Occasionally a song comes along which attacks your senses like an electric shock. I’ve just been hit by a few thousand volts pulsed from some London internet radio station. Sender of this power surge “The Secret Storm”, song in question “The Dragon” The song has a slow sultry gothic opening, atmospheric screaming, screeching violin strings take over, leading into a pulsating rock chorus.”I’m in love with a dragon put my hand in the flame, I know I should have known better but I did it again, I’m in love with a dragon it’s the curse of my life to be a lover of a monster I’m his dutiful wife” It’s provocative, haunting, providing a rock anthem chorus, until exhausted instrumentation offers a sexual climatic conclusion. That’s just one track and it’s a cracker.
With a couple of PC clicks I’m listening to TSS latest four track compilation EP “The Dragon” released December 4th. The EP’s cover depicts a monster come dragon come serpent pinned down by a naked female protagonist which is a perfect depiction of the song. In fact the video strips away any misunderstandings, literally. A tattooed burlesque dancer does what you’d expect…she gets her kit off.
Earlier in the year TSS released their first EP titled “In The Sun”. Between the two EP’s there are eight outstanding tracks in lyrical poetry, arrangement and delivery. Something special going on here.
Leader and vocalist of “TSS” pack is Lauren Hoffman who has recorded four albums under her own name. The first “Megiddo” in 1997 was released at the tender age of 18 years old. “Blue House” became her second offering in 1999, followed by Choreography in 2006. The last studio album we heard from Hoffman was the 2009 album“InterplanetaryTraveller”…then it all went quiet.
I tracked down Lauren Hoffman at home in Charlottesville, Virginia. Via the wonder of Skype she talks about new music, love, family life, plans, hopes and how she never made her scheduled gig at London’s (old) 12 Bar Club. She shares the incident. “The last time I was supposed to play in London was in 2013, at the old 12 Bar Club, but our flight got cancelled and we didn’t make it in time to play the gig” clearly still irked at the memory. “Although I had played the venue before when I was in Europe, around 2006/07 playing solo, working from my first two albums, I would have liked to play the venue again before it moved location”
Between the ages of 14 and 18 Hoffman put together a bunch of songs which resulted in the 1997 album “Megiddo” when signing to Virgin Records. The dark evocative themes of the album resulted in rave reviews. A new talent was about to emerge. However Virgin had made numerous signings in Europe, and political infighting was rife within the labels management infrastructure. Music can be a cruel master. Although the album was supported in Europe Hoffman was left without the promised promotional support from Virgin where she needed it most, in the U.S. Disillusioned she returned home to her rural roots in Charlottesville Virginia.
By 1999 Hoffman had launched the label Free Union Records through which she released her second album “From The Blue House” It would be 2006 before she released more material. When doing so it is by her own admission “My favourite album, Choreography” The albums pivotal track by common consensus being “Broken”… “You’re a little bit damaged, I’m a sucker for that…I’m the picture that faded, I’m the love you don’t trust”…Just a few lines which convey the song’s theme which has attracted so many devotees. She tells me people contact her on social media saying how much the song has touched them, and how they can relate to the sentiments being expressed on the track.
The 2009 album “Interplanetary Traveller” captures her thoughts and feelings whilst experiencing the world. Hoffman had set off traveling during the early 2000’s covering India, Australia, Europe a spell in New York before settling back home once again in Virginia.
I’m interested if the album’s lighter, more optimistic mood was that intentional? “Oh yes. Mostly I write from a place of ennui, internal conflict, unresolved issues. It was an interesting experiment to write from a lighter mood and I think it succeeded, but the darker stuff is more ‘me’ “ I wouldn’t disagree with that sentiment.
It’s clear Hoffman doesn’t rush into musical projects, so why now to launch her new musical project “The Secret Storm” having been silent for six years? “When I got started an 18 I became increasingly uncomfortable releasing music under my own name, it wasn’t long before I wanted some separation between my private life and my public presentation. Using my own name, I also felt prone to being pigeon holed into a folky singer songwriter mode, which I didn’t feel was me. I had a darker side, and I felt more at home with goth and punk than in the folk/singer-songwriter scene. Now that I’m writing new material, I want to present it properly. The opportunity came when I brought a group of musicians together to back me up live on older material from Megiddo and Choreography. When we started to feel like a real band, arranging new material, I thought, this is my chance to stop performing under my own name. On recordings I’ve been meticulous about making sure the songs are arranged as I ultimately want them to be with a full range of instruments and sounds to support the mood. Now with this band I get to present them live as they are meant to be as well, and that feels fantastic.”
Hoffman explains in more detail her plans and hopes for the band. “Obviously we’d like to take the band on tour, but with six of us that’s a big ask just from a financial perspective. I’ve toured as a solo artist, but I want that to be the exception, not the norm. The priority is to take us forward as a full band. Realistically a U.S. east coast tour would be our plan for the new year. Exposure in Europe, well that would just be great. You never know if you’re going to be a success or overlooked. It’s hard to put together some type of meaningful business plan when so much is beyond our control. Currently we are trying to reach out to as many people as possible via the internet, time will tell if people embrace our music”
Hoffman also knows exposure means losing some of her privacy. “Today’s music environment has a constant need to provide something new, pictures, interviews, videos, social media updates, etc” The concept doesn’t sit well with Hoffman “Even from my early days I’ve never been comfortable with the promotional side. I feel totally at home working with a band, recording in a studio, writing songs on my own. That’s what it’s all about for me. The rest of it, well I’m still trying to work out how to deal with the necessary promotional side in a way that feels reasonably comfortable.”
Hoffman isn’t surprised when I try and get behind the fact she’s had long periods of inactivity between albums releases. Six years between Interplanetary Traveller (2009) and the release of “Into The Sun” (2015) “I’m starting to recognize and accept that I have long cycles” she says “Once I’ve written songs, recorded them, put myself in front of people and done the touring and promoting, I need to reset myself, just go back to the real world. I need to write without any thoughts to reviews, critiques, promotion, online feedback. Sometimes it takes a while to find my space and let the songs come. The whole process of writing is therapeutic for me but the songs come out when they are ready. I also became a parent, my daughter is now seven years old, so plenty to keep me busy besides music”
Lyrically Hoffman expresses the pain of breakups, disappointments, rejections with a care to her narrative I’ve seldom experienced before. The arrangements and videos for various tracks on both EP’s are entertaining in telling the songs story and reiterating the varied themes. But where Hoffman excels are through her lyrics. She can strike to the heart or provide a long slow burn on hurt and tears. Her themes and content tend to catch you off balance. When I offer an opinion her lyrics don’t explain who are the lovers or protagonist, she’s hesitant with an answer. “Er…mmm…yes I guess that’s intentional. My songs aren’t always about lovers, some relate to family members and some are metaphors for an internal conflict or abstract idea. I like to leave it a little open so people can insert themselves into the narrative of the song. So, yes, I hide the specifics at times, to leave the songs open to interpretation. I may be writing about myself or from someone else’s perspective but I don’t feel the need to explain every detail in every song”
At this stage I’m thinking pity we can’t have this chat over a few glasses of wine. Maybe she would open up a bit more. Maybe it’s really as simple as she’s saying? However I check again asking: “Sick with Love” from the EP “The Dragon” when you (Hoffman) set the scene…”Here in the afternoon singing melancholy tunes, loving him has made of me a fool” That is a love song, right? I ask almost in desperation. “Oh yes, that’s a straight up love song. Someone I fell for when I was living alone in New York, who was giving me the run around”
Then she say’s “It can be a lonely place when you’re surrounded by people and can’t connect” Hoffman is talking about her experience of New York. I’m immediately drawn to these sentiments as the holiday season upon us. Namely loneliness at parties and gatherings. See what I mean about catching you off balance. There’s a song in there somewhere.
When I say how good I believe both EP’s to be, Hoffman is genuinely surprised at my comment. In turn I’m surprised that she’s surprised. Hope you get my gist here.
“Family Ghost” is probably a mantra to TSS dark brooding rock style with a mesmeric running guitar and percussion riff accompanied by cello, played with enough verve to make sparks fly. I’m explaining this and categorise the song and composition as one of my favourites. When asking for Hoffman’s “favourite” she says that’s the type of question her seven year asks. Laughter from both of us. Reminder to brush up on my deep and meaningful questioning techniques. Throughout the interview she is engagingly open, clear in thought and opinion with her love of music and need to write made abundantly clear. Still wishing their was a bottle of wine and two glasses between us though.
She accepts some of the songs are written on the ebbs and flows of circumstances out of her control. “At one stage I wondered and worried if I was bi-polar. I don’t think I am, it’s just I sometimes seem to be on such a rollercoaster ride of emotions. “Family Ghost” certainly touches of the subject of mental health.” Is it a subject she intends to explore in future songs I ask? “Will I write about it in the future, like I said who knows what I need to get out into a song. What needs to come generally does, eventually”
Hoffam as put together five musicians which make up TSS none of which she has played with before: Tony Lechmanski (guitar) – Cathy Monnes (cello, electric violin, backing vocals) – Ethan Lipscomb (keyboards) – Jeff Diehm (bass) – Jordan Marchini (drums) – To some degree this allows Hoffman to look forward resulting in a clear division between the parent, the person who collects the groceries, and songstress who needs to write about life and emotions, covering the good times and the bad.
Whilst Hoffman has a back catalogue of very good albums it’s TSS 2015 EP releases which have taken her music to a new level. There are a lot of good bands around, many I’ve had the pleasure to watch, listen and review. Very few compare with TSS. I’ve never been to the state of Virginia. Maybe it’s a wonderful place, a place folks want to live and never leave. But I can’t help thinking, if Hoffman, TSS and their music stay in Virginia, for the rest of us that would be some kind of musical travesty.
by Owen Peters