Fabiana Palladino Is Going to Be Just Fine

Adam Bainbridge (Kindness) reviews the long-awaited debut, Fabiana Palladino.
Paul Institute residency, courtesy Laylow.

In August 2019, every Thursday evening for four weeks, the Paul Institute holds performances in the basement of a building in West London.  

The crowd is ushered in, and moves to the edges of the room. In the center of the floor is a crush of instruments, cables, mic stands.  

One one of these Thursday evenings, as Fabiana Palladino starts a song, I take out my phone and begin filming.  

It’s unsurprising that Fabiana Palladino would end up working with a collective like the Paul Institute. Imbued in much of the label’s music is a sense of solemnity, a seriousness about the act of creation. Whether it’s in the scarcity of tracks released, or the intensity of control around their appearances, the roster of musicians working as part of the Paul Institute seem committed to a careful, almost protective, expression of their musicianship.  

Three songs were released on the Paul Institute before Fabiana Palladino: “Mystery,” “Shimmer,” and  “Waiting.” “Mystery” is the most eye opening of all three — simultaneous sparseness and grandeur, a production which sounded like nothing else in 2017, and really, nothing else since.  

The influences running through the three songs which preceded the LP — Kate Bush, Prince, new wave, Brill building traditionalism, esoteric Britishness — have carried through into the new album, but now meet an even greater assortment of building blocks, seemingly synthesized from a lifetime surrounded by music.  

Timbaland once claimed Pat Benetar’s “Love is a Battlefield” is the “illest song ever,” and much of this album’s moody pop seems to be a throughline from both artists. “In the Fire” especially recalls Aaliyah in production and tone, even if the voices of Haughton and Palladino are wildly dissimilar. The LP’s ten tracks combine flashes of classic R&B programming, new wave guitars, Paisley Park production, and AM radio power ballads, and recall other British artists (Lewis Taylor, Sade, Blood Orange) who have carved a unique niche for themselves as obsessives who have the skill and writing chops to layer an understanding of soulful American pop with something singularly Not American. 

Video stills, courtesy XL.

Palladino describes the record as documenting the end of a relationship, and the accompanying biography explains that much of it was written during the intense isolation of 2020’s COVID lockdown in the UK. 

As a producer, I wondered how you record an album about loneliness and isolation in collaboration with other people?  

One way, it would seem, is to put the ultimate vulnerability of a solo artist on display — all but two songs begin with a single-tracked vocal. The 2020s are a time of impeccably processed and tweaked vocal recordings — most are tuned, stacked, VocAligned, and compressed within an inch of their lives, and (if you’re trying to have a hit) with good reason — commercial pop sounds unfinished without the hardcore vocal processing required. Palladino’s decision to let most tracks open with one voice, unadorned by effects or tuning, takes a moment to get used to. Something which may have seemed unwise to me, as a producer, gradually reveals itself as skilful production. There is an intense intimacy in these vocals, and the contrast with the big hooks and group harmonies is so much greater.  

The three videos released so far illustrate this deliberate isolation further. The visualiser for “I Care,” where both Palladino and Jai Paul appear on screen as blurred, barely lit figures, never on screen simultaneously despite their overlapping voices; the video for “Stay With Me Through the Night,” where Palladino performs in the context of a TV studio, but starkly alone on a set where only a glimpse of another human is ever seen; and most aptly, the video for “I Can’t Dream Anymore,” where Palladino is a solitary radio host onboard a seemingly unmanned pirate radio boat.

In the video, we see Palladino speak to her late night audience over the mic, seemingly content with the melancholy existence of a ship-bound radio host — surrounded by records, the paraphernalia of music fandom, and even the affection of humans, in the form of letters from listeners. But it’s still notable how apart the artist is — consumed by her art, eager to share, but far away from family, friends, and lovers.  

Making a record, and being a solo artist, is sometimes a lot like being that pirate radio host. The studio is your own, and the music in question is your own, but the isolation is now self enforced, and the letters are instead short text messages typed deliriously between bouts of concentration, or lyrics to a former self.  

Since Palladino’s very first released recording was a cover of Todd Rundgren’s “Pretending to Care,” I think it’s safe to say she and I are both fans. For me, it’s her two most Rundgren-esque songs which show a  particular effortless brilliance as a songwriter: “Forever” and “Stay With Me Through the Night.” Both are unmoored from any aural signifier of time. You’d be hard pressed to say when or where the songs were recorded based on the instrumentation, but are firmly rooted in the tradition of pop music which belies its own sophistication. The Carole King school of music, the Stevie Wonder school of music. These are two songs which are instantly melodic, pure pop and emotion — but where the workings of the song are invisible to the listener. We don’t hear the gears moving, we just feel the effect.  

Which brings me back to that night in a basement in West London. As a peer, as a fan of someone’s art, you can often feel an anxiety for them, an understanding of the pressure to keep delivering, to fulfill the unspoken potential promised by early songs. A debut album is a liberating and terrifying thing.  

But as I take out my phone and record “Stay With Me Through the Night,” sung solo at the piano, I know Fabiana Palladino is going to be just fine.

Kindness is the project of singer, DJ, and Grammy-winning producer Adam Bainbridge.