‘As an artist, my purpose is to share experiences through sound that connect with people on a meaningful level, and thus connects us together. With Hearts of Shadows, I believe I have done just that’ – ROYAL
The other day I was thinking of things I would do if I was the most powerful person in the world. Quite boringly I decided against world domination and decided instead that I would instead decide to ban auto-tune. If you think about it, the loss of such a device would filter out so much of the ‘fast-food’ music that occupies the majority of the charts nowadays. My main problem with this kind of music is that you can tell that they are made for commercial purposes as the lyrics and melodies sound as if they come from a GCSE Music Student’s notebook (and that’s student at a D grade level). Therefore, it was beyond refreshing to read the above quote from Canadian independent recording artist, ROYAL.
ROYAL’s musical style is described as an interesting fusion of dream, electro and independent pop which likens her to artists such as Lana Del Rey, Lorde and The XX. Looking at her previous work, however, it is clear to see how her artistry has significantly evolved over the years. Up until around three years ago, Jodi Pederson (ROYAL) was posting videos on her YouTube channel. With just herself, a guitar or keyboard, and a camera, her early performances of originals and covers were a lot more stripped back, but they still demonstrated her uniqueness as an artist. Whether it was the gritty ‘Bad Blood’ sung as a romantic piano ballad, or electro-pop powerhouse ‘Love me like you do’ as a more raw, acoustic version, Pederson was showcasing a musical versatility that set her apart from the generic wannabe music acts on the platform. Now, with her artistic identity of ROYAL, her latest album Heart of Shadows –produced by Luca Fogale – is an intricately crafted piece that presents its listeners with a well-matured, cinematic sound. As ROYAL explores topics such as her youth, tortured romance and a loss of identity, I find it difficult not to compare the narrative arc of the album to that of the glamorous but heart-breaking lives of classic Hollywood stars like Marilyn Monroe.
‘My goal with Heart of Shadows was to create something that thematically represents me as an artist, but also relates to anyone who hears it’ explains ROYAL. And frankly, after listening to the album it is hard to deny that she has achieved anything but that.
Opening with ‘Kings And Queens’, ROYAL immediately hits you with a hauntingly beautiful chorus of close-knit harmonies. Already it is a wonderful demonstration of her vocal abilities and presents the overall musical tone of the album. The timings of the harmonies are impeccable. It almost seems like there is a choir of voices being led by a conductor, and at this I must say that the production quality of this track should be highly commended. I particularly liked how something significant in the music changed every time ROYAL sang the lyric ‘I’m ready for war’, perhaps a signifier of the singer embarking on a next chapter of life, well equipped with the weaponry to defend herself in every battle she may face. Throughout the album, there appears to be almost ethereal sounds present within each track. Indeed, in this first song, echoed and harmonised humming attributes to its ghostly feel.
‘Vessel’ is the second track and main single from the album. An electro-pop song about a loss of love and a regretful break-up, the thumping electronic beat, synths and tight harmonies draws parallels with ‘Magnets’ by Lorde & Disclosure. It opens slow and soulful, giving the impression that we’ll be listening to a dramatic ballad about heartbreak. But the introduction of the beat about thirty seconds in adds an unexpected flavour as she sings about how she can ‘throw a dress on, put my lipstick on and play it cool’. With this, the song transitions into a soft-dance track. ROYAL sings about doing things like getting dressed up and hitting the town to mask the pain of break-up, but underneath you are merely a ‘vessel’ without that person in your life. Again with ‘Vessel’ you also have the ghostly, echoed harmonies throughout that add to the vulnerability within her voice. I think the transition from the previous track into this one works well. The gentle opening blends smoothly from the last few bars of ‘Kings and Queens’, meaning that when the music builds to be more upbeat it isn’t too jarring. I often find with certain pop albums, there doesn’t seem to be much consideration for how the tracks are ordered. It’s so frustrating! Imagine listening to an incredibly moving piece of music that leaves you weeping as if you’re watching Titanic for the umpteenth time and then the moment is ruined by an excessively loud techno track about ‘getting down in da clubs’ (you can tell I’m a party animal, right?).
The bass notes of the third song, ‘Black Beauty’ already make for an incredible tune that takes a well-deserved slot on my phone’s ‘chill’ playlist. I admire how she’s maintained the use of light and airy harmonies here as well. The musical consistency of this album is particularly pleasing to the ear. With ‘Black Beauty’ ROYAL gives her listeners more of an 80s experience, especially with the synths and snare. As a fanatic of that period of music, I found those elements of the song to be most enjoyable. My only criticism of this song (and one of the very few of the whole album) is that the lyrics in the pre-chorus become a bit lost as the harmonies seem to overpower the main melody. It’s perhaps just a matter of levels, but with headphones something just sounded a bit off. Nonetheless I loved how the dance beat grew in intensity three quarters of the way through. For me it conjured up images of driving through a tunnel late at night, as the amber lights fly overhead one by one as if choreographed.
‘Reminisce’ is a stunning production that could’ve easily been featured on the soundtrack for Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Great Gatsby’. Its melancholy orchestral opening bars has my inner Daisy Buchanan swooning. The song has a hypnotising cinematic essence to it which makes me feel as if I’m a glamorous classic Hollywood starlet, looking up at a starry night sky and reminiscing about a whirlwind romance. Frankly, I think that a lot of mainstream artists aren’t brave enough to utilise orchestral sounds with their sadder songs. Modern ballads these days seem to be all about simplicity in terms of production. I am beyond ecstatic to find another artist apart from Lana Del Rey that is not afraid to delve into a more classic and theatrical performance. The only thing I would say though is that I would’ve liked the last section of the song to have more of a change. It just feels like the music was continuously building to something and in the end, it was a tad anti-climactic. So, in terms of dynamics it verged on being a bit ‘samey’. What is commendable, however, is ROYAL’s versatility as an artist, especially if you compare this song to ‘Black Beauty’.
As we move into the fifth track, ‘The Hunter’, again we delve into another beautifully crafted cinematic piece. There is a similar sound to ‘Reminisce’, but in this song the ‘character’ that ROYAL portrays, seems to be less melancholy and more lustful for a relationship that she knows is ill-fated. The lyrics can relate back to ‘The Great Gatsby’ as ROYAL reflects on the sensuality of a secret affair with lines such as ‘lurking in the shadows’ and ‘moonlight cover my tracks’. You could also say it has a bit of a ‘Bond’ vibe to it, with the use of strings, strong drums and the overall bluesy, seductive tone. Personally, I feel this song has a much stronger build up to the last section of the song which has a stark contrast to the song’s delicate opening chords. ROYAL’s voice is so pure and raw at the beginning, and it’s a refreshing switch to see her stripping back the use of harmonies – only using them in the chorus and bridge. Once again, she shows brilliant technical control in her vocals as she transitions smoothly from her head to her chest voice. I think this song is beautifully composed in terms of its light and shade and it’s exciting to hear a grittier side to ROYAL.
‘Rebel’, the last song on the album must be my favourite one out of all of them. In a society that is becoming more open to talking about our mental health and life struggles, music has shown an increase in artists using the power of music as a way of releasing the pain they previously may have kept hidden. Demi Lovato’s incredibly honest and heartfelt ‘Sober’ comes to mind, where Lovato confesses to relapsing to her drugs and alcohol addiction, apologising to those she may have hurt by doing so. Whether it was ROYAL singing about herself or someone else she knew, in ‘Rebel’ it sounds as if the pain was coming from a very similar place. Lyrics such as ‘I saw the wounds against your chest, I did my best to fix what’s left of you’ I think will hit home for a lot of listeners, especially women. It is a human urge to help ‘fix’ love ones struggling with certain issues, even if that means locking yourself within a toxic relationship. For me that is the main theme that I drew from listening to the lyrics. Technically, I must say once again her vocal abilities are amazing here and, in my opinion, this is her best studio performance. I’m glad that ROYAL chose to focus on the lyrical content in ‘Rebel’ rather than the strong harmonies again. The sheer rawness and honesty in every word sounds so important to her as she sings them. If I was legally bound to only sharing one of the songs on the album with the rest of the world it would be this one. I just know this song will mean so much to so many people. I sincerely hope ROYAL knows that.
Overall ‘Heart of Shadows’ is a beautiful and well-crafted album. It’s ironic how a classic style can seem so ‘fresh’ considering the state of mainstream pop music nowadays. Even though hints of Lana Del Rey & Lorde are present, ROYAL establishes her own completely unique artistry. I am excited to see where her musical journey takes her next.