“Everyone has another side to themselves which is expressed in different ways,” says Helen Ganya Brown, aka Dog In The Snow. “I think I’m quite shy in real life, which contrasts with my songwriting.”
Brown’s album debut for Bella Union is Vanishing Lands, an imposing, haunting and luminous collection of songs in the darker spaces between dream-pop, art-rock and electronica, lifted by euphoric melodies, ravishing vocals and absorbing lyrics.
The album was initially created at Brown’s home in Brighton before co-producer Rob Flynn helped her add shifting, impressionistic swathes of colour, from the ominous chords that open ‘Light’ to the vocal eddies that close ‘Dark’.
Brown wrote eight of the ten songs in a three-week spell after a period of “strange dreams”. She recalls: “Dreams in black and white. I found myself in a dreamland and discovered it was being destroyed. I chose Vanishing Lands as an album title because it sounded suitably desolate, and lent the songs a feeling of cohesion.”
The themes of the two oldest tracks suit the ‘ruined world’ scenario. ‘Icaria’ is named after a utopian society established in the 1840s by a French socialist which only survived for 50 years. ‘Gold’ refers to America’s gold rush bonanza of the same era, when people searched for a better life, but instead created and faced catastrophe.
In the same vein as Brown’s 2017 debut album Consume Me, the lyrics to Vanishing Lands repeat certain words (such as ‘obscura’, ‘gold’ and ‘empire’), which also provides cohesion. In this age of streaming and playlists, “Perhaps someone will listen to the album from start to finish.”
Born to a Thai mother and Scottish father, Brown was raised in Singapore from the age of five to eighteen, when she returned to the UK, making her home in Brighton. Learning guitar and subsequently Garageband software to construct broader sounds and styles of songwriting, she absorbed influences such as Sufjan Stevens, Scott Walker, David Lynch, Clint Mansell and Brian Eno: brooding, immersive, filmic universes through which Brown could escape her shy nature. But she has since stepped out, both as a commanding solo performer and one of the singers and musicians in the touring version of Lost Horizons, the collective co-founded by Simon Raymonde, Bella Union’s label boss (who first fell for Dog in The Snow when Brown sent tracks to his show on Amazing Radio).
Brown also cites key literary and visual influences. Film director Ingmar Bergman’s B&W masterpiece The Seventh Seal and David Lynch’s B&W lithographs impacted on Vanishing Lands’ desolate aesthetic and album artwork. Less overt this time are Singapore and Brown’s “fragmented sense of identity, being mixed race,” that underpinned Consume Me. But they remain, in Vanishing Lands’ subconscious, as the (arguable) utopia that remains pristine compared to the visions that haunt Brown. The name Dog In The Snow comes from Frank Kafka’s iconic and prescient novel The Trial: “It seemed to represent finding liberation in an oppressed situation,” she explains. “I was trying to think of something with limitless creative space that doesn’t feel hindered in any way.”
The plight of the individual battered by the political system is echoed by the hooded black figures in the video that Brown has made for the fragile album highlight ‘Roses’. Her inspiration was a photo of refugees at sea, their faces hidden, desperate to escape their ruined homeland. But would their destination, if reached, provide comfort or more ruin? “It doesn’t help when people aren’t welcoming,” Brown says. “That was my mother’s experience when she arrived from Thailand.”
The album’s core theme also covers environmental ruination. ‘Fall Empire’ opens and closes with a warning: “If we did dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster”, which Brown heard on the groundbreaking 1982 documentary Koyaanisqatsi. Given the path that humanity is currently taking, no wonder Brown’s dreams seem to prophesise the end of times.
Still, she feels Vanishing Lands’ finale ‘Dark’ is “the most optimistic song on the album. Like I’m waking up from this dreamland and finding freedom rather than it being a negative feeling. Because things do change. We have to hope things will get better.”