Katheleen Frances‘ music sinks like heavy stones. The combination of her sullen baritone voice next to her carefully weighted piano chords can feel like rocks in the pockets of your clothes as you plunge into some sunken place (both literal and psychological, à la Jordan Peele’s Get Out). The Bristolian songwriter is still very much stepping into the limelight, but her intoxicating first few singles were already enough get her a finalist spot in Glastonbury’s Emerging Talent contest in 2020, a place on Secretly Canadian’s 25th anniversary single series (covering Electric Youth and College’s “A Real Hero”), and a spot on the Pitchfork Paris lineup. Frances has that sinking feeling, and it’s what makes her music so haltingly mesmerizing.
With her debut EP, Through The Blue, Frances deepens and expands the world listeners were enticed into with her first few singles. “Grown” was one such song, a half-lackadaisical, half-worried message of trying not to let the pressure and responsibilities of being an adult get to be too much. “Eating toast for dinner / telling myself I’m a winner / because I do what the fuck I want,” she quitely triumphs, all while the piano chords melt alongside her voice, like still-wet Rorsharch tests coming to life. Months after its initial release, the track still has an undeniable way of wrapping itself around you, like the lure of a depressive episode calling you to bed in the middle of the day, or the body of a boa constrictor surrounding your body in your sleep.
“Boy” falls deeper into this isolated, cheerless feeling. The piano is captured in a way that makes it feel like Frances is playing it discreetly in the next room during the middle of the night. Reckoning with a breakup some time after the fact, she takes stock and approaches it with an almost clinical coldness. “And I can feel regret / Forming on his fingertips when he holds me,” she mutters, painting a devastating picture of people drifting apart. On final track “Baby Blue” she seems to revisit the situation – “Like the seasons you’ll be back / but changed” – but there’s an air of hopefulness about the song too, her piano softly galloping and forming momentum in the chorus.
If there’s a weak moment on the EP it’s “Background”. Although it’s just under two minutes long and does have a considered face about it, the track feels more like a forgotten breath or an afterthought compared to the surrounding songs. Frances could easily impress with just herself sitting at the piano and the recorder turned on, but producers Benji Bowers and Ben Baptie allow the impressions of her song to become part of her aesthetic too. Strings are added to the rippling piano arpeggios on “Shout Love”, again conjuring a feeling of hopefulness as she reckons with feeling small, staring and counting the stars in the night sky.
“Baby Blue”‘s reserved, fidgety percussive track (itself a curious, gravelly collage of what sounds like night time forest chirps and sampled fire crackles) gives Frances space to fill in; her chords are deliberate and measured, lifting a semitone every so often like a breath being caught. While her voice might have more in common with rising star Laura Fell, her piano arrangements can feel not unlike something out of a Radiohead songbook, the soft plod of “Boy” or “Grown” perhaps echoes of “Pyramid Song” or “Videotape”. Such a comparison is high acclaim for a still new voice in the music world, but that shouldn’t be something new for Frances. Each word on Through The Blue is like a puddle of tar to slowly sink into and each piano chord a stone added to your pocket; getting caught in this kind of sunken place seldom feels so engrossing in the first instance with an artist. Each listen has you wanting to plunge deeper still.