Writer Megan Treacy / Photographer Emily Doyle
After a long-persisting worry of closure in more recent years, it is thanks to the resistance of local swimmers and campaigners that this Edwardian building has remained available to the public. One pool is maintained for its original function, and the other is a space for a variety of community wellbeing and cultural events, such as tonight’s popularly anticipated Sofar Sounds performance.
On entrance, the space feels cavernous with its high ceilings and acoustics bouncing off its hard tiles, but the intimacy characteristic of Sofar events feels retained as the audience gather within the cocooning walls of the pool.
The stage is set in usual Sofar’s mellow fashion with amps, lamps, and fairy lights, and as the main lights are shut off a rainbow of lights kiss the ceiling, outlining high arched windows in a church-like transformation of the space.
Bringing a perfect match to the atmosphere of this scenery, Birmingham-based artist and educator (and previous Birmingham Review interviewee) Adjei Sun begins his set with a participatory body scan, a meditation activity encouraging mindfulness which serves to connect the audience with the present moment.
Joined by Gina Taylor on the harp, he begins a series of poetry pieces with ‘Bedtimes Stories’, which invites us to “travel mentally” as though in a folk tale, as he describes it, continuing the meditative nature in which he began.
The next piece preludes a memory Adjei shares of witnessing a sunrise in Devon in a place of “true silence”, comparing it to the contrast of a sunrise in Shepherd’s Bush witnessed the next day before heading to Notting Hill Carnival.
Adjei is adept at storytelling and conjuring images through words. In this piece he contemplates scenes of daily life the Grenfell Tower victims might have experienced, cutting to the reality of the families “put on hold between grief and justice.”
In conversation with the audience, Adjei delves into an explanation of his practice as an educator and its influence on his work. A clearly passionate environmentalist, he speaks of working with children and his desire to see them grow up.
He writes in the face of the planet’s uncertain future, and cleverly melds environmental and mental health issues through metaphor — “I hope you do not place a hosepipe ban on tears, hope you are able to speak about the pressure” — highlighting the interlinking nature of the two.
Throughout the set, Adjei’s poetry is scored beautifully by Gina’s harp playing, tailoring the sound of the strings to the content of each piece. This is exemplified in a poem inspired by a mountain in the Himalayas visited by Adjei’s girlfriend. Gina’s plucking here is evocative of the way a sitar is played; the piece seems to seek to transport the subcontinent of the mountain to us in sound and word.
The next act receives an enthusiastic introduction from Sofar host Rohit, who is infectiously energetic.
S. T. Manville, who grew up in Birmingham, has played thousands of shows of widely varying capacity, but “never a swimming pool”.
Capo high along the fretboard, new song ‘Swimming Aid’ is aptly titled for its setting. Releasing later in the year, the lyrics speak about the worry of depending on somebody too much: “it’s not healthy but maybe it’s enough.”
For ‘Best I Can Do’, S. T. is joined by Katie Malco, another seasoned musician whose debut album Failures was released in 2020 and who is set this April for a US tour with singer Laura Stevenson. Katie provides understated harmonies for her appearance, bringing a softness to the vulnerability of S.T.’s lyricism, “doing the best I can do, doing the best without you.”
Complex emotions and relationships are a recurring topic in the set. New single ‘Act Normal’ (released at midnight) deals with guilt felt when making a decision that is right for yourself but not perhaps for others. Sensations of being lost and helpless are evoked repeatedly in a memorable simile, “like bobbing for apples without any teeth”.
The last two songs echo a theme threaded throughout many of the songs performed in this set — the human state of incompleteness and dependence, illustrated through corporeal imagery. In the unreleased ‘Little Bit Of Light In The Dark’, S. T. claims that “we all have a hole somewhere in our hearts”, and broken hearts are also referenced in ‘A Rock’, written for his kids.
S. T. always finds an optimistic balance, however, whether that’s a light to offset the dark or a rock to hold onto.
The final performance of the night sends vibrations through the tiles underneath us as we are treated to a four piece band and the first appearance of live drums, headed by Birmingham-based composer Rosie Tee.
The electronic set is a journey of soundscapes which are distinctive to each piece but produce a similarly ethereal atmosphere.
On her first track, ‘Lecturn’, Rosie sings of “catastrophically off-topic conversations lost in space”; leaning to and fro from the mic, her vocals offer a transcendent quality as they wave between distance and presence, merging with the humming instrumentals and allowing us to get “lost” freely in the audio.
An eeriness grips ‘The Dogs’, elicited by high keys which bend ominously downward in pitch. Eerier still is ‘Wishbone’, inspired by Rosie’s Polish heritage, the lyrics speaking of a female spirit in Polish folklore said to inhabit the space underneath a house.
‘Unravel’, the concluding piece of the set, pairs xylophone beats and rainforest birdsong with lyrics of exploration delivered in a mantra-like manner — “unravel her, dive deep” — seeing another faraway landscape projected audibly across the pool walls.
In an arguable manifestation of Rosie Tee’s mystical quality, the rainforest within is mirrored by a downpour outside; as the audience filters from the Baths the pool is left dry, but we leave drenched.
For more from Rosie Tee go to: www.rosietee.uk