It is rare to discover a musician extoling the virtues of repetitive motions like walking, seed planting and sweeping when discussing the creative process. For Marianne Parrish, who performs as Maja Lena, spells working on a no dig permaculture vegetable growing project and in a natural horsemanship yard allowed space for her imagination to flow, helping her envisage the concept for her second album, ‘Pluto’. Even more strangely, the record is set in space on an imaginary planet situated close to Pluto. It reflects her fascination with science fiction, especially the electronic soundscapes of 1980s Japanese cinema and Joe Hisaishi’s work for Studio Ghibli.

The soundtrack influence becomes apparent instantly from the opening low electronic hum of ‘Daylight Comes Revealing’, as Parrish’s gorgeous folky, fluttery voice sings of being “obsessed with having a different life”. Rob Pemberton’s sparse but inventive percussive patterns mix with uneasy synths to create an atmospheric but melodic song. Maja Lena has recently completed a tour supporting the magnificent Rachael Dadd and it is immediately noticeable that it is a bill in which the acts would complement each other perfectly, having plenty of similarities although also their own distinct characteristics. They also share personnel with Pemberton (production and percussion), Alex Heane (bass) and Emma Gatrill (clarinet) working with both artists. 

‘No More Flowers’ has the suggestion of environmental degradation through overbuilding but also reflects on how friendships can change or end (“There are so many towers we built over time… Wandered slowly into the thicket over timeNo more flowers/ No more light for any more flowers”)

With its stripped back, strummed nylon guitar pattern, gentle synths and references to snow and valleys, ‘Silent Quilt’ feels elemental yet hushed and it is easy to visualise a Studio Ghibli animation accompanying it. ‘Pluto’ is packed with outstanding vocal melodies but even in this sterling company, ‘The Stone’ is noteworthy. From its sound manipulation intro onwards, ‘Same Walk’ has a freak folk feel as guitars and keys roll around each other while exploring human behaviour (“do you like your footprints to speak aloud or do you like to let them fade/do you acknowledge your faults/lead yourself to seek counsel”.)

Even though the album is set on a distant planet, the themes reflect human, small-scale details so ‘Clear As The Water’ is a song about working upon and making positive changes to yourself. Its synths are at their most glacial, the piano outro and radio static adding to the mood. ‘Through The Walls’ with its themes of feeling torn between two worlds, feeling not good enough (“before I know it I am clinging to a cliff on the edge of the sea”) matches gently picked guitars to a swooping voice and Gatrill’s beguiling clarinet melody.

With its opening electronic swirl, ‘Telepathy Way’ comes close to echoing Parrish’s hope that the album sounds like inhabitants of the planet communicating with each other in their own language. Blended with spare percussion, the track has a sense of outdoor space. Closing track, ‘The Curtain’ is a more straight-forward acoustic guitar accompanied folk piece referencing the confusing of reality and dreams.

‘Pluto’ is a consistently enticing record and though many albums this year will shout more demonstratively for your attention, few will reward attentive listening so fully.

Maja Lena: Pluto – Out 2nd December 2022 (Chiverin Records)

I was editor of the long-running fanzine, Plane Truth, and have subsequently written for a number of publications. While the zine was known for championing the most angular independent sounds, performing in recent years with a community samba percussion band helped to broaden my tastes so that in 2021 I am far more likely to be celebrating an eclectic mix of sounds and enthusing about Made Kuti, Anthony Joseph, Little Simz and the Soul Jazz Cuban compilations as well as Pom Poko and Richard Dawson.