MARA CARLYLE | London, Rich Mix

In the darkened belly of Rich Mix’s auditorium, an attack was taking place on a cello named George. Its assailant and owner — Elysian Quartet’s Laura Moody — shrieked and slapped her way through a set so dizzyingly gymnastic in its instrumental and vocal frenzy that you quite understood why her debut album claims the title Acrobats. But if at first Moody seemed like a woman in the paroxysmal throes of treatment for hysteria on a Victorian doctor’s chaise longue, her set soon settled into richly lyrical songs like the pizzicato-driven ‘Call this time love’ — gentler, but no less urgent.

No such melodrama for the main act of the evening. Mara Carlyle slipped onto stage in the kind of buttoned up red gown you might expect Lady Macbeth to wear to a prom, before taking a seat and instantly apologizing for flashing a thigh. Many will only know her for her hauntingly beautiful Satie-esque tune ‘Pianni’, picked for an IKEA advert as the soundtrack to a hundred kittens tumbling around on flat-pack furniture. Some four years ago, her second album Floreat (‘Let it flourish’) was hailed by many as a sparkling masterpiece and yet somehow — although beloved to her loyal cohort of fans — Carlyle has slipped ethereally through the musical net of public awareness. All credit to the programming team at Serious, then, for coaxing her to Shoreditch for her first headline performance in two and a half years. We were ready to welcome her home — and she was worth the wait.

Flanked by a supergroup of musicians on the piano, accordion, double bass and viola da gamba, Carlyle flitted between the ukulele and musical saw, purring her way through a magical two-hour set. Gone were the epic orchestral flourishes of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra that appeared on Floreat, but we did not miss them: in their place were new arrangements so delicately and powerfully crafted, creating fresh space for her warm, woozy vocal to soar. Part of the charm of her performance was its homespun nature: at one point, she juggled a microphone and some sheet music for a rendition of the Corpus Christi Carol (for which, she apologized, she hadn’t had time to learn the lyrics), before losing her place, throwing her hands up mid-verse and wandering over to stand behind the pianist so that she could follow his music.

In her endless cross-pollination of genres, she is often difficult to describe: she inventively rehouses John Dowland’s ballad ‘Away with these self-loving lads’ in a beautifully lilting RnB ballad; in her hands, Schumann’s ‘I blame you not’ takes on the melancholic nostalgia of a Billie Holliday standard. This musical melding could so easily become precocious — re-invention for re-invention’s sake — but there’s something so genuine, so sweetly dark and understated about Carlyle that you can’t help but fall for her.

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