Into the Haunted Woods – mind the owls.
There was something in the air in the middle of the first decade of the 21st Century, with magic and vampires in vogue in fiction and film and, in particular for this discussion there was an upsurge of what we might call psychfolk with bands like Espers leading that charge. This time around the twisted folk leant more towards a treacherous path through the woods than bucolic pastoral antecedents such as Tyrannosaurus Rex or The Incredible String Band. The mood was now much closer to the darker shades of Lal and Mike Waterson’s ‘Bright Pheobus‘ – where songs like ‘The Scarecrow‘, ‘Fine Horseman‘ and ‘Child Among The Weeds‘ were hooking into an almost folk-horror mood, with the last of those in particular being unsettling in its detailed ambiguity. Stephanie Dosen seemed to fit right in to this mood – bringing a particular Southern Gothic to the party, emphasized by her striking image of long blonde hair and layers of white lace on her signature outfit. Picked up by Bella Union the Wisconsin born singer-songwriter would guest on stablemates Midlake’s album ‘The Courage of Others‘, and released her solo album – ‘A Lily for the Spectre‘ – in 2007. There was an earlier album ‘Ghosts, Mice and Vagabonds‘ which was in a very similar vein, but it was ‘A Lily for the Spectre‘ that saw Dosen’s vision fully realised.
Musically the album would sway between the stark and whispered to the richly multi-layered and multi-vocal tracked to convey its central themes of shades of love, always with a sense of imminent, or at the least possible, joy – perhaps reflecting Dosen’s background in Christian Trance and Ambient Techno (not every Americana artists arrives from a punk background!). So whilst a song like ‘Owl in the Dark‘ might paint a scene of spectral figures in haunted woodlands worthy of Ambrose Bierce, its the burden of separation that comes through most clearly, with the assurance that love – an eternal unshakable love – will prevail “If I’m just an owl searching in the dark I will find you – and still we will remain” Dosen sings over finger picked guitar, echoey drums and a string section. The extent that ghosts, vampires and moonlight feature across the album should be somewhat ridiculous, but such is the conviction of Stephanie Dosen’s presentation that it makes sense like the gothic fantasies of R. Murray Gilchrist or the romantic ghost fiction of the Askews. Classic names to conjure with, but it often feel like that’s the company Stephanie Dosen should be in.
There are exceptions – all good albums need contrast after all – and album opener ‘This Joy‘ is just a wonderful undoing of all that is to come as it celebrates a burning flame of joy, strong enough to dispel the dark shades of night. And ‘Lakes of Canada‘ invokes a endless moment in a limitless landscape. ‘Way Out‘ nudges towards a straight folkrock love song, again imbued with an infectious joy in the presence of the optimism of new love: “Oh, this will be so different, I won’t leave and you won’t have to fade away“. Is it just a wish though? Maybe.
Stephanie Dosen would almost be a candidate for a “Where are they now…” type article. Having made such an impact with this album she almost disappeared from view for several years – with the occasional guest appearance as mentioned previously with Midlake and also with the Chemical Brothers. There was a tour in 2008, which showed Dosen to be an engaging live performer who could still a room with her haunted vocals. And for years there was a follow up project in the works – Snowbird was to be a collaboration with Simon Raymonde with contributions from Jonathan Wilson and members of Radiohead and Midlake. It eventually appeared in 2014 and was…underwhelming. This was partly due to the lengthy gestation of the album – more than half a decade is a long-time in music, but it was less that tastes had changed and more that ‘A Lily for the Spectre‘ had been such an excellent piece of work that it needed to be built on whilst the muse was still hot. There are hints that it could have been as there were several non-album songs that were used as the B-sides for the singles that were as good as the songs that had actually made the cut for the LP. In another world that’s the way it might have played out – a follow up album in 2008 or early 2009, more tours, more acclaim. But it wasn’t to be. Instead Stephanie Dosen has moved into the world of knitwear design, with spectral figures and owl themes very much to the fore. Music’s loss was wool’s gain.
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