Beginning as a solo project for printmaker and collagist Kristine Leschper, with videos appearing on the singer’s own Tumblr page – simple arrangements for guitar, mandolin and banjo scattered among her sketches, etchings and lithographs – Athens, Georgia’s Mothers became a four-piece in late 2014.
With the majority of the material already written by Leschper, When You Walk A Long Distance You Are Tired was assembled by the band shortly afterwards, the sessions overseen by Deerhunter collaborator Drew Vandenberg.
Betraying their origins as solo material, the songs that make up their début album (with the exception of Copper Mines, the first song the band wrote together) start from almost nothing – a gently strummed electric guitar, a plucked mandolin perhaps – but quickly veer off in different directions. Lockjaw adds a second guitar, bass and drums that first pick around the edges of Leschper’s vocal, then stamp out a staccato pattern and angular, fuzzy shapes.
Blood-letting has a nakedly, almost uncomfortably intimate first verse that spreads out into a woozy, doomed slow-dance, Kristine adding a high harmony to her own part. After an interlude driven by Matthew Anderegg’s frantic, free snare drum, Leschper’s voice comes back in, a multi-part lullaby to “God,” who is “singing himself to sleep.” “I am not the only one,” she reflects. On Burden Of Proof, gently swelling strings and lush, shimmering vibraphone (courtesy of Deerhunter’s Josh McKay) add a lustre complemented by Vandenberg’s light, spacious production.
At the centre of all of this, always, are Leschper’s remarkable vocals: brittle and quivering at one moment, bold and unfaltering the next, with an occasional folkish twang of Joanna Newsom or Jessica Pratt, her manner of occasionally over-reaching or stopping short of notes well within her range, her voice cracking at the edges, emphasises the fragility at the emotional core of her songs.
Of those emotional drivers, Leschper told local Athens art blog Pastel that she aims to deal in her lyrics with emotions everyone experiences without necessarily discussing. Frequently throughout When You Walk A Long Distance You Are Tired, she references insecurity (“Everything you touch turns to gold, everything I touch turns away” – Burden Of Proof) and self-image (“I don’t like myself, when I’m awake” – It Hurts Until It Doesn’t), occasionally through the eyes of another (“You love me mostly when I’m leaving” – Lockjaw). But she’s often stronger, angry even (“You’ve been giving me away to other men … I was on your side/You say you need me now, shut your dirty mouth” – Nesting Behaviour).
By the extraordinary final song, Hold Your Own Hand, we see the experience has been cathartic – “I burned up all my songs, and left them out for the dogs,” she sings. “I think I could learn to love.” This acceptance seems to be mirrored by the arrangement; starting as a simple arpeggio, with Leschper’s sweet, high vocal echoing around it, the other instruments join in, swaying in waltz time. A decorous high-register second guitar part cascades notes, all hope and wonder, then fades away, alternating in this way until the thrilling outro: guitars weave in and out of each other, strings are ecstatic, drums gently frenzied, spiralling up and up seemingly forever, going on beyond the abrupt end.
When You Walk A Long Distance You Are Tired, the album’s title tells us, and Leschper seems to have come a long way by this point, illustrated by the contrast between this and the first track, Too Small For Eyes. It’s a stark, brittle performance from Leschper, accompanying herself on the mandolin, filled out with subtle piano and strings, Leschper telling us “I want to apologize to everyone I see … to everyone I meet” – a beguiling, understated introduction to a beautiful album. However far Mothers have come, one can only imagine how much further this could go.