Tāmaki Makaurau’s Nancy Howie got some press during this Delta lockdown for cleverly creating her own instruments, and now she’s ready to share one of the songs stemming from that project with the world. Under a new moniker, Fathom, her single Mother Star isn’t entirely dissimilar to her previous project, alt-folk band Tweed, who charmed with a gorgeous album full of harmonies and engaging live shows around 2017. Nancy kindly provided NZM with this inspiring rundown on how Mother Star came to be crafted.
I’m a piano tuner by trade. It’s a job I love, but it doesn’t have great work-from-home prospects, nor is it considered essential work (although some of my customers would beg to differ!) As a result, during last year’s lockdowns, I found myself with an abundance of free time. This allowed me to put far more consecutive hours into songwriting than I had been able to for years, and by the end of the first lockdown in 2020 I had completed half of what would become my debut solo album, ‘The World to Breathe’.
Mother Star was the first of those songs written, on the first day of that lockdown. It felt fitting that it opened the album. At the time that the first lockdown went into effect, everything around me felt like unprecedented chaos. One of the few things that gave me a sense of stability was looking out the window and watching as the sun rose and fell, every day, irrespective of what was happening in our daily lives. It felt like a reliable constant during a moment of frightening uncertainty.
The song began as four tracks: my lead vocal, my two backing vocals, and acoustic guitar, and it stayed that way for most of 2020. The free time that lockdowns afforded also enabled an obsession I had developed with designing and building experimental instruments, and I began to incorporate them into what was quickly becoming a full album. When I was putting the finishing touches on the album in December of 2020 I revisited the first track and gave it the attention I had paid to the other tracks, fleshing out its arrangement with bass, as well as a homemade and improvised rhythm section, and some experimental DIY ‘horns’.
I wrote Mother Star with the intention of capturing a sense of hope. In retrospect, I realised that while the song is framed as a conversation with the sun, it was perhaps more a dialogue with myself: on the one side it is a plea for hope and on the other, a reminder to be the best human I can be in the face of widespread confusion, frustration and anxiety.
The writing itself presented no challenges; it was one of those fabled songs that musicians tend to speak of, that feels as though it’s been channelled through you, rather than consciously put together by the songwriter. Technically though I was stumped with the construction of the ‘horns’, which I named “ululophones”. They’re in a family of instruments called “membranophones”, which produce sound via a vibrating stretched membrane.
Getting my instruments to make a noise was straightforward; getting them to play specific pitches was another matter entirely! This conundrum was resolved when I began to build the membrane-head of the instrument onto carved-up school-recorder and tin whistle parts. I ended up with three or four which played at different ranges – and all feature on Mother Star!
Psychologically, the biggest hurdle was making the leap from “…this is a song I wrote in my bedroom one day” to “…this is a song that I’m making available to everyone who has an internet connection.” I owe a great debt to my bandmate, who convinced me that this music needed to be shared.
Many months on from when the song was first written, two lines still stick out to me. The first is, “we’re untethered in our time”. When the pandemic began, it felt like we had all taken a very wrong turn somewhere, and on some days, that feeling is still very powerful.
The other is “will you be kind/will you soothe the faint of hope?” I feel like we need these reminders at the moment, specifically because it’s difficult. We’re all expending so much emotional energy trying to process impossibly unfamiliar circumstances that it’s essential we remember to reserve enough to just be good to each other.
In addition to the ululophones, the percussion section in the track is unconventional. The ‘kick drum’ is my fist pounding the carpet on the floor of my bedroom, and the snare and toms are a paint tin and two large stock pots with stretched pool-toy-vinyl over the tops. I played them separately and multi-tracked them so that they sound like a complete kit.
I didn’t know how to write drum parts when I began the album project, so I listened to isolated drum tracks from other songs as inspiration. The chorus of this song is uncannily similar to Dave Grohl’s part in Smells Like Teen Spirit, but that’s all I’ll say about that…