Alice Boyd is a composer and sound artist based between London and Bristol whose work uses the voice, everyday sounds and electronic textures to tell stories about the world around us. Much of her work explores our relationship with the natural world. Each month, Alice travels to a new place in the UK to collect field recordings for Ffern’s podcast As The Season Turns. She has also recently released her debut EP From The Understory, created as part of her artist residency at the Eden Project - the world’s largest indoor rainforest.
For Spring 23, we invited Alice to write and record a song about spring - capturing that scarcely describable feeling that comes with the new shoots, the joy of things growing in response to the returning sun. Oh These Days has thus far been featured twice on BBC radio, most recently on BBC Introducing the West.
I am a composer, singer-songwriter and sound artist based between London and Bristol. My work explores our interconnectedness with the natural world, using the voice, electronic and analogue textures, as well as novel recording techniques to call our attention to the hidden and often unacknowledged sounds of our environment.
When Ffern asked me to create a monthly sound piece for the podcast As The Season Turns, I was really excited. Over the last couple of years, I have become increasingly interested in field recording and how it can be used to promote Deep Listening.
Deep Listening is a concept developed by the late and great Pauline Oliveros, an American composer who was a key artist in the evolution of experimental and electronic music after World War II. It is a process of applying “radical attentiveness” to the sounds around and within you, and can encourage a broadening of awareness and deeper connection to the world around us.
By travelling around the UK to collect Found Sounds and create these soundscapes, I was interested in providing an opportunity for listeners to engage in active listening and immerse themselves in the sonic landscape of each location.
As part of the process of recording the soundscapes for Found Sounds, I am incorporating Deep Listening into my daily life and intentionally thinking about what I hear. Throughout the year, I am looking out for interesting sounds, as well as planning trips around what field recordings I might collect. Sometimes I seek specific sounds, such as snow melting in Hampstead Heath. Other times, I go simply with the intention of documenting a particular landscape, such as when I visited Dover for April’s episode.
As I learn about new field recording techniques, I am always excited to try them out for the podcast. For example, for March’s episode I recorded the underwater sounds of a pond in Norfolk. Using my hydrophone (underwater microphone), I could hear the stridulation of water boatmen and tiny bubbles of air as aquatic plants photosynthesise. Each recording method provides its own unique insight into the sound worlds of the environment.
A good question! Each spring and summer, I challenge myself to try and learn a few more bird calls. I’d love to record the sounds of some of the UK’s disappearing birds, such as nightingales and lapwings. Sadly many birds are on the brink of extinction, and I hope that by joining the many who record and celebrate their bird calls, it might inspire people to take action to help protect our wildlife. I also really admire scientists and artists who record whale sounds and would love to join a boat one day and capture the beautiful songs of these marine mammals.
Songwriting is another central part of my work. It has been a joy bringing it into my professional life and finally releasing some music into the world. When I’m creating music or sound art, I always enjoy bridging songwriting and field recording by incorporating a mix of vocal, instrumental, electronic and natural textures into my work. I feel the outcome is richer and produces a more expansive sound that (I hope!) is exciting to listen to.
I suppose the key difference between field recording and songwriting is that the former is more of an input and the latter more of an output. With field recording, I am capturing the sounds of the environment around me and bringing it into my work. Whereas, songwriting often starts with a small idea in my head that over the course of a few hours turns into a song. As with many creative processes, songwriting can sometimes feel like a strange sort of magic. The words and melodies somehow appear as if from thin air.
In 2018, I went to a talk hosted by environmental arts organisation Julie’s Bicycle. Their CEO Alison Tickell said in her opening speech, “the arts is the difference between knowing knowledge and feeling knowledge”. While I’m certainly not saying that the arts is the only answer to the climate crisis, it does have a key role to play in changing culture and communicating new ideas.
Storytelling is an essential tool for human evolution and survival. Whether it has been used for good or bad, it has been central to many cultural shifts in human history. Music and sound have been used as a form of storytelling for as long as humans have been able to speak. They help us express emotions, galvanise and celebrate. In my work, I aim to make music that is first and foremost enjoyable to listen to, with its lyrics and process often deeply rooted in environmental themes. I hope these then become more apparent with each listen.
Most of the time I begin writing songs with my guitar. I’ll find a few chords I like and continue playing them until the melody and lyrics begin to flow. I generally will write all the lyrics and melodies within two sittings. In the first sitting, if I’m following a more standard song structure, I tend to write a couple of verses and a chorus, giving me the general tunes of the song. I then come back a day later, which allows lyrics and ideas to percolate while I’m away from the guitar. I tend to complete the song in my second sitting, often adding a bridge or departure from the chorus-verse structure.
Once I have the song, I move into the music production phase. For ‘Oh These Days’, it was really helpful to create a Spotify playlist with Cat from Ffern. The songs chosen all had a sense of forward motion, which reminded us of spring returning. This inspired me while I was creating the instrumental for the song, which includes guitar, synths, software strings and - of course - field recordings. And then came the harmonies… I love a vocal harmony and couldn’t resist adding them.
‘Oh These Days’ is the second single I’ve ever released. It comes at a really lovely time alongside the release of my EP (or mini-album), From The Understory. Created as part of my artist residency at the Eden Project - the world’s largest indoor rainforest - the music on the EP explores our evolutionary journey and connection to the biosphere through vocal harmonies, electronics and analogue textures. This chimes perfectly with the message of ‘Oh These Days’, which celebrates the glory of the natural world as it comes back to life in spring.
Anne Wagstaff, a potter from Tunbridge Wells, taught me a beautiful word: “petrichor”. This word means the “pleasant smell that frequently accompanies the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather.” Who doesn’t love the smell of walking through the woods after it has rained? The earthy scent that comes from the soil is so nourishing… probably because it encourages us to take a deep breath in and out.
I get a lot of inspiration from people working on the ground. I recently met with an organisation called Youngwilders who are working to accelerate the rewilding of the UK and involve young people in the movement. The work they have done to start building a network of youth-led ecological projects is so exciting and something I definitely want to get involved in.
I’m also constantly inspired by other artists working with nature. From musicians and sound artists, such as Jason Singh, Kathy Hinde, Cosmo Sheldrake, Action Pyramid and dot.i, to other artists like printmaker and book binder Amy Pezzin, writer Natasha Kaeda and filmmaker Michelle Sanders. There are so many amazing people working in this space.
Next up, I am planning on performing my EP From The Understory live. So far, we’ve had some really exciting gigs, for example in the Eden Project’s Rainforest Biome and the Barbican’s Conservatory. I really enjoy performing in unique venues, such as botanical gardens, museums and greenhouses, and hope I can continue to do this!
I am also starting to think about what my future music releases might be. I am interested in exploring different biomes and elements in my music making, investigating how the climate crisis is affecting them and how we can act on this.
As Ffern and I have shared the behind the scenes videos of the Found Sounds segment of As The Season Turns, some people have expressed interest in learning more about field recording. My first bit of advice would be to just start doing it. You don’t need all the fancy equipment. If you have a smartphone, you can start by recording sounds on your voice notes app. Just one Google of ‘citizen science sound recording in nature’ brings up a number of projects that encourage people to record the sounds of birds, pollinators and other indicators of biodiversity to build up maps of what’s out there. It’s a fun way to get to know your surroundings and engage in environmental action.