There is power in telling your story. The power doesn’t lie in the story itself, but rather, in the possessive––often defiant––act of voicing it: I am here. This life is mine. But to speak and claim what’s yours, you must first find your voice––a process tortuous to pursue and a wonder to witness, especially when the one sharing that journey is an artist like Galen Ayers.
“I need to straddle the line between me wanting to be more than just a character in my dad’s life and wanting to become the author of my own life,” Galen says, home in New York City. “These last few years have been a transition for me. When you grow up the child of an exhibitionist, you by default become the voyeur. Even though people are looking towards you, they’re looking at your parent––not at you. So you develop this keen sense of just observation.”
Now, Galen is no longer only watching, perched safely in someone else’s background. She is singing, writing, and speaking for herself in a deserved spotlight, made brighter by new album Monument, a pared down tour-de-force that sublimely captures Galen’s recent empowerment.
The stunning collection is a hard-won victory for Galen, the daughter of psychedelic rock pioneer Kevin Ayers, whose experimental intellectualism, outsized charisma, and decades of substance abuse defined much of Galen’s early existence. She was devoted to him. When the elder Ayers passed away in 2013, Galen was devastated. Written on Grecian island Hydra over the two years immediately following Ayers’ death, Monument captures Galen’s grief and growth. “I stood by him, was his metaphorical wife, daughter, sister, best friend, advisor,” she says. “When he passed, my reasons for living had to shift. That was super healthy for me, but the process was terrifying. I wouldn’t have survived without music.”
Music has always loomed large for Galen, even when she tried to escape it. She spent her childhood on the Spanish island of Majorca. Spanish was her first language, and lilting traces of her native tongue can be heard in sometimes slightly off-kilter syntax in her otherwise posh British English. She attended boarding schools in the UK. Undergraduate degrees in religion and ethnomusicology were followed by M.A.s in the psychology of religion and Buddhism. While in school, she started Siskin, a critically acclaimed band Galen co-fronts with Kirsty Newton. A born activist, she also began working with numerous charities and other organizations, as well as writing for various outlets. While serving in roles such as ambassador to Friends of the Earth, volunteering to help trauma victims psychologically in London, or penning op-eds for Huffington Post, her fierce love of the underdog and sharp mind guided her.
“I’ve tried so many things not to be a musician, and then, it just keeps coming back,” Galen says, reflecting on her unusual curriculum vitae. “The reason it keeps coming back is because it’s such a complete way of breaching that meaningless gap that occurs when shit happens in life. I love painting, writing, and sculpting, but I haven’t found anything as complete as the process of writing a song.”
As far-ranging as Galen’s interests and expertise are, they all point to that deeply human thirst for meaning. “I’ve come to realize that life is inherently meaningless,” she says. “So it’s up to you to paint it or write it or sing it––whatever you want to do. And don’t have just one, because that is a perilous life. You need a lot of streams of meaning: kids are a great one. Family. Creativity.” She pauses, then sighs as she smiles. “Yeah.”
Produced by Galen’s longtime friend Paul Simm, Monument benefits from all of Galen’s compulsions. The 10 songs refuse to commit to a genre: moody pop, nods to 50s girl-group doo-wop, dreamy folk, trippy rock, flamenco, and more are all anchored by a single force: Galen’s brilliant soprano. Surrounded by sparse instrumentation, Galen’s vocals are far out front, not obscured or cushioned by anything else. It’s a perfect choice for an album created to celebrate one woman’s discovery and embracement of her own voice. “We wanted to do a record that didn’t have a lot of fat,” she says. “We made ourselves rules, like no big strings, nothing to pad it––nothing to hide it.”
The songs themselves are standalone gems, but each grapples with related themes of grief, longing, and becoming whole. “It took a lot of bravery for me to do this. The lyrics are not intellectual,” Galen says. “I like wordplay. I like thinking things through. But here, I allowed myself to be really simple and really emotional. I just felt like I owed it to myself to be honest.”
The album kicks off with “You Choose,” driven by Galen’s bell-like acoustic guitar and conversational vocals. The song is a gorgeous invitation to the intimacy and connection the entire record offers. “If I have any belief, it’s that the brain works best if it has a dream,” Galen says. “It does not necessarily need the dream to come true, but it needs to have a dream.” Lines like “confuses what you’ve been with what you dream” and “a full-time maybe” reflect her mantra, relishing possibility.
“Collide” elevates the beautiful accidents that change lives above the scripted and status quo, while “Into the Sea” yearns to find a partner before everyone is already all together anyway. “I wrote ‘Into the Sea’ in Hydra, surrounded by the ocean, the world’s largest repository, where we will all end up someday,” Galen says. “It’s meant to be a bit sarcastic––very British, like, ‘Oh, we’re going to meet sometime, for (expletive’s) sake!’” She laughs as she adds, “It also had a very Buddhist feeling for me.”
Featuring buoyant guitar and snaps, “U-Turn” adds welcome whimsy to the record. “I heard that song, ‘My boyfriend’s back, and you’re gonna be in trouble,’” Galen sings. “I was like, ‘Ah, I want to write a song like that! That makes me so happy.’” “Duet” draws from the same well for a darker purpose: channeling the Ronnettes or Supremes, Galen mulls over the co-dependent dance so many relationships devolve into. “Run, Baby, Run” revels in Galen’s roots, all punchy percussion and lush Spanish lyrics butting up against recurring English protests such as, “When you throw me a lifeline, it only tangles in mine.”
Clever and empathetic, “Melancholic” captures sadness and loyalty over bouncy electric guitar and ukulele that belie the sorrow in lines like, “I get lost in your loneliness.” “The song is very much about my relationship with my dad,” Galen says, then recounts a childhood full of wonder and beauty alongside ugliness. “Even though it was really tough, it was also really amazing.” “Ain’t that the Way Life Goes” traces coming to grips with death’s sweeping reach, while “Morning Song” pulses with determination and grit as Galen emerges from the enormity of grief. Album closer “Monument” is very much for Galen’s father: haunting and heartbreaking, the song delves into the pain of wanting someone who’s left this world forever. “He’d only just died when I wrote it, and I was just beside myself,” Galen says. “It makes me cry just thinking about it. I was so alone in the world.” Her voice cracks as she goes on to explain that the song just came to her one morning, fully formed. She didn’t change a word.
Ultimately, what’s so personal about Monument is what makes it so universal, and capable of delivering connection and comfort. “Healing is a really big word,” Galen says when asked what she hopes others experience listening to the record. “But I know it made me feel better to do it. And I have definitely been saved by songs in my life.”