Beatrix Players are a London-based all-female trio who make florid, adventurous music that operates at the interface between folk, singer-songwriter acoustica, prog and quasi-classical baroque chamber pop. There is a light, translucent quality to the music, and yet when it is not being hushed and reverent, it has the attack and thrust, the surging dynamism, of rock. It can be soft and intimate, but it can also be fiery and intense, epic and immense. There are tempestuous passages in their music that you can imagine being delivered by traditional rock instrumentation but it is the very absence of guitars and drums that means that there is nobody out there quite like Beatrix Players.
When choosing a suitable name for their band this London based trio certainly gave themselves something to live up to. Beatrix, from the Latin Viatrix, is a name that in its various forms has been previously bestowed upon self-sacrificing martyrs and self-denying mystics, royal consorts and Holy Roman empresses, Balzac heroines and Tarantino assassins. Characters of great daring and bravery, romantic, mysterious and emotionally complex, some wielding the deadly allure of sirens yet all too often doomed to dangerous liaisons, bitter betrayals and untimely deaths. No small irony then, that a name so often chosen by tragedians for their characters literally means "she who makes happy".
Beatrix Players’ music is sung, and largely performed, by Amanda Alvarez (cello), Jess Kennedy (piano, backing vocals) and Amy Birks (lead and backing vocals), with a little help from friends on violin and double-bass. Amanda Alvarez is the Beatrix Player in love with Bach’s cello suites, the one whose contribution to the group’s melodies is a matter of record. Spanish-born, with an Australian mother who has sung with choirs in the Spanish capital, her musical experience ranges from playing in classical orchestras to pummelling her way through a series of punk and grunge bands in her teens and early twenties. “I listened to the melodies, not the lyrics,” she says by way of explanation, adding that her mind was further blown with the advent of female-fronted 90s acts such as Garbage and No Doubt.
BP’s other Australian, Jess Kennedy - along with Amy Birks the co-writer of the songs - had a modern folk phase and is also classically trained. She has a penchant for “dramatic and emotional-type piano music”, which possibly explains why Beatrix Players’ music is so dramatic and emotional. Jess is the one in thrall to the romanticism of Chopin and Beethoven and darkness of Rachmaninov, as well as the film soundtracks of Thomas Newman, Michael Nyman and Yann Tiersen. She has been penning songs since childhood, and describes her writing tentatively as a sort of emotional splurge. “I like to express myself,” she admits of her rich and ravishing contributions to Beatrix Players, alluding to her piano-playing. “I’m quite physically expressive when I play, and sometimes that inspires me to write something.”
Amy Birks is BP’s vocalist, lyricist and art director - the one responsible for their art work, not surprisingly she works by day as a graphic designer (Jess has a job in environmental sustainability). She arrived in London from Stoke-on-Trent with a degree in music technology and a background in melancholy songcraft, from the 60s to the 90s (she loves Joni Mitchell, Don McLean and Mazzy Star). She’s no fey troubadour, though: she is friends with “new wave of British heavy metal” band Diamond Head. “I used to watch them rehearse,” she says. “They showed me the ropes.”
They came from Staffordshire, Melbourne and Madrid, this metalhead, grunge girl and classical folkie, converging on the capital, and getting together via a site called find-a-musician.com. "We were all newcomers to London from different parts of the world, different musical backgrounds, wanting to find a musical outlet and people to play music with,” recalls Jess. They consider their development to have been “natural”, the music they make the inevitable corollary of their easy relationship.
They have known each other for five years, forming Beatrix Players as a trio in 2013. “It happened naturally, but it took a while” explains Amy. “That’s when we decided to do our first EP.”
Released in June 2014, Words In Lemon Juice drew comparisons with Tori Amos and Kate Bush, but immediately the latter were seen more as a starting point for Beatrix Players’ quixotic hyperballads, rather than the end result. “Weirdly, we never grew up listening to Kate Bush,” Jess says, “although we do sometimes get compared.”
Critics were gushing about the EP. “Beatrix Players bring together vocals with epic piano and cello in a way so powerful, you will become entirely engrossed,” went one typically effusive review, describing the songs on the EP variously as “incredibly captivating” and “engaging and beautiful”.
As for Beatrix Players, they are getting used to acclaim, and all manner of genre names being ascribed to what they do, from modern folk and baroque exotica to dark classical pop. They have been written about in Prog magazine, but they could easily be featured in Folk Roots or MOJO as well as Classical Music given their chamber music influences which come through in their song structures and arrangements, focused as they are on cello, violin, double-bass and piano.
“People try to fit us in a box, but we don’t fit in any box,” says Amanda. “They struggle with that.”
Beatrix Players have, in the four years of their existence, been on something of a voyage of (self-)discovery, and their music similarly takes the listener on a journey. “It’s about escapism into a different world,” Jess says. “That’s the idea. We can help you forget for three minutes or so.”
The latest step on that journey is their debut album Magnified, so-called because “it is an introduction to the core; an intimate sounding trio, which deepens and intensifies through expansive arrangements and carefully crafted cinematic soundscapes”. Amy explains their writing process: “Jess comes up with a piano idea, song structure and production ideas, then she shoots that over to me and I come up with a vocal melody and lyric and I sometimes tinker with that structure before sending it to Amanda to add her cello parts.”
“Some of the songs are very dark so I add moody cello,” Amanda furthers, admitting her additions sometimes take the songs over the (emotional) edge. “It can be pure heartbreak where everybody’s crying… Sometimes at rehearsals it’s like - “ she mimes being winded by something powerful and poignant. “We can be in the studio, and suddenly we’ll burst into tears.”
Instead of battling elements, they all complement each other perfectly, although there is good creative tension there: “The songs aren’t meant to be sickly-sweet. They’re supposed to draw you in, but there are sudden surges, and some of the chords and sounds are discordant,” Jess offers.
The baleful and bewitching songs on Magnified can be about anything: relationships, change, childhood events, adult affairs, crisis moments. “They usually come out of something dramatic and emotional, because that’s how I like to write,” Amy reveals.
Album opener Rushlight is about finding strength after being pushed around by someone. Roses uses a historical moment to express the love of a parent and how they would do anything for their child. Lady Of The Lake tells of disconnect, difference of opinion and the demise of a relationship. Never Again, for all the references to the Bronte sisters, has a thoroughly modern application: “It’s basically about finding yourself in bit of a rubbish position and realising it and never wanting to go there again,” Jess explains. Not For The First Time recalls their respective moves to London, and being forced to deal with all the negative energy, anger and hostility. Molehill finds the protagonist “unable to say ‘no’” and is about relationship power plays. Unpolished Pearl celebrates Beatrix Players themselves. “Yes, that’s us,” laughs Amy. “Rough around the edges.” They are unafraid to examine the less pleasant aspects of the human condition and experience: expect everything from sleep paralysis to female infertility to be dealt with on Magnified.
“It’s about the difficulty of having a child and the blame that goes on between partners,” Amy says of the latter song.
Emotionally, Magnified is frequently set to fever pitch, while musically it is rarely less than beautifully (over-)wrought. It is highly charged, from the waltz-time gait of High Heel Shoes to the sombre All That Thinking.
Amanda believes the album is designed for “people who want to listen to music”, then she reconsiders: “No, it’s music to *absorb* you. It’s for people who want something intricate, emotional, with honest lyrics.” “It’s music to make you think and feel,” adds Jess. “There’s always someone who cries at our gigs,” notes Amy. “And it’s not always us! People get lost in the moment because they can relate to a song or the feelings in it. It triggers something in their brains and they’re, like, ‘Wow!’ That’s the power of music. It’s an art, to make people feel something.”