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Virginia Astley


Country of origin:

England

Type of music generally:

Ethereal, dreamy, synthesized, strange, experimental.

Status:

Most recent album, Maiden Newton Ecliptic (2007)

See also:

Official Virginia Astley site

A Virginia Astley discography

Trouser Press's Virginia Astley page

Comparisons:

Julee Cruise, with her thin singing voice. (nkg@vcn.bc.ca)

Vaguely like Enya, Philip Glass, Brian Eno, Laurie Anderson. (Marion)

Alison Shaw from the Cranes. (vickie@enteract.com)

Covers/own material:

Own, and sometimes cowrites songs

General comments:

Her voice is high and thin, a bit childish, and not very strong, but it does suit her music. As for what her music is like, I think she could vaguely be compared to Enya, also in the way she uses and sometimes overdubs her voice, but her music is quieter, softer, a bit more down to earth, and on the other hand more pop. Not necessarily like 'if you like Enya, you'll like Virginia Astley...' People like Philip Glass, Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson have also been mentioned in connection with Virginia's approach to music. (Marion)

I don't know of anyone who's been able to get past her voice, actually. It's a very childlike vibrato-less girlish voice. But to me that's part of her style...she sings sweetly—like a child—these horribly dark lyrics.... Nobody I know likes either album I have of hers, which is understandable—the strange mix of vocal style, pop sensibilities and depressing lyrics isn't the most eminently marketable blend. (nkg@vcn.bc.ca)

She is amazing. Bright, dark-edged experimental sunny pop like nothing you've ever heard before. Easy to mistake for for something less than it is until you listen. (Neile)

Recommended first album:

Promise Nothing is a good beginning—a compilation of early work. Basically, though, her work is hard to find so any recording you can find is a good start. (Neile)

Recordings include:


From Gardens Where We Feel Secure

Release info:

1983—Rough—58; Happy Valley Records—a 1994 or 1995 Japanese cd reissue which includes the Melt The Snow EP

Availability:

Hard to find vinyl only in U.S., reissue available in Japan

Ecto priority:

Only recommended for those interested in it from the description.

Produced by:

Russell Webb

Comments:

This is one of my all-time favourite albums, though it's one of those albums that I tend to forget. It's beautiful quiet music to listen to when you're lying in the grass in the summer. I've had a vinyl copy since 1983, and a few months ago three of her cds were re-released in the UK. The cd version has 4 extra tracks, the song "Sanctus" which I already knew from Promise nothing, and 3 versions of "Melt the snow" of which I like the two instrumental versions best. The original album is all instrumental, mainly piano, accompanied by flutes, oboe, voice (no lyrics), birds, swinging gates, church bells, sheep.... A song title like "With my eyes wide open I'm dreaming" (on the "Morning" side of the album, the other side is called "Afternoon") sort of describes the music. It's quiet, peaceful, neo-classical, a bit new age I guess, with occasionally a slightly disturbing sound—think Enya's "Watermark" (the song), but then even more quiet. (Marion)

I also find this an enchanting album. (Neile)


Melt The Snow 12" EP

Release info:

1983—Rough Trade/Happy Valley Records

Availability:

Hard to find vinyl

Ecto priority:

Recommended for those interested in Astley's work.

Comments:

A mournful piano and string trio track, (one in which the viola and cello really set the tone) a slightly bouncier tune with lyrics, overdubbed harmony vocals and flute and one pizzicato string track with piano and tinkly bells, etc. Entirely acoustic. (nkg@vcn.bc.ca)

Promise Nothing

Release info:

1984—Les Disques du Crepuscule—TWI 194

Availability:

Hard to find vinyl

Ecto priority:

Recommended for those interested in Astley's work, dreamy, experimental pop. (Neile)

Produced by:

Jon Astley and Phil Chapman

Comments:

This is a sort of compilation album, containing the four tracks of her first 10" EP "A Bao A Que", a track she recorded for an NME-cassette, another single, and two tracks from From Gardens Where We Feel Secure. Those two are the only instrumental pieces, the other tracks are more headed towards pop music. There's keyboards and synthesizers instead of the piano, but the flutes and oboe remain, with an occasional guitar or cello, and her music still has a sort of classical feel to it. "Arctic death" is chilling, dark and cold—it would very well have fit on Hector Zazou's Songs from the Cold Seas. The other songs seem lighter, they still have that "quiet" sort of feeling, but her lyrics are often a bit sad. My favourite song is the perfect little popsong "Love's a Lonely Place to Be", which was almost a hit single in the UK in 1983, with fairy-like tinklebells, but don't be fooled by the music. (Marion)

Hope in a Darkened Heart

Release info:

1986—WEA UK; Geffen US—Geffen 24194; WEA Japan—WMC 5-567

Availability:

Available in Japan and can sometimes be found as an import

Ecto priority:

Recommended for those interested in it from the description.

Guest artists:

Ryuichi Sakamoto—keyboards
David Sylvian—vocals

Produced by:

Ryuichi Sakamoto, Jon Astley, Phil Chapman, Virginia Astley

Comments:

Nearly entirely synthesized, and totally covered with Sakamoto's production fingerprints, to the point where I wonder how much creative input Astley had on it, as it sounds very much like a lot of Sakamoto's earlier work. The tracks feature uncredited fretless bass, rich synthesized washes and fills, prominent Sakamoto-style electronic percussion and lots of repeated triplet patterns. It also has lots of sampled trumpet, oboe, violin and piano melodies weaving in and out. Only one track reflects her earlier work—"A Summer Long Since Passed," which is lalas and piano and rural English bellringing sounds.
     Lyrically it reflects the childlike qualities of Astley's singing—with a twist. It reminds me of a young teenager's dark gothic fantasies—angst-ridden and brooding, withdrawn in painful self-conscious isolation. It's a strange effect to hear this sweet little-girl voice singing awkwardly adolescent lines like "Like a corpse deep in the earth I'm so alone..." and "I've heard all your lies, your boring tall tales. I've tasted your tongue like a worm from the grave..." Ew! I can only assume that Ms. Astley wasn't exactly in the highest spirits during the recording of this album. Even the most cheerful tune on it—"Darkness Has Reached its End" has a very bathetic turn to it. "Darkness has reached its end...I'm told." *I'm told*! Like a pin through the bright red balloon.... But there's a certain charming naïveté to it as well. My favourite line is probably "Like a lying government you're no good at all." :)
     The duet with David Sylvian (that's all he did on the album—guest vox) is a bit odd. It's got the rigid 4/4 structure of a church hymn, with precise sequencer triplets. A strange dirgelike tune, that sounds like grey stone trying to be upbeat (to mix my metaphors a bit).
     Anyway, as usual my needless dissection of the album probably makes it sound pretty awful, or at least comes across as me not liking her stuff. Which isn't true. (nkg@vcn.bc.ca)

All Shall Be Well

Release info:

1992—Happy Valley—COCY-9961

Availability:

Japan

Ecto priority:

Recommended for those interested in Astley's work, dreamy, experimental pop. (Neile)

Group members:

Virginia Astley—vocals, piano

Guest artists:

Anthony Coote—guitar
Andrew Roberts, Clare Fimnimore, Robert Salter & Nicholas Roberts—string quartet
Nicholas Roberts—violin, cello colos
Kate St. John—oboe, cor-anglais, vocals
Florence Astley—backing vocals

Produced by:

Virginia Astley

Comments:

Virginia Astley's light, sweet vocals floating over simple arrangements. Lovely. Her singing and instrumentation is straightforward and non-emotive and that contrasts with the emotion of the lyrics. Somehow this builds up a tension with is the strength of her work for me. You can listen to this either for the pretty tunes and vocals or really listen to the lyrics and it becomes something quite different. (Neile)

Had I The Heavens

Release info:

1996—Happy Valley—COCY-80070; released (briefly) Rosebud Music—RBXCD1003

Availability:

Japan

Ecto priority:

Recommended for Astley fans

Group members:

Virginia Astley—vocals, piano keyboards, flute

Guest artists:

Graham Henderson—keyboards, guitars, accordion, vocals
Roy Dodg—drums, percussion
Simon Edwards—bass
Kate St. John—oboe, cor-anglais, vocals on 1 track
Matt Fox—dulcimer on 1 track

Produced by:

Virginia Astley and Graham Henderson

Comments:

Like so much of Astley's work, this is a collection of dreamy-sounding pop songs: uncluttered arrangements, simply pretty tunes dominated by Astley's childlike singing—but all this belied by the dark, rather depressing lyrics. So light but it's not cloying as it could be in another's hands. The effect is very difficult to describe. (Neile)

Further info:

Astley worked in The Ravishing Beauties with Kate St. John and Nicky Holland (of Fun Boy Three and assorted solo work).

Astley also appears on the 1989 Lily Was Here soundtrack (Arista ARCD 8670) with Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics (the song is "Second Chance")

A song, "Waiting to Fall" also appears on the If You Can't Please Yourself You Can't Please Your Soul compilation.

She did a duet with Kate St. John on her solo album Indescribable Night.

Astley worked with Anne Clark on Clark's album Joined Up Writing, writing music for two songs that have Clark's lyrics and playing on those and an additional track.


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