The unusual, provocative title of Undeaf, the richly atmospheric, tenderly ethereal debut album by soulful, dreamy voiced singer-songwriter James Freeman-Turner aka Hēran Soun , is beautifully vulnerable, allowing us to cheer on his one of a kind musical journey. Whatever we think of the hypnotic, expansive, liquid immersion like listening experience itself – and it requires multiple patient listens to truly grasp all the sonic details and the deft, intricate subtleties of his transcendent voice – we should applaud his coming this far with such deeply personal reflections.
You don’t necessarily need to know Hēran’s back story to latch your heart onto the idealistic, soaring symphonic magic of “A Picture of a Woman” or the album’s latest lead single, the sparse, haunting, reflection and regret-filled “When You Wanted,” but it’s definitely inspiring. Born with severe hearing loss – which ultimately led to total deafness – the singer endured multiple operation and years of speech therapy to regain his hearing and voice.
Perhaps because he appreciates these gifts so much more, he has had a lifelong determination and obsession with mastering music. His dual genius for wafting soundscapes that build towards freewheeling crescendos and pin drop vocals that demand, Billie Eilish style, our undivided attention to understand every lyrical nuance (even on tunes with few words like the Eastern tinged, ultimately cacophonous “Back Words”) could only emerge into our consciousness with a bit of extra recent serendipity. Hēran secured the keys to a world class recording studio (25th Street Studio in Oakland) owned by the son of the late pop artist Roy Lichtenstein.
Living in an RV in the parking lot of the facility, he slept during the day and got free reign of the studio at night, weaving his sweet, slow developing melodies with a grand piano and beat up nylon guitar, then building rhythmic power on the drum kit. His wild ambition and no-holds-barred approach to creating an ambient, electronic pop rock world like no other culminates in the slowly seductive, 12- minute piano driven closer “Who Are You? which features wordless vocals and a heartfelt and heartbreaking narrative about alienation and isolation.