Sophie Dickinson's new album, Cucanandy, begins with click-clacks and bagpipes braying beneath the surface noise of a tape recording. A handheld tape player audibly disengages, but more cassette static ensues, this time offering the familiar swoosh of passing vehicles. A vocal motif emerges: a cyclical, seemingly gibberish clucking and cooing. Only, it's a Gaelic walking song, and the clacking sound, which underpins the entire piece, is actually a recording of Dickinson putting one hard-heeled shoe in the front of the other.
"In Celtic music, there are a lot of songs with only mouth rhythms," Dickinson said. "They were to be walked along with. I like to get lost in those sorts of things, which is what I like about Celtic music — that songs repeat themselves forever. There are no resolving notes."
But Cucanandy isn't a work of traditional Celtic music. The album features harp, concertina, field recordings, appropriated sound sources, and Dickinson's voice, arranged to alternately evoke pastoral whimsy and urban tedium. Singsong passages and shimmering harp appear and recede, leaving tape decay, incongruous blips, and found vocal samples to wrench each piece away from mere exercises in ambience and atmosphere.
Dickinson's music evades the category of soundscape — in which artists look to capture the sonic character of a particular place — because it's full of foreign samples. Inspired by the peerless filmmaker Jan Švankmajer, Dickinson sought sounds with strong tactile associations, which further upsets the usual stylistic tags. There isn't much of a useful category for Cucanandy at all, but the album is built from contradictory parts of Dickinson's varied musical education. With a tug-of-war between conflicting sonic elements, it rewards close listening and invites speculation about the artist's source material.
Dickinson, who is 25, was born in Western Massachusetts. She took up harp at age ten, and though she discovered left-field rock music in high school, she had a few peers who shared her passion. Dickinson also enjoyed folk music, and continues to, but recalled feeling as if it was the only acceptable pursuit for a musician in her environment.
"In Western Mass., it was very dry and wasteland-like," she said. "I thought it would be easier to assimilate into my culture as just a Celtic musician." But it wasn't necessary, she explained. "When I moved to Boston, I found out how weird I could be."
At twenty, Dickinson arrived in Boston, harp in hand, and fell in with the sort of music conservatory students who abuse their classical training by founding oblique rock ensembles. Dickinson became involved with the Whitehaus collective, an informal label and venue that's considered a cornerstone of the city's DIY community.
In late 2014, after recording Cucanandy, which was recently released on the reputable Feeding Tube label, Dickinson moved to West Oakland, where she now works as a caregiver and nanny. A friend set her up with one show in an underground local venue, and she's been asked back several times, added to bills with electronic artists and improvisers alike. Dickinson has yet to play in a conventional Bay Area club.
Despite the fact that Dickinson is now feeling musically liberated, Cucanandy is not the work of an experimentalist spitefully jettisoning her background. In fact, the album cover — a whimsical painting by her grandmother that depicts a squirrel and anthropomorphized acorns in a hollow tree — speaks explicitly to rural fantasy. "My grandma has always been eccentric," Dickinson said. "She created a world of acorn people inspired by the forest that's her backyard." And the harp, an instrument that's rife with old-world and folk associations, at times sounds as if it's competing with sounds of the city and social life on Cucanandy.
"My Dark Haired Boy," Cucanandy's closing track, features voicemails from her old roommates' parents. The snippets blur together: It's your mom ... Let me know you're alive ... Call your aunt ... That was five days ago. Apparently, the inflection of a parent resigned to their child's unresponsiveness is universal. Dickinson's harp playing radiates through the parental pestering and tape hiss, like a tenuous alignment of differing worlds.
If Cucanandy sounds like an attempt to reconcile divergent musical impulses, Dickinson's decision to move to Oakland might've forced a conclusion. Concerned that the harp doesn't resonate so much in a new environment, she traded her concertina for a violin and bought a keyboard.
Furthermore, Cucanandy relies largely on the imperfections of tape, but the very same instability of the format might force the end of a creative phase. Because her live performances depend on tape-recorded accompaniment, she said, "if one of those cassettes get ruined, it's over — but I let it go. It's happened. I don't back things up." Dickinson continued, "I don't know if I'd be motivated out here to continue on the same project, since it's so inspired by the New England landscape where I grew up."