Collaborating with Rosie Lowe, London-based multidisciplinary artist Duval Timothy translates his chordal sensibility to a short but expansive choral suite where sound means more than words.
Young Duval Timothy struggled through piano lessons, but when a friend taught him the chords to Amy Winehouse’s “Stronger Than Me,” something clicked. Suddenly, he realized how powerful “just a few chords, repeated, looping round,” could be, he has said. As a multidisciplinary artist, Timothy works with a wide array of materials: His projects have encompassed textiles, food, and interventions in public space. But as a musician, he has remained doggedly focused on a singular tonal language, with the chord at its center. I don’t think that’s accidental; the chord, as a structural device, is a kind of musical distillation of his interests. British-born and of Sierra Leonean descent, Timothy divides his time between London and Freetown, and his art is rooted in issues of identity, migration, and the ways people and objects navigate borders. His project Weaving in Sierra Leone, for example, focused on women who painstakingly unravel secondhand sweaters imported from abroad, then weave the unwound yarn into dazzling new fabrics. Fusion, translation, transposition—these notions all underpin Timothy’s work, and they are also part and parcel of chords and their changes.
On Son, joined by the British singer-songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Rosie Lowe, Timothy translates his chordal sensibility from piano to voice, swirling Lowe’s multi-tracked singing into vast harmonic nebulae. There are precedents for Son in both artists’ catalogs. On “No,” from 2017’s Sen Am, Timothy drafted a blueprint for the new album’s airy architecture, layering a single sung word—“no”—into rich, perpetually evolving harmonies. And on “Freedom,” the minute-long opening song from her 2021 mixtape Now, You Know, Lowe’s vocals are re-pitched into whimsical curlicues similar to the forms they take here. But Son is more complex. In some places, there are more than 100 vocal layers in play. Exploded into countless reflections of itself, Lowe’s voice assumes cloudlike shapes—chords—that hover in the air, morphing like murmurations of starlings on the move. Sparingly fleshed out with piano, standup bass, backing vocals, and environmental sound, Timothy’s music has never sounded more expansive.
Longtime friends, Timothy and Lowe began working on Son in London in 2018, bonding over a shared love for choral pieces like “Black Christ of the Andes (St. Martin de Porres)”—a stunningly intricate avant-garde mass for the Black Peruvian saint, written in 1962 by jazz pianist and Catholic convert Mary Lou Williams. They recorded the bulk of the album during a week and a half in Sierra Leone, working out of Timothy’s studio there but also taking their gear outside, where the sounds of their surroundings—traffic, birdsong, playground ruckus—occasionally sneak onto the tape. Back in South London, where Timothy grew up, they sought out architectural spaces with boomy, reverberant sonics. There, they played back rough drafts on a Bluetooth speaker and used a portable recorder to capture the reverb, which mixing engineer Marta Salogni then folded back into the final mix. The results entail a virtual collision of distant spaces: the wooded grounds of Fourah Bay College with a Bermondsey pedestrian underpass; the remote Bureh beach and a Georgian-era chapel in Peckham. You won’t be able to identify any of that by ear, but the way the duality has been encoded into the waveforms themselves feels integral to Timothy’s work.
Though Lowe’s voice plays the leading role, sounds take precedence over words. The first two songs are largely monosyllabic: “Da” explodes its titular syllable into dizzyingly rich a cappella harmonies, creamy as meringue; “Don” arrays plaintive scat singing around the repetition of a terse, percussive outburst. Like Matthew Herbert, whose Big Band both musicians have sung in, Lowe and Timothy revel in the artifice of recording, truncating their loops in jarring ways: In “Don,” background voices captured on tape create an incidental hiccuping rhythm with every looped piano riff. And in places, Lowe’s vocals have been sampled and stacked into chords on the keyboard, resulting in an uncanny quality—the harmonies are too perfect, the vibrato too seamlessly mirrored between voices. But that’s not always the case. In “Play Along,” Lowe’s bluesy solo branches into two parts, first sung in quavering unison, then tipped queasily out of key. And in “He Hu,” in the middle of a seemingly uniform two-note refrain, Lowe seems almost to giggle, just once, as she falters for breath and catches herself—a profoundly human moment on a record of superhuman beauty.
“Son” is the album’s musical and thematic centerpiece. Lowe plays a mother cautioning her son never to listen to anyone who tells him he can’t be whatever he wants to be, but her character sings from the sorrowful perspective of someone all too familiar with self-doubt. “Don’t let somebody tell you you can’t/Dream, dream, dream/Not even me,” she sings, as her ghostlike vocal harmonies sigh behind her. The song was inspired in part by Malcolm X’s autobiography and the 2006 Will and Jaden Smith film The Pursuit of Happyness; its lyrics interpolate lines from Ted Joans’ poem “The Sun My Son.” But behind its languid, ecstatic harmonies lurks a hint of the Afro-pessimism that Timothy has folded into prior songs like “TDAGB”—an abbreviation of the phrase, “Things don’t always get better.” “You think/You’re free,” sings Lowe mournfully: “I was so green/You’ll ripen up like me.”
A brightly colored children’s book that Timothy and Lowe wrote and illustrated to accompany the album is more optimistic. And so, fortunately, are the album’s sonics, which take the blues, a style born of impoverishment, and turn it into an abundance of harmonic riches. The album’s sheer sound is astonishing in its breadth: the cicadas and trembling barbershop harmonies of “Furah Bay,” as soft and natural as breathing; the cresting drama of “Say,” built atop Timothy’s trademark piano arpeggios; the almost cartoonish, Chipmunks-like tremolo of the pitched-up voices in the closing “Gonna Be,” which hiss and wheeze over heartbreakingly beautiful double-bass accompaniment from Tom Herbert.
No one knows when or why humans invented music, but some theories say its origins lie in the communication between mothers and newborns. Perhaps that’s why “Gonna Be,” singing sweetly of future promise, is so powerful: Mimicking a mother’s sotto-voce song to her child, set to the gentle pulse of a heartbeat, it suggests a return to the source, to the origin of all songs—and then refracts that whisper-soft point of light a thousandfold, offering countless paths to follow.