The way we perceive our voice and the way others experience it is one of the most disorienting aspects of being human. I remember going through puberty and hearing my voice change, hearing my recorded voice played back and being unhappy with how deep, monotone, and indifferent it sounded. Even when I strain to make my voice cheerful, my voice sounds pleasant, but often I’m told I mumble too much. Often when I answer the phone the person on the other ends responds, “What’s wrong?”
For all the ways we change our outward appearance to reflect our inner selves, our voice can be the most subtle indicator of who we are inside. And unless you have a disability making it impossible to speak, it’s often the hardest part of your self to change considering the disparity from what you hear and what others hear.
Australian songwriter Katie Dey challenges the importance of having a clear voice in her debut album asdfasdf. Initially self-released and now seeing a sold out run of cassettes via Orchid Tapes, asdfasdf is a brutally raw and wildly experimental force of pop songwriting, digging claws into everything from Casiotoned electronic magic to lo-fi blown out power pop. Described as a collection of songs rather than a thematic, thought-out album, Dey was encouraged by fan and now labelmate Mat Cothran to release an album after hearing demos on her Tumblr page.
The instrumentation on asdfasdf often recalls the worldly folk-pop of acts like Mutual Benefit, especially on opener “don’t be scared” where backmasked bells and springy guitar co-mingle until skittering drums and a bitcrushed, distorted voice wails overhead. Dey treats her voice as inhumanly as possible on asdfasdf, ripping out all sense of a persona and leaving the digital artefacts to highlight the edges of words like some kind of phase inversion experiment.
“all on you” plays like the mid-album ballad on your favorite ’90s-revival band’s new album, but Dey’s voice is processed into an alien shriek, cold reverb extending each line through the empty space into the next bar. “h o e” clangs along in a ramshackle blues rhythm, lending a somber background to the warped voice, lyrics hardly intelligible behind layers of piano and guitar. And on “unkillable,” which has to be one of the most triumphant and endearing songs of the year, her words peek out through the open spaces in the noise: “Suck the blood from my feet / you were my favorite leech,” she howls, the song cutting off like a guillotine.
Upon repeated listens to asdfasdf, I was overcome with an urge to know and study the lyrics. In an excellent essay last year titled Radical Strain, Sasha Geffen observed “female pop singers that strain their voices against conventional gender performance pierce attempts to make them vessels of male engineering and ultimately suspend the male gaze.” When we obsess over the lyrical content of a female musician’s work, we often minimize or completely overlook their musical talent (see the ridiculous necessity of Björk having to clarify that she produced her most recent album with collaborators instead of by them). I’ve since relinquished my inane desire to “understand” asdfasdf. Ultimately it’s more rewarding as an abstract experience than an emotional safety blanket.
DIY musicians rarely have to confront this though, and in the case of asdfasdf you would be foolish to assume it took engineers and writers months to craft this record. The edges of songs are crunchy, nearly everything processed through what sounds like a boombox. The melancholy drawl of “yo yo” has a distance to its timbre only attainable through digital compression, with the ends of the drum loop rattling off a subtle tape hiss. She says something akin to “you’re on your own” before diving back under the surface and letting the beat ride out. The album closes with “you gotta get up to get up,” a sunny, drum-machine instrumental that ascends into high-frequency feedback and piercing noise. There’s possibly a voice somewhere in there behind the wall of sound, screaming about disfigurement and abandonment and many other things. It’s incomprehensible, disorienting, and absolutely perfect.
asdfasdf is out now via Orchid Tapes.