Alexandra Levy, aka Ada Lea writes music as she sees the world, through the synaesthetic eyes of a painter. What We Say in Private is her gallery; an invite-only personal showing of her most intimate thoughts, full of raw emotions and all the twists and jolts that come with a break-up.
Her debut album began as a concept piece, half of it written from the perspective of the sun, the other half from the moon’s. Over time this idea became overtaken, fuelled by 180 solid days of journal writing, following the clues and insights that the universe threw at her, Levy ended up in an entirely different place. While, in itself, this is not an unusual thing in terms of songwriting, Ada Lea’s approach is honest and true to the outright messiness of creativity, brimming with palpable human warmth.
From the ebullient opener ‘Mercury’ to the darker closing refrains of ‘Easy’, those original ideas of light and dark are still preserved in the canvas of each track, sometimes laid bare and other times obliquely masked. The only boundaries in place are self-imposed, almost obsessively. Songs like ‘for real now (not pretend)’ roll from one genre fluidly into another, circling in and out of hushed indie folk, mathy emo, rock n roll, spoken word, to crunchy grunge. “I just want to feel something” she cries out, restlessly, as if surrounded by too many choices, nothing making sense any more.
Tim Gowdy’s production adds further surreal complexity, providing a sometimes overwhelming mix of textures and effects that drip down the walls of each song, while always keeping Levy’s voice central to the drama. Treated saxophone and field recordings add a distorted sense of place and time, particularly the psychedelic pet shop dove calls on ‘Just one, please’ and the chilling, wintry road buzz of snow trucks in January on ‘The Dancer’ and ‘The Party’. The result on the latter is a lurking unease, bringing out the compelling sadness and isolation that Ada Lea wants us to feel. Elsewhere these embellishments are more subtle, like the plate scrapes on ‘for real now (not pretend)’, and the bird chirps on ‘Yanking the Pearls Off Around My Neck’, grounding the melancholy of both songs in mundane, everyday reality.
On the cusp of breakdown, ‘What Makes Me Sad’ is like a bewildering, woozy stroll underwater, serenaded by sickly saxophone and almost oppressively upbeat surroundings. As with ‘The Dancer’ Ada Lea is processing emptiness and loss, but all we see is smiles and sunlight. Like a restrained black metal swan-song, ‘Easy’ swirls and staggers, finally letting go its anger and self-loathing in between skittering drums and cathartic chainsaw guitar swipes: “When you go, close the door, leave the key so you can’t enter anymore and I’ll take my head and throw it back, disassociate myself from all I’ve said”. It’s unclear who or what Levy is calling out, whether eschewing parts of her own bruised identity or the confusion and pain caused by on-off love.
What We Say In Private is a remarkably engaging debut, one that keeps giving up its secrets on every listen.
‘What We Say in Private’ is out now, via Saddle Creek.