Ruby Nightingale has an unforgettable voice — hypnotic and warm, articulate as it unravels into long, clear tones of gently wavering vibrato.
Going forward, technology will play an important role in how Nightingale's music evolves; at a recent show at the Space in Hamden, she sang stretched-out compositions, without masking her Australian accent (Nightingale grew up in Brisbane, and lived in Hong Kong for a time), over acoustic-guitar arpeggios and the occasional strummed chord progression.
I went in expecting a singer-songwriter set, but this was something else: Using a loop pedal, Nightingale improvised contrapuntal lines — you couldn't tell how many — at both ends of her vocal register, but mostly clumped in-between. They moved largely in parallel motion, enveloping the room, their presence almost physical. Some time passed (it was hard to tell how much), and she stepped again: the voices disappeared, suddenly, without reverb, echo or delay to memorialize them, even for a second.
"It's always a little bit daunting," Nightingale says of her live shows. "Like, 'This is going to get weird, and I don't know if you're going to like it.'"
Nightingale recently graduated with a degree in classical vocal performance from the Hartt School. She sings opera and lieder, in several languages.
Nightingale's mother, a middle-school teacher, was also a singer; as an infant, she attended her mom's voice lessons. "The pianist would have me strapped on her back," she says. "I was surrounded by music. It was a central focus of my upbringing."
On a campus visit to Hartt, Nightingale fell in love with the school. Once enrolled, her studies progressed. She became interested in improvised and experimental music. She listened to Meredith Monk and György Ligeti — composers with novel approaches to setting voices. Her influences broadened; in her own music, she sought a middle ground between improvised and composed music.
"Before, they were different genres," she says. "Now, it all feels the same."
Last year, Nightingale released "Sleeping in Pashminas," her first full-length album, comprising eight mournful, atmospheric folk-rock songs, recorded with engineer and producer Cameron Boucher, who fronts the Hartford-based band Sorority Noise. (Nightingale also sang on "Joy, Departed," Sorority Noise's 2015 full-length album.)
Nightingale's vocal-layering techniques seep into the connective tissue of her songs: the spaces between verses and choruses, phrase extensions, intros and outro, and so on. Spare acoustic guitars, pianos and strings — an earthy, grounding sound — thicken slightly in later verses and choruses. There's a fragile intimacy to songs like "Straight Teeth," a through-composed song about imperfection (something she embraces in live performance): "Your laces are not the same length, and your hair doesn't change with the leaves/Your arms feel too long when they're outstretched, and you're far too interesting to have straight teeth."
"Favourite freckle, red rib" recalls the mystical, hazy English folk-rock sound of the late 1960s: "I have a friend who sees colour for pitch," Nightingale sings, "Does that make him a musician or artist?/I think it makes him both and I think for all of us there is hope." A ghostly, wordless chorus follows, along with a tempo boost and nervous violin figures (supplied by Nick Kwas).
Nightingale approaches song form with playfulness; sound accumulates in "Splitting," piling up against a slow, triple-meter feel, gradually rising in trajectory over two chords, then just one. She weaves ecstatic syllables over piano chords on "Leaving, blooming" — the final track on "Pashminas," and also the most forward-thinking — extending into advanced jazz harmony realms, until something close to saturation is achieved.
"Pashimas," however, doesn't reflect where Nightingale's music is going. Her SoundCloud is filled with short, low-key vocal experiments, and a new record, "Orion's Belt," will be released later this spring.
"I've transitioned as a songwriter from being a girl-with-guitar to being more real about what my music is to me now," Nightingale says. "It's interesting in certain environments: How weird can I get?"
Live, Nightingale traces the general structure of songs (verses, choruses, and so on), then begins to add melodic lines. At the Space, the texture — especially because of Nightingale's vibrato — reminded me of Ligeti's micropolyphonic "Atmospheres," used famously by Stanley Kubrick for the deep-space scenes in "2001: A Space Odyssey," but with a clear tonal center.
"I'll have a poem," Nightingale says. "I know the words I'm going to say, in terms of transitioning out of the structured part of the song into the loopiness. It's mostly improvised."
Nightingale recently moved to Harlem, but returns to Connecticut often to perform. After four years in Hartford, she still feels connected to the area.
"That's as much time as I spent in Hong Kong," Nightingale says. "Hartford became home in so many ways."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Press Play is a column exploring the underground musicians of Connecticut. If you have new music to share, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.