Listening to the ghostly and yet often often joyful sounds of Small Feet, it’s hard to believe that the man behind the band, Stockholm based Simon Stålhamrhe, was, as a youngster, a prodigious player of sports. With his delicate, keening voice, and his bewitching, beseeching songs – songs of ecstatic rapture, songs of doleful sorrow, each so graceful and frail that they sound as though they’re held together by spider’s silk – the thought of him as an athlete seems somehow absurd. And yet, whether it was football, tennis, hockey or even ping pong, Stålhamrhe delighted in – as he puts it – “chasing objects around and bending them to my will”. The problem was that, when things became competitive, he struggled to participate.
If the odds became too steep, Stålhamrhe buckled under pressure. For many years, this was true too of the music he made. Happy though he was to record the songs that he’d started writing by the time he reached his teens, he discovered that sharing them was simply too intimidating. A six track EP and an album, which he went so far as to master, remained unheard by the world at large, stacked up with hundreds of demos in a closet at his parents’ home. When he started bands with others – occasionally reaching the point where they could perform in public, sometimes even building up a significant buzz in so doing – he’d soon abandon the projects, dissatisfied with his performances, convinced that something better lay ahead, just out of reach. He still seemed content chasing objects around, in other words, but the idea of stepping into the public arena, where he might fail, was one he couldn’t contemplate.
Two years ago, something changed. After recurring bouts of depression, he “crashed completely”, he admits. For the first time in his life he was forced to seek help, undertaking therapy to address the issues behind his problems. Support came simultaneously from an entirely different and unexpected source in the shape of another Stockholm based musician, ex-pat American Jacob Snavely, with whom he shared friends. Their admiration for each other’s music soon became equally mutual.
For some time, Stålhamrhe had been drifting: working in cafés, flyposting, nursing a victim of cerebral palsy. Snavely persuaded him that his music deserved an audience, helping him find work with other bands, including Rebekka Karijord’s, while encouraging him to pursue his own creativity more thoroughly. “We formally refer to this as ‘Jacob’s days of blowing smoke up Simon’s ass’”, Stålhamrhe smiles. Whatever it was, it worked: Stålhamrhe’s health slowly recovered, and after Stålhamrhe unlocked his vaults to allow Snavely to explore his work in more depth, Snavely introduced him to Christopher Cantillo, who turned out to be, Stålhamrhe states admiringly, “maybe the best musician I’ve ever played with”.
While the musical chemistry was immediately apparent, it took a little time for the three of them to find a suitable working method, with Stålhamrhe struggling to let go of his songs unless he handed over responsibility entirely. Once they’d found their way, however, the music poured forth. Having first picked up an electric guitar as a child at school – “I don´t know if you can appreciate how cool that felt to a nine year old!” Stålhamrhe grins – and having written his first song, ‘Don’t Smoke In My House’, aged eleven, the one constant in his life suddenly, finally, became his priority. “It’s so much fun taking my songs to these two and just piecing everything together,” he beams.
Snavely modestly insists that he and Cantillo “just add energy, slight arrangements, and stuff like that”, but the music he and Cantillo coaxed out of their new friend is worth the time it took to ripen. Undeniably influenced by Stålhamrhe’s love of Neil Young, and seeped in a naivety reminiscent of Daniel Johnston, it’s deceptively simple, both lyrically and musically, with the rawness and honesty of the trio’s performances retained by the lo-fi production techniques employed. Admittedly, these were imposed upon them by finances – “I’d love to go into an expensive studio and work with Kanye West to see what kind of results we could get there!” Stålhamrhe laughs – but they lend the recordings a haunting aesthetic, an identity both familiar and otherworldly.
Suitably, the first fruits of their work, the Liar Behind The Sun EP, arrive on the illustrious Kning Disk label in both 7” vinyl and cassette formats, a nod to their evocatively timeless atmospheres. The title track is a perfect introduction to Small Feet, a rough and ready tumble through country fields, its melody enduring despite the song’s brevity, and it’s followed in the autumn by a long awaited debut full length, From Far Enough Away, Everything Sounds Like The Ocean. Both collections showcase the overdue arrival of a formidable songwriting talent, something highlighted by the likes of ‘All And Everyone’, its tone set by a cheerful postman’s whistle, and ‘Palm Trees’, as lonesome as the moon in a devastated wasteland. Also in Small Feet’s armoury are the playful yet gruesome nightmares of ‘Monsters’, the concisely poignant ‘Hymn’, the charming, harmony-laden simplicity of ‘Smoke And Rivers’, the Appalachian echoes of ‘Rivers’ (recorded on an iPhone) and the deeply personal, regret-soaked ‘And Repeat’. The latter, surely one of the most affecting songs ever written, ought to find itself ranked alongside work by many of Stålhamrhe’s musical heroes, including Bill Callahan, Townes Van Zandt and Leonard Cohen, whose dark humour is often evident in songs like ‘Here’s To Violence’ and ‘One At The Helm’.
The son of a kindergarten teacher and police officer, Stålhamrhe’s walked a rocky, troubled path to find his Small Feet. But his athletic enthusiasm has at last been applied to the thing that he’s loved most ever since he first picked up that guitar at school, and his confidence in his craft has been restored. “I´m ready to do this now,” he concludes. “I’m done fighting my windmills.” He’s prepared for the challenge, and the crowds will surely find him. They’ve already waited too long.