It’s 10 p.m. in the sleepy London suburb of Sidcup when musician Tirzah Mastin puts her children to bed and joins me for our first call over Zoom. Beside her, a whirring static scratches from her baby monitors. It evokes the dusty quiet after a needle drops, just before a record starts to play. The 33-year-old singer-songwriter says she’s always loved white noise. And now, in their slumber, the babies can play a little something for her.
In a relatively short time, Mastin has carved out an entirely new life for herself. In the span of three years, she’s taken on a career in music that she never imagined, starting with the 2018 release of her cult-classic debut, Devotion. In the years following that release, she started a family with her partner Giles Kwakeulati King-Ashong, a fellow musician who performs under the name Kwake Bass, and their two children. On Friday, she’ll release her sophomore album Colourgrade, a lush record filled with soft etchings of love songs on the gradient between R&B, experimental electronic, and art-pop. “I’ve always seen music in textures and colors,” Mastin says, explaining the idea behind the album’s title.
Even with her newfound success, Tirzah hasn’t catered her sound to what might appeal to folks outside of her inner circle. She doesn’t even think she’s capable of it. “It’s like you’re always doing a painting with crayons and then feeling like you can’t pick up a paintbrush,” she says. For Mastin, the craft of music-making is inextricable from her friendships. Although the project is under her name, the music is a collaboration between her and her childhood best friend, Mica Levi. “It feels very much like a big group project that just happens to have my name slapped on the front,” she says. “I’m just another pawn on the board.”
When she was thirteen, Mastin went to train as a harpist at the Purcell School for Young Musicians, the oldest music school for children in the U.K. It was there that she and Levi became fast friends and collaborators, though neither had any idea they’d be making music together for the next two decades. At a computer, Levi would craft glitchy beats and Mastin would improvise lyrics to sing along with.“We made music for a long time without any intention of doing anything with it, so I suppose it’s almost like a habit,” she says.
I ask whether she’d continue making music if Levi stopped for some reason. She thinks long and hard about this. The mere hypothetical seems to disturb her. “I’ll pass,” she says, unable to imagine a world in which Levi isn’t composing and the two aren’t collaborating. “Meeks stop writing music? I don’t think that would ever happen.”
Between 2013 and 2014, Tirzah released her first two EPs, I’m Not Dancing and No Romance. Both were made up of dented dance tracks that gained popularity in London’s alternative club scenes. Those origins can be found in Tirzah’s subsequent full-length records, though her newer works tend to be less rambunctious, and are usually carved around more ornate and melodic instrumentation.
After Devotion’s release, Mastin and Levi went on tour with collaborator and friend, Coby Sey, who made a handful of appearances on Devotion, most notably his standout feature on the album’s title track. The three artists began traveling and playing live together regularly. Mastin says that at the time, bringing Sey in to be part of the next record’s creation didn’t feel like a conscious choice but instead a natural progression of the chemistry that they’d developed on stage together. On Colourgade, Sey took on a larger role, co-producing the record alongside Levi.
“It’s nice to be writing and playing live at the same time,” Mastin says. “He’s just another spirit that brings that kind of energy where you don’t feel limited. There’s a lot of piss-taking, a lot of fun. But it’s a good balance of serious love and enjoyment.”
On one of Colourgrade’s catchiest tracks, “Hive Mind,” Tirzah commemorates the project partners. Written and sung by both Mastin and Sey, the song is about finding synchronicity with your loved ones, even through creative differences. “Tethering like hive minds do,” the chorus hums, Mastin mumbling it first, with Sey catching up to her just a couple of beats behind. In a whispery call and response set atop dense drums and hallowed synths, the two echo one another from start to finish, never going into a verse alone.
A characteristic of many of Tirzah’s songs is the nebulous quality of her songwriting. Less dependent on literal meaning or storytelling, her lyrics are often abstracted, with plenty of space left in between. This often leaves her listeners to fill in the gaps with their own interpretations. “That’s how it should be,” she says. “Unless I really strongly want someone to see it the way I want them to see it, but that just seems weird. That seems wrong to me.”
Throughout Colourgrade, this flexibility is effective. On songs like Recipe, where Mastin sings how she “won’t hurt you,” it isn’t clear if she’s singing to her friend, her lover, or her children. But it doesn’t matter, because it’s a love song nonetheless, with grainy reverberating vocals and instrumentation from Dean Blunt and her partner, Kwake Bass. At times, however, Mastin’s opaque lyricism can feel less explicitly expressionistic and more like an active avoidance. Mastin is a very private person. She rarely does interviews, and only reluctantly posts on social media for the purposes of music promotion.
She refers to the poems she sings as “little diary entries” but it’s often as if those diaries are written in a code, so it doesn’t really matter if we’re allowed to read them. This makes it all the more refreshing when, halfway through the record, Tirzah pivots toward a more legible vulnerability. On Beating, she’s her most transparent. “Found you/found me,” she begins to sing the song, but then stops to clear her throat at the mic, as if preparing to bare her heart out to an attentive audience. After a pause, she begins again: “found you/you found me.” It’s clear she’s singing to her husband: “We made life/It’s beating, beating, beating.”
Mastin says she’s only able to expose this much of herself by forgetting that the music will be listened to by thousands of strangers. “And then after that, it’s like, ‘well, now it exists in the computer,’ ” she says. “You’re not there when whoever puts on their headphones and listens. There’s a lot to be said about blissful ignorance.”