Track by Track | Bess Atwell

With the release of her stunning debut record, Bess Atwell has kindly provided FFS with a Track by Track 159719run down of Hold Your Mind. Here are Bess’ thoughts on how her record was written and recorded…


A Thousand Lovers was written shortly after my first heartbreak. It’s a song about all kinds of love, and the reluctance to end certain relationships – yet the necessity of it in some cases. I had been fighting for a relationship that I didn’t really believe in, because I was afraid of it amounting to nothing, and in the end, having the decision made for me was a blessing in disguise. The main body of the song indulges in the fantasy of never having to let go, and having everyone you have ever loved in the same place at the same time.


I wrote Washed & Dried about having an undeniable connection with somebody, and ultimately really falling in love with them. The water imagery in the song is in reference to the fear of “drowning” in a relationship of such depth, if it were to end. It contradicts the first track on the record as it’s a comparison of two relationships, rather than romanticising them all. In some ways I think of this track as the anomaly of the record as it’s the only song about this specific relationship.


Jesse is my favourite track on the record. It’s sort of an amalgamation of all of the songs and their meanings. Every line in the song seems to swing between concepts. I remember initially writing it about my first boyfriend, after we broke up, only to have it take on a life of it’s own. I now consider Jesse a song about one’s relationship with one’s self. After writing the very first line (“And you can take it all, but without me it means nothing at all”) I realised that I wasn’t writing about him, but projecting my own fears. I was afraid not to have worth to this specific person any longer, and ultimately this made it a song about me rather than him. The chorus goes on to challenge this self doubt. It also touches on the concepts of faith, death and the unknown. Without someone else, who am I?


I wrote Candid after witnessing the break up of two friends of mine. It resonated with me as it was reminiscent of my parents’ break up. The song is fairly self-explanatory, expressing the frustrations of two people that may still love each other but cannot communicate it in the way that the other needs, or understands. This is really the main concept of the record; communication or the lack of. Candid is about feeling as though you no longer know the person standing in front of you, and the shock of witnessing an unreasonable, primal side of them in response to their pain.


Help Me Believe was one of the many songs I wrote to council myself through that first heartbreak. At the time I was staying at my sister’s student house in Caledonian Road in an attempt to get away from Sussex. It was a relatively last minute addition to the record as I wasn’t going to record it originally, but it ended up signifying a pivotal moment for me. I was learning to transform my pain into music. It was the only thing that got me up in the morning for a while.

Initially, the decision to record H.M.B was to create more space to breathe on the record. It was relevant and simple so in the studio we were able to experiment a bit with it. We indulged in a lengthy middle 8/ instrumental – playing with reversed speech, guitar, and layered harmonies.


The idea for Cobbled Streets came to me when I was walking home from a small party in my hometown. I was plagued by the assumption that it’s something I should’ve been enjoying, when in reality I spent the majority of it planning my exit. I was intrigued by the ease at which I could mould into certain groups easily, while feeling so separate from them, and craving something more. It’s one of the youngest songs on the record, and sonically it felt fresh and new. It was pretty nice to discover that I can poke fun at myself and write music that’s slightly more playful. I really enjoyed writing and demoing it, playing around with chords I wasn’t familiar with and different guitar presets too.


Hold Your Mind had an interesting evolution. It originated as a poem about our digital age, with four simple stanzas. I later picked up my guitar and converted it into a little folk song. I’d always planned on Hold Your Mind being one of the most stripped back on the record. However, I was working with brilliantly talented bandmates who surprised me with their excitement towards the song. They could see the potential to make it a powerful live band track, because of the space between the verses, and I think it’s become the most statement track on the record. It was fun getting to incorporate some of my rockier influences that I hadn’t been able to explore alone. I think the way in which we arranged the band ended up reinforcing the lyrics. For example, the band cuts out completely for the lyric “hold your mind” to emphasise the concept that ties all of the songs together; the desire for connection.


Resolution is the oldest song on the record, written when I was seventeen. It’s based upon the complexity of issues realised amongst a family, and the inability to come to any comforting conclusion – specifically focusing in on a father, daughter relationship. A father figure is somebody who is meant to protect you against all things, but what happens if the antidote becomes the disease, so to speak? Resolution tackles the inner conflict of loving somebody who has hurt you, and the struggle of living with, or without them. It also touches on that moment one realises that control and security are simply illusions and that their parents are only human. The track depicts the heartbreak of having to confront an “empty body” daily – a familiar physical body, with a mind that’s unrecognisable. I’d say Resolution is the most candidly auto-biographical track on the record.


I wrote Out Of Stock around the same time as Cobbled Streets. I think they share a similar, slightly lighter-hearted vibe than the other tracks. Far enough away from any previous heartache, I was able to explore a more playful, self-aware side to my writing. Out Of Stock depicts the life of young couples struggling to make ends meet, but being so in deeply in love that the world outside of their one bedroom apartment barely exists. The song flits from poking fun at the romanticisation of such circumstances, and yearning for them.


Salt is another one in the saga of my first heartbreak. It follows on from Out Of Stock by delving into a portrayal of my own experience of being in the midst of young love, and the way in appears in hindsight. There’s an innocence and naivety to the lyrics in the verses, culminating to form a chorus of fickle nature. Looking back at the relationship I questioned whether I had been in love at all.

I wanted to have a ghostly male vocal on this track, reminiscent of a memory, so I asked my friend (and fellow singer-songwriter) George Ogilvie to come to the studio and record with me. I love his voice, it’s classic yet unique and he was already a fan of the song so I couldn’t think of a better person. We tracked the vocals live in the same room, facing each other. I think Smith, my producer, thought this would be a romantic and emotive aid, but it ended up being a huge challenge for George and I because our friendship revolves around making each other laugh. I think it took us a good two hours to get the vocal take without laughing or resisting the urge to pull a face at the other while they were singing.


Even though One Last Word is the penultimate track, I consider it the end of the record, conceptually. I wrote the song amidst the break up of my first relationship, using inspiration mainly from that experience, though it’s relevant to pretty much all concepts touched on in every track. It expresses the need for a final “word”/ chapter to tie up any loose ends between two people, and the frustration of not being able to connect to someone who you once could. I wanted the recording of One Last Word to be traditional, building throughout, with focus on the vocals. I’m proud of it as a piece of songwriting alone and didn’t want to cloud it with experimental production.


Punish you is the first song I ever wrote on the piano. I have little to no knowledge of the instrument so the song is based around a very simple, and repetitive idea that I came up with on a rainy, dull day in Sussex. I chose Punish You to be the final track on the record because the focus shifts slightly from the other tracks. It’s signifies a new chapter; the moment you stop fighting to be heard, and get to say your final piece without being attached to a response.

As the piano part was so simple, it gave us lots of room to have fun and experiment with the production. We played around with tapping guitar pedals with our fingers, and plucking at the strings of an old organ to create an etherial soundscape. I left a few bars of piano in the middle 8 so we could create the final crescendo of the record with drums and cymbals. I wanted it to sound like a stormy ocean. When we were tracking the piano I had to hold the keys down for a while after the song had ended, and when I finally released them you can hear me take a big sigh which we decided to leave in. It was a sigh of relief from getting through the piano take, but it also felt like an apt coincidence and somewhat symbolic.