Imagine the mind’s farthest wanderings made physical, formed into worlds that represent our internal and external expressions. Mythologically speaking, people have been naming this duality for ages: utopia and dystopia, heaven and earth, Olympus and the underworld. Now imagine this concept distilled in an eleven track, thirty-six minute album, and you arrive at Arcadia, the latest offering by songstress Lily Kershaw. Weaving warmer analog sounds like organ, harpsichord and guitar with cinematic force, Arcadia is Kershaw’s most intimate release to date. But the strongest tool Kershaw wields is her voice, both in the simmering ferocity it carries and the poetry it speaks. Though the concept behind the record is epic to say the least, Kershaw is ultimately telling a story of acceptance, both of herself and the great mystery that is the universe. “At the same time that I’m existing in existential crisis there’s also this part of me that is fully in acceptance of the reality of being alive and loves it.” she says. “That acceptance also allowed me to be more intimate. Whether people realize it or not, I feel like I’m revealing a lot.”
But the path to self-acceptance is not without its struggles. A self-described “compulsive songwriter,” Kershaw has been making music for most of her life. Constantly in the studio, Kershaw has released a record, an EP and a slew of singles over the last six years, including breakout hit “As it Seems.” But if there is anything she has gained with the release of each new record, it is trust. “I think initially when I was making music, I would go into the room and believe that whoever I was with knew better than me,” says Kershaw. “I’ve been writing music for so long and I’ve been recording music since I was seventeen-years-old and I’m twenty eight — that’s a lot of years. I’ve learned I need to trust my gut when I’m on to something.” That process of intuition was integral to the making of Arcadia. Partnering with producer and artist Ben Cooper, Kershaw notes that he “echoed very similar beliefs about life and creativity.” She continues, “as we walked into the studio, I realized that to work with him and to do it well would mean that the most important thing is that I be myself.”
It is fitting then, that listening to an inner voice was the catalyst for making the record: “At the beginning of the year, I got obsessed with the word Arcadia. It was looping in my brain, and as I was driving one day, it was just too loud. So I yelled out, ‘You want me to move to Arcadia!?’ And then I became really calm and some part of my brain said, ‘no it’s a record. Go make a record called Arcadia.’” As Kershaw began conceptualizing the world of Arcadia, its counterpart also took shape in the song “Myth of New York. “If Arcadia is the immortal, then ‘Myth of New York’ is the mortal,” she says. Hence, the record is divided into two worlds, with half the songs existing in the first world, and the other half in the latter. She describes her vision saying, “If the first half had imagery, it would be a lush idealistic place and the second half of the record would exist somewhere on the edges of a dystopic city that has fallen.” But think of it less like an album split in two, and more like the image of Ouroboros, the serpent devouring its own tail. Because, as Kershaw points out, both the first and last notes of the record are the same, presenting itself as an infinite loop. While this might sound esoteric, Kershaw presents snapshots of her psyche in terms we can all understand, like love, heartbreak and fear.
On “Always and Forever,” Kershaw uses the metaphor of a bad relationship to explore her reservations around the concept of time and infinity. And while Kershaw is primarily known as a folk-pop artist, she consistently pushes the limitations of that label. Originally written as a guitar-based tune with friend Emma Roberts, Kershaw instinctively decided to add synth, creating an 80s sonic texture without succumbing to any of the tropes found in today’s new wave nostalgia.
Next comes “The Sea,” another co-write, this time with fellow singer-songwriter Jon Bryant. Like most of Kershaw’s writing sessions, the song came together quickly. “It felt like it already existed because even if we didn’t know what the other person was going to sing, we would just follow and harmonize. So there was a way in which we were both very tied in and connected from the start.” While the instrumentation is sparse, the song’s undercurrent feels as vast and deep as its title. A “classic lover’s tale” as Kershaw describes it, “The Sea’s” distinction is the harmony between Bryant and Kershaw, despite the underlying sadness that permeates when they sing, “when we’re older… the sea, it was all in our minds.”
Transitioning out of the Arcadian half of the record, we hit “Soft Dark Nothing” which starts with, “Goodnight, goodbye, good luck, don’t cry. It’s the edge of it all…all my friends, at the end of the world, I hope to see you again, it’s the end of this time, it’s the end of our time.” While lyrically that may seem bleak, musically it ends ambiguously. Starting off with just piano and voice, the song crescendos to a resolution that never fully settles. It feels like a fitting end of one world, and the beginning of another. But shifting between these universes, there is no sharp auditory contrast that defines the two halves of the record. Instead, the concept is found in narratives and sounds that mirror each other. For instance, the use of the harpsichord is a reference to its popularity in the baroque era and its resurgence in 1960s pop music. Heavily used in “Fears Become Wishes,” “Parallel Lives” and “Here’s To Us,” Kershaw says, “For me, it’s a reminder that everything cycles through.”
Towards the end, we find Kershaw at her most raw on “Now and Then,” and as the penultimate song, it reflects the relationship in the album’s second track, “Always and Forever.” “There are a lot of endings currently happening in my life,” says Kershaw. “And all of a sudden it was like this thing hurt so bad and the only way out is through.” Stripped to nothing but vocals, pump organ and guitar, the track is Kershaw’s love letter to the people in her life, despite their absence or the way things ended. In a way, “Now and Then” is the perfect summary of the record’s essence. Like the Ouroboros, there is creation out of destruction, life out of death. In Kershaw’s words, Arcadia is ultimately about “the promise that there is no real end, that everything is possible. This record was not born because I was happy and comfortable. This record exists because I was in pain. The most uncomfortable, dark things can actually have the promise of a lot of hope and growth.” As Kershaw beautifully states in “Always and Forever,” “In the darkness, I feel holy.”