Last night, in a cold, wet, and sludgy Williamsburg, singer-songwriter Alice Boman, who hails from Malmö, Sweden, brought heartfelt ballads to Rough Trade NYC. A hushed acoustic set from Buffalo’s Julie Byrne and a collection of atmospheric and haunting country-tinged ballads from Cassandra Jenkins preceded Boman’s low-key headline set, setting the tone for a night of unfussy, vocal-driven, and emotive music.
So sparse are Boman’s songs that they almost feel not quite fully formed. Her first EP, originally recorded as a collection of demos that she did not intend to release, was called Skisser, Swedish for “sketches,” and yet her delivery, intoxicating and filled with palpable yearning and heartbreak, makes it hard to believe that these songs could’ve stayed on the shelf. Standing alone in front of a keyboard — her sole musical accompaniment, which she said she had “just borrowed today” — Boman commanded the full attention of the kind of sizable room such a stripped-down arrangement could have easily been lost in.
Amid the hush, Boman played a compelling set based around her recent EP II and Skisser, along with a few new songs and a couple of covers. With nothing to distract from just the singer and her keyboard standing center stage, all attention was focused on her captivating vocals and precise command of melody. She seemed capable of conjuring magic from out of near-nothing. Stripped of the driving percussion of the recorded version, “Over,” from EP II, laid bare the vulnerability of her voice, yet on “All Eyes on You” her voice seemed to reach for a maturity and determination not much heard on record. While the songs on Skisser and EP II center around Boman’s stories of heartbreak and longing, a new song with the lyrics “I never meant to hurt you/I never meant any harm” suggested a scenario in which she can be the heartbreaker as well as the broken. Still, lest she come across as too assured, each song ended with a shy smile with a step backwards and a slight bow, and she finished her set with the vulnerable “What”: “What do you see when you look at me/Do you ever think about me like I think about you?”
Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe” could be a little better suited to the picture of emotional fragility that Boman paints, and her downtempo cover version was a highlight of the night. She followed it with another cover, “Red Eyes” by the War on Drugs, which, though vastly slowed down, added a welcome hint of drama to the set.
Much of Boman’s short career so far seems effortless. In a recent interview with Brooklyn Magazine, she said that this U.S. tour (which was to comprise only two shows, one in NYC and one in Los Angeles) only came about because she was here on vacation and her manager suggested playing a couple of gigs. It will be interesting to see how this cool, offhand approach to her work develops into something more purposeful as her stock grows and she finds herself filling bigger venues — which, based on the reception from a rapt crowd at Rough Trade last night, she most certainly will.