If Bon Iver’s 2008 classic whet the mainstream’s appetite for spooked balladry then Stith’s equally gorgeous ‘Heavy Ghost’ - forthcoming on Sufjan Stevens’ Asthmatic Kitty label - could well repeat his success, sharing as it does Vernon’s hymnal, multi-tracked vocals, spine-tingling intimacy and cavernous atmospherics.
David Stith’s debut offers substantial advance on the format though. Bold electronic flourishes, unfettered vocal virtuosity, and tumbling piano runs are stirred into the mix, pitching him somewhere between the eerie drama of a Danny Elfman score, the woodsy mystique of Department Of Eagles and the quivering emotional wrench of Anthony Hegarty. The resulting album is bewitchingly intricate and so exquisitely rendered you could be forgiven for assuming Stith had been honing his craft for years.
Not so. Despite already being a gifted player with a voracious appetite for music and excelling in a number of other artistic fields - design, literature and sculpture - song writing had never been a going concern.“I know how critical I am of music,” he says. “I just couldn’t face being under that microscope.”
Though this and his acute shyness kept writing off the radar for some time, he obsessed over textures and outré sonics, looping up radio static or abusing guitars and tweaking the results. So, when a friend passed him some software and got him to muck in with some bedroom recordings, he was only too happy to oblige. Picking it up immediately, he spent the evenings tinkering with his own recordings and, sure enough, songs began to form.
“It was just the best feeling in the world,” he sighs. “I had never felt so much peace in my life. I just felt OK about everything. I didn’t know that writing music was going to do that!”
He was to spend the next year chasing that feeling as the songs that make up ‘Heavy Ghost’ came together, but his freshness to writing at least left him open to grander experimentation, happy accidents and following his instincts, simply letting the music flow from him.
“It wasn’t like this long-term thing I was trying to do so I didn’t have any kind of structure to approach it with. Maybe I was freed up to do a little more intuitively? Something that I was very conscious was, ‘I’m not gonna hide my mistakes’; I’m gonna honour them as marks of who I am. The songs are mine and the mistakes, for some people, make it more beautiful, more vulnerable.”
Beautiful and vulnerable it most certainly is. It’s also utterly unique, wholly absorbing, haunting in every sense of the word and marks the arrival of a supernatural songwriting talent.
Words by Jim Brackpool