ST MATTHIAS CHURCH
Wednesday 29th November
Nicki Wells – Ellipsis
A song begins and ends, not with a note, but with silence. A pause, a sustained thought, pure consciousness. For multidisciplinary artist Nicki Wells, those silences are just as fundamental as the music that flows in between. Her astonishing new album Ellipsis – a debut of sorts despite her years of experience – gives its listeners an opportunity for contemplation. A moment of calm amid the chaos.
Ellipsis, with its intertwining of Indian classical, Celtic folk, eastern European choral and western pop music, can undoubtedly credit its kaleidoscope of influences on Wells’ own fascinating heritage. Born in south London, she moved to a farm outside of Rome, Italy, when she was three years old, then to Himachal Pradesh, India – in the foothills of the Himalayas – three years later. Attending an international boarding school, Wells was surrounded by jungle and dramatic mountains, absorbing myriad languages and cultures away from the pervasive materialism of western society.
“Without question,” she responds, when asked whether her childhood has impacted her creative ethos. “I’m very used to movement and diverse ways of expressing myself. My work is definitely an amalgamation of all my experiences growing up; a combination of nature and nurture… where you live and how that shapes you, and what you take from life as you go through it.”
“There was always music around the house,” she recalls of her upbringing. Her English father, whose own troubadour nature led to a university friendship with folk icon Nick Drake, would play his favourites – Randy Newman, Bob Dylan – while her Swiss-French mother appreciated the intricate compositions of John Lennon and Kate Bush. Wells first began writing her own songs aged six, then, when the family moved to the Cotswolds when she was 10, got into Singer-Songwriters. “I wanted to be a singer,” she admits with a laugh. Aged 16, she was offered a choice between the renowned Brit School or the prestigious McDonald College in Sydney. Choosing Australia, she flew to the other side of the world, staying with family friends, and immersed herself in the city’s rich local music scene.
It was around this time that she stumbled upon the music of Nitin Sawhney. The British Asian artist has worked with the likes of Sir Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd, Jeff Beck and Sinead O’Connor, along with scoring the soundtracks to countless acclaimed films and TV series. “His melding of East and West made complete sense to me,” Wells says. This artistic appreciation was returned around the time when she studied at the Academy of Contemporary Music, where she was introduced to Sawhney by award-winning producer Pete “Boxsta” Martin. “Nitin came into the studio and I sang an ancient Sanskrit hymn,” she recalls. “He asked me to do a gig with him that ended up being 10 years of touring and all kinds of work… that was basically my university.”
It was Sawhney who produced Wells’ debut album, Ocean, which she released under the name TURYA, a project she began in 2015. “It’s derived from a Sanskrit word, turiya, which means the silence one experiences after sound,” she explains. “I was really interested in that concept: if you go to a performance and experience the ring of the instrument’s final note, the sustained silence in between that and the applause is this thing, turiya, which you feel as a wave.” With Ocean, Wells dived into the elements: on the title track, her vocals rise and fall to mesmerising effect over soft ripples of piano. On opener “Rain”, electronic beats come into mingle with the more organic sounds: “I’ve walked for days alone/ And on my way, I found nothing,” she sings. “Heat of the sun, it burns/ Like those words, how they haunt me now.”
Ellipsis came into being when Wells moved from Greenwich, London to her mother’s home in the countryside during the pandemic. “It was actually great for our relationship, I think,” Wells, who is now based in Monmouth, Wales, says. “She really gave me the space and time to dive into my creative well. And I don’t think I’d have had that opportunity at any other point in my life. I definitely needed it.” Lockdown became a sort of “crazy, self-purging, creative period”, she recalls. “I wrote around 180 songs. Each day I’d go for a walk, and it’d be like catching these ideas with a net, going home and recording them.” Twelve of those songs made it on to Ellipsis, the first body of work Wells feels she has truly “given birth to” single handedly, one that asserts her coming into her own as an artist. “Every sound you hear was hand-crafted… it was like having my own chiselling tools, working on every detail.”
The piano you hear on tender opener “Never Will”, and through the course of the album, is the same one Wells first learnt to play on as a child. “The way it’s been produced is very stripped back,” she points out. “I really fell in love with organic sounds, so that’s what you hear on the album: real strings, double bass, drums. It has more life to it.” The beauty of “Never Will” lies in its simplicity: those muffled piano notes drift down gently, while Wells’ voice emerges bright and ethereal, like frost glinting in dawn light. “I first met you on the corner between Rye and Bailey Hill,” she sings. “And this never happens to me, but time really did stop still.”
She was inspired by traditional music that elicited strong emotions in her. “I Have Longed to Be Here” sees orchestral flourishes mingling with her Hindustani-influenced vocal delivery, which later gives way to dramatic harmonies inspired by Bulgarian folk music. “I became obsessed with these female Bulgarian choirs, this mountain-calling energy where there’s a fearlessness and the sense of breaking through something,” Wells says. “I felt like I needed to do that within myself.”
Discovering inner strength forms the core theme of “Warrior”, the penultimate song on the record. “I felt like I needed to charge into myself, in a way that had no compromises,” she says. “As a woman in this industry, you have to hold your own, you have to know who you are, how to hone your power. “It was very much an internal thing. That’s why I called it a self-purging or healing period.” On “Warrior”, her keening voice cuts through shrouds of distant waves, before a pulsating beat unfurls, joined by childlike calls. The beat picks up with a military rhythm, growing more and more urgent, as she warns: “Run for your life now/ Reap what you sow/ Burning to ashes/ Metal to gold.”
Across many of the songs on Ellipsis, the listener will likely envisage Wells striding out on her own, asserting a sense of purpose. She was gripped by the notion that, “in one life you have to die many times to truly be alive. When a relationship ends, that’s almost like a death, and a rebirth, and there’s this cyclical aspect,” she points out. This idea is explored on “I Have Longed to Be Here”, a beautifully wrought composition of fluttering strings and bewitching, melismatic vocals. Through her lyrics, Wells invokes an image of one circle completed, and another begun. “Whatever you’ve gone through in life, you’ve consciously or subconsciously chosen to be there,” she says.
Where “Warrior” and “I Have Longed to Be Here” share a sense of assertiveness, songs such as “You’re Alright Kid” and “Carry On” are more about reassurance. “It was a real spectrum of emotions that I was going through,” Wells says of the moods that inspired the album. “So there are some songs where I’m belting it out, and others that are more intimate and vulnerable. I liked having both [sides] on the record.” Throughout Ellipsis is a remarkable visual quality. Wells’ striking lyrics, at once narrative and abstract, like snatches of diary entries or pieced-together parts of some long-forgotten tale, are capable of evoking spectacular imagery. On “The Night”, with its deep indigo pools of acoustic guitar and swells of strings, Wells’ voice becomes a siren’s call gliding across the moon-flecked surface, “inviting you to join the night”. “You’ll be safe in my arms,” she croons invitingly. But something dark lurks in those dreams.
“I’ve always been into imagery and allegorical lyrics,” Wells admits. “I like the idea of the listener cracking the code. Because once a song is out there, it’s no longer mine.” While all of her songs stem from personal experiences, she believes there’s something that people will be able to relate to. There are danceable rhythms, nodding to her work on the scores of productions such as Samsara, starring Aakash Odedra and Hu Shenyuan, which recently received standing ovations at Sadler’s Wells. Others might fall in love with the sweeping, cinematic romanticism of “Holy Smoke”, which she also brought to the soundtracks of films including Andy Serkis’s Mowgli and Deepa Mehta’s Midnight Children. Fans of live music will adore the strikingly intimate quality of this record, honed from performances at hallowed venues including the Royal Albert Hall, the Sydney Opera House, and Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage.
In the video for “Carry On”, you see Wells joined by fellow women in a ritual of sorts, one that celebrates “nurturing and feminine healing – using the symbology of the elements to let go of the things we no longer need”. As for the title track: “It’s interesting, because ‘Ellipsis’ has the same sentiment as TURYA,” she says, referring to her former project. “I’ve always loved that word because, at the end of a sentence, it gives you opportunity for pause.” It’s no coincidence that the track “Ellipsis” arrives at the end of the album. “That particular track is the only one without lyrics, it’s basically just instrumental,” she points out. “I’d said everything I wanted to say, and because of my work with contemporary dance scores… I saw this as being a dance visually.” The title track’s ability to encompass both movement and space to pause is the essence of what makes the album so special. For both newcomers and fans familiar with Wells’s work, Ellipsis offers a much-needed moment of profound contemplation.