Audia Reviews: Laura Misch — Lonely City

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Experimental saxophonist and vocalist Laura Misch takes us on a walk in Lonely City.

Label: Self-released

Release date: May 3

What does a city sound like? London, for one, is sounding a lot more like jazz, and jazz is sounding a lot more like—well you should just listen to Laura Misch’s new album. Lonely City, her second full-length LP, is emblematic of the city’s eclectic and blossoming jazz scene, while standing out as a distinct contribution to the genre’s experimental soundscapes. She takes us on a walk (and a drive, but mostly a walk) through her city, and the end result is as reflective as it is alarming.

Misch, 26, hails from South East London, and is a saxophonist, singer and producer. She has gained quick recognition since self-producing her first EP in 2016 after dropping out of a biomedical program, and has gone on to tour across the UK and Europe, supporting acts including her younger brother Tom Misch, Chicago rap up-and-comer Noname, and Texas trio Khruangbin. (And what is it like to be a woman musician in jazz, you ask? Misch and four other UK stars have a podcast about that, actually.)

Compared to Playground, her first full-length LP, released exactly two years earlier, and debut EP Shaped By Who We Knew, Lonely City sounds a lot less obviously like jazz (her Spotify page refers to “jazz textures”). She relies more on synthesizers, and three of the seven tracks are instrumental; the album is barely 20 minutes long. But it is precisely this breaking down of barriers, both national and artistic, that makes the UK scene so enticing. Misch’s neo soul sound is closer to Grimes than Ella Fitzgerald, but not entirely so distant from Alice Coltrane’s cosmic creations—references that feel unhelpful when the genre is being so uniquely excavated on the streets of London.

“It is precisely this breaking down of barriers, both national and artistic, that makes the UK scene so enticing.”

None of the songs on Lonely City had me bopping my head the way I did with “Forsaken,” Playground’s standout track. But Misch isn’t here to make catchy songs this time; she’s here to create an environment, which she does well. While the beats change tempo and tone slightly, everything feels cohesively blurry and slow, similar to the way a night on the town can feel at once sensuous and disorienting. Far from an obnoxious drunk stupor, Misch is attentively stumbling through her own inner worlds.

In Rebecca Solnit’s history of walking, Wanderlust, she writes that “A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities.” Misch’s saxophone and voice sing those possibilities. She’s talked about how important walking is to her creative process, and it’s made obvious on the second-to-last track, “Walk Alone to Hear Thoughts of Your Own”, where Misch’s experimental passion not only finds footing but takes flight. (“When your track feels lethargic in the laptop, try taking it for a walk, seeing how it interacts with the outside world,” she told London in Stereo.)

This song is the real core of the album, and also the longest, at 4:24; it’s what she really wants to say, even though it has no lyrics, and there’s nothing much to hum along to. Over escalating bass and synth, Misch’s delayed saxophone laps at rhythm in the same way city lights reflected on a polluted river twitch and ebb, the city version of stargazing. (The cover art, her body suspended over the blurry city lights, captures this feeling somewhat, too.)

She feels more at home in the instrumental tracks; while Misch’s vocals are consistently calm, her lyrics produce an almost eerie feeling that is ambiguous at best and claustrophobic at worst—undoubtedly on purpose.

“Blue Dot” sounds like a neo soul expression of the automated navigation voice we are all familiar with, full of technological references (“I’ll lead you to a pin”; “I’m programmed to win”). Her sense of place is overdetermined by synthetic/synthesized omniscent realities, or maybe just urban planning: “I follow the blue dot underground/My feet aren’t moving but I am going down, down, down”.

Our walk becomes a “Night Drive,” the only track to introduce an explicit other person, but it remains eerily unclear who. The song hinges on an acute observation about human nature: “Your anger is fear,” she repeats.

“Glass Shards,” the closing track, suggests an out (“I’ll come get you out of this exile”; “We’ll climb to the sky today”) but doesn’t feel like closure. I found myself returning again to the instrumental tracks to remember the essence of the album. The instrumental tracks in between left room to breathe, look down an alleyway (or rest on a “Citybed”), the synthesized textures reminiscent of the cultural and literal electricity of a city. “oOo” sounds like when you just exited a Lyft in an unfamiliar street corner; “Elevator” feels like, well, riding an elevator, its persistent rhythm like an abandoned or stalling technological device trying to remind you of its presence.

Cities are lonely—it is exhausting to be surrounded by people without connection, and Misch’s sounds reflect this while also providing a refuge (she talks about this in “Lagoon”). In our increasingly digitally connected age, place-making feels like a novelty. Brexit and the global refugee crisis give jazz’s participatory spirit a newfound relevance; jazz, a distinctly American medium born from the African and Caribbean diaspora, has always been about democracy, as trumpeter Wynton Marsalis has evangelized.

Seeing the UK’s diversifying scene, and all of the artists like Misch taking experimental risks, it is comforting to know that unnecessary borders can be broken; genres can be shifted; there is still public space where we can find solace against loneliness; and there are still long walks to go on.

Amelia Diehl