Bess Atwell is Finding Peace

The English singer-songwriter talks working with the National’s Aaron Dessner, touring with an ex and writing about unorthodox family dynamics on her new album, Light Sleeper.

Music Features Bess Atwell
Bess Atwell is Finding Peace

English singer-songwriter Bess Atwell’s third album, Light Sleeper, is tender and authentic. The entire record was made at the legendary Long Pond Studios in Hudson Valley, New York with the National’s Aaron Dessner. Bess is a lifelong fan of the National, and she grins ear to ear recounting the time Aaron had found her music. “Aaron tagged me in something on Instagram, and I was already a huge, huge fan of his, saying that he liked one of the songs on my last record,” she says. “He started following me, and it was all just like the most ridiculous thing that happened to me.” Atwell was considering producing Light Sleeper on her own, which she’d never done before, but decided to shoot her shot with Dessner—sending over demos right before a festival performance. “I think it ruined my set, just because I was so overwhelmed and excited that I ended up playing really badly,” she continues. “He loved the songs, and he was really excited. He asked me if I wanted help making them.”

Atwell’s session at Long Pond was everything she hoped it’d be—the magic of it all enhanced by her realization that Aaron Dessner is a normal dude. “He made me feel so comfortable,” she says. “I was worried, being such a fan of his, that that was gonna affect how relaxed I felt, and therefore how I could perform. But he was so generous and relaxed, and picked us up from the station in his daddy wagon.” The pair recorded Light Sleeper in its entirety in January of 2023, waking up at dawn and marveling at the live room’s floor to ceiling windows, which overlooked snow blanketing the surrounding woods.

“Spinning Sun” was the song that Atwell identified as the blueprint for this record. “My jaw is a door ajar / And I say I have no vices / But let’s go” is the lyric that lays out the song’s thesis. Atwell explains that she “clenched my jaw really badly. And I’ve had TMJ and all of that, so I can kind of tell. It’s one of the signs that I’m not doing so good and, sometimes, I don’t have very good interoception. I don’t know I’m feeling anxious until I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m doing that thing again.’” Instead of partying and using drugs, Atwell sees her main vice as having control, especially the power to leave places at will, and her minimal indulgence in traditional vices comes from that desire to not let outside forces steal that mental discipline.

Much of Light Sleeper revolves around Atwell’s decision to taper off of antidepressants. “I think I’d just gotten to a point where I realized that I’d been on them my whole adult life,” she explains. “I got to a point where I was more willing to see how I felt [without them].” The album’s title-track tackles this subject head-on: “I’m ready to be a light sleeper again / To wake up and feel everything / I can carry the weight of it.” Being on the medication for anxiety, reducing her dose meant Atwell was giving up the ability to easily fall asleep and stay asleep. “I came down, I think, like halfway, and then felt as you do a lot of the time,” she continues. “But I did it slowly, and became extra anxious, so I decided to stay on them. It’s not really a coming-off antidepressant, it’s more about exploring that willingness to come off them and to feel.”

The record also sees Atwell at her most confessional. Penultimate track “Crowds” follows Atwell’s psyche as she navigates going through a breakup with her partner while on tour with them. Her ex was both the support act for the tour and played in her backing band, so they would watch from the wings hearing songs about each other performed every night. “I think it was just incredibly painful. And we’d decided just before the tour, even though he lived in the same city, it was like I woke up one day and was like, this is over. And we had a call and then decided to still do the tour because we kind of had to,” she recounts.

The lyrics in “Crowds” are fairly literal. “Warm up my crowds / And come back to the same hotel room / Run me another bath and write my name into the glass again” are all things Atwell experienced while on tour with this ex. She described the experience as both heartbreaking and tender, like a breakup happening in slow motion. “[The audience] ​​would watch him singing breakup/love songs about me and then watch him in my band playing songs about [me] falling out of love with him. It was all very Fleetwood Mac,” Atwell continues. The emotional intimacy was still certainly there for the two, and it seemed to become much more “real” once they started reserving hotel rooms with two beds. “Tender” was truly the best word to describe this story, as Atwell explains that “it was my first ever experience of just being able to look at someone in the eye, who I love, and say, ‘I will try and help you through this,’ and he did the same.” Atwell’s willingness to face vulnerability head-on is truly what makes her the compelling songstress she is. She’s able to articulate the novelties of her life in a way that is both profound and resonant.

But what compelled me to reach out to Atwell for an interview in the first place was our rare commonality. It’s not often that I meet someone else that grew up with a sibling who has a developmental disability, and after hearing Light Sleeper’s emotional centerpiece “The Weeping,” I had felt heard in a light I’d never seen before. My discussion with Atwell about this felt like a two-way therapy session, both of us in awe of the mutual understanding we shared for the other’s upbringing. Atwell’s younger sister, Lola, has nonverbal autism, and “The Weeping” chronicles the guilt and heartbreak she felt when they were growing up together. “She couldn’t communicate, she was stuck in there,” Atwell explains. “That’s how my child brain perceived her, so I think that’s where a lot of my anxiety comes from—feeling trapped, or feeling like I can’t be understood or I won’t be understood. I think there’s also guilt there. Why can I communicate, but she can’t?”

The nuances of how parenting, marriage and finances in that kind of life connected Bess Atwell and I very naturally. “Don’t say everything happens for a reason” is the line from “The Weeping” that resonated with me the most. Growing up the way my sibling and I did comes with a lot of unsolicited advice and preaching. “You were given this life because you were strong enough to live it,” and other similar and vaguely religious fodder. And while these people are typically well-intentioned, my conversation with Atwell truly confirmed to me that it’s not something that can be fully understood unless you’ve lived it yourself. As much as we both appreciate our siblings and how they’ve affected the ways in which we see the world, we both can admit to imagining what could have been if things were different. “The Weeping” not only masterfully captures those feelings, but it tells a beautiful story.

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