February/March 2014

by Briar Lawry

City Oh Sigh: All Tied Up In A Bunch

by Briar Lawry

City Oh Sigh: All Tied Up In A Bunch

Wellington community label Home Alone Music may only have a few artists on their roster but 2014 is already shaping up to be a big, perhaps breakthrough year. A debut album from French for Rabbits is overdue and the Hamilton dream-folk duo are scheduled to perform at The Great Escape. Equally exotic label mates City Oh Sigh launch their debut album ‘Fragments Fine’ late February with a gig at Laundry on Cuba in Wellington. Briar Lawry caught up with three of the City Oh Sigh quartet to discuss the album and pick at some strands.

If you’re wanting to try and squeeze Wellington four-piece City Oh Sigh into a genre box, you’re going to find yourself struggling. Bluster your way through folk, indie, alternative, chamber pop… and you will still fall short. Without stringing an unreasonable number of adjectives together, there is no way to quite encompass their sound – and that’s the way the band likes it.

“We never set out to be a specific genre,”” says pianist (vintage Rhodes) Sarah Smythe.

Perhaps, suggests songwriter and cellist Kate Uhe, the best way to describe it is “…carefully crafted”” – music that is exquisitely put together, but not limited by genre descriptors. It almost comes as a relief to hear the band say this, as I sit down for a chat with three-quarters of City Oh Sigh.

“We’re not out to prove a point,”” Sarah adds.

They aren’t a band that is trying to be fashionable, she expands, they’re simply working with the instruments and ideas that they collectively have – and the result is something wonderful.

Their first release was a six-track EP, ‘Like A Light’, which garnered rave reviews from all sorts of places. Most interestingly, it was commended by some for its ‘blessed absence of a drummer’ (as Grant Smithies put it in the Sunday Star Times, September 2011). Not wanting to limit themselves to a certain sound, the then-trio (Kate, Sarah, and Catherine Henehan on guitar and trumpet) decided to work against expectations and add a drummer to the mix.

“We weren’t trying to add a beat, but we were instead adding to the texture of the sound the band could make,”” Kate explains.

Hikurangi Scheverin-Kaa comes with a jazz background, and the versatility that this has provided has allowed the band to expand their repertoire – the gentle, lullaby-like qualities of that first EP have certainly not disappeared, but other tracks on their newly-released ‘Fragments Fine’ have the chance to indulge a bigger, more rhythmically motivated sound that would not have been possible sans percussion.

Sometimes, the first single from ‘Fragments Fine’, features instrumentation that is somewhat evocative of a stripped back Arcade Fire, but with a very different vocal and lyrical style – softer, with a wistful whispery quality. From there onwards, the record touches on more guitar-driven, country-influenced sounds (members of the City Oh Sigh have also been involved in various Americana bands including Blackbelles and Bleakwater – as well as all-girl octet St Rupertsberg) in The Tide, to the simple pizzicato cello and march-style drumming of the concluding track Hold On.

Even though an overarching style is avoided, the album all ties together well – there is a variety of pacing, but the unique combination of Kate’s vocals, cello, Rhodes piano and trumpet provide a common thread. As drawn upon at the beginning of the interview, “…the cello’s sound has a warmth that it shares with the Rhodes and the guitar,”” Kate observes, and when listening to the album this is definitely evident, further tying everything together.

The three agree that How Long (the penultimate track of the record) was their favourite or most satisfying song, in the end.

“We didn’t know whether it would make it to the album,”” Kate admits in explanation. Sarah agrees, saying the song formed something completely different when they got into the studio.”

Getting in the spirit, Hikurangi admits that during recording, producer James Goldsmith (So So Modern, Pikachunes) had to persuade him to play more forcefully – and confesses “…it’s the loudest that I’ve ever played!” No fear, then, that a drummer might be limited in their playing when joining the seemingly ‘quiet’ or ‘fragile’ sounding band.

Considering that they have been a feature of the Wellington scene for some time now, City Oh Sigh have kept their gigging to a relative minimum. With cello and very specific piano requirements, it’s not hard to see the logistical issue, but they also point out that Wellington is a small city. They want to maintain some anticipation and excitement when playing shows, rather than being on every second weekend.

However, with the album being released, touring is certainly on the cards, and Kate says she may hit up some centres for a one-woman, one-cello show to stir up interest and investigate venues. As she notes, “Appropriate spaces are quite difficult to find.””

“Someone once described us as a sunny afternoon band,”” Sarah adds as we wrap up – an audience on the lawn, blue skies kind of band.

Quick to add that they aren’t limited to such performances, she acknowledges that perhaps it is their ideal niche. Their album release concert is to be held outside, in the afternoon. Let’s hope that the Wellington weather holds out for them, because to miss the rare opportunity to see this foursome in action would be a tragedy indeed.