Live | Petra Jean Phillipson @ St Pancras Old Church

ffs for folk's sake petra jean phillipson portrait

Petra Jean Phillipson’s MySpace page boldly states: ‘Notes On Love… is NOT for AIRHEADS’. If this first, experimental yet accessible, album wasn’t for airheads then second offering, Notes on Death, is NOT for anyone who believes songs should have such frivolous things as melodies, structure, or bits you can sing along to.

As you may have worked out, Notes on Death is a far more avant-garde prospect than its critically-acclaimed predecessor, and as such is perfectly suited to the candlelit and atmospheric St Pancras Old Church.  Equally at home in such a setting is Phillipson’s partner in life and music, MN Hopwood, who begins the evening with some really quite beautiful, nature-infused folk and looks like a nice Amish gentleman with his beard and white shirt.

After a quick change, Phillipson re-emerges  like a strange and rare bird of prey in a collar of black feathers, which proves slightly unconducive to guitar-playing as the evening progresses.  Poised in front of the altar like a dark preacher, she begins with ‘And Lilith Said Unto Adam’, a deliciously spooky little number with the elusive, haunting lyrics, “I run through your fingers like water.” ‘Ice in June’ follows, describing how Phillipson once wandered round Paris in the grip of melancholia. This sense of doubt and uncertainty is captured perfectly by a stripped-down accompaniment consisting of menacing double bass line and some portentous cymbals. With typical Phillipson irony, one of the most upbeat songs of the set is ‘Three Men Three Mothers Dead’ which is about – well, you guessed it.

Framed by religious iconography and with the smell of incense in the air, Phillipson certainly creates some near-perfect moments tonight – she could be delivering a sermon to a rapt cult of quiet and attentive followers.  But despite the obvious musical prowess and craftsmanship of the material, there’s a sense of expectancy in the ‘congregation’. What this is becomes clear as Phillipson finally acquiesces  and plays ‘Independent Woman’, the most popular song from Notes on Love and, for the first time, the audience appears animated – even those seated on the Lilliputian-sized chairs obviously reserved for the church’s crèche.

As she wonders what to play for the encore, FFS bellows ‘I want the impossible!’, referring of course to best track from Notes on Love (rather than demanding Phillipson turn water into wine, for example).  And then she’s gone, with a passionate plea to the audience to follow their dreams, and a dismissive attack at the music industry.

There’s no doubt that Phillipson’s new material is accomplished, original and deeply personal, shot through with shards of brilliance. Her voice is, as ever, crystalline, ethereal and beautiful. But in creating the log of such an intensely personal journey,  Phillipson has produced something which doesn’t always quite translate to live performance. The experience, although very nearly magical,  left us with a vague feeling of exclusion and longing for the days when we could sing along too. And if that makes us airheads, then so be it.

Theresa Heath