Album reviews

Jemma Freese – ‘Shadowboxing’

Jemma Freese – Shadowboxing
(Available from Bandcamp – link below. Album review by AJ Dehany)

Whether thrashing a keyboard with indie art-rockers Maxïmo Park, hammering avant-hard jazzpunk soundscapes with trio J Frisco, or manically dancing with her trip-hop-influenced freese-trio to express the fight-or-flight state – there’s a physicality and theatricality to the abundant creative work of Jemma Freese, which the “ethereal math” of her new solo album Shadow Boxing unpicks with a new depth drawn from the cruel ironies of its creation. A powerful work of suffering and redemption composed during illness and recovery, she says, “It’s a deeply emotional story about the beginning of a personal journey; from losing oneself to finding a new self.”

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Jemma Freese Shadowboxing album cover

In June 2020 she suddenly lost all strength in her body. She had to lie in bed all day, dependent on her parents to feed her, tie her shoes, brush her hair. She couldn’t lift anything heavier than a piece of paper. She could only compose for five minutes a day before needing to rest. Composing five minutes a day meant she had no time to overthink, and the album that resulted has an immediacy and concision that doesn’t half pack a wallop. As with her work with J Frisco, it’s alternately immersive and assertive.

Her condition meant she had to work more from the perspective of a singer rather than a pianist. You could compare the results to a gothed-up math metal Meredith Monk, and it seems to sit on the same branch of the tree as Ruth Goller’s Skylla: dark, layered, and richly patterned. “Shadow Boxer Pt 1” is a haunting and dramatic opener where wordless vocal figures circle in stubborn ostinatos lashed by thwacks of electric guitar, descending into long dense choral material and dirty funky jazz metal riffs. 

Intense and layered, we are led back into the circumstances of the music with poetic and heartrending lyrics of “How Did This All Start”: “a single explosion to tear us all apart / I can’t remember what it feels like to be whole again.” She had so many blood tests she nearly fainted, but they couldn’t give a name to her condition. She didn’t know if she would ever recover. In “I Am Beginning” she sings “words trapped behind glass / I became a museum.” The title of the closing track “The Fear That Stays” speaks for itself, for herself, for the fear of not knowing, pitched high and straining toward some elusive surety: “I was never safe / what’s the difference anyway / empty empty / I was never safe anyway.” 

“My Body Talks” assumes another direct title that might evoke a musical equivalent of the stultifying physical excoriation of Frida Kahlo, but obeying the album’s modus operandus of ‘ethereal prog’ the music shines perversely with a chiming sound-world reminiscent of Cocteau Twins, one of the bands who pioneered made-up language and wordless vocal in pop. While wordless, the syllables of the song are teasingly suggestive – it almost sounds like a mantra to “be happy.” Maybe I’m going soft, but the point is there is so much light flickering through the eerie chiaroscuro of Shadow Boxing. There’s a crack in everything…

The strongly-defined compositional trajectory of the pieces obeys a robust but subjective inner logic, moving organically rather than formulaically through deeper passages, variations and sudden shocks. Its formal intuitiveness makes it unlike pop music, but taken as direct personal utterances the songs do possess the calibre of the proggier edges and direct poetry of Self Esteem or Planningtorock, but outshining both of them. It’s great to know that she’s now recovered sufficiently to start taking the album out on the road – it should be tremendous to hear performed live, away from the convalescent bed.

The album is not just an act of solo genius but expresses those uniquely human qualities of support and care. The music was necessarily collaborative because she couldn’t physically play it. As she slowly recovered, once she had created the complex interlocking parts of the music, they were transcribed by Pierre Flasse, and performed by a community of terrific talents, with Katie Patterson on drums, Claire Cope on piano and Rhodes, Jess Ayers on guitar, anad Beth O’Lenahan on bass. The playing is earnest and on point. While Freese is the sole composer of every part played on the album, she was too weak herself to play the piano. It’s another of the cruel ironies of the album.

Shadow Boxing raises serious questions about what we in society feel about illness and being ill. In Philip Sandblom’s study Creativity & Disease, the Swedish academician, surgeon, sailor and Olympian states: “In great artists, the passion to create generates a willpower strong enough to defy the worst disease.” It’s more than a little Romantic-heroic; plenty more artists have been rendered unable to work no matter how great their passion or willpower, or simply because they lack the support. Just a cheery thought…  

It’s beyond doubt that Jemma Freese’s act of will is absolutely extraordinary, almost unimaginable. We often discuss how much personal circumstances influence the creation of works of art, as if there was any way it could be otherwise. Art resonates with the moments of its creation, but the greatest art does somehow transcend them. Shadow Boxing is strong enough to stand on its own musical merits – but knowing more about it you just feel it’s, dare I say, a bit heroic. 

AJ Dehany writes about music, art and stuff.

LINK: Shadow Boxing is available from Bandcamp 

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