Melanie Garside seems the human embodiment of a restless creative spirit and it’s tempting, if fanciful, to imagine a hotline to the very daughters of Zeuss, a.k.a. The Muses. Multiple musical personalities have created not just one body of work, but strands intertwining hard rockin’ to electro-poppin’ with just about all points between. If you wanted to get into mythologizing, Mel has on at least one occasion been groomed as ‘the next big thing.’ That she didn’t quite ascend to omnipresence speaks more of the ‘star maker machinery’ than it does of her burgeoning talent. Still, Tabitha Zu and her sister Katie ‘Daisy Chainsaw’ Garside’s QueenAdreena, as well as Our Lady Of Miracles, Vertigo Angels, Mediæval Bæbes and more recently Huski – it’s hard to keep up.
Perhaps then amongst these strands it’s alter-ego Maple Bee that proves the earth lead. Self contained, being self composed, self produced and recorded and largely played by Mel too, there is the sense that the albums under her pseudonym are starting to become the core around which everything else can orbit. But that said, even these have been wildly ambitious by most standards, starting with the double CD Hello Eve, the more electronic Home and now These Four Worlds. This new CD is perhaps more in keeping with the scope and promise of her debut, but with the benefit of being more concise, could prove to be most important Maple Bee statement yet.
It’s clear that Mel had a most unusual childhood. At the behest of her ex SAS father a fair amount of globe trotting was done, which apparently included a couple of years at sea on a home-built boat. Circumnavigating the globe, the family endured several close calls, both with nature (a 60ft whale), and the military (an Australian submarine). In her own words, Mel says, “Did it make me fearless? No, it made me rootless.”Returning to the UK after such wild adventures it was probably inevitable that she wouldn’t settle at either boarding school in Surrey, or dance college in Norfolk. So after a spell of busking around Cambridge the now self-taught guitarist and singer drifted to college in Nottingham and, her first band and also first brush with fame.
There’s probably something of the inevitable about that too, as it seems the one constant that Mel clung to was music.
Even so, her chosen path would prove anything but straightforward. That first band Tabitha Zu (later just Zu), quickly found acclaim, playing a notable set at Reading festival and recording an EP with high powered indie label Echo Records. Yet Mel admits that the band neither had the material of wherewithal to deal with the sudden limelight. Her own part of it, however, led to Mel being plucked from the ranks and offered a solo contract.The moulding process began, with Mel being touted as the label’s flagship signing. Her dreadlocks shorn and image cleaned up, all was set. Yet to return briefly to the mythological, The Fates still would not settle. Echo simply didn’t quite know what to do with their wild-child and were soon distracted by the more immediate success of Baby Bird, Moloko, Feeder, etc. So for Mel it started a drift through Our Lady Of Miracles becoming Vertigo Angels Before joining her sister, Katie Jane – who is possibly even more unrestrained and unpredictable – in the high-octane-rock of Queenadreena and by contrast the Mediæval Bæbes.
It was during her spell with the latter that she met Pike Galloway and the pair hooked up as Huski, releasing a debut CD, Love, Peace, Pain in 2006. Yet by this time bigger changes had already started happening when Mel gave birth to her son. During the necessary time off this afforded, the first seeds of Maple Bee had taken root. She self deprecatingly refers to the time saying, “I needed something to do when he was asleep,” so the process of writing and recording herself had begun.
Much more than simply filling time, however, Maple Bee started to take a significant role in Mel’s life. Hello Eve took its time, but over two years with an outpouring of songs, Mel honed her multi-instrumental skills. With very little outside input, string arrangements from and a co-write credit for Andrew Nice aside, she ended up with two CD’s worth of material. Much more significant than simply time filler, there were perhaps signs here that through the long patient hours, it wasn’t just her alter-egos roots that were taking hold.
Still Huski continued to run a parallel course and Mel has admitted that the duo and Maple Bee are like two sides of a split personality. At the same time a career as a music therapist had blossomed, as if to emphasis the importance that Mel puts on music in general. As Mel herself claims, “Music is what I do – it’s force – life food to me, I feel like a non-person without it. Music therapy is a funny complement to being a songwriter: it stops you being narcissistic and a navel gazer.”
So These Four Worlds is perhaps a title loaded with significance. And Mel backs this up saying the record is about, “bringing together all the different parts of your personality and allowing yourself to be yourself. Writing it has helped me come to terms with who I am. Some days I’m the healer and the mother; other days I’m self indulgent, free and utterly without boundaries. I’ve accepted that is who I am. I’ve had some incredible experiences, and now I’m looking forward to the future. What happens next, I’m not sure. But I know music will be involved. It’s everything to me.”
These Four Walls really is therefore laced with meaning and the title track leads off with layered reorders and an ominous drum rumble. Maple Bee seems to be confronting some of her unwise decisions as she sings, “I sold my eyes for beans,” and also “Sold my boat at sea”. Still she manages to summon her courage singing “Don’t panic girl,” before reassuring with “Night-sight’s waiting in the darkness,” and that somehow her “Raft is floating in the bathroom”.
With layers of acoustic guitar delicately dancing around the tune and the reedy woodwind the sound has a pastoral, almost whimsical soft wash of psychedelic folkiness. It’s enhanced by Mel’s otherworldly vocal and the little modulated interjections and layers that create a careful arrangement, the apparent simplicity of which belies the quiet intricacy and impression of depth that it leaves in its wake.
Lyrically Maple Bee is clearly wrestling with complex emotions throughout. No Ropes On Me speaks of freedom and at the same time tying knots. Ropes also feature in Blackbird, but this time as a guide and something to be cut, allowing balloons to ascend into space. The former has an ominous urgency, the latter is simply a beautiful song and one of the obvious high points here. By contrast Keep This Moment Alive has a big poppy chorus and sunny optimism for the possibilities in things as yet uncharted.
Perhaps the next two tracks create the album’s darker centrepiece. Metal Bird, caged and unable to take flight has a, “Cold, cold heart”. Every choice it seems carries a price and comes with “Wondering all the chances that have passed her by.” It Isn’t Gonna Be That Way has the portents of a rainstorm and reminds us that things rarely line up how we hope they will, whilst offering a sympathetic shoulder and motherly touch perhaps. Tinged with sadness the latter’s simply melodic motif sounds like it would stand the big torch singer treatment somewhere down the line.
The second half of the album that follows continues to wrestle with the ghosts, the choices, the conflicts the hopes and the dreams. There seems a might more electronic intervention on Twig That Cracked, Losing It All To You, Volta and You Be My Heart, but never to the detriment of the songs. By contrast The Place In My Heart seems to glow amidst them all with a stark simplicity. Each is a gorgeous little vignette, powerful and surprisingly poignant
But it’s the pacing, that subtle shading and above all the beautiful melodic flow that keeps you on tenterhooks throughout These Four Worlds. There’s a sense of comfort too in the warmth and empathy that you’ll find. Maple Bee Might be trying to heal Melanie Garside but in the process offers music that makes you think, feel, smile, quite possibly shed a tear, throws you surprises, asks you questions and above all makes you feel alive. What better therapy is there than that?
Review by: Simon Holland