Can sheep smile at you? It’s a strange coronavirus-era topic to consider, but former Wild Beasts frontman Hayden Thorpe believes they can. Or at least it looks that way when he jogs past a pasture of charming Herdwicks, a centuries-old breed indigenous to his native Lake District in England, where he recently composed a pastoral new solo EP called “Aerial Songs.”
“They’re very hearty, rugged sheep that always have a permanent grin,” he says of his ovine inspiration, which was so beloved by local children’s author Beatrix Potter that when she died in 1943 she bequeathed 15 farms totaling over 4,000 acres to the National Trust for their grazing land. “So whenever you’re in a gale-force wind that’s blowing your face off and you catch a glimpse of one of these guys, it’s always telling you that everything’s going to be OK.”
As a kid growing up in the bucolic Cumbrian village of Kendal, Thorpe, 34, recalls being something of an outdoorsman, an instinct that was squelched once he met guitarist Ben Little, formed the Fauvism-dubbed Wild Beasts, and issued its arcane-pop debut disc “Limbo, Panto” in 2008.
He started staying in his room more, where he began composing songs and mapping out his world-touring career. His Lake District heritage was almost an unhip embarrassment.
“Because when you’re young, you just always want the other, right? The other thing, the other place, the other experience, and I think that’s just part of a healthy negotiation with the world. But in my good fortune of traversing the earth a few times, I’ve come to find that the majesty of that place is hard to beat. It’s in me, it’s in my bloodline, in my DNA.”
When his Mercury-Prize-nominated outfit disbanded in 2017, and he flew solo with 2019’s “Diviner,” he began returning home from London more often, and taking up the hobby of fell running — taking scenic trots through homeland hills dubbed “fells” from the Old Norse word fjall.
“My fell runs were about an hour, and typically, that’s pretty pathetic,” he admits. “Because the most famous fell run people do is a 40-mile one across the mountains.” The topography isn’t daunting mountains. He says, “It’s something you can immerse yourself in without fear of plummeting to your death or being eaten by a bear. You don’t need an oxygen tank, you just need a nicely-made sandwich and a flask of coffee.”
Thorpe had forgotten just how gorgeous his childhood surroundings were. The more he jogged, and the more Herdwick he stumbled upon, the more he learned to appreciate, until even the rhythm of his running acquired a certain musicality.
“The Lake District is so full of wonder and magic, and it’s still elusive to me, to this day,” he says. “There are still so many secrets held within its valleys and all its woodlands. And I gradually began to equate going up there with happiness, a place where I could get that nourishment, both physically and psychologically. The entanglements of worrying about songs lifts when you’re there. It’s very good at consoling the over-concerned artist in you.”
Simultaneously, Thorpe was invited to take part in the area’s Aerial Festival as artist-in-residence, an honor he happily accepted. During lockdown, he collaborated on a dance-pop single “Unknown Song” with Hot Chip’s Joe Goddard.
“Aerial Songs” embeds his operatic, often falsetto-fluttered singing voice in elegiac paeans to Mother Nature. It includes the gauzy ballad “Set it Loose” (detailing how songs are almost pre-composed by the universe and beamed down to open-minded recipients) and the spooky synth processional “Head on a Platter” (inspired by the nearby Neolithic Castlerigg Stone Circle).
The hypnotic-paced “Blue Crow” is inspired by feathered friends he started spotting and mythology.
Influenced by Captain Beefheart’s dissonant “Ice Cream for Crow” and the avian-themed poetry of Ted Hughes, Thorpe has always wanted a crow song in his own catalog. Traditionally, the bird often was perceived as a harbinger of fear, foreboding, even death.
“But it’s also a very strong and sturdy presence, so I borrowed a bit from nature, because there’s an actual neon-blue crow in Southern Brazil, and legend has it that when a man came to chop down its tree, it fled into the sky, where it was dyed the same color, and now it watches over the forest. Then there’s the Greek myth, where Apollo sent his white crow to spy on his lover, and when the crow found her cheating on him and flew back to tell him, Apollo burnt the crow black in rage. So the message in the song is: When you go looking for the thing you think you want, you just might find it.”
Thorpe was grateful for his Aerial Festival assignment, even though the September event was downgraded to online due to the pandemic.
“I finally had reason to make work about the Lake District, and I think I almost needed that extra push,” he says.
He has also gotten comfortable with camping out, and occasionally diving into one of Cumbria’s countless lakes, likening the chilly jolt to the shock he felt as the pandemic has altered artists’ lives forever.
And it’s always delightful to see his pals the Herdwicks, with their cute faces. He also likes to see his parents, who still reside in the area: “When there’s a home-cooked meal waiting for me a half hour away featuring my mum’s amazing cooking? Hey, I’ll take that any day!”