Until Then: Remembering Trish Keenan

On the week of what would have been her 54th birthday, and Libra season being in full swing, I’ve been re-listening to a lot of the music of Trish Keenan, singer of the band Broadcast. I wanted to write something commemorating her but I’ve been struggling to find the words, or where to even start. What more is there to say that Trish hasn’t already in her art? Trish passed away in 2011 from complications due to pneumonia, and I want to not sound redundant here. So many articles have been written about her and it’s hard to overstate her influence. I feel like a teen again when I talk (or write) about it because as an adult discovering music that makes me so feverish is something that is almost embarrassing. But Trish was clearly a one of a kind artist, someone who’s affected me in numerous ways, and I feel like I can’t let her birthday pass without attempting to acknowledge the impact she’s had on me and the world of music.

I first discovered Broadcast as probably many of their younger fans did, on music forums and blogs in my early teens. Specifically, one of their most popular songs, I Found the F, was floating around Tumblr. At the time, barely past Florence and the Machine being the most obscure band I listened to, Broadcast’s experimental, sound collage work was way too out there for my taste. Still, the song’s cascading, repetitive lead synth was too catchy for me to forget, becoming a part of endless playlists at a time when streaming services were just becoming popular, and soon having collected as much music as possible became more important than the music itself.

It was years later, a few months into the Covid-19 Pandemic, feeling stagnant like everyone else, that I decided to attempt the band’s back catalog, having recently been introduced to some of their most often referenced musical peers, (Stereolab, Vanishing Twin.)  My fanaticism wasn’t as instantaneous as I might like to claim. Initially I gravitated to their most accessible music, Come on Let’s Go being my first favorite. It was in the early winter of the year, listening to the band’s 2nd full length album, Haha Sound, the group’s cultish adoration clicked with me. I remember staying at a friend’s house in Boise, snow falling outside like I hadn’t seen in years. It was the 5th track, Man Is Not a Bird, during the hypnotic percussion that fills the back end of the song, that I became obsessed. I would skip back to hear the outro over and over, I still do honestly, and would continue to find these aweing moments in each song, becoming lost in them. I fell deep, deep down the rabbit hole. 

This is what is so special to me about Broadcast’s music, it is enthralling, and intensely personal as a listener. For me the joy of music is about the sharing of songs, communal appreciation, singing and dancing, but this was music that was just for me. Headphones in, volume up (to probably damaging levels,) trying to take in every detail I could. Spiraling delays, otherworldly synth sounds, and at the center of all of it, Trish Keenan’s spellbinding voice.

Trish Keenan with partner James Cargill

Trish Keenan was born in 1968 in Birmingham, England. Though she says she wasn’t a very musical child, she was raised by parents who were in her words “really into music.” Raised on Bob Dylan and Neil Diamond, later becoming a fan of glam rock artists like David Bowie, and in her late teens she recalls at a gig “throwing myself at morrissey… I got up on stage and tried… I don’t know what I tried to do.” It’s hard to imagine someone who’s lyrics are so esoteric and fantastical, who became known for her onstage introversion, literally raving over a Morrisey show. Trish was a music obsessive though, and her influences have been well documented by other music obsessives on the internet, a testament to her legacy (and maybe an affirmation that she was as much a dork as the rest of us.) 

There are a number of videos on youtube that juxtapose a segment of a Broadcast song next to one of a number of musical reference points. Some are more obvious like the song The World Backwards, where Trish borrows her vocal affect and a bit of the melody  from a song called Old Man’s Willow by Elephant’s Memory, better known for being Yoko Ono’s backing band. Some are more far fetched, one video even compares one of the band’s Microtronics experiments to the soundtrack to a Wario game for the gameboy, but Trish’s penchant for the referential is undeniable. Trish and the band were collectors of the odd and obscure, 60’s psychedelia from Al Stewart to The United States of America, early electronic experiments like Delia Derbyshire’s work in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Ennio Morricone soundtracks and The Wicker Man, the band were musical polyglots.

Broadcast’s sound can be difficult  to put into words, though many journalists have tried. Falling into various categories: Dream Pop, Psychedelic Electronica, Space Age Pop, etc. Trish in an interview with Chickfactor says that once a writer referred to them as a “Futuristic Von Trapp Family,” which she dismisses as ridiculous. While no genre can fully capture the scope of Broadcast’s vision, there’s one word I often see used in relation to the band and many of their peers: Hauntology. 

A concept first coined by Derrida, in a more contemporary setting it’s been appropriated by author and cultural theorist Mark Fisher and later music journalist Simon Reynolds to describe a kind of music less similar in sound, and more so in their ethos. A kind of retrofuturism where the ghosts of “lost futures,” the promised utopias of the sci-fi of the 60’s and 70’s, haunt the margins of these artists’ work. This concept feels even more prescient today, when paradise got through capitalism feels impossibly distant, and science fiction media trends towards the bleak, to say the least. Still, there is such a sense of wonder in Trish’s work, (she often cited Alice in Wonderland as one of her favorite books,) that it feels wrong to reduce it to a simple political interpretation. As someone who was so intrigued by the esoteric and the occult, Trish seemed to be practicing a kind of psychometry when she sang. A form of psychic reading that refers to the ability to recall an object’s past by simply touching it. Trish may have been practicing a more intangible version of psychometry, but her ability to use a reference point to conjure images of the past is a magic in its own right. 

More direct references, such as her interpolation of the main theme from czech film Valerie and Her Week of Wonder on the Broadcast song “Valerie”, highlight her ability to bring new life to artifacts that could be static, lost to time. The song begins as a lullabye, Trish’s voice lilting over finger-picked guitar. Slowly the song dissolves, becoming lost in blown out synths. Other times her abilities are more indirect. Her voice, simultaneously referencial and one of a kind, is able to conjure other worlds without directly guiding us there. On the 2005 album Tender Buttons, a nod to a collection of Gertrude Stein poems of the same name, Trish begins to move away from the more literal lyricism of her earlier work and begins using surreal imagery that recalls the new-wave films she was so fond of.

On opening track “I Found the F” she sings:

“You came to me, carelessly.

I am iris and the lens.

The bridge adjusting to the water.”

 A stunning image, so stark but so infinitely variable. I won’t get into my interpretation here, I think that defeats the purpose of its variability, and maybe it has no meaning, but to me this is what makes Trish’s powers of psychometry so potent, to  briefly touch an image and bring it to life, in her poetry and her arrangement. It’s worth noting that Trish wasn’t only the frontwoman of Broadcast but a principal songwriter. James Cargill, Co-Member of the band and Trish’s partner described her as “the beating heart of the band.” She often wrote demos on her acoustic guitar, bringing them to the band to flesh out, and was skilled with the analogue synths the band was fond of. At times she used oblique strategies to write her lyrics. In an interview with Wire, when asked about the song “Libra, The Mirrors Minor Self” she said “The words were a cut up of my horoscope. I quite like the caring tone of horoscopes and found shuffling the words around a bit added up to something quite gentle and cryptic.” One of the more revealing quotes of hers that I’ve found, describing her horoscope as “caring” is so indicative of Trish as a person, again showing her love for the arcane while expressing a kind of empathy towards an inanimate thing.

But here’s where all of my research, reading quotes, and watching interviews, begins to falter. I didn’t know Trish and I can’t comment on her personality without inferring from secondary sources. Even in an age of social media and entertainment journalists there isn’t that much out there to learn. I wish I could say that it adds to her mystique, but to do so would diminish her life to something to be consumed and mythologized. It’s hard to write about now without feeling like I’m doing just that, and maybe I am to an extent. She was clearly also a private person, and I don’t want to imply anything untrue about her. It’s just that when I put in my headphones and listen to her music, I feel like I do know her briefly, like I’m the one practicing psychometry and for a moment bringing her world to life.