Cover art by Nataly Ortega-Sommerlad
Vermont-based artist HMS, who spent most of her childhood moving and never lived one place longer than a year, grapples with the idea of home on her third full-length album, Hummingbirds and Hearthstones (released by Subtle Soup Records). The deeply personal album details HMS’s struggles with home and heartbreak while simultaneously inviting the listener into her world—a rich melding of Latin-influenced nylon string guitar, ethereal vocals, and Romantic string quartets.
Lending to the album’s personal tone is HMS’s craft and control in all areas of the album’s production. She plays every single instrument on the album, from classical guitar to drums to strings, and she produced and engineered the album herself. According to HMS, this was at least partly a feminist move, saying, “Controlling the sound production empowered me as both an artist and a woman. As an artist, I was able to comply with my original motivation for writing songs, to free myself from needing others in order to make music. As a woman, I was able to navigate the male dominated process of recording music, which I feel is an important thing for women musicians to do in today’s patriarchal society.” It is certainly inspiring to see a woman produce her own work, but even more inspiring to see it done with such success—the uniqueness of HMS’s perspective shines on this album in a way that it might not have, had she yielded to outside influences.
The main standout features of HMS’s music are her prodigious classical guitar playing and harmonic structures, which are always adventurous and unexpected. In the album’s first track, “Raíces” (“roots” in Spanish), her layered, Latin-influenced guitar is supported by sparse, tasteful drums and a bevy of ambient sounds, including strings, clean electric guitar, and recorders. She continues this trend in “Moonbeams,” while the beat chugs ever forward and she gives us one of her most poignant lyrics, “Time only stalks us continuously.” Tracks like “White Horse, Dark Horse” and “Disappear” introduce us to her darker side, with complex rhythmic layering and beautifully ominous choral voices. I especially love her groove changes and her almost diabolical violin on “White Horse, Dark Horse.”
It’s a sad fact that a male name as a producer on a woman’s record somehow lends credence to its artistic value; clearly, HMS did not need any help to make these adventurous harmonies and compelling grooves happen. She’s incredibly adventurous with her sound worlds, characterizing her images sonically. Her lyrics are poetic, though at times obscure; but her music always illustrates her point of view with utter clarity. She evokes her themes and images in her sound, whether it’s a desire to disappear, a juxtaposition between the light and dark of love, or a simple hummingbird; and these are always clear. In this way, HMS ends her search for home by inviting us into a richly realized sonic world of her own creation.
SOUND: Chamber folk–think Joanna Newsom, if she played guitar and listened to a lot of Jobim, plus a Romantic-era string quartet
LISTEN TO: White Horse, Dark Horse, Raíces, Moonbeam, Hummingbirds (short but wonderful)
You can preview and buy Hummingbirds and Hearthstones on Bandcamp: https://subtlesouprecords.bandcamp.com/album/hummingbirds-and-hearthstones
And you can get to know HMS better here: https://youtu.be/EoVJs-1M0LQ