Kitt Philippa: Human review – intriguing blend of commercial and experimental

Fri, Oct 11, 2019, 05:00



Kitt Philippa

Paragon Records


Young musicians often have a habit of taking themselves too seriously. In a bid to present their work to the world and have it judged respectfully, earnestness can occasionally tip into pretension. If you’d read anything about Kitt Philippa’s debut album before you heard their music, you might be put off by the hyperbole and the extravagant descriptions of its themes and messages. There’s no doubt that the Belfast-based musician is an astute songwriter but, sometimes, isn’t it just better to let the songs be, and figure them out for yourself?

Luckily, the Belfast-based Armagh native’s music is capable of walking the walk. Having previously released music under their former moniker Katharine Philippa, the twentysomething is now eschewing pronouns for a non-binary approach. Of course, it makes scant difference to their music, which dances around pop, electronica and classical music without fully committing to any of them, retaining a certain air of mystery in the process.

Philippa may not be a household name, but they already have form north of the Border. Growing up in a household predominantly geared towards music of a classical persuasion, they mastered the piano, guitar and clarinet before studying music at Queen’s University. At 21, they had played with the Ulster Orchestra; not bad going, all in all. A move toward the contemporary saw them participate in a talent development programme for young musicians at Belfast’s Oh Yeah centre; last year, they won the Northern Irish Music Prize for Single of the Year with the title track of this album. Even Hozier is a fan; after hearing their song Hosanna, he declared that “impressive is too weak a word” and rushed off to download the EP.

Kitt Philippa - Human

Perhaps he heard something of himself in these songs. With the tried-and-tested songwriter’s themes of love, loss, time and place informing Philippa’s lyric sheet, many tracks read as messages of empowerment both to the writer and the listener. Human is a state-of-the-nation plea for understanding (“Humanity is all we need, unite people, less of the hate”) over a soulful melody and a whip-snap electronic beat. L insists that “I am worthy, I can be free”, while Lion’s emotional crescendo peaks with the line “Sometimes I’m dead from all this living/Dying just to feel alive”. Amidst the keyed-up self-examination are several tender love songs, although some of them are streaked with heartache, such as You and Farenheit (“Forget about it/Can’t forget about her.”)

Farenheit is undoubtedly the best track here. Its offbeat groove has the same late-night quirkiness of Billie Eilish’s Bad Guy, but takes a more experimental approach that encompasses acts such as Bat for Lashes and the soul-inflected fluidity of Jungle. Elsewhere, Philippa’s classical background comes to the fore, as heard on the piano and string-laden Moth, which bursts into life with a unexpected chorus of “hallelujah”, and on the shimmering, glistening Atlas, which brings their voice (with hints of Fiona Apple and Natalie Merchant) to the fore.

Many of these songs have an internationally commercial appeal; you could easily imagine hearing the title track on the radio anywhere in the world, for example. Similarly, a sense of experimentation is never far from Philippa’s songbook, whether it’s the subtle electronics that have earned them comparisons to James Blake, or the blurry atmospherics of 68 2/4, which draws parallels with Bon Iver. It sounds like Philippa is being pulled in both directions: understandably eager for success, but keen to take artistic risks, too. That constant tussle often makes for an unconvincing listening experience. Still, these songs are intriguing enough to keep a close ear on what they might do next.