On one of the first sunny days that England has seen in weeks, Tirzah Mastin pitches up to Danson Park, south east London, for our interview. She waves, tentatively, before sitting down on a bench overlooking a lake, and we both stumble around with small talk about how strange it is to be doing this kind of thing face-to-face.
But almost a year spent in lockdown has proven fruitful for the 33-year-old, who has recently released two singles, Send Me and Sink In, in a welcome follow up to Devotion – the critically-acclaimed 2018 LP which established her as one of the best songwriters in London’s underground music scene.
A mix of unpolished art rock and R&B, Devotion was full of no-nonsense musings on love and desire. The album was an unpretentious celebration of everyday intimacy, the musical equivalent of a tender embrace, of noticing the small things that make romantic partnerships so enticing: smell, touch, conflict and then resolution.
Since then, Essex-born Mastin has been focusing on her kids and remained a fairly lowkey artist – bar a feature on Mura Masa’s melancholy tune, Today, in 2020. She’s pensive and picks her words carefully, occasionally erupting into bouts of bubbly laughter. She only posts on Instagram to promote new music, and tends to shy away from the limelight where other musicians would bask in it.
So was she surprised, almost three years post-Devotion, to find that people responded so excitedly to her latest work? “Yeah, definitely,” Mastin says, quietly, laidback in a burnt orange, checkered flannel shirt, grey towelling tracksuit bottoms and Nike trainers. “Everyone’s so busy and has so much going on, it’s amazing to think they pop their head up at any given time to take all of it in. I generally don’t have many expectations of things – probably to avoid disappointment.”
Both of the new singles offer a poignant continuation of the themes explored in Devotion. April’s Send Me, a sparse track overlaid with looped acoustic guitar and steady, rhythmic drums, shines in its simplicity. “Send me, sun at dawn /Gonna let it heal some more /Let me heal and now I’m sure”, Mastin intonates, quietly powerful in showcasing the vulnerability inherent to growth, motherhood and recovery – she gave birth to her second child just before the UK’s first lockdown.
“It’s really about what it says on the tin,” Mastin says of Send Me. “Healing, an overall sense of gratitude, and things that are important to me in my life. A renaissance, I suppose.”
On Sink In, which came out a month later, Mastin sings softly over a hypnotic instrumental and build up of synths. “The initial feeling is probably the truest one,” she explains of writing the song. “Everything after that, you’ve got some other agenda.”
In general, Mastin is wary of over-analysing her musical process. “I’m sure some people do have that kind of, ‘OK, I want to embody this or that’, but not necessarily me,” she says, bending down to stroke a passer-by’s King Charles Spaniel. “With any new project there’s a sense of rebirth, because it’s a chance to start afresh. To be honest, it was just nice to be in a new place, writing new music again.”
This is a process that wouldn’t be complete – or perhaps even possible – without the input of Mastin’s close friend, longtime collaborator and Oscar-nominated producer Mica Levi. Perhaps most widely known for their work scoring Jonathan Glazier’s 2013 sci-fi film Under the Skin and Pablo Larraín’s 2016 Jackie Kennedy Onassis biopic, Jackie, Levi has been a staple of leftfield UK music for over 12 years, playing in the art-punk band Good Sad Happy Bad (fka Micachu & The Shapes) and working with the likes of Dean Blunt and Oliver Coates.
Mastin and Levi – affectionately nicknamed ‘Meeks’ by Mastin – have worked together for two decades, ever since they met at the Purcell School for Young Musicians in Watford. Levi has produced all of Mastin’s records to date, including her EPs I’m Not Dancing and No Romance, released in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Along with south east London musician Coby Sey, the pair crafted the sound which features on Devotion and Mastin’s new singles.
Send Me and Sink In were entirely recorded at The Room Studios in Hither Green, a twenty minute train ride from Mastin’s place in Sidcup, where she relocated six months ago. “Meeks had a studio in that building, and we could fit it in around each of our schedules. It was a home away from home,” Mastin says. “We’d get together, chit chat half the time and then realise we should probably make some music!”
Now that live gigs are (hopefully) on the horizon, Mastin is faced with the daunting prospect of performing these intimate songs, recorded in the comfort of her inner circle, to real-life crowds. She played her last show in 2019, at Berlin’s silent green Kulturquartier, and her next one is set to take place as part of Gala Festival in Peckham, south east London, on 30th July.
“That feels crazy,” she says, smiling. “I wouldn’t say I’m excited, but I’m curious and a little nervous. I’m not entirely sure yet what my live shows will look and feel like, what instrumentation they’re going to take. But to me, it’s just music. All you can hope for is that there’s a sense of invitation there, that you can take people along with you.”
Before she heads home, Mastin hints at a larger body of work. “My favourite part [of that] has been somewhere in the middle, along with the actual writing itself,” she says, suggestively. “That’s where you get the sense of what it’s becoming, but it’s not finished yet and could go one way or the other. I like that sense of uncertainty…” But before she has a chance to finish, a cohort of dogs interrupt. We’ll just have to wait and see.