Bess Hildick-Smith, known by her stage name as Bess Atwell, grew up in the English countryside, one of four children to an eclectic family of artists, songwriters and doctors. Growing up Atwell dabbled in acting, musical theatre, and fine art. She says “the love of singing is something I think most people realise at a very young age. I grew up in a creative household; many of my extended family are musicians, my dad a songwriter himself, and mother an artist”. She explains how her earliest years were spent assuming she’d follow in her mother’s footsteps, and still considers fine art her first love. She discovered song-writing a little later; “when I was ten my dad bought me a Spanish guitar and we both took lessons with the same teacher. I didn’t like being given homework and didn’t see much fun in the instrument on its own, so it was a few years later that I picked it up again and decided to sing, and eventually write my own songs”.
At the age of thirteen, just as she was finding her footing as a songwriter, Atwell was offered a drama scholarship to a competitive private school. While acknowledging the privilege she’s had, she cites her experience at school as the cause of a substantial loss of confidence; “It was a difficult few years for various reasons, and at school I was either invisible or in a lot of trouble which didn’t help. I didn’t fit their cookie cutter ideal, so I was constantly getting the message that there was something wrong with me”. After graduating from school, she enrolled on a music degree at Falmouth University but soon withdrew to pursue music nearer London.
In 2015, not long after dropping out of university, Atwell garnered the attention of major news outlets after a slew of showcases for The Great Escape Festival. The Independent and The Guardian were amongst those who were impressed by the artist’s performances, describing her as “a promising folk poet of suppression and inner anxiety” and “a gifted singer-songwriter with a voice like slow, cool water”.
The new music is the first since her 2016 debut album. The record included the single ‘Cobbled Streets’ and saw Atwell attract the attention of critics and public alike while picking up radio plays on BBC Radio One, Two and Six Music together with live sessions for Steve Lamacq and Jo Whiley’s shows. Atwell spent the following year gigging, including several sold out headline shows, and returning to festival favourites such as The Great Escape and Green Man.
Two years on, the former solo project has evolved into a full band sound soaked in four-part vocal harmony fulfilling Atwell’s desire to create a more dynamic live show, with traces of traditional folk music. The band took some time out to work on new material in their hometown of Brighton. Though the prospect of taking a step back was a daunting move for the songwriter, it provided the necessary space to re-evaluate and create. On speaking to Pure M Zine about the new material she expressed that there were a few years she felt the genre ‘folk’ had become almost a dirty word; something that had been taken from “timeless to something fashionable, and the problem with fashion is that it goes out of fashion eventually”. The time off allowed the songwriter to develop a more refined, assured sound by falling back in love with folk music and learning to incorporate it with newer indie-rock influences.
Atwell’s latest single ‘Grace’ is the more restrained, intimate successor of her August offering ‘Swimming Pool’, both of which have been playlisted by BBC Radio 6 Music. Taking inspiration from the likes of The National, Fleet Foxes, Lucy Dacus and Soccor Mommy, to name just a few, the new music attempts to depict the friction between fantastical, escapist imagery and the realities of relationships. Atwell says “I’ll tend to take a more romantic, digestible subject as a starting point, but I admire artists who’re able to get very personal and specific, lyrically – it’s a muscle I’m learning to flex. While Grace is fundamentally a love song about accepting someone at their worst, I think all love songs ultimately say much more about the writer than the subject”.
Having written ‘Grace’ almost two years ago, Atwell’s demo attracted record label attention. After being re-imagined by a couple of producers and labels, the band decided to record and release the single independently with producer Giles Barrett (John Grant, Johnny Flynn, Marika Hackman, Goat Girl) at Soup Studios in East London. On comparing the recording process to her debut, Atwell said “with these new tunes it was an entirely different experience – I have an amazing full-time band now who worked on these songs with me outside of the studio and so when it came time to record we just went into the studio and played the songs essentially”.
Bess Atwell plays a headline show at St Pancras Old Church in association with Parallel Lines on the 15th February 2019.