Astrid's new album 'Boy for You', her debut as a solo artist, was released in September. It is a haunting, sometimes harrowing record, but one of ultimately uplifting appeal that encompasses a wide range of emotions and musical styles, and was one of the best releases of last year. While she is still a relatively unknown talent, her career has already stretched five years, and she has worked with some of the most outstanding and creative forces in the music business. With a slow but steadily increasing international profile, this year may be the one that leads to her breakthrough.

Astrid (or Astrid Williamson to give her her full name) was born in the Shetland Isles in the North of Scotland, the daughter of a local factory owner. Shetland is one of the most isolated spots in Britain. Situated a hundred and twenty miles off the mainland, it is closer to the Norwegian coastline than Aberdeen, Scotland's most northerly big city, and only accessible by plane or a fourteen hour boat journey, it is a bleak, as well as a remote, place to live. While between June and September, there are often good, dry spells of weather, there are in winter regular gales off the North Sea ; hurricanes too have been known, and it is only light for a few hours each day. There has, however, been farming and fishing industries in the Shetlands for centuries, but since the mid-sixties, when it was first discovered offshore, oil has been the biggest business, and has brought onto the islands workers from the rest of Scotland and all over the world. The Sullom Voe Oil Terminal, based on the Shetlands , is the largest of its kind in Europe.

Shetland's music is largely traditional, and there is a long folk music legacy. Every April there is a world-famous Folk Festival in its capital, Lerwick, and there is an Accordion and Fiddle Festival every October. There is, however, less of a place for rock music. While the oil workers' arrival on the islands has given rock a greater prominence, the Shetlands, with the rare exceptions of acts such Mike Scott, Elvis Costello and Julian Cope on 'back to basics' gigs, is too far off the beaten track for most bands to come to perform. There has also until now been little local talent. It is not the most conventional place for a rock star to be raised, but Astrid is not the most conventional of rock stars.

While the folk music undoubtably had some effect and influence on the young Williamson, it was rock that was to prove her real and abiding passion. She grew up listening to everything from 'Abba' to 'Led Zeppelin', and also became both a proficient guitar and piano player. In the latter instrument she also received some classical training. Fascinated too by the process of songwriting, and its often universal themes and concerns, she started writing her own material from an early age.

When Astrid left school, she also moved away from Shetland, firstly to Glasgow where she undertook a music degree at its prestigious Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, and then onwards to London in 1994. After a spell playing piano in a cocktail bar, her first band 'Goya Dress' was formed and signed in the same year to Nude Records.

Nude Records' signings have always been few and far between. While the label has achieved enormous success with 'Suede', its roster has always been kept small, and releases have never bordered beyond a couple of albums and a few singles and EPs each year. There are currently only six acts on its books. The label's emphasis is on quality rather than quantity, and most of Nude's releases are, therefore, of an exceptionally high standard. All the bands that Nude had signed previously had been guitar-led, and when it signed Goya Dress-an indication of the faith it had in the group- it was something of a change of stance and direction for the label.

Goya Dress were a three-piece group. Williamson, the front woman, provided vocals, played both guitar and piano, and wrote all the songs, and the band's other members were bassist and backing singer, Terry de Castro, and the group's only male, drummer Simon Pearson. There were two three track introductory EPs, 'Bedroom Cinema' and 'Ruby', which came out in April and September of 1995, before an album 'Rooms' followed in May of 1996. 'Rooms' was produced by the former 'Velvet Underground' bassist and violist , John Cale, who, as well as being now an established solo artist, has run a co-career as a producer with production credits for Patti Smith's 'Horses', The Stooges' Raw Power', Nico's 'The Marble Index' and 'Camera Obscura' and The Modern Lovers' self-titled debut album. There were too two compact discs singles taken from tracks off 'Rooms'. 'Glorious' was released a month before the album in April, and 'Crush' came out in July.

Goya Dress were an oddity. 'Rooms' is part gothic rock in the hippy/folk mode of 'All about Eve', but Cale and Pearson, as well as Astrid, come from a classical background, and the whole album too has an almost orchestral feel to it. Sweeping strings, a jarring trumpet, an oboe and even a fluegel are all readily employed, and dip in and out of the mix. It is Williamson's piano, however, with its rough, harsh chords that is often the album's main instrument, and this and her pitched, often shrieking voice, both vaguely reminscent of Kate Bush and Tori Amos at their most extreme, give the record an eerie and unsettling quality.

The lavish-languaged, but often opaque and mysterious lyrics are, however, perhaps strangest of all. They appear in the booklet that accompanies the album without punctuation, and are dreamlike,hallucinatory and sinister. 'Sweet Dreams for You', the soaring opening cut, for example, has a woman killing her lover with his own knife as they 'swoon' in bed, rather than take the risk of eventually losing him. 'Katie Stood on the Benches', written doubtlessly with Shetland in mind, has a girl standing on a beach waiting for a ship to come out of the dawn, but though she 'wanders though memories tripping up on visions lost' , it is never made clear exactly what she is waiting for, whether it is a lover or a husband or someone or something else, and we never learn the outcome of the boat's arrival. 'Greatest Secret', perhaps the most enigmatic track of all, meanwhile has someone waking up from a dream having been told the world's greatest secret, but not remembering what it is, only that he has tasted 'love at last.' Even the album's more accessible lyrics though have a similar disturbing menace. 'Scorch', which has Cale on piano, and lurches between gentle melody and sudden, searing frenzy, has a rejected lover claiming that she 'would like scorch my name in frames of blood...on all your walls in your house of stone your house of art the place the place the place where I was burned'.' Crush', based around a thundering guitar riff, is wildly jubilant and almost hysterical and has a girl voicing her infatuation, but in a throwaway line she knows that it may just be a 'phase'. 'Maritime Waltz', the final track, seems light and frothy and has a jigging tune, but it is about a seesaw relationship of extremes, and has Williamson bleakly asking at one point 'do you ever feel the violence in love do you ever guard a bruise like a gift ?'

'Rooms' is an intriguing, experimental, and often baffling album, and one, with its dense arrangements, unconvential structures and remote lyrics, that is not immediatelly viable or accessible. It may remain too eerily strange and off-kilter for many tastes, but while it is indeed analbum that is initially hard to like, it is one that is worth sticking and perservering with as it grows and develops with each subsequent listening. Its oddness becomes its attraction and appeal. With repeated hearings, as one starts to recognise and to hear the tunes within the tunes, and to realise the depths that have gone into making this album, it can become enricheningly addictive. A lot of fun can also be had trying to decode Williamson's lyrics. It is a record that one can return to and get something new out of time and time again. It was a distinguished, if difficult debut.

Goya Dress split up a few months after the the release of 'Rooms'. There were some tour dates, and they played one of their biggest gigs, a very personal one for Astrid, supporting Pulp, whose keyboardist Candida Doyle is Williamson's cousin, in July 1996 at a 8000 capacity concert in Lerwick in the largest rock concert Shetland had ever seen. By early 1997, however, Williamson had decided to make the natural step of going solo, and the band amicably broke up. While 'Rooms' had not sold particulary well, Nude Records were quick to sign her to another deal, and Astrid became the label's first female solo artist.

Astrid spent most of 1997 out of the public eye, writing and recording the songs that would eventually make up 'Boy for You'. There were two singles, 'Hosanna' which was released in January of 1998, and '(I am the) Boy for You' which came out in July, before the album itself finally emerged in September. Both were produced by Malcolm Burn over three months in New Orleans. Burn is perhaps best known for his work as an engineer and mixer for producer Daniel Lanois on albums that include Emmylou Harris's 'Wrecking Ball', The Neville Brothers 'Yellow Moon' and Bob Dylan's 'Oh, Mercy'. Burn is, however, also a talented keyboardist and guitarist and as well as having recorded his own album 'Redemption', is also a producer in his own right .His production work includes Iggy Pop's 'American Caesar', the Neville Brother's 'Yellow Moon' follow-up 'My Brother's Keeper', Sinead Lohan's 'No Mermaid' and Patti Smith's 'Gone Again'. Williamson and Burn play most of the instrumentation on 'Boy for You', but De Castro and Pearson, who Astrid gives 'special thanks' to in the album's acknowledgements for their 'love and support in doing this album and about a million other things', were once again drafted in on bass and drums.

The differences between 'Rooms' and 'Boy for You' are extreme. While Goya Dress had been other-wordly and slightly creepy, the songs on 'Boy for You' are both more accessible and earthy. 'Rooms' was often fanciful, but the lyrics of 'Boy for You' deal with real issues, real emotions and real people. As an NME critic put it at the time, contrasting the two albums, the songs on 'Boy for You' 'feel like they have been lived, rather than imagined'. Unusually, however, for a singer-songwriter of the late nineties, the songs on 'Boy for You' are not particulary insular or self-absorbed, and are often reflections on life as a whole, with Astrid putting herself into a variety of scenarios. The music too has gone through a change in direction. While 'Rooms' has a unique but often similar sound, 'Boy for You' takes in a variety of styles and forms.

Much has been made in the press about the album's electric-folk pop feel, and comparisions have been made with sixties and seventies star Joni Mitchell, whose simple but structured songwriting Astrid has cited as a major influence. The album indeed has elements of folk-rock, particulary in its earliest stages. The fourth track'World at Your Feet', with its harmonica and a forceful, building melody, in particular fits into this category, and has a timeless, anthem-like feel. The opening cut, the single '(I am the) Boy for You', a sexually ambiguous paean of love, with shrill vocals from Williamson, and ' What Do You...' , the breathily-sung third track, about a relationship that has lasted a long time without any real commitment, are both, however, tinged with the same qualities.

Electro-folk is though only part the picture. The piano, slightly less harsh and discordant than before, and more melodic, is again often the main instrument, especially on an untitled, uncredited song at the very end of the album and also on the record's penultimate track 'Say What You Mean', a pulsing piece to which synthesisers are slowly layered, about lack of communication between the sexes. There are, however, other influences too. The quietly awesome 'Someone' is a song about a less than satisfactory relationship which the vulnerable narrator, concluding to her other half that 'You look like someone I should love', seems determined to brazen out because it is better than nothing. It contrasts rain and thunder sound effects with a simple, melancholic organ and drums, and is almost country in feel. 'Outside', the only track co-written with Burn, with its heavy slabs of synthesiser ; Williamson's chanting vocals , and mysterious background voices embedded deep down in the mix, is, however, pure Euro disco. 'If I Loved You' is meanwhile a bouncing pop tune with exuberant keyboard work.The latter's lyrics are bittersweet and ironic and are about love on the rebound, and has the narrator trying to get back together with an ex-lover who she has obviously hurt badly. She asks him coquettishly and then desperately as it becomes clear that he is no longer interested ' Can I kiss you/Can I try to make you laugh' and 'If I loved you/Would you like that/Would you have me/On my front or on my back'.

While 'Rooms' is an album that one return to time and time again simply to try to make sense of it all, the more straightforward 'Boy for You is an album that one can come back to because its diversity of style makes it interesting, and it deals with a wide range of emotions.

At the time of writing Astrid has been playing some European gigs and has just finished a ten date tour of Britain supporting Roddy Frame. Her band for these dates have consisted of several members of former indie guitar group 'Strangelove', and include bassist Joe Allen, guitarist Julian-Pransky-Poole, and keyboardist Nick Powell. She is planning to use this band to go into the studio to record her next album. Whenever the results of these sessions eventually emerge, if they are as strong as her previous albums , they will prove to be stunning.

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