To exist in the world requires finding ways to cope with what is often so much disappointment. Communication fails. Lovers leave. Attempts at connection can lead to deeper isolation, especially when you’re already marginalized by society. For multi-hyphenate artist Jemima Coulter (of Hailaker), stories offer one such way to cope. The songs on their debut solo album Grace After a Party exist in an impressionistic reverie, somewhere between a hallucination and the waking world. Populated by stories of body-swapping and clowns, Coulter’s music takes us beyond the personal, traveling from London to Perugia, to the circus and the sea. But for Coulter, stories aren’t simply an escape route, a way out of a painful reality; instead they offer a resting place for the weary traveler — a glimpse of real magic in a portrait of the surreal.
The recordings on Grace were cultivated during a period of determined isolation after a failed romantic gesture. In 2019, Coulter followed a dancer to Marseille, not realizing they would have little time to spare. Left alone to wander the dusty city streets, Coulter passed the days listening to Henry Miller’s The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder, which tells the story of a clown who wants to create lasting ecstasy in his audience. Eventually he gives up and spends his time moping around cities. Like the clown, Coulter also gave up chasing happiness in other people. They returned home to Bristol determined to find clarity and purpose within themselves.
Album opener “SST'' invokes the clown, telling the story of someone who joins the circus in the haze of a fever. “With my jawline melting, I’m a new Pierrot swaying on my ladder,” Coulter sings over a driving beat and loose, gritty guitar strums. But as the chorus comes to its climax, the instruments dissipate abruptly. “And it’s lucid, these stories. They’re stories, no endings,” Coulter sings, reminding us of the sometimes thin line between metaphor and fact before their words are subsumed under the forceful weight of electric guitars and percussion.
The buoyant “Dancing with Lara” paints a picture of someone wandering the streets of Perugia thinking of people far-away. There's palpable freedom in the movement, tempered by profound longing. “I wish I hadn’t been your temporary. I can tell you it doesn’t feel so temporary now,” Coulter sings in a moment of stark vulnerability, evoking the visceral impact of romantic disillusionment. Later, “Estrella” opens bare-boned, just Coulter’s voice over smooth acoustic guitar strums as they summon a recognizably mundane scene of a relationship doomed to fail. “And in the morning in our house, you’re crawling out as I’m laying you down. It’s so hetero,” they jab. It’s a cheeky aside from one queer person to another. But there’s also sadness there, the frustration of an outsider realizing they’ve succumbed to the very societal structures they’ve long resisted.
Raised on classical music in Hampshire without context for what was popular, 24-year-old Coulter has developed a sound meticulously their own. “I’ve never thought about how anything’s supposed to sound,” they say. “I don’t have a reference point apart from what I think sounds good. I just want to make music that’s different every time you listen to it.” They recorded and produced most of Grace at home, playing everything besides drums, which were contributed by Stan Glendinning (Goya) and recorded at his house. The recordings are steeped in the intimacy and playfulness that comes from the limitations of making a record this way — Coulter’s layered, affected vocals, recorded sometimes directly into an iPhone, soar over pulsating synths, lilting piano, swirling guitars and jaunty percussion; songs meander through distinct movements, leaving us in entirely different landscapes than where we began them; a chorus of friends — including Ella Williams (Squirrel Flower) — join Coulter on background vocals. These are big songs made through an introspective process, a careful balance between chaos and control.
Throughout the record, we hear Coulter reaching beyond themselves toward a tender yet magical universality. What results is a pastiche of remembered, dreamed and imagined fragments, an album that feels as visual as it does auditory. “I created somewhere I could escape to,” says Coulter. “I imagined people in my mind, had conversations I’d never had. It seems to have created an album that’s a hallucination where I’m half me, half someone else.” But there’s a sense of coming full-circle in these songs, a reminder that as much as we try to reach beyond, we remain invariably ourselves. “They were all stories I was telling myself,” Coulter says, “and then I realized that there was something I needed to say, that it wasn’t just a story, but something about me as well.”