m a n d a l a y : s o l a c e

album review and
exclusive musical discoveries interview

click on image to visit Nicola Hitchcock's website
Image © V2 Records 2001

Review © Justin Elswick 2001
HTML ©Russell W Elliot 2001
Formatted for 800 x 600 or larger windows
Originally prepared: 05 May 2001 | Last Updated: 30 November 2003

Music lovers everywhere take note-Mandalay's long-anticipated US debut Solace (V2 Music Ltd (UK) 63881-27094-2, 2001) has finally arrived and enthusiasts really owe it to themselves to make this album part of their collections. This is music that is powerfully emotive and vibrant. The band's earlier UK-only releases—Empathy (V2 (UK) VVR10011292, 1998) and Instinct (V2 (UK) VVR1012398, 2000)—contain many of the tracks included on the band's latest release. Mandalay is comprised of Saul Freeman and Nicola Hitchcock. While Saul was busy in the studio with another project, we took the opportunity to interview Nicola for an exclusive Musical Discoveries interview which has been included with our review of their latest album.

Mandalay really deal in paradoxes, creating music that is chilling yet inviting, playful yet mournful, simple yet complex and mature yet energetic. Vocalist and lyricist, Nicola Hitchcock, possesses an elegant voice that is at once distinctive and melodic. Well-known for her "shivery" vocals, some have drawn comparisons to Cocteau Twin's front-woman, Liz Fraser.

While Nicola's singing does invite comparison to Liz Fraser and even Madonna, her vibrato-rich voice is unique and tremendously lovely in its own right. Saul Freeman, the other half of Mandalay, pulls no punches as a master craftsman of lush soundscapes.

When asked about how she came to work with Saul, Nicola responded, "I came to work with Saul from an advert in Melody Maker. At the time of replying to the advert I had done a solo ablum on FBeat/Demon Records called "A Bowl Of Chalk" and had been playing folk/acoustic festivals to promote it. Prior to that I had been in various bands as backing vocalist, percussionist, keyboard player, and guitarist; I also worked in a writing partnership for three years. My solo album hadn't generated many sales and I was just thinking about the possibility of working within a co-writing partnership again when I saw Saul's advert for a vocalist / collaborator in Melody Maker. I sent a tape in. We met. We worked on 3 songs together, one of which was "This Life" and ended up being a single for V2 Records."

click on image to visit Nicola Hitchcock's website
Image © V2 Records 2001

Nicola told us about her favourite artists, "They are so varied - depends whether we're talking songwriters or vocalists really. My fave vocalists would have to be Bjork, Hariet Wheeler, Liz Frazer, Kate Bush, Phoebe Snow, Dusty Springfeld, Stevie Wonder, the early years of Diana Ross, Mark Hollis while my favourite songwriters would have to include Stevie Wonder, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and Smokey Robinson."

We asked how Nicola developed her vocal style. She told us, "I've been to a few vocal trainers over the years and picked up what's suited me basically, rather than sticking to one sort or another of a rigid/specific vocal training. It's mainly through singing and experimenting with my voice—finding out what it can do and listening to other vocalists and how they use their voices that has brough me to where I am now."

She continued, "At the end of the day though, I think having classical training really opened me up to getting in touch with my emotions through the breath. If you're breathing freely and fully, you're so open that the emotion just comes up. Sometimes I find that I have to stop and compose myself, especially in the throws of free expression/writing a melodic line. And that's what I believe is the most important thing to focus on as a singer—expressing true emotion. Emotional honesty. Without that, to me, it can be pleasant but ultimately pointless."

Mandalay have ingeniously expanded the boundaries of electronic music (if it is fair to call this music "electronic") by incorporating pulsing beats, oceanic strings, simmering synthetic textures, blistering guitars, and punchy trumpet (played by Jon Hassell) into their songs. Madonna has called Mandalay one of her favorite bands, and such accolades are clearly merited.

Image © V2 Records Ltd 2001

Since discovering Mandalay, their music has been in heavy rotation. This is the kind of music that passerbys, upon hearing, will stop and ask about. It is a rare thing to find sophistication and listenability perfectly conjoined in contemporary music. But Mandalay have more than accomplished this feat.

The songs on Solace are drawn from Mandalay's two previous albums, Empathy and Instinct. This means that dedicated American fans will have to purchase these two albums in order to hear the songs from the UK-only albums that do not appear on Solace—trust us: it is well worth it! In addition, Mandalay have released several singles that contain bonus tracks that do not appear on any of the full-length albums. Again, these singles are worth owning both for the remixes and for the previously unreleased bonus tracks. A limited edition of Solace has also been released that contains a bonus disc of eleven remixes in addition to the standard disc for those who are fortunate enough to find a copy. The Nicola Hitchcock website (www.nicolahitchcock.com) lists information for all singles and full-length releases.

We asked Nicola to tell us about the writing process. She said, "On the first album Empathy we worked with Guy Sigsworth as a co-producer and we also had additional musicians involved: Steve Jansen drums & percussion, Jon Hassell on trumpet, Danny Thompson on upright bass. For Instinct we worked with an engineer called Michael Ade and worked with producer Andy Bradfield on additional production, Jon Hassell once again graced our music for some of the tracks. Largely though, the music and sounds, the way it's all put together and created musically is down to Saul."

Our review of Solace has been made somewhat more difficult since every song on the album is superb. Still, several tracks deserve special mention. "Insensible" may be one of the most haunting songs ever recorded. With its mandolin-styled intro, pitch modulated wailing synth, stark piano, deep bass, and trip-hop percussion, a perfect song moves beyond perfection as a result of Nicola's eerie delivery. By the time the song reaches the point where Nicola accuses "knowing you called / knowing you held her / knowing you kissed / knowing you did all this" the sorrow in her voice is almost unbearable.

"I Don't Want the Night to End," a Phoebe Snow cover, is guaranteed to cause the shudders. Reverberating guitar and downtempo beat create a Twin Peaks-like atmosphere that is fraught with tension. The darkness of "I Don't Want the Night to End" is a wonderful contrast to the sweet and dreamy "Like Her." "Don't Invent Me" provides a perfect showcase for Nicola's voice as she alternates between distorted hushed whisper and angelic clarity.

Solace provides just what its title implies—an escape from the hectic, an invitation to contemplation, a journey into shadow and into light, and ultimately a unique and beautiful aural experience.

While the band currently have no firm plans to play in front of live audiences, Nicola shared, " live work has always been something we really enjoy and would like to do more of. A recent highlight was supporting Nitin Sawhney at the London Forum. Basically the gig wasn't advertised and people there weren't Mandalay fans but the set went down amazingly well and it was great to receive such an unexpectedly positive response. So, say, more of it please ... and the sooner the better!"

Nicola has recently begun working voluntarily at a helpline. She told us, "I'm finding it extremely rewarding and helps me to keep in touch with the 'real world'. Saul and I have also been working on other projects separate to Mandalay - more recently he's been writing film scores/tv music and i've been collaborating with dj's/dance music people, whilst still writing new songs for the future."

click on image to visit Nicola Hitchcock's website
Image © V2 Records 2001

We asked how the internet influenced Mandalay's musical career and the promotion of their music. Nicola told us, "The internet has influenced me immeasurably. as a 'struggling' artist you always have times where you wonder what you are doing and if it's making any difference at all to anyone. Our message board on our website has been invaluable to me in this respect - just to know that people out there really get what we're about and what we're trying to do. The messages we receive often overwhelm me and are so heartfelt and sincere that sometimes I just sit there in disbelief and so moved." She continued, "Basically, without wishing to sound too dramatic, it means to me that, whatever happens in the future, I can go to my grave knowing that I really made a difference to someone out there - that I am doing something worthwile and meaningful with my life.

You can find further Mandalay information, photos, soundbites and videos at Nicola Hitchcock's official website. Read further reviews, try soundbites and order the limited edition of their latest album Solace from amazon.com here. Their earlier work is very reasonably priced and available from amazon.come as well. Order Empathy from amazon.com here and Instinct here. Certainly worth a journey, Mandalay's albums are a must listen!

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