Sea of Bees, real name Julie Ann Baenziger, has often been described as a shy, nervy singer. Having never seen her live before I was expecting Laura Marling-esque reticence and hunched shoulders. But in front of a squealing audience of a couple of hundred at the oversold black box venue in Hoxton, “Jules” as she’s known, was so at ease with us and herself that she (somehow) appeared achingly cool, but without artifice.
The story of this 26-year-old from Sacramento, California goes like this: as a teenager at church she fell in love with a girl, rather than God, and hiding her feelings from her family for years, consoled herself by learning to sing. Having left home at 23 to play one-finger bass in a band, she was overheard singing in a studio by its owner John Baccigaluppi.
The pleasing mishmash of styles which appeared on her first album, Songs for the Ravens, has matured into a gut-wrenchingly distinct, sparseness which gives her outstanding voice centre stage. Her brilliant new album, Orangefarben, is a series of love letters to a broken relationship. Typical fodder, obviously. But few artists can get away with presenting such bare emotion without it becoming trite or uncomfortable.
Last night Baenziger skilfully took us through the darkest corners of her life, gesturing her arms wildly and screwing up her face as she belted out “Take”, “Give” and “Wizbot”. But she navigated from the desperate to the joyful as skilfully as she did from one effortless key-change to the next. Introducing a cover of John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jetplane” she described how her brother used to sing it to his girlfriend and her jealousy of the love they had: “Because I didn’t feel I deserved to love like that. That it was possible because of my upbringing. But then I met a girl…”
Dressed in a man’s flannel shirt, a tank top and jeans she cut a strikingly androgynous figure. In repose Baenziger’s face is impish and delicate beneath a mop of brown hair. But animated, as she is most of the time – grinning, pointing at the audience and laughing - her appearance is magnetic. Following, rather confusingly, in a fine tradition of Bee-based band names (The Bees, She Keeps Bees, Bee Gees etc), it’s a good thing her talent is so recognisable. If she doesn’t become the sensation she deserves to be it’ll be a crime.