Dark eyes were the start of it…
The early 2000s seemed to be a particularly exciting time for the UK’s electronic music scene. A number of interesting acts were beginning to establish themselves in the grassroots community and there were also hints of higher profile acts emerging, such as Little Boots and La Roux.
Having weathered a music industry that wasn’t particularly conducive to anything not guitar-based throughout the 1990s, this renaissance was a welcome sign. In a lot of ways, it was also an indication that a second generation of musicians were keen to take electronic music forward. Experimentation and innovation helped to keep things fresh (although many acts were still happy to throw a nod to the classic synth-pop era).
In the midst of this busy growth of electronic-based acts was Northern Kind, a duo consisting of Matt Culpin and Sarah Heeley. Their ability to craft polished pop with a strong electronic thrust swiftly won over fans who had been keen to see what synth-pop could sound like in the 21st Century. Their 2007 debut album 53°N brought critical praise, particularly for the combination of Heeley’s powerful vocals and Culpin’s ability to craft engaging electronic melodies that had hints of Vince Clarke in its DNA. Tracks such as ‘Seen The Light’ and ‘On & On’ had an electropop sensibility which employed brightly toned elements and sharp beats that inspired listeners to get their dancing shoes on.
Northern Kind also demonstrated that they could deliver on the live front as well. The duo’s rapidly growing profile would lead to spots at the Silicon Dreams festival in 2013 (where they shared the stage with Heaven 17) as well as support slots for Gary Numan and Alan Wilder at the Postbahnof in Berlin.
Their last album, 2013’s Credible Sexy Unit album, again drew praise. The Electricity Club’s review concluded: “…the songs that make up Credible Sexy Unit form exactly what you’d expect from Northern Kind: retro-amped chipper tunes, superlative singing, enduring song writing, and a professional attitude that belies their indie sensibilities.” The album also drew praise from the likes of Erasure’s Andy Bell, who reported on Twitter at the time”: “Loving the sound of ‘Credible Sexy Unit’.”
Over the course of Northern Kind’s career, the duo racked up over 10,000 album sales and their ability to be a self-produced indie electronic act had helped to inspire a loyal audience. Sadly, that momentum came to a halt when Sarah Heeley announced she was leaving Northern Kind in 2014. Wanting to focus on her yoga teacher training, she decided to put music aside for a while. “When I finished with Northern Kind I really just wanted a break – and that’s what we had” commented Heeley in a recent video.
Although Credible Sexy Unit seemed to have brought things to a natural end, during the post-Northern Kind lull, Matt Culpin began collaborating with Charlie Sanderson (formerly of Electrobelle) on a new electronic project titled Dancing With Ruby. With Sanderson’s distinctive fey voice matched by Culpin’s busy synth-driven rhythms, they added an alternative take on Northern Kind’s dancepop perfection.
As with any act worth their clout, remix duties were also regular requests. Check out the Dancing With Ruby take on the AIVIS tune ‘The Wilderness’ as a successful example.
Sarah Heeley’s recent reemergence onto the music scene – and a return to working with Matt Culpin – was therefore an intriguing surprise as Northern Kind was given a quick dust down. The news was also confusing, particularly with plans still in place to continue the Dancing With Ruby story. Culpin has, however, made it clear that both musical ventures would be continuing. Having two ongoing efforts of quality music can only be a good thing then.
The results of this reborn collaboration has been released in the form of ‘Lip Service’, a superb composition that puts Heeley’s confident vocals front and centre. There’s also an energetic drive lurking in the song’s lyrics (“Outside time is ticking on/I say bring it on”).
Meanwhile, there’s a more percussive element to the song than on previous NK outings that’s also layered with a range of catchy electronic melodies. It’s a finely tuned slice of dancepop perfection that brings to mind the energetic outings of the likes of Parralox.
Meanwhile, bonus track ‘(The Feeling) It’s Coming’ has hints of John Carpenter lurking in the instrumental’s depths. It’s a more sombre arrangement perhaps than you’d expect from Northern Kind, but still fizzes and pops in all the right places.
“I feel refreshed, reinvigorated. I’ve travelled a lot” commented Heeley on her return to music. “And I think that means I can come back to music and just really enjoy it, be fresh. I’ve got lots to write about. I’ve met lots of interesting people in the last few years, so that will all come through the lyrics.”
“I feel like there’s a lot of energy around Northern Kind. It feels very natural, there’s no pressure and I just think when you’re doing something for pure enjoyment and pure joy, I think it has every potential to really touch people and go a long way.”
Meanwhile, Matt Culpin sums up the immediate future for this incarnation of Northern Kind: “Just carry on doing what we do, I think. The tracks are coming fairly quickly, it’s sounding really good. Definitely have that NK sound, whatever that is, but bit more of an edgier, contemporary feel to them I think.”
‘Lip Service’ has already garnered an enthusiastic response from the electronic music community who are more than happy to see Northern Kind back in action. But what of the future? Culpin is fairly unambiguous about one direction: “Definitely playing live. I’d like to play some gigs again”.
‘Lip Service’ is out now via http://northernkind.co.uk/
Publications that have featured his contributions include Electronic Sound, Metro, Japan Update Weekly, J-Pop Go, Wavegirl and OMD Messages.