Some two decades after decamping from her native Colorado with extended stays in Chicago and Cadiz, Spain, Josephine Foster recently returned home. Throughout this time her sui generis voice has remained a constant, an otherworldly folk warble informed by opera that’s playful in its idiosyncratic phrasing and liquid timbre, but also powerfully affecting in its emotional range and precision. If one looks at the shifting settings Foster has embraced over the years—weirdo Appalachian folk, post-Fairport Convention folk-rock, churning psychedelia, flamenco-kissed excursions, and parlor-room pop among them—it might seem as though she’s never found her core sound, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Foster’s voice is a kind of divine vessel that perpetually transforms its contents into something not of this world. She’s ceaselessly inventive in how she applies a trademark trill that warps and bends her fluid melodies in surprising ways, no matter how disparate the context. She may have challenged Thomas Wolfe’s claim that you can’t go home again geographically, but there’s no sort of reclamation or retro quality to the music she’s been making in recent years. Her 2020 album No Harm Done is set to woozy pedal steel, acoustic guitar, and some parlor room piano. A year later she took a sharp left turn on an aptly titled pandemic-era recording for the Takuroku label called Spellbinder/Experiment. She applies trios of pump organ, lever harp, and tenor recorder with three layers of voice on the first track, an intuitive, Zen-like meditation that’s far more abstract and unstudied than most of her music, while the other piece abstracts Cole Porter’s lyrics from “Nymph Errant” amid pinging, pulsing synthesizer patterns and beats.
Even more experimentation wended its way onto her latest album, Godmother, which stands as one of her starkest and best recordings. She played all of the instruments, strumming her acoustic guitar to sketch out forms, but it’s the gurgling synthesizers and electronics that interact with her voice, a kind of braided presence that represents a new step in Foster’s ever-evolving aesthetic. Of course, without the strength of her songwriting, which has never sounded better, those shifts wouldn’t hit so hard.