Cellist Helena Espvall —the willowy Swede with billowing black curly hair—is a familiar face around the city primarily due to her work with folk-psych group Espers. But Espvall has her hands in many pots, working on solo material and collaborations with other musicians, including Masaki Batoh of Japanese experimental rock group Ghost.
There is a common thread that runs between Espvall’s contribution to Espers and her work with Batoh. Both projects prominently feature modern and ancient folk music, while morphing it into something almost prehistoric and timeless. Throw adjectives like mysterious, ethereal, entrancing and droning on to either project and they’ll stick like bees to honey.
But the differences are also stark. Espers sounds a bit like medieval rock—not the Jethro Tull kind (though it’s not far removed), but the rock you might expect witches and wardens to play in their garages. Espvall and Batoh, however, cull through the history of music, modern and ancient, to take whatever appeals to them—Japanese rhythms, Swedish folk songs, Baroque compositions.
Working with Batoh allows her to follow her own instincts and focus on her love of improvisation, while playing with Espers forces her to keep it in check.
“I don’t think I have that songwriter magic,” Espvall says. “In Espers I actually feel very lucky, or lazy, that I can come in and there’s already something really beautiful there. But the fact that there are other people in the band, there’s just not as much room and space to do things.”
She continues, “I like squeaky screechy stuff on bowed instruments ... more strange noises and atonal weird stuff.” But in Espers, “There’s a lot of things going on and I can’t just play all this intense stuff all the time. It just wouldn’t work. I try to be sensitive to each musical situation.” ■