In March 2012, the New Yorker ran an article by John Seabrook about the working relationship between songwriter Ester Dean and the production team Stargate. Its main objective was to illuminate the status quo of contemporary commercial pop songwriting, but Seabrook also tangentially pointed to an under-discussed dynamic in the production world. “The producers are almost always male: Max Martin, Dr. Luke, David Guetta, Tricky Stewart, the Matrix, Timbaland, the Neptunes, Stargate,” Seabrook wrote. “The top-liners [songwriters who focus on lyrics and vocal melodies, usually with a specific performer in mind] are often, although not always, women.”
While the perception that producers are almost always men may reflect a certain reality, it also reflects how the production contributions of many female performers (M.I.A., Laurel Halo, Karin Dreijer Andersson, etc.) to their own work have been deemphasized relative to their identities as performers. The gradual rise of London-based producer Maya Jane Coles’ star sheds an interesting light on why that might be the case: perhaps women subvert gender roles when they step behind the boards, so we ignore the production work of someone like M.I.A., while heaping praise on the likes of Diplo and Switch, because the former’s vocal work fits more readily into a cultural template.
Such oversight is simply not possible in Coles’ case. Despite singing over a number of the tracks on her debut album, Comfort, she built her reputation as a DJ the old-fashioned way, by touring relentlessly, and as a producer the only way, by making great tracks, before she began consistently singing on record. Whether this was a conscious decision or not, it didn’t go unnoticed by Rolling Stone, usually the out-of-touch uncle of music journalism, which ranked Coles the higher of only two female DJs in their November 2012 list “25 DJs That Rule the World“ (outranking both Daft Punk and Deadmau5).
As is increasingly the case with medium-profile dance releases, there are three types of songs on Comfort: beat-driven club tracks that rely on sampled vocals and emulate Coles’ earlier work (like the excellent single “Hummingbird“) (“Comfort”), poppier dance fare over which Coles sings unobtrusive mantras (“Easier to Hide,” “Dreamer,” “Stranger,” “Come Home”), and radio-ready numbers featuring guest vocalists (just about everything else). Coles’ own vocal style serves as a subtle adornment, striking a balance that works well: her muted singing blends into the production without taking away from it, while her lyrics bolster listenability by adding a conceptual dimension to the tracks. By meticulously protecting its moody aesthetic while cautiously reaching for the listener’s ear, Comfort aims for the clubby middle ground championed by BBC’s Radio 1 of late (the “Disclosuresphere,” if you will). Comfort is not so much for the dancers, as SBTRKT, or the lovers, as Devotion; Maya’s debut is for the introspective loners.
“Everything” is the track that’s garnered the most attention so far, partially because guest vocalist Karin Park sounds so much like the aforementioned Karin Dreijer Andersson (of Fever Ray and The Knife). The song’s relatively simple backing track is anchored by simple, wordless vocal hook that has made it ideal fodder for the album’s first remix EP. “When I’m in Love” is another standout track, notable for bringing the tempo down into the trip-hop pocket. Under a mournful vocal take from Thomas Knights, Coles indulges some of the dubbier inclinations of her production alter-ego Nocturnal Sunshine. As you listen to Knights’ intro vocals over spare drums, you might expect some major-key relief from the album’s somber tone, until a quiet but seriously dark wobbling sub-bass line sets you straight. Coles also tastefully trades a backbeat drum track for dancehall syncopation on the pre- and post-choruses to reward close listeners. The song serves as an excellent display of Coles’ stylistic versatility while reinforcing her commitment to the album’s overall mood. Coupled with “Wait For You,” her collaboration with Tricky, “When I’m in Love” points to trip-hop as an important influence on Coles’ dark club aesthetic.
Coles really shines in the mid-to-low frequency range. She favors lower frequency synth melodies than many of her contemporaries, and her leads tend to blend into her bass lines in a rich way that is by turns soothing and disconcerting, almost as if she’s holding your hand and leading you down the frequency spectrum. This, along with her ethereal vocal and sampling styles, cultivates an elegiac atmosphere best suited to late nights or – if you’re anything like me – daytime moping in corporate settings.
The “comfort” of the album’s title certainly isn’t anything resembling material success or domestic bliss; it’s something more like reassuring melancholy in the face of a greater but less effable despair. Coles traffics in tunes that cosign and propel your bad moods, which isn’t nearly as unpleasant as it sounds. Comfort isn’t exactly everyday listening, but people of a certain disposition will gravitate to its warmth, and there’s something here for every dance fan prone to occasional moodiness, which is to say almost everyone.
(Images courtesy of dankradio.org, stoneyroads.com, and factmag.com)