Release Date: Jan 14, 2013
Record label: Stolen
She sounds like a folk singer, her diction clear as a mountain stream while she weaves whimsical tales of ships (Night Before Mutiny), conversations with Venus (The Moths Are Real), and rivals who meet at dawn "with pens and open scorn" (Lady Fortune). But there is an eccentricity to Serafina Steer that resists categorisation, and fills her songs with surprises. One moment she is pastoral, as on Skinny Dipping, a gauzy reverie on nakedness in which her fingers skitter over her harp like dragonflies; the next tart and opaque, as on Ballad of Brick Lane, which starts off bemoaning the hipster hub of London before turning to more abstract territory.
It’ll come as no surprise to listeners of Jarvis Cocker’s BBC 6 Music show that the Britpop bum wiggler would be a fan of Serafina Steer. The Moths Are Real, the third album from the Peckham multi-instrumentalist, is exactly the kind of curio that Cocker luxuriates in on the radio, a beguilingly odd record where cut-glass vocals deliver arch lyrics while drum machines and unnerving arrangements combine with virtuoso harp. Having declared Steer’s 2010 album Change Is Good, Change Is Good as his favourite of that year, Cocker is on production duties here, his presence understated but tangible.
Serafina Steer, although a classically trained harpist, once again doesn’t fail to astonish listeners with her musical scope poles apart from any current trends. Testimony to this was found on her 2006 debut Cheap Demo Bad Science although it wasn’t until the follow-up, Change Is Good, Change Is Good (never a more apt title) that her experimentation began to engender success. The latter album’s expansive musical scope was high and part the doings of the studio scoundrel who stole her harp during a recording session.
When Jarvis Cocker declared Steer’s ‘Change Is Good Change Is Good’ his favourite album of 2010, the Peckham songwriter asked him to put his music where his mouth was and produce her next record. The result is an eccentric grab-bag of styles and influences, with enough harps on it to keep Joanna Newsom fans happy, and even a retro 4/4 beat dancing in on the aptly named ‘Disco Compilation’. The oddest track, ‘The Removal Man’, is also the best, where funny, blunt lyrics like “You hate my friends/Yet fantasise about them as well” show why the bard of Sheffield has taken such a shine to her.Kevin EG Perry .
Whether it's the expense, technical ability required to play it, or sheer number of strong arms and wheels required to cart the damn things around, the harp hardly gets a look-in when it comes to contemporary pop. This is a shame, as it results in those who play it being imprisoned as if by the many strings of their instrument with the words "Joanna Newsom" hammered on the cell door. Argh, see, I just did it! Serafina Steer's previous albums Cheap Demo Bad Science and Change Is Good, Change Is Good and excellent live outings boded well for this third album, The Moths Are Real, a brilliant culmination of the harpist's work to date.
An artist harder to define, and more brilliant, than you might imagine. Chris Parkin 2013 Serafina Steer plays a harp and sings in a dew-fresh style that lends itself well to storytelling. Cue regular comparisons, then, to any and all women who play music that rightly or wrongly (mostly wrongly) is defined as quirky folk pop, such as Beth Jeans Houghton or, as always happens with harp pluckers, Joanna Newsom.