Trish Keenan: Singer who made beguiling, bewitching music with the experimental band Broadcast
Thursday 20 January 2011
The ethereal-voiced singer and songwriter with the experimental band Broadcast, Trish Keenan made some of the most beautiful, beguiling, bewitching music of the last 15 years. The group recorded several memorable sessions for the late John Peel and were mainstays of his Festive 50. They also appeared at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in June 1998 as part of the Meltdown the Radio 1 presenter curated on London's South Bank. With her high cheekbones and long, dark, shiny hair, Keenan looked like the Sixties icon Nico, while her detached, reserved yet haunting voice floated over the retro-futuristic music of her most-appropriately named band. "I'm not into decorative vocals, I can't be like Shirley Bassey," she told The Independent in 2003.
Like the early Roxy Music, Saint Etienne and Stereolab, Broadcast looked back to an idealised, imagined past in order to move forward and were as successful creatively, if not commercially, as those groups. "The Book Lovers", their wistful 1996 single for Stereolab's Duophonic label, rose above Britpop and proved an inspired addition to the soundtrack album of the James Bond spoof Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery the following year. In 2000, the dreamy, drony Phil-Spector-for-the-new-millennium sound of "Come On Let's Go", the engaging second single from their excellent full-length debut album The Noise Made By People, shone like a spectral pop beacon. They performed the song on Later... with Jools and seemed on the verge of a mainstream breakthrough.
However, Keenan was wary of the restrictions this might impose on Broadcast, saying, "I think that if you get too much attention and your first album does well ... You can't change and you can't experiment with your writing, or move in any musical direction. It makes you stagnant and prevents adaptation. I'd just like to achieve something in my little niche that pushes stuff along and develops in a direction rather than being this big, phony band. I just don't fancy that."
Broadcast lived up to these principles with Haha Sound, their quirky 2003 follow-up, and the starker, more minimalist Tender Buttons (2005). Despite the inclusion of several tracks in independent films and television programmes in Britain and the US, they remained a cult act, albeit international. Their touring schedule last year included appearances at Sonar, the electronica festival in Barcelona and at the All Tomorrow's Parties Festival curated by Simpsons creator Matt Groening at Butlins Holiday Centre in Minehead, as well as their first Australian dates.
"I was born into a Cathy Come Home England," Patricia Anne Keenan told the avant-garde music magazine The Wire in 2009 about her childhood in Winson Green, Birmingham. She was one of five siblings and attended Archbishop Grimshaw Roman Catholic School. Leaving school, she worked in catering and formed Hayward Winters, a short-lived folk duo. Having moved to Moseley, the bohemian suburb of Birmingham, she began frequenting a psychedelic club, Sensateria, where she met James Cargill, who became her partner in life and in music.
Their love of ephemera, esoterica and psychedelia, in particular the avant-garde late '60s Los Angeles band The United States Of America, led to the formation of the short-lived Pan Am Flight Bag, renamed Broadcast after a couple of gigs. Eschewing the influences common to most so-called alternative groups, Broadcast were inspired by composers like John Barry, Basil Kirchin, Ennio Morricone and Carl Orff as well as library music and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and put an icy spin on all this. They used analogue and digital equipment to create eerie and evocative sounds and incorporated slide and film projections and light shows into events that updated the happenings of the beat and hippie eras.
As well as Keenan and Cargill, nominally the bassist, the group originally comprised guitarist Tim Felton, keyboard-player Roj Stevens and drummer Steve Perkins. In 1996, they released the single "Accidentals" on Wurlitzer Jukebox Records and sent a demo tape to Martin Pike, who managed Stereolab and ran Duophonic. "The recordings were rough but the vocals were entrancing," Pike recalled. "The beauty and purity of hearing Trish's vocals for the first time is still with me." Pike decided not only that Duophonic should record and issue Broadcast's next single "Living Room" and "The Book Lovers" EP, but that he would manage the band, too.
In 1997, Rob Mitchell, the co-founder of Warp, the Sheffield-based pioneering electronica label, signed the quintet and compiled their previous releases for Work And Non Work. Warp gave Keenan and Cargill carte blanche and indulged their love of unusual formats, with the "Extended Play Two" and "Pendulum" EPs and "America's Boy" single appearing around their full-length studio albums before being collected as Future Crayon in 2006.
By then, Broadcast consisted of just Keenan and Cargill and had relocated to Hungerford in Berkshire. In 2009, they collaborated with Julian House, the designer and musician who had created the distinctive artwork for all their material since "The Book Lovers", to make the noir, unsettling mini-album Broadcast & The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults Of The Radio Age, which sounded like a modern reimagining of the lost score to a Hammer or Amicus horror film and was voted album of the year by The Wire.
Offstage, Keenan was the opposite of her aloof persona. Friends and musicians have mentioned her infectious laughter and the fun and mischief that only surfaced occasionally in her work. She was a perfectionist, single-minded in her vision. The elegance and innocence of her music and the clarity of her voice informed and inspired the next generation of electronica and twisted folk artists, as well as the recent recordings of Paul Weller, Dangermouse and Graham Coxon of Blur.
In recent years, Keenan had been studying creative writing at Birmingham University. Her lyrics drew on her love of Edgar Allan Poe and HG Wells as well as the playful, repetitive style of Gertrude Stein.
"Trish's inspirations were music and books," Pike said. "We'd go off on tour and Trish would return home weighed down with books. Once, in Washington DC I'd been walking the streets while everyone slept in the bus. I came across a house that had a pile of books to give away, stacked outside the front gate. When Trish eventually woke up, I casually mentioned the house and about 30 minutes later Trish had returned with nearly all of the books. The threat of excess baggage held no fear for Trish."
Keenan fell ill in December after returning from the band's tour to Australia and died of pneumonia.
Patricia Anne Keenan, singer, songwriter and musician: born Birmingham 28 September 1968; died Warwick 14 January 2011.
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