If you haven’t heard the debut album from London’s Abigail Wyles and Holly Simpson – or simply just Wyles & Simpson – you are, quite frankly, a stupid. The duo’s confection of electronic soul (released on Chase & Status‘s label) is one of the most majestic debuts you’re likely to enjoy this year, a nocturnal journey full of depth and wealth as it courses towards light.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed either. On the week that their impeccable breakthrough track Stormy Skies hits the BBC Introducing section of the Radio1 playlist, we sat down for a chat with the duo to talk about their debut, their influences, and everything in between. It’s a joy to listen to them talk about a body of work that has drawn comparisons to the likes of London Grammar; on the surface the duo carry with them that very particular British reservation, but through it all their focus and passion is still perfectly apparent. Hardly surprising, given they’ve pretty much done everything on the record themselves.
As an exclusive PressPLAY treat, the girls have also very kindly performed two tracks for us – the first of these is Light and Dark, which you can enjoy above before you read all about them (and stream the album) below.
Let’s take this back to the beginning, but with you guys as individuals. What was your musical background like before you met each other?
Abigail: I’ve always been exposed to music, from very early on. Particularly from my dad… we had quite an array of records on vinyl. Motown, punk, classical, rock. And classic songwriting as well, like Carole King, Kate Bush. In terms of my musical development, I’ve learnt from what I’ve heard, so for the most part it’s been self-taught really. I did play violin and I’ve always loved to sing – I did sing with my twin sister before working on stuff on my own – then Holly and I met after uni.
Wait, you’ve got a twin sister? Are you the evil one?
A: (laughs) I don’t think so!
Holly: They’re identical! At first it’s pretty intense, but then you get used to it.
That feels like a prank waiting to happen. Sending Abi’s twin sister on stage instead… But anyway. What about your background, Holly?
H: I started learning violin when I was about three – Suzuki method, so classical training – then started piano at six. So classical has been a massive influence on me and, same as Abi, a music-loving household. My parents encouraged a wide array of music listening and genres like hip-hop, pop, soul, and all the biggies like Stevie Wonder.
So how did you both meet?
A: Well we met through music, didn’t we? I was in a band. Also in the band was James, a friend of Holly’s, and that’s how we met, through a mutual friend about six years ago.
H: We all met in a pub in Chorlton where we were living. It was random. I went to meet James for a drink and Abi was there and we just hit it off. We got each other straight away, and starting writing and jamming together. It was really natural. It was just that (clicks) straight away. The music in our friendship has really grown over the years, it’s really tight now, but that creative buzz was there at the start. I’ve never had that before.
So you met a few years ago and started writing together, but on Soundcloud there was just something under Abi’s name, a song called Mantra. Did you release that on your own?
A: It was completely us two. It was just…
H: Well, when we met MTA – Saul, who is Chase from Chase & Status, and Sophie the label manager – they came up to Manchester to meet us and offer us a contract. At the time they took me on as a writer and Abi as a recording artist. So we were happy to move down to London, continue the journey in that way. We were getting into production and only just starting to learn. By the time we got to Mantra, we were realising that we were a production unit.
A: Quite clearly, it was about the two of us.
H: So we were happy for it to go out as it was, but then we spoke to MTA about the contract and making it a duo.
A: We wanted to make it Wyles & Simpson. It had to be Wyles & Simpson.
Having a label like MTA come and see you is no small thing. How did that come about in the first place?
A: Saul saw a YouTube video, and that’s why they came to see us.
How long have you been with them?
A: Three years.
And they’ve let you steer things the way you want?
H: Yeah. We’ve been really fortunate with that. They’ve given us the space and time. They’ve been patient.
So that’s how Wyles & Simpson started. We’ve got to ask about the name – you didn’t opt for some fancy group thing..?
A: It works, I think! We did have a little thing about alternatives…
H: We tried names like Belle Epoque. No names seemed right so we thought, let’s keep it simple and straightforward.
A: Simple, but it works.
The first track you released was Light And Dark. How did that turn out?
H: It was good! Really good. We had a premiere on Fader, which was really exciting. We put together a bit of footage for the video and people responded well to that. We had a little bit of trepidation about seeing how people would react…
A: Because it’s such a huge market, there are so many people coming at one time. We were interested to see how it did.
There is this presumption that because you’re female, you may not have an idea of what you want to do in terms of production
You mention that it’s quite a huge market. Did you ever find it difficult between, say, Manchester and getting your record out?
A: I think it remains difficult, because of things like budget and timing.
H: It’s a massive struggle. But at the same time we know we’re very fortunate to be two lucky people who are making music.
If there are other new artists in your position, looking at blogs and all the music out there, what advice would you give them?
H: Art will prevail. You do what you do, you believe in what you do; just have courage and believe that what happens will happen. Let it go and see what comes back.
Speaking of art prevailing, that brings us on to Stormy Skies – you’re both lighting up as soon as you hear those words! Is that quite a special song for you?
H: Yeah, it’s one of the more extroverted, uplifting, confident songs. It instils that energy, that vibe whenever we think of it. And hopefully it does the same for other people too.
You sing, you perform, you write, you produce, you mix, and you have creative input on the videos. This is clearly too personal for you to sit back and let the label handle everything, it seems…
A: It’s very precious to us. It’s our baby. Going back to what we were saying earlier about the industry, we feel so passionate about it, about the music, we’re so involved in it and it’s intrinsic to our every day. So we’ve always wanted absolute control over it.
H: Yeah. I was actually going to say, that doesn’t come from a place of wanting to control everything. It comes from a place of having a really clear idea of what you want, and wanting to give it justice, whether it’s the production or mixing. It comes from that place, wanting what we do to really have integrity and be honest.
A: We did try. We tried certain mixers, and working with other producers, all of those things. But it only becomes that much more obvious that it’s us who had the vision.
Going back to ‘the industry’… Have people ever underestimated you or turned you away because you’re two young women who want to be in control in a male-dominated industry?
A: That’s a really good question.
H: It’s a tricky one to answer. It is male-dominated, there’s no doubt about it. You do come up against clashes with men. There is this presumption that because you’re female, you may not have an idea of what you want to do in terms of production.
A: It has been tough at times.
What’s the writing process like between the two of you?
A: There is no one way, is there?
H: Some songs are really old and have been through a few manifestations. Others are newer, and it all varies. Some start with a vocal melody, or a synth ditty, and you’re just looking for that hook and feel for what you know.
A: It can be quite a lengthy process. But I remember listening to Kate Bush talking about the demise of the album as an art form, and she was truly sad about that. We wanted to put everything into this to have a body of work, beginning to end, to show where we’re at right now and so that people don’t feel cheated when they get to the end. That is the hope.
It definitely comes across. In terms of the themes and experiences in the album, there must be a lot of yourselves in there. What would you say is the song that’s closest to either of you?
A: It is very revealing. They’ve all got their little bits… Is it ok to say there’s not one?
H: The thing is, one person is so multifaceted and our experiences vary in so many ways. All of the songs are about different experiences that we all have. We want them to be human experiences really – there are specific stories that are personal to us but anyone can relate to. Stormy Skies is about feeling weighed down by whatever it is, and you just keep going. They’re all personal in different ways, and have different energies.
A: It changes from day to day. And seasonal. Some of them just have a seasonal affiliation.
H: What’s the one song that you’re feeling close to at the moment?
A: Ooh… See I’m Calling probably.
H: I would say Prophetise for me.
There is a mixture of the maudlin with something uplifting. For example in Metamorphosis, there’s the lyric “be the first to know/ listen to your heart, don’t let it go out the window”. It feels like a musical pep talk.
A: We wrote that one when we were in Manchester. My mum had a virus which attacked her heart, she had severe heart failure. It was touch and go. So that one we wrote when we were in Manchester, and it came from a place of “come on, come on!” But she’s ok now. She’s improved now.
H: I like that phrase though. Musical pep talk! We’ll keep that.
And there’s a lot of string involvement on the songs. Have you thought about bringing that out on stage?
A: Yeah. We can both envisage that in big halls with a full set-up. That would be absolutely brilliant.
H: Potentially the sky’s the limit. It depends on how much traction we can get. We’d love to perform in classical venues with an ensemble.
In an album full of personal experiences and original content, there is a cover song in there: Shout by Tears for Fears. How did that find it’s way on there?
A: You’re not keen on that one, are you?
Nope. But we don’t really like the original.
H: Ah! That’s why. It is quite a Marmite song.
Well, we love your original stuff so much that it feels like you don’t need a cover on there.
A: Is there any artist you can hear us covering, though?
Now we’re on the spot. Maybe a rework of an old Motown classic? Something unexpected. Kate Bush would be the obvious one. But are covers something you guys enjoy doing?
A: We do have another one up our sleeve. They just happen if they happen and feel natural.
So how did Shout come about and make it on to the album?
A: From both of us liking it and jamming I suppose!
H: The label said a cover would be good… I love that song though! It’s quite masculine, the energy, it’s quite empowering. But each to their own. I quite like that it provokes a reaction though.
Obviously we were there at the gig in St Pancras church. That felt quite special.
A: We were a bit worried about the acoustics! We weren’t sure how it was going to sound with our acoustics rivalling the acoustics of the church!
It’s interesting seeing the dynamic on stage. It’s basically just the two of you – does that get a bit scary, or do you feel like you have each other to hide behind?
H: It did feel quite revealing there but it was a great experience. When we played at Koko, or when we get up on stage, you feel stripped bare. There’s nothing between you at the audience. But the system at Koko… We’d love to play more electronic venues. The music really takes on an edge as well. Some people think our music is soft, but there’s some really aggressive beats.
Looking at the landscape right now, are there any artists that you guys take inspiration from, or people you enjoy?
Do you get a fair bit of that London Grammar comparison too?
H: Yeah. They’ve been very successful, they’re very musical, and they’re in that electronic soul paradigm. People always draw comparisons, don’t they? It’s all good.
Is there any dream collaboration out there?
H: Jai Paul. That would be interesting.
A: Jungle. That would be fun. We’re collaborating with Doc Daneeka though. We’re quite different to everyone on our label though… We did that song with Nile Rodgers and Chase & Status on their album though.
That reminds us – on your website it mentions working with Rihanna. How did that happen?
H: I put some keys on a Rihanna track! It was part of Chase & Status producing a track.
So what’s next for you guys now? Cliché question alert: where do you see yourselves in five years?
A: Maybe what we said earlier about playing in concert halls. Playing in really interesting spaces all over the world. Sharing the music. That would be phenomenal.
You’ve performed two songs for us: Light And Dark and See I’m Calling. Tell us about those.
H: We did Stormy Skies for another session, so Light And Dark made sense being the other single. See I’m Calling just translates well when we perform it, we can see the audience have a reaction to it. So we thought that would be good. Light and Dark is about the ups and downs of every day, and it has that journey through the song. See I’m Calling…
A: It’s a solidarity thing. It’s another one of those pep talks. Things change, it’s all good.
H: To me it’s our relationship with music. Feeling a bit concerned, but just keep doing it and believe.
The debut album from Wyles & Simpson is out now; you can stream it below.
Producer: Adeel Amini
Filmed by: Henry Napier-Brown (Boogaloo Films) & Jack Benson
Camera Assistant: Paul D’Indy
Sound: Jim Friend
Editing: Henry Napier-Brown (Boogaloo Films)
Graphics: Jameel Amini
With thanks to: The Good Ship, NW6
© 2015, PressPLAY / White Abbey Films