A Stray, A Dream, Forgiveness
Let's start at the beginning. January 2018, the balcony of a humble apartment in Florence. Cheap claret, yellowed paperbacks, the assiduous buzz of a tinny bluetooth speaker and Italian cigarette smoke unfurling into the crisp chill of the Tuscan dawn. The nascent songwriting duo that would become the core of Lespectre talked of imitation.
Spool forward 30 months, after countless hours of studio time at Bristol's legendary Coach House, the arrival of three new band members, the discovery of their own sound and the trifling inconvenience of a global pandemic. A Stray, A Dream, Forgiveness is something distinct, a debut album that yields its sleepy treasures obliquely, serenely.
It began that brisk night in Italy as an exercise in songwriting for vocalist, guitarist and producer Tom Hackwell and drummer Max Perry, an attempt to reverse engineer a record that nodded to their shared admiration of the contemporary shoegaze and cinematic dream-pop of acts such as Greg Gonzalez's Cigarettes After Sex. They even wrote a list of 17 song titles, quite literally on the back of an Italian fag packet. “During that holiday, a drunken idea was born that we would try to make an album like that first Cigarettes After Sex record, shoegaze with a modern twist,” says Max. “We were joking about going home and writing the definitive modern shoegaze album, an experiment in songwriting.”
Immediately upon touching down in Bristol after their Italian sojourn, the duo began writing, Max's love of authors and philosophers such as Italo Calvino, Jack Kerouac, Clarice Lispector and Soren Kierkegaard informing hazy vignettes where little is certain and interpretation is left to the mind of the listener. “The ambiguity of that is such a nice aspect,” says Tom. “Some of my favourite pieces of art give the viewer space to decide what it's about themselves. Rather than making it a dot to dot drawing, it's nice to let people exercise their own imagination.”
Within a week, they had five songs written and the call went out for new band members – Becky Leach (vocals, keys, violin), Gary Walker (guitar) and Sam Winter-Quick (vocals, bass). The illusionary, somnambulant sound of Lespectre was born, and while there are glimpses of the initial blueprint in chimerical opening track Sleep, While I and the lambent synth resonance of Obliquely Serenely, thoughts of mimicry had been superseded. “Sleep, While I had all that,” says Max. “It's the most derivative of that modern shoegaze sound. The other songs diverged immediately. We decided the backwards engineering was over, this was something else now and instead of making the album we'd talked about, we built off that wide spectrum. That was the starting point.”
The nine tracks that make up A Stray, A Dream, Forgiveness were shaped in a series of sessions at the Coach House, where Massive Attack recorded their shadowy masterwork Blue Lines and Tom has helmed numerous records by other Bristol acts. Fans of the sleepy splendour of bands such as Cocteau Twins, Mazzy Star, Grizzly Bear, Lanterns On The Lake, The National, The Antlers and Phosphorescent will find much to love across a varied collection that showcases the divergent tastes of the band's five members.
The coruscating, sun-dappled Thirty Fathoms Deep finds the band evoking Arcade Fire and the vast guitar sound of The War On Drugs, diving deep down into Lake Zarathustra with Tom “Out in the deep, finding solace in the eye of a stranger”. Impossible is an irresistible art-pop ear-worm that the band showcased when they played for Michael Eavis in the finals of the Pilton Stage competition in February. It's a tale of a doomed relationship recounted with tongue partly in cheek, through Max’s eyes. He's that rarest of beasts – a songwriting, PhD student drummer with an encyclopedic knowledge of philosophy and an enduring love of Michel Foucault, whose face adorns his arm.
Strange, unsettling and deeply captivating If, On A Winter’s Night is a funky off-kilter dream state that borrows its title from the postmodern novel of the same name by Italian novelist Italo Calvino. Elsewhere, the sad majesty of Obliquely Serenely, Heavily Edited and the title track hint at grander orchestral ambitions, Becky's airy, haunting vocals suggesting greats such as Liz Fraser, Phoebe Bridgers and Sharon Van Etten, and her violin sweeping evocatively through the arrangements.
The album's lead single, Such A Simple Thing, which features Bath's Douglas Joshua on cello, is the clearest manifestation of the band's transformation from songwriting pair to fully fledged five-piece. It builds from unadorned confessional beginnings to a roiling swell of Gary's tremolo-picked guitars, strings and a mesmeric vocal duel. “It's a track that shows off everyone's strengths,” says Tom. “It all came together to form this whole picture of Lespectre that's indicative of the band's sound. It's the one song that every other song on the album takes something from. It's like the well from which the forest drank, this song that fed everything else.”
Two years in the making, the album seemingly complete and ready to be sent to the vinyl pressing plant, there was a twist at the 11th hour. The final track, Thunder, didn't yet exist. Brought to the table by bassist Sam, it was written after the mix had been completed. With Covid lockdown still in place, the Coach House was out of bounds, so most of its parts were tracked remotely, including guest vocals from Gina Leonard and Ryan Rogers of dreamy Bristol synth-pop act Mumble Tide.
“Sam has an incredible ear for melody, better than anyone I've ever known, he's right 98% of the time and is a great lyricist,” says Tom. “He called me at midnight, the night I finished mixing, saying, 'I love the album, but I feel there's one more song in us, let's write it now'. So we did. After a couple of days, we had the rough structure. I recorded the lead vocal the day before we sent it to press.”
The song contains the most personal set of lyrics on A Stray, A Dream, Forgiveness, a glimpse through the window into an intimate conversation between a pair of tender, blemished souls. Its final verse appears to offer redemption, but the closing phrase is cut short tantalisingly before it can resolve. It's a fitting place to conclude, leaving the listener to write their own ending. With Lespectre, nothing is concrete.
Order A Stray, A Dream, Forgiveness here.