Bess Atwell “Light Sleeper”

Real Kind Records, 2024

A high-quality release from Brighton-based singer-songwriter; these are beautiful songs, full of emotion.

Artwork for Bess Atwell album "Light Sleeper"Bess Atwell is an extremely talented singer-songwriter from Brighton; on her third full-length release, ‘Light Sleeper‘, she elegantly covers a wide assortment of situations and emotions.

The LP sees the realisation of a long-held aspiration for Atwell, with the involvement of The National’s Aaron Dessner as producer. Dessner has previously produced artists such as Taylor Swift, The National, Fleet Foxes, Ed Sheeran, Sharon Van Etten, The Lone Bellow and Bon Iver. Dessner commented favourably online about Atwell’s song ‘Time Comes in Roses‘ from 2021’s ‘Already, Always‘, however Atwell thought that once Dessner started working with Swift, her dream of working with him would remain just that, but demos that she sent to Dressner captured his interest and he suggested they could work together.

Dessner likes to work quickly, using only a few takes per song; he encouraged Atwell to embrace any imperfections in her vocal delivery and focus on the emotion of the song. ‘Light Sleeper‘ was recorded in just five days at Dessner’s Long Pond studio, situated in an isolated cabin, near Hudson, Columbia County, in upstate New York, before Atwell returned to the UK and the pair completed adjustments to the soundscape from opposite ends of the Atlantic Ocean. Other musicians involved in making the record were multi-instrumentalist Ben Lanz of the band Beruit, and touring band member for The National and for Sufjan Stevens, amongst many others; James McAlister who lists associations with The National, Sufjan Stevens, Taylor Swift and Big Red Machine (another Dessner project); and James Krivchenia, drummer with Big Thief.

The first two songs on the record, ‘Everyone Who’s Not In Love With You is Wrong‘ and ‘Release Myself‘ come as a pair; they share similar guitar parts (although they sound different, with the latter tune having slightly more of a rock sound) and were originally designed with the former to be a reprise of the latter, however a decision was made to include them as standalone songs, although they do neatly transition into each other. ‘Release Myself‘ is very pointed lyrically; “I don’t wanna be scared anymore I’m tired of being tied up And too cynical to believe Anything new“.

On ‘Sylvester’ Atwell revisits a childhood alter ego she invented to entertain her family, and the impulse to play the clown in an attempt to be liked. “Give me a rope and I’ll walk it Anything to please you what do I get“. ‘The Weeping’ was written about Atwell’s thoughts on growing up in an environment with a younger sister who has a kind of non-verbal autism that requires 24/7 care. The lyrics include “I’m a walking open wound And I can’t stop the weeping mmm Don’t say that everything Happens for a reason“.

Something Now‘ is the only song on the LP not written solely by Atwell; it was co-written with Grow Fins who previously collaborated with Atwell to re-edit the song ‘Silver Fir‘ on Atwell’s ‘Already, Rearranged‘ release of 2022. Atwell says that Fins played her a synth-lead idea and she asked if she could steal it. Dessner asked if the demos could feature just guitar and voice, so Atwell hummed the synth part. Dessner really liked the humming and the synth part was dropped.

Spinning Sun‘ is about coping mechanisms; Atwell says “When my mother heard ‘Spinning Sun’ for the first time she exasperatedly said “there really is nothing you’ve left out of this record is there” which I took as a great compliment“. Both ‘Spinning Sun‘ and ‘Crowds‘ include parts of the demos recorded by Atwell prior to Dessner’s involvement; Atwell says she sometimes becomes very attached to her demo versions, as was the case here and Dessner was sympathetic to this.

Atwell wrote album closer ‘Light Sleeper‘ after reading Alex Garland’s 1996 novel ‘The Beach‘, which reminded her of a novel that she read as a child; William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies‘. Atwell gleaned from the novels “The only real thing you have to fear is fear itself” and there are references to this, both within the song ‘Light Sleeper‘ and the wider album.

The songs on ‘Light Sleeper‘ are beautifully written and exquisitely performed. Atwell’s vocal style is expressive; full of emotion, even if that doesn’t necessarily hit you on a casual listen, take the time to listen properly (intentional listening if you will) and the emotion simply pours out of every syllable. Atwell insists “If you’re not really listening, it’s sad music. But if you’re really listening, it’s about acceptance, and the joy of expressing yourself. It can feel really good to express things that are hard, or painful”.


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