This is Part Three of a six-part series on South African Vocalists
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Auriol Hays’ second record is a cascading blend of genres that include soul, jazz and blues, interpreted by one of the strongest voices to emerge on the South African music scene in many years.
The album is a rollercoaster ride of emotions and moods. It condemns deceit and pleas for peace. It’s faithless yet reverent, luminescent with the idea of falling in love and angry over its pitfalls.
Some songs are sinister, others offer playful swagger; some crackle with electronic menace, others are laden with industrial percussion and screeching effects; some are spare piano and acoustic guitar ballads that soothe and caress. One recalls the orchestral swell of some of the best work by Welsh diva Shirley Bassey; another is a tortured Portuguese lament.
The album is diverse but not disjointed, its many ingredients ultimately enhancing and uniting it.
The overall tone of Cape Town-based Hays’s new work, Call It Love: Anima Sola
, is shaped by pain, loss and regret.
She’s blunt when explaining its roots. “My marriage had just fallen apart, pretty much. Writing the music has been a way of dealing with all of that, and a way of healing,” she said.
The record’s title calls on Roman Catholic tradition. The Anima Sola, or Forsaken Soul, is an image of a woman suffering in purgatory, surrounded by flames. She’s shown in a dungeon, breaking free of her chains.
The picture is particularly apt when applied to Hays’s album.
“I was in a space where there was absolutely no personal love when I wrote it,” she told VOA.
Hays felt desolate, but her art saved her, she said. “The only place where I can find some kind of peace is when I write music because…music is like an oracle of thoughts,” she explained.
The singer said she allowed her personal agony to “infect” her music.
“Even as you are busy facing the end of a marriage, the end of a relationship, that pain and honesty…it’s beautiful; it’s delicious; you can revel in it and you can turn it into something magical!” she said.
Hays added, “I’ve sung my best when I’ve been at my saddest.”
For her, Call It Love
was clearly cathartic.
“By the time I’m finished singing a song like “I sing the blues”…you feel so much lighter; you feel so much better,” she said. The track reflects on the loss of love. Hays sings in a stretched and strained voice, ‘This cage we’re in / The hurt, the sin / I don’t know where to begin / So I sing the blues / I sing the blues / When you’re around.’
The song, with its robotic rhythm, plunges the listener into what sounds like the bowels of a factory, a hot and harsh place where there is no love, only relentless toil; where people slave in service to a heartless metal machine.
The record also jolts the listener with anger, disappointment and bitterness – probably most evident on the terrifying track “Devil woman,” during which Hays seethes through clenched teeth, ‘The devil is a woman / So slick and so sly…She’ll hide her claws / And her horns / Where no one can see / Until the time it becomes necessary,’ before tearing into the pulsating chorus, ‘Devil woman, devil woman / Take that smirk off your face / Devil woman, devil woman / Get the hell out of my place….’
The song is loaded with a bestial appetite for revenge. It’s one of the defining moments on Call It Love
, its pounding, military-like drums being Hays’s chief allies in her declaration of war on the deceitful devil woman who has wronged her.
Assessing some of the record’s fury, Hays said, “Anyone that’s ever loved that much and has had to see that fall apart – of course you’re angry, of course you’re bitter! And so I allow myself to feel that angry, to feel that hurt. I don’t want to anaesthetize myself because how I am I going to get through it if I don’t confront it? How?”
She’s also not afraid to confront her own frailties and failings, as she does on the gorgeous piano ballad “In love with the past,” in which she laments, ‘With everything I do / I betray you,’ and finally acknowledges that she’s not strong enough to bear any more pain.
Incongruence of love
Hays said the album’s dominant theme is “wrestling with love.” On the opener, “My love,” she warns against falling in love but in almost the same breath whispers, “For true love / There is nothing / I would not do.”
In another song she immerses herself in a “sublime love” and on the sparkling, hymnal ballad “Time for love” – arguably her most accessible tune so far – she declares, “Let romance begin…. This is the start of something beautifully divine.”
In “Do I really have to say the words?” she states simply, “I love you.”
But then she plunges into the pain of love gone wrong in “I sing the blues” and “Over my shoulders,” where she sings “Better to run / I can’t stay here with you / Knowing I am not the one / You would turn to / On your darkest days.” And on “In love with the past,” she exclaims that she’s in love only with that – the past.
“Well, life isn’t black and white,” Hays said of the apparent incongruity. “Love is a multifaceted, complicated thing.”
Then she acknowledged, “I don’t have the most balanced view on love…. I am constantly falling in and out of love, swinging between belief in love and complete mistrust and distrust of it, failing to distinguish between lust and love. Do you know how hard it is to distinguish between lust and love? It’s insane! It’s very, very hard! The one masquerades as the other brilliantly!”
But she hastily added, “Put two people who are in front of me who are in love – oh! You would hear me gush and I will sing my soul out for those two people if I know they are in the audience.”
Hays’s latest record may well be a testament to a period in her life when love abandoned her, but for many others it could signal the beginning of an enduring relationship with her music.
See Auriol Hays video of single ‘Better Man’: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6zlXp4Y2i_A
Listen to profile of South African vocalist Auriol Hays