Scout Niblett: Raw Minimalism

Scout Niblett: “IBD”
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Crossing the lines of minimalist performer and powerhouse artist, Scout Niblett is one of the strongest voices to emerge in recent years. With each successive album, Niblett emboldens her material with a hypnotic and stirring display of honest emotion and inspired will. Acting as an introspective one-woman force of nature, she eschews superfluous support and production without sacrificing an already demanding sound.

Born in Staffordshire County, near the city of Birmingham in central England, Emma Louise Niblett grew up within the duality of the rural and industrial state. At a young age, she was trained on the piano and violin, and raised on music from the Top 40 countdown, from which she regularly taped her favorites to listen to over and over again. Her artistic roots and an English tradition of emotional repression clashed within her. Though Niblett had begun writing songs on her classically trained instruments, they never acted as an emotional or creative outlet.

When the grunge movement reached English shores, a 17-year-old Niblett discovered acts like Nirvana and Sonic Youth. Kurt Cobain’s powerful voice and raw emotion especially captured her attention, compelling her to move to guitar and becoming a major influence in her burgeoning songwriting. As soon as she got that guitar, she learned a few chords and immediately began writing material. With a stockpile of ideas from her youth on the piano, Niblett began building with simple melodies and heart-pounding vocals.

In college in Nottingham, Niblett split her time between music and performance art. She first took to a stage, but not to sing. Her performance art included multimedia monologues and an almost Cabaret-style exploration of music and images. However, it would not be long before she shared her songwriting with the intimate audiences. “I didn’t want to do anything else,” she says of her advent into performing. “I was pretty stubborn about it.”

For her stage name, Niblett turned to Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, the spunky narrator from To Kill a Mockingbird. “The character almost reminded me of myself, but a very free version of myself as a child,” she says. “I didn’t really express myself in the way that she did. I didn’t do that. And I felt that I should have, like that was a part of me that I really repressed. I think music is a way of expressing myself fully.”

From the beginning, Niblett was a solo artist. “I’ve never had a band,” she says. “I never learned other people’s songs. That didn’t interest me.” But that’s not to say that she’s an isolationist. She has contributed to a broad range of friendly collaborations and the odd duet, only to remain a predominantly lone figure throughout her work.

Niblett released her debut LP, Sweet Heart Fever, on Secretly Canadian in 2001, introducing listeners to her minimalist yet powerful and resonant songs. The album also introduced Scout Niblett the percussionist, as some songs were just her stark voice over a rumbling beat. This too would become a signature aesthetic.

Turning an ironic ear to her material, Niblett kept up an irreverent and enigmatic front. In her early shows, the musician would act out in odd yet comforting ways, like donning a blonde wig or engaging in morbid sing-a-longs. After building a reputation as a bold live presence, Niblett began touring Europe. She soon decided to pick up and move to the United States, where her music was being discovered by fans of PJ Harvey and Cat Power. Her constant touring led to a restless lifestyle, as she explored the country while living in places like Chicago, Philadelphia, and Oakland before landing in Portland.

The year 2002 saw the release of the I Conjure Series EP, where again Niblett played the entire album and captured a sparse, moving atmosphere often with only guitars and vocals. Her subsequent releases, starting with I Am in 2003 and Kidnapped by Neptune in 2005, feature the songwriter working with producer Steve Albini, after they met during recording on a mutual friend’s album.

In 2007, Niblett opened her world slightly by experimenting with folk and country lines and even inviting Will Oldham to collaborate on the album This Fool Can Die Now. By this time, Niblett also had gotten into the habit of bringing a drummer on tour with her, rather than flying solo. The new dynamic didn’t change the intimacy of the performance, nor did it lighten the brooding, raw emotion lying at the center, but it did allow the songwriter to focus on bringing a more refined and contemplative approach to her music, one that has expanded her creative outlet.

The latest offering from the artist is her most challenging and heavy work yet. The Calcination of Scout Niblett (Drag City) poses tough questions to our protagonist. The process of calcination is the first step in turning lead into gold, a metaphor that suits the album well. A cathartic and reflective journey, The Calcination… carries an unbelievable weight with strained resolve that explores many of the all-too-often taken-for-granted moments and memories. From the blazing opening seconds, and throughout the intensely personal record, Niblett’s energy never falters.

As always, Niblett’s inner voice speaks and informs her songwriting. A dedicated astrologer as well, she takes subconscious mysteries and lures them right to the surface. “To me, songs really are kind of messages from my subconscious,” she says. “I don’t sit down and try and write something with a concept. I can’t really do that. I just start playing, and then something will emerge that wasn’t there when I started. I can’t say I want to write a song about this and do it.”

She admits that the messages are not always so clear. Sometimes a song written years ago will suddenly become relevant, immediate even. Such is the case with “Pluto.” Written initially over a decade ago, this track only now is featured on her newest album, observed in new light, with new purpose. And it’s not the only one. Niblett hints at scores of works remaining perhaps as live performance only, or even kept further out of reach, until their meanings becomes clear.

Niblett’s raw torrent of emotion is anchored in her deeply sensitive and mature outlook. She takes subconscious mysteries and lures them right to the surface. Looking straight at what most people spend years ignoring, the depth that Niblett’s songwriting taps into is matched only by her staggering resilience, offering respite for the rest of us.

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