Scout Niblett - Biography
British singer and songwriter Scout Niblett crafts turbulent, cathartic songs with a stark, bare bones approach. Most of her haunting, skeletal music relies only on her unique voice, sparse guitar and drums. Out of these few elements Niblett manages to coax a world of atmosphere and emotion. Operating in a long line of powerful female songwriters her work is often compared to Cat Power and PJ Harvey, but Niblett’s sound is ultimately all her own.
Born Emma Louise Niblett on September 29th, 1973 she opted to use Scout as her performing name in honor of the protagonist from Harper Lee’s 1960 classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird. After studying music and performance art in college, Niblett began to focus on songwriting. Her first release, a split 7” single with Songs: Ohia, came via the Secretly Canadian label in 2001. Later that year saw the release of her debut album, Sweet Heart Fever. Over fourteen songs that merge folk, blues, and indie rock, Niblett mesmerizes with her throaty yet quivering voice, managing to sound powerful and vulnerable at once, accompanied usually only by minimal guitar and a ticking snare drum. These vivid and intense songs are ripe with abstract imagery, often veering into the creepy but never less than interesting.
After a couple of 7”s, Niblett released I Am in 2003 via Too Pure in the UK and Secretly Canadian in the states. On her second full-length the songwriter fully crystallizes her unique style. Hyper minimal arrangements, hypnotic repetition, and cyclical song structures define these thirteen songs. Perfectly captured with stark clarity by legendary producer Steve Albini, this music is obsessive and obsessed. Tracks like “Texas” and the stunning “Your Beat Kicks Back Like Death” mark Niblett as a truly unique songwriter.
Through 2003 and 2004 Niblett continued with active touring and a steady stream of EPs and singles. Her reputation for emotionally naked and intimate live shows grew. In 2005 she toured with the Kills and released her third album, Kidnapped by Neptune. Inspired by her interest in astrology the record furthers Niblett’s minimal folk aesthetic. Again working with Albini, she ups the intensity level here with raw, passionate vocal delivery and a greater use of riff heavy guitar arrangements. Tracks like “Handsome” and “Hot to Death” boast some fierce guitar playing and Niblett’s best singing to date.
2007 brought what is arguably Niblett’s best record, This Fool Can Die Now. Again beautifully recorded by Albini, these songs easily rank with Chan Marshall’s best work. Featuring four tracks with guest vocals from Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, the overall sound is still skeletal but with slightly more sonic meat on the bones. Niblett has been vocal about her love of Nirvana, and grungy guitars dominate several of these tunes. Her unrestrained vocal rage works well in this context, especially on “Let Thine Heart Be Warmed.” Elsewhere the record returns to Niblett’s dark, melancholy, sparse sound on “Fishes and Honey” and “Black Hearted Queen.”
2010 saw a jump to the great Drag City label with the release of The Calcination of Scout Niblett. Easily her most inward looking, uncompromising album, Niblett creates a dark, desolate musical world here. Beautifully hollow, the recording sounds isolated, making songs like “Duke of Anxiety” sound that much more intense. It would be easy to call this Niblett’s “difficult” record, and it is indeed a harrowing listen rife with emotional power and often-painful nakedness, but ultimately these are the marks of a true artist exploring cathartic themes. At times the record recalls PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me, a rare experiment of personal purification through art that actually results in beautiful, listenable music. With The Calcination of Scout Niblett there’s no doubt that this songwriter’s next move will be captivating.