Amy Studt recently released Happiest Girl In The World, her first album for eleven years, an album that diarised the last decade of her life with explicit clarity around her bipolar condition, broken relationships, near-death experiences and losing and finding love. She's brought the record out on tour and called in at Manchester's Castle Hotel for an intimate and revelatory performance supported by Natalie McCool and Audrey's Dance.
Audrey's Dance impressed us at Blackburn's Confessional Festival earlier this year when we knew nothing about them. This time we were forewarned, yet no less impressed by their set - the simple combination of Zeynep's keyboards which create the backdrop for Hannah's evocative expressive vocals, full of drama that goes beyond the words she's singing but which squeeze every little bit of emotional turmoil out of them. Gold Mind and their final song Catching Crystals are magically intense, aided by the audience's respectful listening silence that allows them to captivate us. Manchester Man, which Hannah jokes might be too happy for their set, delves deep into the psyche of relationships, whilst in a lighter moment they go back to their roots as starting as a Twin Peaks' covers band by performing their version of Laura's Theme.
There's a real confidence to Natalie McCool's performances these days, whether it be in the spacious surroundings of Academy 2 where we saw her the other week or here in this more intimate room. Her vocals have never sounded quite so strong - rich, detailed and adding real emphasis to the words she's singing and the clever use of two microphones really helps to give the songs breadth and depth that allows them to really blossom. Technical issues with her new guitar means her set is curtailed to just five songs - but that's more than enough to impress.
Previous singles Dig It Out (from her second album 2016's The Great Unknown) and this year's Someone Nu and Woman's World are a very strong trio with which to start, each with a personality and an angle of its own and each allowing us to see a different side to her songwriting. We'll even forgive her a Christmas single - Please Please Please Won't You Unwrap Me - because it's not all about joy, but about unrequited love at this time of year rather than bells and holly and reindeers. She finishes with Devils, a future single from her forthcoming third album - a record that looks set to raise her to new heights and deservedly so.
There's a real sense of anticipation by the time Amy enters the stage, seated at the keyboards for the whole of the nine song set accompanied by Lyla Foy on guitar and backing vocals and a guy called John who plays cymbals and adds vocals to a couple of songs. Without disrespecting either of their contributions, and Lyla really does add light, shade and weight to many of the songs from Happiest Girl In The Universe, Amy is the audience's focus as she relives the turbulence of the past decade with a honesty that's raw, open and isn't afraid to talk about the darkest moments as like the record it feels like a catharsis and a coming to terms with what has happened.
The first eight songs are played chronologically as they were written and as they appear on the album as if they're revealing the next part of the story from falling in love and being let down in New York at the start on I Was Jesus In Your Veins through bipolar episodes, a near fatal overdose, finding medication to help alleviate the symptoms and finally falling in love and coming to terms with what that means on the album's final track Happiest Girl In The Universe, which is told as letters to and from a woman called Lisa who she met in the psychiatric hospital.
Many of these songs were written in the middle of those experiences and carry a real emotional weight around the shoulders and it feels like the audience's rapturous response which changes the visual expression that comes with reliving them on Amy's face as she sings them into a beaming smile and what feels like relief as each one finishes to huge applause. The range in her voice, despite issues with an irritating cough, adds so much life, mood and expression to the songs. Music is a potent antidote and healer and tonight feels like one of the most revelatory awakenings of that power in different scenarios from the searching for the right medication to treat her in Different Colour Pills to coming to terms with meeting and falling for someone and getting over the first awkward arguments and realising it might be the real thing in Troubles Coming In.
That This Time is held back to the encore (that isn't really an encore, just the final songs without the ritual being performed that Amy tells us she hates) feels to us like an empowering message. As Lyla sings "we won't give up" as Amy sings "I don't want to lose no more", the darkness lifts and is replaced by a sense of a breakthrough to the other side, a coming to terms with who, what and where she is - a journey where music has helped to light her path and guide her way or as she so succintly puts it a means of navigating "from somewhere very bad to somewhere good."
Amy Studt's official site can be found here and she is on Facebook and Twitter.
Natalie McCool's official site can be found here and she is also on Facebook and Twitter. She plays Liverpool East Village Arts Club on December 14 before heading to SXSW in Texas next March.
Audrey's Dance are on Facebook.