Nick Bollinger discusses the internal geography and emotional meteorology of Ben Tolich, a.k.a. Mali Mali.
A record can conjure a landscape - a sonic place in which the songs are set - and here’s one that does that explicitly.
Ben Tolich is a New Zealand-based artist who records as Mali Mali. In his latest album he starts out singing from a ‘sofa, paralysed’, before going on to describe the landscape he imagines as he rests there.
Following his thoughts we travel through valleys, canyons, quarries, mountains, while the eyes of his lover remain fixed on him, washed up on that couch. It’s an extraordinary telescoping that goes in on just these first few lines, zooming in, out, around and back, and the song continues to build, the imagery becoming increasingly metaphysical. ‘The summit of my spirit is hidden in the clouds’, he sings.
But the music is doing a lot of work here too. Tolich’s instrumental landscapes are both lush and rough. On piano he lays out open, hopeful chords, but there’s a beat like a racing heart that comes and goes through that opening track, along with the eerie echoes of his own voice, like some internal catch that threatens to trip him up, even as he has his eye on transcendence.
In the eight songs on this album, Tolich’s thoughts roam widely, from the personal spirit to the religious one, to the skies and stars and back to the couch. His lyrical lines follow the flow of his thoughts, tumbling over the almost-hymnal chords of ‘Jesus Ain’t A Horrid Word’ in which he starts out considering the implications of thinking about the Christian saviour, and just spirals out from there.
Mali Mali is essentially a one-man band, with Tolich at the centre, multi-tracking his keyboards, various stringed things and his vulnerable unaffected vocals, then distressing it all with reverbs and delays, odd loops and unidentifiable creaks and bangs, as though some extreme meteorological event had just blown through the music. If Tolich conjures a landscape, he also creates his own weather. When he sings of frosts and blizzards, and the temperature of the music seems to shift accordingly.
Even the one instrumental here, ‘A Tornado In El Reno’, is a kind of weather report. In that epic cinematic centrepiece you’ll hear Jordan Ireland’s 12-string guitar, and a cornet, played by Alice Tolich, augmenting Ben Tolich’s usual trickbag of sounds. Elsewhere Alice weaves cello and harp through the music-scape. But there’s almost as much going on in solitary performances like ‘Ruru Cry’.
Titled Azimuth – an Arabic-derived word, appropriately related to navigating the heavens – this is the third album Tolich has made as Mali Mali. It’s melodic and poetic, yet also grainy and mysterious. It’s not a record that gives up its secrets too easily, but I uncover more every time I listen.
Having completed a national tour with his band last month, Mali Mali is currently undertaking a solo tour of living rooms. If you have a suitable living room and want to hear some of this extraordinary music up close, you might want to try contacting Mali Mali through his Facebook page – that’s malimalisongs - and take it from there.