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Destined: Women & Children

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Nathan Hogan profiles the music of expatriate quartet Women & Children.

Destined: Women & Children

Download "Wave and a Smile" by Women & Children.

When asked how their individual geographies have influenced the music they create collectively, the members of the expatriate quartet Women & Children respond simply, “Why do you eat at a smorgasbord?” Currently residing in Paris but comprised of two Americans, a Canadian, and a French national, the band’s own analogy only partially fits. Because while Women & Children’s willowy, melodic songs are redolent of multiple and complexly interlocking sensibilities, they’re also too fragile and impressionistic to bear any relation to the excesses of the buffet table. Instead, their music is more akin to something like demi-glace – robust but concentrated, reduced to a point where it becomes difficult to discern the flavor of the individual ingredients.

Coincidentally, Women & Children date their beginnings from a meal – a late winter feast of steak and wine. It was at that point that they decided to come together to make music, and nine months later they christened their creation with words that arrived to them in a dream. However, like many auspicious starts, the band’s birth was preceded by a whirlwind romance and a sequence of improbable events. Kevin Lasting (of California) scribbled his telephone number across the length of June Serwa’s (of Manitoba) forearm, precipitating a love affair and a spontaneous relocation to Paris. There they reunited with Jamie Moon, an American (by way of Amsterdam), and found Olivier Robert, who’d had the good sense not to run off anywhere yet.

The group’s diverse origins factor, however ineffably, into their recordings, but it’s not because Women & Children stitch nomadic impatience to their musical sleeves. The band’s icy arrangements are far too stoic for that; each precise combination of drawing room piano, gossamer guitar, whispering percussive noise, and human voice is distinct from the last, but each asks to be listened to late at night, with hands and legs folded. Women & Children describe their collaborative process as both “fragile and strong as bone,” and their pared-down songs do resemble the deceptively brittle, honeycomb architecture of calcium and collagen. It’s possible to fixate on a microscopic view of their songs – the husky tone of Serwa’s voice when she sings words fit for a Poe heroine (“Build Me a Castle”), the menacingly slow swagger of an electric guitar lead (“See You in Hell”) – but then you miss their overarching designs, as riffs on English folk ballads and delta blues forms respectively. “We try to get to the finish line any way we can,” the bandmates say of their songwriting process, “we don’t mind any low-down trick to get there either.” But if they’re really stumbling and biting their way to the finish, the precisely textured results hardly betray it.

Used austerely, and not on every track, the piano somehow feels central to Women & Children’s sound. More than any other instrument, its classical timbre and material presence root the band to steady ground. I ask Women & Children about this, and they agree that it’s been a favorite element of theirs. “Now we no longer have one and it’s only a shadow.” For the time being, they’re contenting themselves with a miniature MIDI keyboard. “You can carry it around in your jacket pocket,” they add enthusiastically, which seems appropriate to their casual mix of itinerancy and elegance. Most indispensable of all, however, is Serwa’s intoxicating voice. Hovering around a tight cluster of lower-register notes, her singing at times has a husky, Germanic quality to it that’s just a few shades airier than Nico’s. Drenched in reverb in “Wave and A Smile,” Serwa seductively shadows the rhythm as if her “waves of smiles / riding fast” were actually carrying her over the crests and troughs of the tinkling chimes and fragile, Nick Drake guitar figures. When Serwa’s words are absent – from a small handful of sleepy waltz instrumentals (“June Keys”) and ethereal blues meanderings (“Holy Rollers”) – they’re sorely missed.

Thus far, Women & Children have not had to fight to be noticed. Even prior to their first release, Moon played a demo of the band’s self-titled record (on Attack 9) for Cat Power’s Chan Marshall, whom he and some friends were accompanying to an art exhibit in Eindhoven. “Within the first 15 seconds Chan asked, ‘Who is this?’” Moon recalls. “I said it was us, and she acted like she didn't believe it. After several 'No ways!’ she exclaimed ‘Y’all are coming on tour with me,’ which I brushed aside thinking she was just being nice. Then a few months later we did.” Women & Children played to large, enthusiastic audiences across Europe in 2003. They also made friends with Cat Power drummer Will Fratesi, who was inspired to edit together some footage he’d shot in Europe and Australia, and set it to the band’s songs. That film is included in the band’s latest release – a lavishly packaged boxed set from the British label Hallso.

Begun in 2002, Hallso prides itself on producing impeccably designed collections of art, music, text, and film. Women & Children immediately saw the advantages to such a non-traditional approach, and they’re quick to draw distinctions between their sophomore release and conventional notions of the box set. “[The term] box set is more of a reference to its physical characteristics rather than any musical retrospective,” the young band tells me. “Coffins are boxes too.” Limited to 500 copies, the set consists of two 10” EPs, a DVD of Fratesi’s film, and text by Mora Salvatrucha, all bound up within a colorful case, with the band’s name embossed in a flowering storybook font. It’s a level of decadence usually reserved for Revenant retrospectives of dead bluesmen, but it likewise fits the band’s stately brand of prim and polished dream-pop.

The new year brings new opportunities for Women & Children, and more of their trademark zig-zagging across continents. They’re slotted to play a Big Sur festival with Michael Hurley and Espers in late January, and Austin’s SXSW festival in March. The four-piece also has material for a new album recorded, and singles prepped for release on two different labels. I ask if they have a preference to their recorded output or their live show, and the band equivocates. “Both need taming,” they tell me. “That’s the interesting part of this circus.”

You can learn more about Women & Children at their website, and order their releases through Attack Nine and Hallso.

By Nathan Hogan

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