English Duo AQUILO On Their Atmospheric Debut Album, Anxiety & More
“It sounds really bad, but we’re in a pub,” Ben Fletcher, one half of the dream pop duo AQUILO, says over a noisy international call from central London. Poor connection aside, Fletcher and Tom Higham's candid enthusiasm for all that lies ahead comes through loud and clear.
After a successful North American tour opening for chillwave singer-songwriter Lapsley -- “It was a big group of mates touring America together” -- and the arrival of their full-length debut, Fletcher and Higham surely deserve a drink.
The album, titled Silhouettes, arrives today (Jan. 27), though it's been a long time coming. Fletcher tells Billboard that after working on these songs for nearly four years -- "long enough" -- he and Higham finally feel ready to share them. “It got to a point where we had this body of work that we were really happy with,” Fletcher relates. “It was a weird moment for us, being happy to release songs."
Fletcher and Higham grew up down the street from one another, though they didn't become friends, let alone music partners, until much later in life. Since AQUILO's inception in 2013, the England-based duo released a handful of well-received EPs and in doing so, carved a comfortable nook for themselves at the intersection of ambient music and indie pop. The pairing of their chilling falsetto harmonies and tenderly emotive lyrics make most listeners want to cuddle up within their pillowy arrangements.
Now, with their debut -- 14-tracks of pure ethereal bliss -- finally available, the two decided it was time to step out of their comfort zone. Days before the album's arrival, Fletcher confesses he and Higham felt "nervous and apprehensive, to say the least." He clarifies that while they aren’t perfectionists, they did fear what people would think of their music: “Tom and I are just like that, we get a bit anxious."
The two, who often echo each others thoughts, wrote much of the album back home in their village of Silverdale, Lancashire and London; they then took off for Iceland to record and produce. Fletcher says they missed home a lot while traveling, though it allowed them to work with Icelandic multi-instrumentalist/producer Ólafur Arnalds as well as English singer-songwriter/producer SOHN, both of whom helped the album through its final stages.
“This entire experience has been a learning curve for both of us,” Fletcher confesses. “We had no idea what we were in for. We look up to SOHN, his production methods and what he has to say about the industry. I’ve never seen anybody produce like he does.” They recalled a time when SOHN threw a microphone on the floor near some pots and pans he had laid down and proceeded to hit them with drumsticks; the sonic trial can be heard on the airy and percussion heavy “Human.” Fletcher says, “We’ve never done anything like that before, it was really guerilla-style.”
“Human” can be qualified as one of the more uptempo tracks on Silhouettes -- though such a descriptor is still a bit of a stretch, as AQUILO songs are most easily identified by their high reaching vocals and slow sweeping arrangements.
“We don’t really write happy songs, because we only really write when we’re emotional,” Fletcher says. “When we’re happy we tend to not want to write songs, we just carry on being happy.”
One way in which AQUILO played up their feelings of frustration and sadness is through the video trilogy that accompanies three songs off the album, selected based on which tracks they thought were most cinematically powerful: Part One is set to the more uptempo yet lyrically dark “You Won't Know Where You Stand;” Part Two accompanies the poignant piano and violin supported “Silhouette;” and finally there is Part Three, which features the appropriately titled minimalist and raw “Almost Over.”
“We wanted it to feel like a short film," Fletcher says. He adds he's a proponent of when music tells "a basic story that holds a big message" and that they also wanted to have "a little bit of gritty Brit in it," a sentiment that becomes understood upon viewing the videos. To help bring their vision to life, Fletcher and Higham enlisted Eoin Glaister (LA Priest, Catfish and the Bottlemen) to direct the videos.
One such display of Glaister's ingenuity was his idea to have the trilogy's female lead be an ice skater. Fletcher and Higham recognize ice skating as a "peculiar sport" since "it doesn’t happen over here in England." They say its rarity adds even more pressure on the protagonist to succeed; a desire they can relate to. Additionally, they acknowledge that the protagonist's passion "could have been anything," connoting a universality felt in both the videos and AQUILO's expansive music.
Looking ahead, Fletcher and Higham plan to tour the new album and also return to writing (with their first LP done, they're already thinking about album two). With so much on the horizon, the release of Silhouettes marks a monumental turning point for the two. Their debut is not only the culmination of four years of uprooted emotion and indulgent experimentation, it also allows them to willingly embrace what lies ahead. “I cringe when I say 'journey,'" Fletcher admits. "But it is really that."
Among their upcoming appearances are a show at New York's Bowery Ballroom on March 20 and gigs at this year's SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas.