Who is she? I am HER is Julie Riley, lately of Crown Estate and formerly of Mute sub-label 13th Hour’s Rosa Mota.
I am HER is also her three daughters – Hope, Elkie and Ruby – whose initials begat the capitalisation in Riley’s project’s name; they don’t appear on the record, at least not in a recorded capacity, but they are there in spirit. “I am what I am now as a result of making these fine young women,” says Riley. “I am HER.”
Musically, I am HER is a very different proposition from Crown Estate, her distance collaboration with fellow Rosa Mota survivor Sacha Galvagna. Where Crown Estate relied on loops and electronic composition, I am HER finds Riley on guitar, delivering compelling six-string tracks with occasional piano and the addition of drumming accompaniment from the highly adaptable Jeff Townsin of fellow 90s group Submarine. One might call this music lo-fi, but somehow these songs sound much larger than the sum of their parts, despite the intimacy of Riley’s delivery.
The feisty ‘Harpy’ is immediately connected to the mid-90s alternative rock scene that Rosa Mota emerged into. A varispeed number, it is at once wild, raw and shouty, yet reveals itself as it progresses to be utterly beholden to a folk and early rock ‘n’ roll tradition. The standout ‘Heretic’ does something similar, a roll-call of feelings and emotions amid what sounds like a turbulent, volatile relationship, its linear guitar riffs and forward motion reminiscent of the most focussed Sonic Youth material, its urgent chorus plea of ‘Don’t make love a dirty word,’ delivered both as a challenge and a reflection on today’s more impermanent approach to dating. ‘Blue’ has a Jesus And Mary Chain stateliness, carrying that sort of fragile, melancholic, world-weary tone best heard in the early morning’s reflective hour, while the clever poetic wordplay of ‘Heroine’ is the Velvets’ ‘Heroin’ transformed into a love song for life instead of nihilistic impulses.
If Crown Estate presented Julie Riley as a singer and composer with abundant musical dexterity, the songs on Herstory serve as a reminder that her heart and soul reside in rockier territories. Those who, like me, fell in love with Rosa Mota across their two albums are well versed in the story of how that group fell apart following the disappointment of how their second album, Bionic, came together despite brilliant songs and a brilliant producer. Herstory is like the Rosa Mota album that never was, but which could have been if they hadn’t imploded; a mature, clever record full of emotional depth and considered lyric writing.
(c) Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence 2018