the four years though, some of the initial spotlight on the band dimmed a bit. Yet, it’s hard to imagine public perception holds much priority for a record that is focused on such inward matters.

Wilson is the primary songwriter and vocalist for the group, so even though she constructs the tracks here from tiny melodies into their whirring, momentous finished versions with her bandmates Drew Arndt and Johnny Simon, the name and her narration keep her at the center. Neither Arndt or Simon seem to have any qualms about working in the background, and their ability to frame Tamsin is part of what makes Sleep such a compelling album; rarely can a trio keep their sound balanced so neatly and dynamically. This has always been best exhibited on their finest song to date, the ode to transformation “Dusk” which appears here in a wider, more ominous version.

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It’s impossible to leave this record be at the doorstep of “folk” without commenting on the enormous, electrifying and elegant synths, drums, and guitars that elevate it far beyond simple acoustic sounds — though that doesn’t eclipse moments when a slow, spare whistle carries the entire song, as on “Final.” It’s a folk record sheathed in the armor of dream pop, the fantastic evolution of an urge toward the quiet turned all the way up and shot through with power. Wilson’s lyrics lend themselves to folk and its obsession with time, and Arndt and Simon keep the colors of their instruments in the deep blue green softness that evokes the acoustic, even when it builds far beyond that realm.

Sleep is a sweetly devastating record, one that finds tiny minutes of feeling and expands them into marvelous mini-dramas. “Did the dark swallow you whole? / Did the sea get your goat?” Wilson sings on “Otto,” and though she isn’t unmoved, her question is not strung with the desolation that unexpected leaving can bring. Self-assured even at its most sad, Sleep was written mostly in the early morning in a Brooklyn apartment that Wilson describes as an “incubator.”

The songs have the intimacy of infancy reaching toward you, the blush of new life wrapped right around the power and fascination of the act of creation. They are also deeply sad, nudging at the unravelings of hearts and lives, peeling away at blistering skin until air hits the rawness of the wound. But, the emphasis remains on the feeling of the air, not the wound, the act of exploration, not the quiet of sleep. I corresponded with Tamsin via email to talk about the long process of releasing their debut and some of the backstory behind the record.

It’s been a fairly long stretch between your initial releases and the debut full-length, what’s been going on during the hiatus?

We’ve been touring, developing our live show, and focusing on this new album. We recorded everything independently so studio hours were split between tours and any free moments our producer had. It took a while to complete but we found label homes last year and have since been working towards the release.

You moved from London to Boston and then to Brooklyn, correct? Can you talk a little bit about that physical trajectory and how it shaped/changed the music?

I moved from London to Calgary when I was 10, back to London at 18, on to Boston at 20 and most recently to Brooklyn. As such I feel a bit foreign wherever I go but I’ve found Brooklyn is a happy medium between homes on both sides of the Atlantic. I still have a travel bug but, luckily, being in music gets us visiting new places all the time.

Moving has influenced a large amount of lyrics. Certain topics continually seep into songs — things like restlessness, identity and nostalgia. One of my first songs was called ‘Stay Still,’ and I now realize that same idea has been mentioned in so many others. Most of the time I don’t notice that I’m writing about these things until after recording.

The apartment where you wrote a lot of these songs figures heavily into the initial press release and feels like it was an incubator of sorts for the album. Can you talk a bit more about the space and location and how it influenced the music?

The first half of the record was written in a small, yellow room with a very loud radiator and a door to an unmanaged garden. I could hear every move of my three roommates (plus the neighbors above), which led me to working in the middle of the night. With everyone else asleep it seemed time was almost suspended.

The second apartment was in a sleepier neighborhood and offered much more room. I shared a tiled basement level with one friend and two others had rooms above us. The space was much welcomed but with a full house I still found it challenging to write during normal hours. So I’d stay up past the others, exploring ideas in the night and editing in the daytime.

Yes, both rooms were total incubators. They were safe zones to follow ideas without exposure. Though I don’t think they influenced the music so much as the timeline did. Writing in the night meant that songs began in very delicate form – I wonder if that initial mood impacted how they were ultimately produced and recorded.

What is the songwriting process between the three of you?

The songwriting process varies. For this album I wrote most of the songs on guitar and brought them to Johnny and Drew to grow them into full-band material. We’d either arrange the songs together or come up with parts separately — but always regroup to settle on final parts. Other times, songs stem from all of us getting sidetracked during rehearsal. We’ll start looping a few chords and that’ll send us off for a few hours. Johnny and Drew also write a lot independently, which continues to inspire new directions.

One of my favorites on the full-length is “Centipede,” a song about a creature that’s generally considered to be disgusting, but you’ve rendered it beautiful. What prompted you to tackle that as a subject?

Thank you, I’m glad you like that one. Honestly it came about quite randomly — I was stuck on new lyrics so decided to write about an object in view. At that moment a long bug crawled into my room so, naturally, became the object. It stayed for hours and I was mesmerized. I was particularly frustrated that night and envied its chilled nature.

Obviously, “Dusk” was the early song that really grabbed attention. It sounds slightly varied here, I’m wondering about the phases that song has gone through at this point?

When we recorded Dusk for our first EP, we had never played it live so the arrangement was unfamiliar. Now it’s one of the songs we’ve performed the most and we wanted to capture the developments on this record. We were cautious, however, not to tread too heavily on the song’s original tone. I think at one point we considered revamping the entire drum and guitar parts but ultimately agreed against it. It would’ve been a disaster.

I think when I first saw you live you were opening for Daughter, and while I hear that band as a clear influence or touchstone, I’m wondering what other musicians impacted you, or that you perhaps sought to emulate?

During the writing process I personally tried not to listen to very much music. Sounds strange but I wanted to clear my head and instead attempted to draw inspiration from other arts. In the studio and on the road, however, we listen to tons of music. Nils Frahm, Ben Howard, Beck, Tycho and St. Vincent were constantly playing through the speakers pre-sessions.

The cover art for the album is so striking. Can you tell me about it, and why the image moved you?

The cover art is by German artist Pierre Schmidt (aka Dromsjel). I found his work online after what seemed like an endless search for surrealist images by current artists. I wanted to find a cover that evoked peaceful solitude or detachment, with suspended objects that seem both in harmony and defiance of one another. Weirdly specific… so I was thrilled to find this piece embodied everything.

It feels like it ties into the title a bit, I Go Missing In My Sleep, an absence of sorts but one that’s not necessarily negative is what I get from the image and the title, though I think they both also have an undercurrent of something ominous.

Yes, exactly! Not a negative but a contented absence. It’s a big theme from the record that I’d hoped the title and cover might symbolize. I can see how that might come across as a bit dark.

The lead single “Heavy Steps” also drew me in, because I think it really exemplifies the way you twist traditional folk into something more wiry and experimental. Can you talk about that balance for you? A lot of these songs could’ve been easily just simple fingerpicked melodies, and as a listener I get the sense you strove to find the spiraling hugeness of them. I wonder what that process looked like?

That’s the joy of working with Johnny and Drew. I love merging sounds that don’t usually coexist and our collaboration helps bring out that element. Both of them have such unique approaches and varied influences — it makes for an exciting arranging process. Producer Ben Baptie also encouraged us to explore new methods and pushed us beyond tendencies. We were very lucky to work with him.

What are your plans for the rest of 2017? After such a long wait, how does it feel to finally have the debut out in the world?

It’s so nice to have the album out. Seeing the vinyl copies just doesn’t compute — totally exceeds all expectations. The rest of the year will hopefully be spent playing as many shows as possible, starting with a few solo dates in the UK & Europe this month, and working on the next record. This time we want to follow up swiftly.

I Go Missing In My Sleep is out now via Secret City Records. Get it here.