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Remembering Trish Keenan, the Extraordinary Singer for Broadcast

Keenan at the All Tomorrow's Parties Festival at Butlins Holiday Centre on May 7, 2010 in Minehead, England.

It’s amazing how sad it can be to wake up in the morning and find your corner of the Internet swathed with MP3s and video clips and chatter about one of your favorite bands. It’s like that telephone call in the middle of the night: You know something bad has happened. And if you’d just been reading (and worrying) about the singer of said band being in the hospital, you can guess what it was.

That person, this morning, is Trish Keenan, lead singer of an English group called Broadcast — owner of one of those singular voices that doesn’t strike you as anything so legendary, until you realize how perfectly it’s lodged a particular feeling in your head. Maybe it seems strange to write about Keenan here; I didn’t have nearly so much to say about the deaths of a few musicians who were probably more important, or at least better known. (Say, Captain Beefheart, or Ari Up of the Slits.) There are two differences, though, and they both leave me sad. One is that, by various accidents of taste and timing, Broadcast were always important to me, and plenty of others — more, it seemed, with every passing year. They’d managed to grow from a stylish late-nineties curio to a band that was always pressing in rich new directions, whether they were swimming in highbrow experimental waters, making evocative pop music, or — at their best — managing both at once. That’s the other thing: Keenan’s death comes, sadly, in the middle of a still-vital career, maybe even one that was at a turning point. Broadcast’s last LP release was in the fall of 2009, and it was one of those experiments; it was named album of the year by The Wire, a magazine devoted to left-field music. But the band had a habit of circling around pop — spending a few years in the laboratory, playing with sound, then making a gorgeous, melodic, inviting album out of all the odd things they’d discovered. I was looking forward to what they’d do next.

But, as early reports have it, Keenan picked up the flu while traveling, developed pneumonia, and died early this morning. Some of us will miss her a great deal, and be glad for what music we have.

So who are Broadcast? Scroll down to the videos embedded below. They started off as a five-piece band in the mid-nineties, with a sound that was both alluring and, at the time, fashionable. They were one of a few acts cobbling together something “futuristic” from bits of the past: old organs, jazz drumming, sixties folk and psychedelic music, beatnik cool. They had arcane influences, like an old psych band called the United States of America and “library music” — which is to say, the kinds of experiments with technology and sound that used to happen at institutions like the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and those odd tones people of a particular generation mostly remember from wobbly old educational filmstrips. The music conjured a certain mood, and the mood invited far-fetched descriptions: Hey, imagine an old sixties Twilight Zone episode where someone winds up at a smoky club in the future — this might be the sort of act that would be playing! Over time, the band lost members, started making impressive pop songs out of spare collages of samples, and eventually, in 2005, now down to just a duo, released my favorite record of theirs: Tender Buttons, a collection of blocky, buzzing keyboards and careful, bewitching songs. (It’s not their most immediate: That might be 2003’s Haha Sound.)

Throughout, Keenan’s voice was one of the richest things Broadcast had going for them. It’s like an anchor: No matter how spare, abstracted, or foggy the music ever got — even to the point where it was just geometric sound-shapes floating by in the background — there was this still, methodical voice in the center, peering out at you. (Something about Keenan’s voice always sounds like she’s looking you dead in the eye, even though she tended to sing with hair covering her own, standing very still.) The voice has been described as deadpan, precise, lilting, haunting, ghostly, the sound of “innocent elegance,” a “drone,” and plenty of other things besides. Who knows: It has a certain effect. It seems to be calling out to you from some other place. It has no vast range or showy skills or amazing expressiveness, but it’s warm and even and you know whose hands you’re in. On some songs, Keenan sounds cryptic and oracular, as if she’s calmly telling the future. On others, like “Michael A Grammar,” it’s more like she’s taunting or teasing, trying to talk someone into something. In one interview, she described some of the band’s tracks as “nice little classroom folky songs,” and the dreamy image that conjures — some late-sixties schoolteacher singing softly in a hushed, institutional, blank space — captures exactly the kind of grace she brought to some of this music. For instance, “Tears in the Typing Pool,” the first of the songs below.

It always feels a little silly to get too aggressively bereaved about the loss of a musician you liked — a person whose work you felt connected to, but never in the least knew. Still: Read over interviews with Keenan, and you see a thoughtful, dedicated, curious person, the kind of artist who cared enough about what she was doing that she’d actually set herself writing exercises. (One song a day, a song in a half-hour, that sort of thing.) She’d begun writing poetry and fiction, as well, and given the wealth of ideas and emotions she brought to Broadcast’s songs, I’d always wondered where that might lead — what might happen if she reached the age where music became a hassle and it was more attractive to sit down with a pen. But the work we do have from her is, for some of us, memorable enough, and well worth visiting.


"Tears in the Typing Pool":


"Come on Let's Go":


"Echo's Answer":

Photo: Gary Wolstenholme/Redferns