The tale of an actor turning their hand to music is an old one, but Keeley Forsyth seems to be going about things rather differently to how you’d expect.
Forsyth may not be a household name (indeed, you’re more likely to be familiar with her brother, ex-Emmerdale actor and current Strictly Come Dancing champion Kelvin Fletcher), but she’s spent the last 25 years steadily building up a respectable CV as a character actor with appearances on shows like Happy Valley, Heartbeat and The Casual Vacancy, as well as being covered in prosthetics for Guardians Of The Galaxy.
But her debut album, Debris, is miles away from the cosy familiarity of Heartbeat. At times reminiscent of the experimental folk of Vashti Bunyan or Joanna Newsom, it’s a disorientating journey that can leave one feeling uneasy or spooked, but it’s a journey you can’t help making again and again.
The arrangements on Debris – composed with the assistance of Matthew Bourne and Sam Hobbs – are minimal and understated, which means that Forsyth’s voice is displayed to its best advantage. That voice is pretty extraordinary, a deep, rich vibrato which nods towards Nico or ANOHNI, that sounds like it’s being transmitted from a well of deep sorrow. At times, it’s hard to listen to, especially on album centrepiece Lost (which begins “Is this what madness feels like?”) but it’s never less than compelling.
Forsyth’s songs are built around acoustic guitar, cello and viola, which provide a suitably doomy soundscape. Sometimes, as on Butterfly, there’s a deep, unsettling hum which grows louder and louder through the song, while on It’s Raining, the strings and guitar provide a comforting blanket against the darkness. Some tracks, such as Black Bull, bring to mind a more fragile version Haley Heynderickx‘s debut album I Need To Start A Garden – the intensity is similar, but more restrained here.
Nobody’s going to find a series of pop bangers on Debris – the aforementioned Lost is simply Forsyth almost in a stream-of-consciousness whisper as the synths threaten to overwhelm her. Her lyrics are sometimes difficult to decipher, but that makes the clearer moments all the more powerful: “If I could touch this sadness, I would change the world,” she muses as the song ends. Look To Yourself has a similar feel – all clanking piano and discordant atmosphere – while the beautiful Large Oak has a lightness of touch to it that almost threatens to float off into thin air.
Anybody looking for a variety of different sounds may come away disappointed as the template of dark, intense folk is stuck to pretty rigidly throughout the record. It’s only on the closing track Start Again that Forsyth completely embraces an electronica sound which hints at an intriguingly different direction – the synths and restless beats hint almost feel like a cathartic release after the near claustrophobic atmosphere of the previous seven tracks.
At only eight tracks long, Debris never overstays its welcome – in fact, you immediately want to go back and experience it again, which is a pretty impressive feat for a record so steeped in melancholy and fragility. It may be only January, but Debris gives the overwhelming impression that one of the defining releases of 2020 may already be upon us.