This article originally ran in The Herald newspaper (Scotland) on June 13, 2014.
Two Wings vocalist Hanna Tuulikki is discussing Peace/Fear, the opening track on the Glasgow folk-rockers’ new album, A Wake. “Somebody said it’s a cross between Kate Bush and Dire Straits,” she says with a laugh. She sounds quite delighted.
Your correspondent also heard the drum-thundering echoes of Easy Lover by Phils Bailey and Collins in Peace/Fear’s maiden bars. “Oh, I love that too,” beams Tuulikki, a multi-instrumentalist, visual artist and truly unique vocalist, who composes Two Wings’ songs in cahoots with Ben Reynolds (vocals / guitar).
“I think there are a lot of pop influences, and a lot of 80s references, on A Wake,” she says of the follow-up to their 2012 debut, Love’s Spring. “We used synths and gated reverb on the snares, and I guess we were less interested in drawing upon folk forms on this record. We wanted to explore the craft of songwriting in a different way. We wanted to connect with the music that first appealed to us as children, and we grew up in the 80s.”
Formed in 2009, Two Wings are a thrilling proposition – equal parts familiar and surprising – and their line-up is virtuosic. Tuulikki’s airborne vocalisms and Reynolds’ soaring guitar solos are flanked by Lucy Duncombe (vocals), Kenny Wilson (bass), Owen Curtis Williams (drums) and recent recruit Jody Henderson (guitar). They interweave madrigals, trad-folk, psalm-singing, chamber-pop and soft-rock, and leave something freewheeling yet easy to love in their glittering wake.
“I don’t think we feel we need to consciously invent something new,” Tuulikki offers. “There’s so much good music, and so many good forms that already exist. We prefer in a sense to make reference to those.”
And so it is that you might discern the new-wave riffs of Television (Peace / Fear) or the sultry harmonics of Fleetwood Mac (Stranger) amid A Wake’s celestial psych-rock arias and acid-country chorales. Its themes are timeless and universal, exploring the myriad phases of love – friendship, lust, death – in language that feels otherworldly, yet applicable to our day-to-day.
Ben Reynolds nods. “Absolutely, that’s what it’s for,” he says. “That’s the great thing about love songs – everyone can find something in there. I like the universality of that topic.”
Both songwriters’ fledgling careers were in improvised music, in Glasgow’s free-folk and noise scenes (Tuulikki performed with Scatter and Nalle; Reynolds was a solo improv-axeman before his bygone stint in Trembling Bells). But do they find it can be liberating to work within the (loose) confines of structured songs, as they do in Two Wings?
“Sometimes in improvisation, it’s quite easy to become scared of form,” Tuulikki muses. “So it’s a really refreshing and freeing experience to work within a known form, and to make music that we might want to dance to within that – although I’d say what we’re doing now is still experimental, because it’s still pushing something in ourselves.”
Reynolds agrees. “If you set yourself simple parameters, even something as basic as having a song as a starting point, it means you’re setting certain limits in terms of the amount of space you’re opening up,” he offers. “But the amount you can then do is vast. You can do a ballad, or you can do a dance song – it gives you all these options. You can invent your own way of working.”
Two Wings operate as a particularly harmonic outfit, and their moniker is inextricably linked to their sound, their aesthetic, their history. It conveys the songwriters’ sense of mutually-supportive craft (each providing, they say, one wing of their bird), evokes sonic references (both 1968’s folk-rock act Wings and Paul McCartney’s unrelated 70s-pop wonders) – and it traces their nascent work together. In 2008, Reynolds issued a solo recording called Two Wings, for which Tuulikki created the artwork. Its title was inspired by the Rev Utah Smith’s gospel-blues masterwork of the same name.
The Two Wings designate also resonates with Tuulikki’s fascinating endeavour, Away With The Birds (Air falbh leis na h-eòin), an inter-disciplinary venture which celebrates the vocal mimesis of birds in the Gaelic folk tradition. The project is currently seeking crowd-funding to stage a one-off performance by a female vocal ensemble in the harbour on the Isle of Canna this summer.
Does Tuulikki perceive Two Wings and Away With The Birds as having a kinship, beyond their avian resonance? “Although they have strong separate identities, there is a flow between them,” she says. “What I’ve learned from writing harmonies with Two Wings has informed the way I think about composing for a lot more voices, and that applies the other way around too. I think my passion is always the voice, and its exploration.”
Tuulikki’s extraordinary vocals elevate A Wake – from the mediaeval-groove of Loveless to You Give Me Love’s carnal, feverish lullaby – and despite parting titles like Go To Sleep and Adieu, this feels like an LP invested with hope. “I suppose this album is slightly less joyful than Love’s Spring,” says Reynolds, “but it’s about holding on, in a positive sense – and articulating that in a way that sounds optimistic.”
Tuulikki nods. “A Wake comes from the song A Wake To The Dream, which is about keeping something real that was alive – it’s more about that than a funeral,” she says. Her words ring true on the album’s glorious swansong, Go To Sleep, as the band sing together, “awake with the sun”; their bright spirits flying high.
Two Wings’ A Wake is out now via Tin Angel; album launch, Glasgow Nice N Sleazy, June 21; the Away With The Birds Kickstarter campaign runs until June 15.
Two Wings interview – The List – March 2012