Bassist Ruth Goller completely defied expectations in July 2021 with her first album as leader, Skylla. Her trio with Lauren Kinsella and Alice Grant (with Nell Greco on two concerts) will be on a ten-date tour of English cities, starting this week. Their London date is 28 March. Feature by John Fordham:
Late in the 2000s, a diminutive young force-of-nature bass guitarist called Ruth Goller began making a distinctive mark on UK jazz and contemporary music – and as she became an increasingly familiar sighting in the back lines of some of Europe’s most uncompromisingly non-mainstream new bands, audiences soon understood that if their expectations of a jazz bassist were gracefully walking grooves or softly cool-jazzy countermelodies, they weren’t going to get them from her.
Italian-born Goller liked playing in loud, punky, sax-wailing outfits like Acoustic Ladyland and Let Spin, in Manchester guitarist Moss Freed’s Moss Project, and amid the mix of Balkan folk ideas and guitar-mimicking synth-blasting in Bosnian pianist/composer Bojan Z’s adventurous Tetraband. Her rugged sound and implacable pulse steadily cemented her reputation as a go-to sideperson for anyone in search of an electric bassist alert to both rock’s directness and jazz’s improvisational spirit – and so, in the century’s second decade, she worked with Acoustic Ladyland successor Melt Yourself Down, with innovative singer-songwriters Josienne Clarke and Sam Amidon, avant-punk trio Bug Prentice, acclaimed contemporary jazz originals Laura Jurd and Kit Downes, and percussionist Bex Burch’s fusion of Ghanaian traditional music and Steve Reich’s minimalism in Vula Viel.
And then, last year, Ruth Goller unexpectedly released an astonishing solo album, her first in a career by then nearly 15 years long, that could have been the work of another musician entirely. She had composed pieces for her peers before, but on this venture she was travelling through an ethereally different soundworld whispering with ghostly voices, seemingly playing a completely different instrument of strange harmonies and spidery lines, and revealing a private character worlds away from the bass-thundering groove-anchor of so many muscular bands. The ten-song session was simply called Skylla, and Goller takes it on the road for the first time this week, on an 11-date UK tour with the singers Lauren Kinsella, Alice Grant, and on two shows the vocalist Nell Greco. The Greek-mythology implications of the title – Skylla being Goller’s personal reinvention of the six-headed Scylla, the female sea-monster of Italy’s Strait of Messina who presents Ulysses with a tough navigational choice in The Odyssey – suggests that she had big themes in mind for this venture, but the artist herself soon puts that in perspective.
‘No, Skylla wasn’t planned, the whole thing happened very spontaneously, and I didn’t really think about it,’ Ruth Goller laughs when we catch up on a Zoom call. ‘I just wrote and recorded some tunes at home, by myself, in 2019 and then someone heard them and suggested I do a gig, and at first I said “sure”, and then I thought “how am I going to do this live?”, so I added Lauren and Alice to the vocal harmonies, and they’ll be with me on the gigs. I only chose the name because I liked the sound of it. I didn’t find out about Scylla and Charybdis and the mythology until later. And the way my bass sounds came about by chance as well.’
That’s a happy improvisational accident that seems to invite some elaboration, considering that – depending on what musical baggage you happen to carry – some might detect the researches of experimental guitarists all the way from the late Derek Bailey to Marc Ribot, Henry Kaiser, or Mary Halvorson in these scrambling, angular, eerily lyrical sounds. But Goller feels that these sounds came by intuition, not study, though she acknowledges that the harmonics-playing of an early model, the late bass-guitar virtuoso Jaco Pastorius ‘must be in there somewhere’. She takes the Skylla story back to square one.
‘Basically what happened was that Kit Downes did this mixtape called This Is Our Music,’ Ruth Goller says. ‘He asked 15 musicians over the period of a year to send him a tune that they’ve done every month – and it could be anything, just something that wasn’t released yet, so it could have been a rehearsal recording, or something they did at home, or something completely random. I was part of that as well, so when the deadline came down to a few days, I remember I’d just got back off a flight somewhere and I thought, right I’m just going to sit down and do a tune, I’m just going to write a tune now, and do it.
‘So I took my bass out of the case, and because it had been in the overhead locker it was completely detuned and I just started playing around with it, and I just put a mic in front of it and recorded an improvisation. And as I listened to it I thought, it doesn’t sound out of tune, because if you listen to the whole thing as one piece, your ear gets used to that tuning. We’re used to western pitch, but once you use a different one your ears adapt to that quite quickly, and it didn’t sound out of tune any more. And then I just had this line, it was the first song which is also the first song on the record. And that’s almost an improvisation as it was, I hardly did anything with it.’
Goller found, as she sang with it, that her voice meshed closely with the bass’s harmonics. She kept layering vocal lines on top, and began to improvise lyrics too – ‘it was just a stream of consciousness’. Kit Downes liked the outcome, so she determined to write a new song in the same vein every month. But as the music evolved, she realised that, if this music were ever to be performed live and involve other participants, her methods were going to have to balance instinct and structure more evenly.
‘What happens if you play with different tunings is that suddenly you don’t know your instrument anymore,’ she says. ‘You don’t know where the notes are, to play anything that you’re used to. So I just had to memorise all the changed tunings, and I got really into the possibilities of these micro-tunings. Then when we were asked to do gigs I knew I really needed some singers that could handle that, and I would have to compose in a way that the written parts would be the same for them each time, otherwise it doesn’t work. It’s really difficult for vocals, and Alice and Lauren have just been really amazing doing it – and they can improvise as well. I wanted their improvisations to make the music richer, you know, so it’s obviously a step on from what the record is, and can keep on evolving.’
Some of Ruth Goller’s titles for the ten songs on Skylla are almost as enigmatically alluring as pieces they name – the airy, fluting voices of ‘Often They Came To Visit, Even Just To See How She Was‘ zigzag over chord-strummed pounces and retreats; ‘When They Came Closer She Realised They Were Alien Creatures’ is an echoing reverie of tonally skidding harmonies, playful falsettos and bell-like sounds; ‘When She Curled Up They Started Dancing‘ stretches gliding vocal tones over glowering, fuzzy, low-end bass. But all these songs have coalesced from sounds that arrived improvisationally first, with their lyrics conceived on the fly, names only hung on them once the directions Goller found herself heading in suggested words that seemed somehow to fit. So is the ‘she’ who emerges in seven of these titles Ruth Goller’s alter ego?
‘It definitely became some kind of dreamlike being of myself,’ Goller reflects. ‘Maybe not the way people know me, but things that I dream about. It was very clear after I’d written the first few tunes that it was a female figure that I was dealing with, you know, and she came about through improvisation, so it’s obviously something that is very dear to me, and I feel very vulnerable about it. I only arrived at the name Skylla because I was looking for a band name and I liked it, but as the songs emerged I realised I was looking for a kind of monster, with more heads. Because of the way the vocals work, you kind of hear one person but it’s her different heads that sing different layers, no one is in front of the other, it’s all kind of one body, one torso. And I got interested in the story of Scylla and Charybdis, two sea-monsters ships have to steer between, and the idea of having to choose the lesser of two evils. I found that myth was all set in Italy and I’m Italian, and I love the sea – I’m a big swimmer – and I often dream about water. But I didn’t really plan any of it – not the name, not the music, not the words, it just all happened afterwards. And I really enjoy the way it happened because I think that’s why it’s so truthful to me.’
Ruth Goller has come a long way since her transition from formal school music lessons to punk rock. Teenage friends in Italy with jamming access to a rehearsal room yanked her from guitar-and-vocals toodling to the explosively contrasting electric bass at 19, and then on a solo drive with a carful of belongings to England for a year’s intense woodshedding at the fast-track London Music School. Goller studied bass guitar there from the ground up with Snowboy Latin-music bassist Nico Gomez, wound up as ‘Bass Player of the Year’, and then discovered jazz with teachers including Loose Tubes’ Eddie Parker, and guitar and random-strings maverick Stuart Hall on Middlesex University’s BA Mus Jazz course until her graduation in 2006. ‘When I came to London, all I knew was punk, Michael Jackson and Queen,’ Goller laughs. ‘I’d never heard of Miles Davis until I was 20. Then when I found jazz I was mind-blown.’ Meeting and playing with the brilliant Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland percussion original Seb Rochford around that time was an enabling revelation too. ‘I thought, wow, this guy’s an amazing jazz drummer, but he can play all kinds of other stuff, how does that work?’ Goller enthuses. ‘I was too young to see music as a bigger thing until then, something that could embrace everything.’ Through an impromptu trio Goller briefly shared with Rochford and founding Babyshambles guitarist Patrick Walden – ‘recording really raw, totally improvised music’ – allowed her to fall back in love with the instinctive, punky music she had first discovered as a teenager, but now balanced with the harmonic understanding and rich references that studying jazz had opened up. Ever since, Goller has been inching toward trusting her feelings, but with an increasingly sophisticated language to express them in. The intimate and exploratory Skylla, future incarnations of which she now envisages as embracing creative drummers of Rochford’s vision as well as singers, seems to represent a pivotal landmark on that trip.
‘This whole project was about instinct,’ Ruth Goller says. ‘Like everybody, I’m often in a situation where I don’t know what to do, what choices to make. Although Skylla was written over the course of a year in 2019, each piece came very quickly once I’d started it. I’ve composed for years, but I used to overthink it all, how do I get from here to there, how do I resolve something, how do I finish this song? I guess at last I’ve learned to trust myself, and go with what I feel’
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Ruth Goller’s Skylla tours from 11 February.
11/02 B side, Leeds
15/02 OCM, Oxford
18/02 Fizzle, Hexagon Theatre, Birmingham
21/02 The Wardrobe, Bristol
24/03 The Yellow Arch, Sheffield
25/03 Listen!, Unitarian Church, Cambridge
28/03 Jazz In The Round, Cockpit theatre, London
22/04 Fusebox, The Hyde Park Book Club, Leeds
28/04 Fruitworks, Canterbury
05/05 Jazzsteps, Bonington Theatre, Nottingham
LINKS: Ruth Goller’s Linktree
Categories: Feature/Interview (PP)