Words by Julie Landers
Kalachuchi is the fifth album from Edinburgh-based Waterford artist Joe Harney, aka Deaf Joe. Released on Bluestack Records, the album is a world within itself, an exploration of emotion that blossoms and bubbles in turn with Harney’s instinctive choice of sound and layering.
On my first listen of Kalachuchi, the fifth album from Waterford’s Deaf Joe, what struck me was the way in which a work which existed on a sonic plane had the ability to expand and open up far beyond that. It reminded me of Kishi Bashi’s 151a in its ability to present such a broad spectrum of sound and feeling in a way that did not feel insurmountable. ‘With this one,’ explains Harney, ‘I wanted to make something beautiful, something that felt delicate and comforting. Even though the voice is really clean and defined for most of the tracks, I wanted the music behind it to sound pretty and dreamlike, spacious and airy.’
”I've felt very detached from the real world the past couple years, the amount of time spent online and stuck on computers during lockdowns, there were times I was wondering what was real and what was digital.”
Before ever listening to the album, the album artwork introduces us to some of the key ideas within the work before we ever listen. It features a heavily pixelated kalachuchi tree stretching from the upper corner of the cover, its limbs and flowers reaching outwards. The name Kalachuchi comes from a flower found growing in the Philippines, where Harney’s partner is from. On one particular visit, Harney was introduced to the flower, which carries cultural associations of rebirth and healing and spent the day ‘in a daze, thinking about the sound of the word, the smell of the flower’. The pixelation reflects a level of distance from the real that has come to be intensely relatable. ‘I've felt very detached from the real world the past couple years, the amount of time spent online and stuck on computers during lockdowns, there were times I was wondering what was real and what was digital.’. These sentiments of uncertainty and healing are confronted with openness by Harney throughout Kalachuchi as he offers both hope and understanding to himself and the listener.
The album was created across several countries, Scotland, Denmark and Ireland. ‘I was moving around a lot because I live in Scotland, my boyfriend lives in Denmark and then my family and lots of mates are in Ireland. So if I had a few quiet days ahead I'd just bring my gear and set up and catch some ideas, or chip away at arrangements.’ It is difficult to listen to the album and not hear the motion present in its production. The tracks themselves and the way they move from one to the other seem to traverse great distances, whilst never seeming too insurmountable. Shorter tracks on the album, such as What’s Mine Is Mine and May, act as bridges between the songs that are bigger in both a lengthwise and sonic sense. While shorter, the songs themselves do not feel like afterthoughts. Rather, in the listener’s navigation of the album’s emotions and depth they serve as guiding hands, ensuring one does not become lost within the work as a whole. The temporality within which the songs were written is also wonderfully vivid within their structurings. ‘Most of it was written and made when the sun was shining high in spring and summer. So I hope it feels like that to listen to.’ Certainly, Kalachuchi contains a shimmering, hopeful quality that is impossible to detach from images of summer and the lightness that it brings.
”I was playing around with the idea of getting older but still chasing highs... There's also some ghosts being exorcised in there as well... so it's clearing a lot of that stuff out and putting it to rest to think about what comes next.”
Yet this lightness is not fully untethered; moments of introspection occur throughout the work which bring the listener back down and into themselves. Indeed, Kalachuchi confronts feelings and memories that can be overwhelming and oftentimes intangible in their brevity. ‘Lyrics-wise, I was playing around with the idea of getting older but still chasing highs. Like, remembering the highs from coming-of-age sessions and parties, first time trying this and that, you can never get those feelings back! Or the beginning weeks and months of a new relationship and everything is perfect and you feel like you could burst into fireworks every time you see your partner... And there's also some ghosts being exorcised in there as well... so it's clearing a lot of that stuff out and putting it to rest to think about what comes next.’
Opening track Shadow Work (Come Help Me Sleep) commences with bolstering guitar, setting a tone of self-assurance for the rest of the work. The last track to be written for the album, Shadow Work captures wonderfully the point at which it was written, that cusp-of-summer optimism.Soft, ethereal vocals are provided a soft anchoring by pulsing percussion in a track that preludes an album which blossoms into an exploration of emotion that is delivered with astuteness and grounding.
The second track on the album, Cut Through Clouds, is a standout track that evokes a sense of freedom which comes from relinquishing the guilt that often comes attached to the emotions we might feel which are not as ‘acceptable’ as other emotions may be. The lyrics ‘And it feels good to get angry/And it feels good to scream/’Cause it’s times it’s all you really have to lose’ are a resounding ode to feeling what there is to be felt, without shame.
Throughout the album, Harney reveals a shimmer to the heaviness, something glinting in the corner of your eye is brought beyond the peripheral and into the forefront. Higher Forever (Don’t Fall) is almost ballad-like in its composition, but steps back to become an intensely emotional and reflective experience. Stacked, reverberating vocals repeat the phrase ‘We always need to get higher’ atop an increasingly frantic piano line, echoing a feeling of grasping for something just out of reach. Across the album, emotions take the forefront in both melody and lyrics.
The album closes with People Give Up Too Easily, which Harney describes as ‘a nice slab of noise’ navigated by soaring synth lines. It is a heady conclusion to an album that feels so light. As the track fades out, the melody ebbs and flows out of earline, evoking the shoreline at low tide. Its resounding nature stands far from the idea of giving up; it completes the work with a definite touch that stands in the face of uncertainty and hesitation.
Kalachuchi is a triumph in its expressions of emotion and its ability to capture the soaring feelings of hope and renewal. Harney moves with ease between the gossamer-soft and the thundering-loud without either feeling too far apart from the other. The world created within the work is one where discomfort and joy can sit close to each other. The album is a wonderfully dynamic listen, with Harney moving with ease between hazy lo-fi and sharp clarity, with every sound on the album having its own purpose and potency. Joyful and open, it has to me become an apt soundtrack to the first hints of summer. Above all, Kalachuchi asserts Deaf Joe as an incredibly intuitive musician who demonstrates compassion and precision in the creation of a work that has the ability to prise open feelings of wonder in the listener.