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‘You can almost smell it’: How music moves us during lockdown

Fed up of lockdown lethargy, Malcolm Jack has been seeking out music that’s charged with such bucolic loveliness you can practically smell the livestock
Music can move us, writes Malcolm Jack. Image credit: InHouse illustration

One of my favourite lines in a piece of music journalism dates back almost 10 years, to a glowing five-star review of Irish alt-folk, blues, electronica and field-recording maestro Seamus Fogarty’s exceptional 2012 debut album God Damn You Mountain.

Grasping for words to best capture the bucolic-poetic majesty and shall we say pungent realness of Rita Jack’s Lament – a track built around a sample of a senior County Kerry native on her first trip home in 50 years, standing in the house she grew up in, talking about her childhood as a warped and detuned traditional Irish guitar melody burbles and birds chatter in the background – The Skinny magazine’s Finbarr Bermingham summed up thus: “You can almost smell the cowshit off it”.

I’ve been enjoying smelling the cowshit off of a lot of new music

I think about that line a lot. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately in particular, because – and for everyone’s sake please be certain that I mean this figuratively – I’ve been enjoying smelling the cowshit off of a lot of new music.

Music which, in a not dissimilar spirit to Fogarty’s God Damn You Mountain, has the countryside, nature, the great outdoors – call it what you like – at heart. Sometimes nebulously, sometimes in the most literal sense. All of it apt to make a soul soar out of lockdown, over forests, fields and shores. After a year spent mainly shut in the house in the middle of a city, it doesn’t require much depth of self-analysis to figure out why that sort of thing may feel so appealing right now – particularly with a tantalising taste of spring and freedom in the air.

Erland Cooper’s compositions are like audio postcards from the ragged edge, full of love and longing for the emotional geography that shapes us all

Set to be reissued in May on 12-inch eco-mix vinyl (a clever technique recycling leftover coloured pellets from previous vinyl runs, giving each disc a uniquely randomised colour), rural Lancashire-based musician, artist and writer Rob St John’s delicately intoxicating Surface Tension LP was made over the course of a year spent walking, recording and photographing the Lea Valley as part of a charity project to document pollution, life and biodiversity throughout the East London area.

St John’s sonic-impressionist ambient instrumental landscapes – formed from fingerpicked guitars, tape loops, tube organs and rhythms that sound like they’ve been literally dunked in a river – make for mostly soothing fare. But modular synth-licked arcadian raver Tracing Static proves they can bang as well as splash.

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Hailing from Orkney but now migrated to London, Scottish multi-instrumentalist and composer Erland Cooper’s exponentially expanding solo oeuvre has been a joy to get lost in, rooted as it is in a triptych of albums since 2018 – the last of which, Hether Blether, was released last year – inspired by the natural world surrounding the Northern Isles where he grew up.

Finding the sublime in the provincial, tracks variously take their titles from Orcadian dialect words for birds (Solan Goose, Shalder, Tammie Norie), seashells (Groatie Buckies), landmasses (Sule Skerry) or, um, short trousers (Peedie Breeks). Voiced through operatic vocals by soprano Lottie Greenhow, plaintive piano refrains, field recordings and strings that soar, all arranged with intuitive appreciation of the power and dynamics of quiet and space, Cooper’s compositions are like audio postcards from the ragged edge, full of love and longing for the emotional geography that shapes us all.   

Based in the hills of Radnorshire in a sparsely populated pocket of rural Mid Wales – “a place of comfort and healing but also of isolation and the unknown,” says drummer and vocalist Emma Daman Thomas – experimental pop trio Islet are a band with a connection to the land that goes deeper than most. Multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Mark Daman Thomas comes from a sheep farming family and recorded his debut solo album under the nom-de-plume Farm Hand between the birthing of lambs.

Their mixture of hauntological pop, spiky post-punk, and trippy outsider house (out house?), hewn from wheezing synths and vintage drum machines, exists in a rich pastoral-psychedelic continuum in Welsh music from Super Furry Animals to Cate Le Bon. Islet’s latest, Welsh Music Prize-nominated album, 2020’s ethereal and immersive Eyelet surveys birth, death, cultural identity and ecological revitalisation through imagery from the life cycle of caterpillars to wild geese in flight.

Lastly, to the south coast and Walmer, Kent, where violinist and composer Anna Phoebe – a collaborator with all from Nitin Sawhney to the aforementioned Erland Cooper – has been productively passing a static year overlooking the sea. Released in the doldrums of the first lockdown, By the Sea is an uplifting, spirit-cleansing five minutes of Phoebe improvising lushly and evocatively to the sound of rolling English Channel waves. You can almost smell the salt spray off it. Which, certainly, is more pleasant than cowshit. 

Surface Tension by Rob St John is released May 14 by Blackford Hill (; Erland Cooper’s Hether Blether ( and Islet’s Eyelet ( are out now. Listen to Anna Phoebe’s By The Sea at