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The long-awaited debut solo album Albion by Harp has finally arrived.

 

“It’s not the destination, it’s the journey”, suggested American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay Self-Reliance. But in Smith’s case, the reverse is true. The road to Albion might have been long and winding, and bumpy to boot, but the music Harp has created is steeped in sublime melody, mood, drama and detail, its ten songs and two mood-matching instrumentals are framed by a mesh of acoustic/electric guitars, soft shades of keyboards and Smith’s gorgeous voice; in other words, the quintessence of what drew people in the first place to his work with Midlake.  

 

But Albion has starker, darker hues than Smith is typically renowned for, which lifts Albion to new heights. These are songs about the human condition, from love – both lost and found – to faith, anxiety to joy, fear to acceptance, all couched in a highly distinct poetic language.

I wanted to rethink my sound, which took a long time to figure out

Tim Smith, Harp

Smith had been working for years on new tracks for his debut album but he set them aside and began again when a new source of inspiration arrived. “Along came ‘80s music,” he explains. “I knew of bands and I had heard the odd song, but I had never dug deep into Joy Division, Cocteau Twins, The Smiths, or Tears For Fears before”.

 

“The major album for me though was The Cure’s Faith, which I listened to non-stop for three years. That music really resonated with me, so I wanted to rethink my sound, which took a long time to figure out, because I was on my own, learning how to record better, mix better, write better.” 

The lead track ‘I Am The Seed’, a song about creativity and helplessness, is a perfect entry point, sounding simultaneously blissful and haunting whilst capturing the changes that Smith has gone through since he went solo.  

 

‘The Pleasant Grey’ quietly throbs with solemn, Faith-like airs, but Smith’s assimilation of new influences has always been filtered through his own sensibility, opening a doorway into his otherworldly realm of sound. Admittedly, it’s a sound that Smith has sometimes found hard to translate onto record. This is a man who courageously left Midlake when he felt the two-years-plus attempt to capture “definitive versions” of his songs for the band’s fourth album had come up short.

 

Such perfectionism, Smith once said, “is not in the way that every note must be played perfectly and precise. That is the opposite of what I wanted.” Instead, he simply seeks music “played with greater feeling.” 

Just ahead of the release of Albion, Harp shared the track ‘Chrystals’, an atmospheric folk beauty featuring one of Smith’s most yearning vocal performances. The track comes accompanied by a suitably pastoral video shot by David Zung. Watch the video here:

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She’s been right here alongside me these past five years, helping me with every part of the process

Tim Smith, Harp

To this end, Smith made Albion mostly on his own at home, but there are contributions from former Midlake bassist Paul Alexander on ‘Silver Wings’ and ‘Throne Of Amber’, electric guitar by Max Kinghorn-Mills of the Brighton (UK) band Hollow Hand on ‘Seven Long Suns’ (incidentally the working title for Midlake’s unfinished fourth album, though this recording is totally new, likewise the chorus and lyrics) plus mixing assistance from Scott Solter.

 

One crucial addition was Smith’s wife Kathi Zung, who he considers a member of Harp, not just because she programmed the drums. “Kathi has a very good ear, and she’s very knowledgeable about music. She’s been right here alongside me these past five years, helping me with every part of the process.” 

Choosing an album title was much more straightforward. Smith not only has a penchant for British music, but the British Isles itself – or “Albion” as it has been known in times past. “I’m really drawn to Britain,” he says, “especially Medieval and Renaissance times. The landscapes and gardens, the castles and Tudor-style villages, grey skies, and the mist on the moor.” (Check Albion’s artwork photos for proof, with Smith cloaked and cloistered). 

 

Smith’s process underlines his way with words, guided by intuition. Poems can be inspirations, and occasionally borrowed words refuse to budge when it’s time to finalise track titles and lyrics. For example, the starting point of ‘Daughters Of Albion’ – Smith’s lament for truth and beauty, “things I hold dear in this crazy world” – came from 19th century poet, artist, and seer William Blake’s epic poem Visions of The Daughters Of Albion. When Smith began a song about “taking so long to make the record, and being unable to finish anything,” he was reading Roger Zelazny’s fantastical novel series The Great Book of Amber, so the song became “Throne Of Amber.” 

but then something even better happened: I met Kathi

Tim Smith, Harp

One cornerstone of Smith’s worldview is his new circumstances; a recent marriage, and living in a new town in a new state. After decades living in Denton, Texas, he is now based in Kathi’s home town of Durham, North Carolina. She emerges in two of Albion’s love songs. ‘A Fountain’ recalls a heartbreak that Smith suffered, “but then something even better happened: I met Kathi,” whilst ‘Seven Long Suns’ is more bittersweet: “meeting Kathi later in life, in our forties, and thinking about the time we have left together.”  

 

Yet the album ends on a reassuringly serene note with the radiant ‘Herstmonceux’, folding guitar chimes with analogue synths. The song was named after the English medieval village in East Sussex that Smith visited after he had been recording with Kinghorn-Mills in nearby Brighton. Smith’s closing lyric looks to the future with hope: “Quietly the sorrow flees from me / Bright as day the soul no longer grieves / I am the seed /  I wait, I wait for thee.”

 

Watch the music video for ‘A Fountain’ here:

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I don’t like touring. I’m more of a homebody

Tim Smith, Harp

Having cleared the decks, Smith is returning to those earlier, abandoned recordings for his next record. But savour the beautiful, career-peaking Albion right now, especially as it won’t be performed live: “I don’t get that high from performing as others do,” he is honest enough to admit. “And I don’t like touring. I’m more of a homebody.”  

 

Since leaving Midlake, Smith has performed just once, with Lost Horizons (at London’s Festival Hall in 2018), the collective co-founded by Bella Union boss (and former Cocteau Twin) Simon Raymonde, after Smith had contributed vocals and lyrics to ‘She Led Me Away’ for the collective’s 2017 debut Ojalá.

 

Smith subsequently went on to contribute vocals and lyrics for the track ‘Grey Tower’ on Lost Horizons’ second album, In Quiet Moments. Those were all-too-rare sightings of Smith, but Albion’s day has come, and in a manner of speaking, in many aspects of his life, Smith has finally come home.

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