The 1980s saw a particularly fervent period in the UK music scene. It saw the rise of a broad variety of bands and artists that perhaps gave the decade a much more pop-orientated industry than the one that preceded it.
It was a decade that also gave a higher profile to some of the more intriguing and unique acts, particularly those that adopted an intelligent pop approach. It’s the kind of thing that weaved its way into material from the likes of David Bowie, Peter Gabriel and Laurie Anderson – whose ‘O Superman’ was a strange 8-minute minimalist number whose hypnotic rhythms managed to secure a No. 2 position in the UK charts.
Meanwhile, a UK singer/songwriter was carving out her own particular path in the field of music which would deliver a style of music that managed to bounce between evocative melodies and simple accessible pop.
Virginia Astley had grown up in the perfect surroundings for a rich musical background. Her father Edwin Astley had already established himself as a musician and composer of some note, particularly through the theme music for cult 1960s TV shows such as The Saint and Danger Man.
At the age of 6, Virginia had taken up piano and later added the flute to her musical repertoire. After leaving school, Virginia enrolled in the prestigious Guildhall School of Music to hone her craft. But equally she was keen to explore the post-punk landscape of London trotting along to see gigs by the likes of Generation X and Johnny Thunders.
Busking also became a means to both practice music and pull in some additional cash. In fact it was through busking that Astley was introduced to other musicians and friends, such as violinist Anne Stephenson.
During this period, Virginia signed on for keyboard duties with pop outfit Victims Of Pleasure, which also introduced her to performing before live audiences (she also appears on their debut single ‘When You’re Young’ which emerged in October 1980).
This late 1980 phase also saw the start of a collaboration with Richard Jobson and Russell Webb – at the time more closely associated with post-punk chart toppers The Skids. Although The Skids had managed to make an impression through bombastic pop songs such as ‘Into The Valley’, Jobson had also wanted to indulge in more arty pursuits. As a result, he would take to live poetry readings with Astley accompanying on piano. The tunes were often arrangements of classic works by Debussy and Satie, although Astley was beginning to lay the foundations for her own particular music at this time.
This collaboration finally bore fruit with the release of The Ballad Of Etiquette, a spoken word piece inspired by the work of French novelist Marguerite Duras. The album, which was released by Belgian label Les Disques Du Crépuscule, featured Astley and musical friend Jo Wells providing piano and clarinet accompaniment. Some of the compositions used here would later emerge in an adapted form on later solo Astley releases.
Astley’s exposure to the Crépuscule label also led to other collaborations, including one with Jean Paul Goude – an early opportunity for Astley to display her vocal talents on ‘La Chanson d’Helene’ (a song originally sung by Romy Schneider in the 1970 French film Les Choses De La Vie).
This busy musical period led to Astley plotting her own musical ventures and brought her to the door of indie label Why-Fi in 1981. Amongst Why-Fi’s stable of artists was Troy Tate who was also exploring his own solo efforts, whilst also juggling guitarist duties with psychedelic pop outfit Teardrop Explodes at the same time.
Tate presented the opportunity for Astley to perform her fledgling material to live audiences in a support slot for the Teardrops’ UK tour that winter. At this stage, Astley wasn’t completely convinced by the idea, but decided to take the plunge by recruiting two musical chums Nicky Holland and Kate St John. Adopting the name of The Ravishing Beauties, the trio took to the road and managed to win over Teardrop fans with a series of engaging tunes (including a spirited cover version of the Teardrops’ ‘Passionate Friend’).
Meanwhile, Why-Fi capitalised on Tate and Astley’s live exposure by promoting the release of 2 10” EPs by the pair. In the case of Astley, this took the form of A Bao A Qu – a collection of intriguing baroque pop tunes that included the ethereal delights of ‘Sanctus’ and the oddly up-tempo ‘We Will Meet Them Again’ whose perky tune was tempered by the fact that it was adapted from lyrics culled from Mahler’s ‘Songs On The Death Of Children’.
Astley’s distinctive vocal range is present and correct on the A Bao A Qu EP, although there’s more of a reliance on harmonics and a choral approach for much of the material. At this stage, the young singer was still to find her confidence in stepping forward into the spotlight. That was to come later, although the A Bao A Qu release helped to put Astley on the map. “The music is a weirdly entrancing cross-blend of influences: an eerie blend of classical/religious and real pop feel” is how the NME described the EP.
Post-Ravishing Beauties, Astley had been keen to work on new material and returned to partner up with Crépuscule for a possible release. Although this potential record was assigned a name (She Stood Up And Cried or sometimes She Sat Down And Cried) and a catalogue number, it never actually emerged.
Feeling in the mood for fresh inspiration, Astley and Russell Webb took to the Oxfordshire countryside where they conducted a series of live recordings that included birds singing, church bells and even a braying donkey. Astley’s concept was to weave these pastoral sounds together with minimal musical accompaniment to create something that evoked the feeling of summer. “It’s not the sort of record that you should have to sit down and concentrate on” Astley remarked in the music press at the time, “it’s really just background music, something that creates a general atmosphere.”
Pulling together this musical project, now titled From Gardens Where We Feel Secure, initial plans to release the album via Bill Drummond’s Zoo label fell through. Meanwhile, as something of a stopgap exercise, Virginia released a single on Why-Fi. ‘Love’s A Lonely Place To Be’ somehow managed to bring Astley to the attention of a much broader audience via a very accessible slice of evocative pop.
The single managed a respectable No. 7 in the UK indie charts thanks to some generous exposure on the radio. It even had the music press taking more notice, leading to one wag describing the single thusly: “This makes Bananarama sound like Led Zeppelin.”
Meanwhile, Astley had joined forces with Rough Trade and finally got From Gardens Where We Feel Secure released (appropriately) in the summer of 1983. With her profile already riding high from ‘Love’s Lonely Place To Be’, Astley’s instrumental work gained fresh praise from the music press, perhaps summed up best by Smash Hits who declared: “The LP recaptures the purity of innocence and is sheer bliss.”
Not ones to let an opportunity to slip by, Virginia’s now-former record label Why-Fi issued Promise Nothing – effectively a compilation of the material she had recorded while on the label, including ‘Love’s Lonely Place To Be’.
Although a plan to compose a companion album to Gardens with the focus on a winter theme didn’t coalesce, Astley kept moving forward. Assembling a live band for some select performances and putting out a few tracks on some compilation releases at the time. In fact one of her finer moments, the melancholic ‘Waiting To Fall’ later appeared on a Some Bizarre compilation album – one of many ‘lost’ classics.
In 1985 Astley struck an arrangement with Rough Trade to distribute a new release, which consisted of a 12” EP titled Melt The Snow. The title track showed a singer/songwriter at the height of her strengths with a confident piano melody and an equally confident vocal. Weaving in a complimentary flute arrangement, ‘Melt The Snow’ presents an organic and wistful tune that perfectly encapsulates Astley’s unique approach.
Signing to the Elektra label soon after, Astley released ‘Tender’ – another solid composition of yearning vocals, choral effects and evocative lyrics deliberating on heartbreak and loss.
Switching over to parent label WEA, Astley began to plot a new album. At this stage, Ryuichi Sakamoto had been put in the frame as producer (having been won over previously by the Gardens album). Sakamoto had already chalked up an impressive musical career from his days as part of technopop outfit Yellow Magic Orchestra through to collaborations with the likes of David Byrne, Thomas Dolby and David Sylvian.
Virginia sent over demo versions of the songs she had planned for the new album, which had piqued Sakamoto’s interest. However, the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986 had unnerved Sakamoto and he was reluctant to travel abroad. Although it took a few months, finally encouraged to fly to the UK, Sakamoto arrived in the summer of 1986 at Somerset-based studio Wool Hall.
The themes on Hope In A Darkened Heart are often pointedly direct. At the time of the recording, Astley was juggling with a failed relationship and was also pregnant. As a result, many of the songs take on a darker aspect – an element that’s further enhanced by the equally broody electronic arrangements by Sakamoto.
But the album puts forward a compelling duet between Astley and David Sylvian on the engaging melodies of ‘Some Small Hope’. Meanwhile, ‘Tree Top Club’ delivers a superbly evocative song that delivers the joy of childhood pleasures.
A Japanese release for Hope In A Darkened Heart won over a new audience, which led to a reissue on CD for From Gardens Where We Feel Secure. An arrangement that would continue when Astley released her next two albums exclusively to the Japanese market.
Meanwhile, the post-Hope In A Darkened Heart years saw Astley focussing on raising her daughter Florence. Returning to recorded music in the 1990s, Astley even brought in a young Florence on guest vocals for the 1992 album All Shall Be Well (which also saw her reunited with Kate St John).
With long gaps between her recorded output, Astley turned to literary influences and a fresh interest in writing. This included a concept for a musical based on the Thomas Hardy novel The Woodlanders. Having relocated to Dorset, the work of Hardy took on a new familiarity. Some of these ideas would later emerge on her 1996 album Had I The Heavens.
But she now had a fresh direction to move in with her writing and proceeded to draft ideas for both a novel and also a multimedia project titled The Stories Of The Fields (which explores the tradition of how fields were given specific names).
As the noughties rolled around, Astley was provided with the opportunity to remaster and reissue From Gardens Where We Feel Secure. The album arrived in 2003 in fresh sleeve artwork (the original artwork having been lost) and leading to her musical output getting a fresh critical evaluation.
Meanwhile, the focus on writing became more prominent. This was divided between ventures into the world of poetry as well as laying down rural histories – the latter inspired by Astley adopting the role of a lock keeper’s assistant. This endeavour gave her an opportunity to explore the river life and collate stories revolving around the art of weir-keeping.
The move into poetry yielded some success as Astley chalked up a number of awards, including the 2014 Poetry on the Lake’s Sonnet Prize and winning the Fool for Poetry Chapbook competition.
This new venture also led to collaborative work with daughter Florence, who had developed her own talents as a musician with the harp being her instrument of choice. The result was spoken poetry performances by Virginia accompanied by Florence’s musical backing. Two self-produced releases focusing on this new collaboration emerged; including 2006’s The Words Between Our Words and 2007’s Maiden Newton Ecliptic (actually a live recording of a typical performance).
Having embarked on a writing career, Virginia Astley is keen to make the most of it. A collection of poetry titled The Curative Harp arrived in 2015 and a publication of her lock keeping stories is also on the horizon.
It’s also brought her into the orbit of Caught By The River, who style themselves as an art collective of writers, explorers and nature lovers keen to reengage with the river life. It provides an opportunity for Astley to present her spoken word performances to a new audience (accompanied as ever by daughter Florence on the harp) and perhaps even new stories.
Virginia and Florence Astley will be performing on Sunday 28th February at Bush Hall, London as part of Caught By The River’s An Afternoon Of Words & Music.
Tickets are £12.50 in advance and more details are available via http://www.caughtbytheriver.net/2015/12/08/a-caught-by-the-river-social-club-virginia-astley-london-sound-survey-bush-hall/
Virginia and Florence Astley will also be part of the Caught On The River Thames festival on 6/7 August: