The first sentiment that registers when meeting Tamsin Wilson – the front-woman and voice of alt-folk three-piece Wilsen – is surprise. For those unaware, the band’s debut album I Go Missing In My Sleep is a quiet statement of intent, an entry into the genre that’s rooted in American pastoral tradition and ought to be recognised as one of the albums of the year.
The surprise comes, however, from the quiet English-rose accent that a Wilson greets us with when we meet her. It’s among a few surprises that crop up over the course of our conversation before her gig at London’s Bush Hall (supporting Diane Birch), and her first performance on the tour without her bandmates.
“Performing is still not natural,” says Wilson, before dropping another surprise. “I went to Berklee [College of Music] very much thinking I wanted to work at the back-end! I didn’t have to go through the terrifying performance things.” So how did she make that jump to become front and centre of her own band? “It was very daunting. I didn’t think I wanted to perform, but I had a bunch of friends who had a songwriting night across the river, far away from the school, and that’s where things started to develop. I got caught by its spell so it was a no-brainer, especially with the band. It’s such a moment of magic up there but it can also go horribly wrong.”
And that night at Bush Hall it almost does go horribly wrong. Wilsen (the act) has an audience in complete thrall as she switches between her richly-textured voice, an ethereal whistle, and a trusty guitar… until Wilson (the person) interrupts her own song at a poignant moment because of paper on her plectrum.
“Rewind five seconds, forget that happened,” she laughs. If Wilson is nervous being up there on stage it doesn’t show – with her own self-effacing charm she has the room laughing with her and then immediately silent, rapt in emotion, as she continues her doleful tune. That sort of understated stage presence (without a band, no less) isn’t something you come across every day.
It stems, we imagine, from Wilson’s musical beginning in her formative years. “I started writing songs when I was 15 – it was all very teenage-angsty. I used to write random stories and poems. I was living in Canada at the time but then moved back to England. When I was here I started playing open nights,” she explains before surprising us yet again. “I played some shows and then met a booker… at a kebab shop.”
Whatever preconception you might have of the aloof folk musician, Tamsin Wilson certainly isn’t that. So how did the self-confessed “girl with a guitar” get from the kebab shop to making a record that’s seeped in the tones of her adopted country?
“I was lucky to be around certain people that thought being a musician or artist held a certain credence,” she tells us. “I fell in love with a lot of Americana… people like Ryan Adams, but not quite Bruce Springsteen! But that storytelling aspect. It had a lot of influence.”
It certainly shows on songs like Centipede, a stunning introduction to Wilsen’s sound. Which, funnily enough, is based on an actual centipede. But, as Wilson admits herself, her genre is about “turning the mundane into something special. Adding meaning to a small object.”
There’s no doubt she’s done that with this song. Not to mention the fact that we learnt a new word from it too. “Ataraxia!” she laughs, describing the state of being at peace and ease with one’s surroundings. “I was reading something and came across the word and thought it was beautiful.” And then yet another surprise: “When I first started performing the song most people thought I was saying ‘annorexia’ so that’s why I changed the pronunciation!”
But of course, we reach for something that might be further under the surface. Looking at an insect with envy isn’t exactly a normal thing, and even the faceless album sleeve indicates something a little bit out-of-body. “I noticed a common theme,” she admits. “A lot of it has to do with identity, a physical place or mentally in your trajectory, almost like ‘Where am I from? I have no idea’. When I was looking at the artwork I wanted to get that across.”
That’s understandable, given Wilson’s upbringing in both Canada and the UK before ultimately settling in New York. But one thing she’s certainly kept from the British side is a pathological inclination to apologise. It happens a lot on stage (needlessly, but that’s part of the charm) and – despite her insistence that she “can be a dragon sometimes” – that bashfulness certainly extends beyond there when it comes to things like reviews and social media.
“It doesn’t come naturally to me,” she says for the second time during the interview. “I often forget you can say things to people in a conversation let alone type it out – there are friends who are so great at it, but it’s been a learning curve.”
If anything, then, Wilson is certainly at her most natural and most at home with her music. That’s already evident on the record, and it’s more than evident when she’s up on stage, the air tangibly turning as she gains a whole host of new fans with a performance that traverses both vulnerability and strength in its stunning range.
Is she finally at, to use her own word, ataraxia? “At the moment: yes,” she smiles. “Certain things put me in that state. I would say I am – I’ve got a record out, I’m playing my songs, I’m meeting new people. It’s comfortable. This record was a companion in difficult times, and I hope it gives other people some solace too.”
Judging by the response to her work, the reviews, and the sheer number of online streams, we’re pretty sure that’s already happening at the rich rate Wilsen so very much deserve.
I Go Missing In My Sleep is out now.