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Songs Of The Week 2021: Take 2

Neil Morton


Soho: vulpes (Maz O’Connor)

Inhabiting the alter ego of vulpes, London-based songwriter Maz O’Connor provides our Song Of The Week at with the enchanting Soho, a lament for the lost heart and soul of one of her favourite haunts. New name, same magic.

The poetic O’Connor, who was raised in the Lake District with Irish roots, has long craved a stage name, another vehicle for ambitious projects. ‘I was looking for a new challenge in my music and in my life. I felt I was at the beginning of a new chapter and wanted to reflect that in my work. Vulpes gives me the opportunity to expand and explore beyond what people expect of me, what I expect of myself.’

Her original plan was to busk anonymously around London and Paris (some hope with her talent) but then the pandemic struck so she embarked on long walks around South London. Vulpes was inspired by the foxes who claimed London’s streets during lockdown. She never made it to Paris.

The single Soho, our first taste of an album due for release early next year, is part of an aural tour of the capital, with field recordings of city sounds decorating the songs. She joined forces with composer and arranger Will Gardner, producing a blend of acoustic instruments and electronica. ‘I’d been nervous of co-writing before,’ she says, ‘afraid that my individual voice would be diluted into something less powerful. But this collaboration has been joyful and I love what we’ve made.’

O'Connor’s celestial voice, beautifully showcased on 2019’s highly praised Chosen Daughter, regrets the sacrifice of eccentricity and independent spirit in an age of rising consumerism...

They bought up the old streets

And they priced out the old queens

Tore the party down

And put up a burger joint

O’Connor, who has performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company, is working on her first folk musical, The Wife of Michael Cleary, based on the true story of Irish dressmaker Bridget Cleary, killed in Co Tipperary in 1895 by her family who believed she had been abducted by fairies and replaced by a changeling. ‘Her life is a moving story about an independent, clever, ambitious woman who fell prey to misogynistic gossip and the power of superstition.’

The vulpes album, which continues the enterprising progression from her more traditional beginnings, will be launched with a live show at London’s Kings Place on November 3 as part of the London Unwrapped series. It explores themes including capitalism as the new world religion, rivers above and below ground, Extinction Rebellion and the climate crisis, anxiety and absent friends.

Welcome to vulpes (deliberately lower case). Pseudonyms have become a popular practice. If indie performers such as Kate Stables (This Is The Kit), Katie Crutchfield (Waxahatchee), Jenn Wasner (Flock Of Dimes and Wye Oak), Jasmine van den Bogaerde (Birdy), Erin Moran (A Girl Called Eddy), Naomi Hamilton (Jealous Of The Birds) and Jenny Lindfors (Sailing Stones) can do it, why not O’Connor. Whatever the nom de plume, this is still unmistakably Maz. With a capital M.

Road To Avalon: Ida Mae

Ida Mae are a singular duo, rarely straying too far from their blues roots while consolidating their adventurous sound. Our Song Of The Week at is Road To Avalon from their eagerly anticipated second album Click Click Domino.

Married couple Chris and Stephanie Jean Turpin, who met at university in Bath and are now based in Nashville, collected much of the new material on the road in the US while promoting their lauded 2019 debut album, Chasing Lights. When the world shut down they converted their home into a makeshift studio to self-produce the record after realising that Ethan Johns could not be at the helm again. However, Johns was happy to be a socially distanced drummer.

For a song created in a confined space, Road To Avalon has a gorgeous cinematic feel, evocative of its mythical title of ‘a sparse transatlantic dream state’ and the ghostly, abandoned towns the band drove through on tour. A vintage ukulele banjo lays down the rhythm for Chris’s exhilarating electric and slide guitars, Stephanie’s Mellotron and their passionate, entwined vocals as they express the track’s rich imagery.

We went where the roads ran out, into the deep

Days like lost dogs, raw boned and stony feet

Slept in towns, where the songs had blown away

Woke in cities, where the earth and sky come away

The motorways were pinballs and ribbons

They were heartaches and visions

On the road to Avalon

The impressive video was directed by Stephanie: ‘You can’t help but be inspired by the landscape of the US and we wanted to pay homage to it. The footage taken by the two of us on the road seemed perfect for the video as the song was written to be a vignette of the places and moments we’d passed through.’

In an interview with Wonderland magazine, she explained: ‘Luckily, the bones of the new songs had been written on the road, in the back of vans and in a wild array of scribbled lyrics and voice note recordings… The writing and recording process and even the energy surrounding us, emotionally, politically and so forth were so vastly different from when we were tracking Chasing Lights. We wanted the music to capture some of the adventures on the road and allow things we have seen and felt over those last few years to seep into each track. It is still recognisably us and there are always parallels to be drawn with each record, but our sound has definitely developed and evolved for this new record.’

We have already sampled the evidence: Learn To Love You Better, Little Liars, Raining For You (a reprise of the smouldering title track of last year’s well received EP) and Click Click Domino itself, described as a searing take on the vapid world of social media in a rousing collaboration with guitarist Marcus King and written in the backseat of a moving car. Those first two songs enjoy the common denominator of another of Chris Turpin’s antique instruments, a late 19th century mandolinetto, which he loves to juxtapose with modern electronics favoured by hip hop.

The lovely Learn To Love You Better is dedicated to ‘a friend of ours who was wildly and selflessly in love with a partner struggling with mental health issues and wanting to do everything right. It was written on a late 1800s mandolinetto which we later combined with 1970s analogue drum machines – inspired by JJ Cale and John Martyn. We just wanted it to be a lighter breath of fresh air on the record. We found ourselves trying to land the production somewhere between Hiss Golden Messenger and a trashy Robert Plant & Alison Krauss after an all nighter.’

Ida Mae named themselves after a Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee tune just as their earlier indie rock band Kill It Kid honoured Blind Willie McTell. Turpin’s smoky rasp fits tongue and groove with his wife’s deeper, smoother timbre influenced by jazz greats from Bessie Smith to Diana Krall. These students of blues history have been exploring American geography; the rest is chemistry.

Canola Fields: James McMurtry

Is there a finer musical storyteller than James McMurtry? We doubt it. The seasoned Texan songwriter is still proving the point. Our song Of The Week at is the cinematic, evocative Canola Fields, an advance track from his August release, The Horses And The Hounds.

McMurtry, with his rich imagery and witty and wise observations, would blow most lyricists to wordsmithereens. Canola Fields refers to the autumnal rape seed colouring of the Canadian agricultural landscape as he recalls car journeys full of metaphors, memorable lines and eccentric characters he inhabits.

‘James is one of my very few favourite songwriters on Earth and these days he’s working at the top of his game,’ says Jason Isbell, who knows something about highly literate songwriting. ‘He has that rare gift of being able to make a listener laugh out loud at one line and choke up at the next. I don’t think anybody writes better lyrics.’

I was thinking about you crossing Southern Alberta

Canola fields at harvest time

Look like tumbleweeds all raked up into rows

Brown rusty contour lines

And there’s not much moving on the romance radar

Not that I’m craving it all that much

But I still need to feel every once in a while

The warmth of a smile and a touch

‘We’ve travelled back and forth across western Canada at various times of the year,’ says the 59-year-old McMurtry. ‘In southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, the fields are chartreuse in late summer, and we long wondered what crop could make such a bright blossom. In the fall, those same fields would be raked into wind rows of some rusty coloured substance. Weird machines rolled along scooping up the rows and spitting chaff out the back. We figured it was some kind of seed crop. One day we passed an empty field with a big sign that said, ‘Canola Processing…’ with a phone number. The song formed over time.’

It is over six years since McMurtry’s last offering, the acclaimed Complicated Game, and his attention to delicious detail has not waned. Recorded at Jackson Browne’s Groove Masters studio in Santa Monica, it marks a reunion with Ross Hogarth, the producer of his first two albums (1989’s Too Long in the Wasteland and 1992’s Candyland), and guitarist David Grissom who excels here.

‘There’s a definite Los Angeles vibe to this record,’ he says of his 10th studio album and debut release for New West Records. ‘The ghost of Warren Zevon seems to be stomping round among the guitar tracks. Don’t know how he got in there. He never signed on for work for hire.’ The son of renowned novelist Larry McMurtry came across the line ‘Second best surfer on the Central Coast’ in an old notebook and just had to use it. ‘Alliteration doesn't grow on trees.’ More McMurtry magic.

I See America: Joy Oladokun

Joy Oladokun is not always on first-name terms with happiness but her songs do spread it. Being what she describes as ‘a queer black woman writing and making music’ in an often disapproving world presents its challenges. Our Song Of The Week at is the compelling I See America.

How apt she should unveil her album In Defense Of My Own Happiness in Gay Pride Month and Black Music Month. On I See America the Nashville-based songwriter, born in Delaware and raised in Arizona, the first-generation American child of Nigerian immigrants, sings powerfully of the harm systemic racism has done to black communities. She does not shy away from difficult subjects: the personal, the political, sexual orientation, faith and mortality.

The song, written a week before the US presidential election, opens with a couplet to stop you in your tracks...

I saw God out on the block today

He was darker than the preachers say...

Don’t you see the world is changing now?

The blood of the fallen cries out from the ground

Violence and rumours in a southern town

Both start with a whisper

But so does the difference

When I see you

I see love

I see America

I feel your pain

I share your blood

I see America

Oladokun, who lists Bob Marley and Lauryn Hill among her influences, recalls a life-changing moment as a 10-year-old when she saw a video of Tracy Chapman’s performance at the 70th birthday tribute concert for Nelson Mandela at Wembley in 1988. ‘It was so empowering. I ran into the next room and begged my parents to buy me a guitar for Christmas – which was six months away.’

She quit church, where she worked as a guitar player, and came out: ‘I got to the point where I was like, if God exists he doesn’t care that I’m gay. I feel like it’s not an accident I’m a queer black woman writing and making music.’ After college Oladokun, encouraged by a friend, travelled to Los Angeles to pursue a music career, later moving to East Nashville. Social and racial equality has an emotive new voice. ‘Music is a vehicle of catharsis,’ Oladokun says on her website. ‘I write a lot of sad songs but I always push for a sliver of a silver lining or glimmer of hope it could be better. I want you to be changed when you hear me. Not because I’m special but because I make music with the intention to change myself.

‘There’s a song [Let It Be Me] about what it was like to grow up with a dad who openly disliked queer people. That is vulnerable, but I also know that I am not the only person who has a dad who would say things about gay people that were awful, not realising that their kid was gay. But our relationship is good, even though it can be tense and scary, because I know that he’s still working on being at peace with me being gay, and he’s doing a really good job, and I’m really proud of him.

‘I think the nature of growing up with immigrant parents is that they were very clear as soon as I was old enough to get out, that I should. We travelled a lot when I was growing up, and so I think it was ingrained in me that when I go to college, I should try a different city or a different country. I’ve always had a little bit of wanderlust, and it was instilled in me by my sweet parents.’

The power ballad Breathe Again, which one could imagine being covered by Adele or Coldplay, and the gospel-infused Sunday are reprised here, having appeared on last year’s identically titled, stripped down release. There are three notable collaborations, with Maren Morris on Bigger Man, with Penny & Sparrow on the lovely Here From Heaven and with Jensen McRae on Wish You The Best. We wish Joy the best too.

TNT: Wye Oak

Wye Oak and Flock Of Dimes have produced some of the loveliest melodies and relatable lyrics over the last year or so, and the common denominator is Baltimore-born singer-songwriter Jenn Wasner. Wye Oak is her indie rock duo with Andy Stack, Flock Of Dimes her solo project. Our Song Of The Week is Wye Oak’s TNT. We can hear the sound of summer.

Wye Oak, formed 15 years ago after a brief life as Monarch and named after the state tree of Maryland, released a series of excellent singles (Fortune, Fear Of Heights and Walk Soft) before teaming up with the Brooklyn Youth Orchestra for a celestial-sounding EP, No Horizon. Wasner then recorded a stripped-down solo EP, Like So Much Desire, before a full Flock Of Dimes album, Head Of Roses, arrived earlier this year to wide acclaim.

Now Wye Oak are back on the singles trail. TNT, says Wasner, is about ‘the changing of the seasons, and using the passing of time as a means of reflecting on your own growth. It's about joyfully acknowledging all the ways in which you've grown while trying to accept the parts of yourself still stuck in patterns of repetition. And it’s about learning to see outside of the more superficial parts of your personality to attempt to understand the other, and reach some kind of equilibrium in spite of how different we all can be.’

Did I know what I saw in that mountain sunrise?

Did I capture the light and the lay of the land?

I've been writing the same song over and over and over again

Spring and summer, I learned from you

I did what I did, what I had to do

But how many seasons till time ain’t true?

Wasner’s lyrics are subtle and reflective though not too introspective, even on the bittersweet Head Of Roses which was written after a painful break-up at the start of the pandemic – ‘the spark that lit the tinder that blew up my entire life’. She can be brutal with herself, as on the deceptively upbeat Awake For The Sunrise...

I didn’t think I was a terrible liar

But I am when I need it most

Making a sorry attempt at compassion

With a hand halfway down my throat

The 35-year-old, now based in North Carolina, told the Guardian: ‘I’ve been learning how shame and self-loathing are the very things that keep us going back to those same self-reinforcing negative behaviour patterns and spirals. It’s really forgiveness that is the way out, the way forward, and compassion for oneself. Showing up as your flawed human self, that’s what I want to do with my art.’

Wasner studied classical piano from the age of five and was taught guitar by her mother when she was 12, later forging a friendship with Stack at high school. There have been collaborations with Jon Ehrens in the duo Dungeonesse and she has played with Sharon Van Etten, Future Islands, Helado Negro, Williams Britelle, Drew Daniel, Horse Lords, Sylvan Esso (whose Nick Sanborn co-produced Head Of Roses), Dirty Projectors and Justin Vernon’s Bon Iver.

It is hard sometimes to discern the difference between a Wye Oak track and a Flock Of Dimes one. More synth textures perhaps, Stack’s percussion and keyboard wizardry? No matter: what’s important is we are hearing Wasner’s singular voice, her inventive guitar playing and her original writing. ‘I think the way the industry is set up, in order to release as much music as I’d like, I have to kind of trick people into letting me do it by inventing different names for myself.’ We’d be more than happy if Jenn Wasner was the name on the tin but long may we be tricked.

Something Has To Change: Rodney Crowell

New music from US roots master Rodney Crowell is always welcome. When it has the powerful punch of Something Has To Change, it’s a leading contender for our Song Of The Week at ‘Some day, somehow, something has to change.’

The track, adorned by multi-instrumentalist Kai Welch’s swaggering trombone, will feature on the prolific Texan’s 18th studio album Triage, scheduled for release in July, which he describes as his most personal collection to date. It was mainly written during a period of chaos and unrest in the country; then, as lockdown cramped Crowell’s style and complicated the mood, songs were discarded, verses rewritten or replaced and new musicians recruited remotely.

‘When the pandemic set in, some version of the record was near completion,’ says producer Dan Knobler. ‘But with Rodney’s tour schedule wiped clean, he found himself quarantined with his wife Claudia, two dogs, and a pen and paper. More songs presented themselves.

‘Not a moment of this album is unconsidered. Time and again the question was asked: does each word, each note, every instrument and sonic choice serve its song? Is each song in the service of universal love? If not it had to go.’ Something had to change, and it did.

Crowell’s political and spiritual message is pointed but hopeful:

It’s greed, it’s not money, through which evil works

The haves and the have-nots are just one of the perks

Where life has a purpose, faith has a voice

We can’t live in fear, and in trembling rejoice

The singer, mask in hand during the video as his band establish a tight, mid-tempo groove, believes in ‘a power much greater than those who would darken the world’.

Crowell says on his website: ‘Near the end of 2018, I began scribbling the first few lines that would become songs on yet another album. With monotheism, climate change, and cultural divide foremost on my mind, adequately framing the healing power of universal love became my primary goal. I’d learned from experience that writing and recording songs with the desire to make a difference, be it small or large, in an increasingly complex world is a tricky business. Steering clear of self-importance while, at the same time, believing deeply in what one has to say, calls for striking a near perfect balance. With Irish poet-playwright Samuel Beckett’s sobering mantra fail better planted firmly in mind, I called producer Dan Knobler for help recording the songs.’

Fifty-seven years after Sam Cooke and Bob Dylan were telling us a change was gonna come and times were a-changing, the Americana Music Association lifetime achievement award winner offers a new perspective on an old sentiment that will always resonate.

Occasionally: Lydia Luce

If you write a song with strings attached, it helps if you are classically trained and have gained your master’s in the viola. Moreover, Nashville-based Lydia Luce possesses an enchanting voice. Our Song Of The Week at is her single Occasionally.

The Florida-born multi-instrumentalist, whose mother conducts the Ars Flores Symphony Orchestra, studied ethnomusicology, performance and songwriting at Berklee, then travelled and absorbed Ghanaian music before working at Smithsonian Folkways Records. ‘I am grateful for my classical upbringing. Ultimately, it brought me to this space of creating from experiences that are only mine.’

Occasionally is the opening track of Luce’s second full album Dark River, written in the wake of a painful break-up in the summer of 2019. This was the prelude to a period of refuge in the mountains. Luce did not do much writing but ‘by isolating myself, I was able to sit quietly and let myself feel the deep loneliness I was trying to avoid. I was in a relationship with someone struggling with addiction and depression. I was trying to carry the weight of their struggle and my own. Now, I’m learning to set healthy boundaries for myself and in my relationships.’

Just as the final touches were being applied to the album her river turned darker again when a tornado struck east Nashville in March last year; she escaped her building on the advice of a local weatherman before the second-floor bedroom she'd been sleeping in was destroyed.

For weeks afterwards she suffered panic attacks which gave Occasionally greater significance. ‘I helped organise a tornado relief benefit show the week of the storm, and I chose to play this song. It transformed itself into a song about anxiety and how it can come on unexpectedly and linger in your thoughts and body no matter how desperately you attempt to shake it off.’

Luce’s orchestral gifts, valued by artists such as Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Joshua Hedley, Sam Outlaw and Eminem, bring an extra dimension to her songwriting; the album benefits from a variety of textures, tempos and styles, from indie folk, country rock and jazz to chamber pop and Americana. Occasionally begins softly and intimately before the Abba-style bridge and sweeping strings build the emotion…

Like a snake, you wait

In tall grass and vine, you hide away your face

Out of reach, your vision comes to me

Then occasionally, you cross my mind

After the calamities, catharsis. Solitude and vulnerability have rarely been better articulated in song. Luce, with Occasionally, Tangled Love, Stones and Maybe In Time, fulfils the Gretchen Peters contention that the best music is beautifully sad. On the title track she sings: ‘I hunger for affection/ After pushing you away/ I tend to give a little more when I am broken/ I’m filling up a void with a wall of crowded noise/ When I know I should be still and quiet.’

Luce's alluring vocal and those aching strings combine to make melancholy sound elegant and eloquent. We’ll be playing this album more than occasionally.

Perennial Bloom (Back To You): Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real

Hope of brighter days, post-pandemic, is becoming a popular songwriting theme. The buoyant Perennial Bloom (Back To You) by country rockers Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real is our Song Of The Week at ‘Summer seed become my perennial bloom/ Summer’s healing coming soon,’ Nelson sings.

The single will appear on the band’s eighth studio album A Few Stars Apart, due out next month. The 11 songs reveal ‘what it means to come home again, to be still and to find community – and yourself’. Produced by Dave Cobb, it was recorded live at the RCA Studios in Nashville where his beloved outlaw country father Willie played his A-game. Lukas’s pleasing, plaintive tenor spans the generations.

The 32-year-old Nelson (middle name Autry) was fortunate to ride out the beginning of the pandemic with his family near Austin. It was the longest period he had stayed in the same place. ‘I’m from what one might say is the ultimate road family – I’ve been on the road my entire life. I can’t remember the last time we had that much time together as a family.

‘We had a lot of really important bonding. I have to say, as terrible as the pandemic has been in so many ways, for my inner peace I was able to take a lot of good from this time. I was able to pause and reflect.’

Perennial Bloom emphasises the need for human connection after a year of dislocation for many. ‘I finally decided not to run from who I am and who I am destined to be. First and foremost, that’s a songwriter. That’s what this record means to me. There’s a story being told through the whole record. A story about connection and coming home.

Someone beside me actually smiled

Without a mask

I guess there’s no use pretending

Like we’re high-born

Someone inside the action

Pulled me away from the blast

Assuring me my heart would not be torn

Nelson’s band formed in 2008 in Los Angeles and regularly back one of their heroes, Neil Young; they have bases in Texas and Hawaii, where Lukas was raised. The singer-guitarist, who earned a Grammy and a Bafta for his work on the soundtrack for A Star Is Born, starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, was asked about his family’s response to hearing the new songs. ‘My mom said something interesting: You found your voice. I thought that was cool.’

The sound of an artist at ease with his destiny. Lukas played rhythm guitar in Willie’s touring band at the age of 13; father and son are closer than ever. ‘I do feel an orchestration in my life that I find humbling and beautiful.’

World That Cannot Touch: Ian Tasker

Forgive the self-indulgence, the chumocracy, the sense of sleaze even. Ian Tasker, my musician friend and fellow blogger at, encouraged me to write some lyrics with a view to a possible songwriting collaboration. I am happy to say that my first contribution features on Ian’s developing album on Bandcamp. You guessed correctly, it is our Song Of The Week.

I am delighted with Ian’s interpretation of the emotions in a song written in lockdown about the lockdown, World That Cannot Touch, his finely sung melody and distinctive guitar playing. All vocals and guitar parts are Ian’s work with Logic Pro providing the percussion. It was good to get a few words in! This could be the start of something most enjoyable.

While the lyric is mainly melancholic, dealing with the pain and wrong turns of the pandemic, the conclusion is optimistic, and Ian’s sensitive treatment of the chorus is especially pleasing...

Love at a distance, how cruel the glass

Longing for laughter, for this fear to pass

We’ll open the door, welcome every face

And embrace, embrace, embrace

Memories have never meant so much

Leaning on the past like a crutch

Touching moments

In a world that cannot touch

A world that cannot touch

To quote me on Bandcamp: ‘The idea for the song came from a phone call we received around Christmas from old friends in Liverpool. We hadn't spoken for some years but they preferred a conversation to merely exchanging cards. It stirred memories of happier times instead of the dark ones we’ve all been experiencing. Vocal distancing, you might call it.

‘The lyric has its sombre side, understandably. There’s anger at the missteps by our leaders and the human cost which will surely lead to a reckoning. But the song ends in hope – that the world can safely touch again. I’m thrilled at how Ian has captured the sentiments musically.’

As well as the accompanying video Ian compiled, please check out the other tracks he has uploaded, reworkings of songs he wrote with drummer Peter Montieth in the 1970s with The Boiler Brothers (based in Leeds) and Legal Tender in Marlow. The dreamy Driver, Hey Wot Ya Doin’, AwayDay, The Night Watchman (conceived in a flat above a fish and chip shop and never performed before) and the excellent Dangerous Eyes (with added horns and keyboards) are well worth a listen.

The Oxford-born, London-raised guitarist, who now lives in Somerset, says the lockdown finally gave him the time to do something he had been meaning to try since 1980: record those decades-old compositions ‘forgotten about until discovered going mouldy in an old Waitrose bag in the loft’.

There’s a parallel here: I was a member of folk-blues trios Breakdown and About Time in the 70s and early 80s. Ian and I didn’t know each other then but have been friends now for over 35 years while sports desk colleagues at various national newspapers. We loved our football, cricket and tennis but music was always the main talking point. What took us so long to write together? I hope you agree it was worth the wait.

Long Lost: Lord Huron

Sometimes a song ambushes you and ties you to the listening post. The cinematic Long Lost by Los Angeles-based indie rock band Lord Huron is our Song Of The Week at A strumming hint of Spanish Harlem, a tambourine, brooding strings, then it’s The Big O meets The Big Valley.

The orchestral manoeuvres bring to mind a western movie soundtrack – ‘as though Roy Orbison and Ennio Morricone had got round to collaborating’. The band, led by founder and creative force Ben Schneider, transport you to the last dance at a late 50s nostalgia night. ‘I ain’t lonely, I’m long lost.’

Lord Huron began as a solo project, named after one of the Great Lakes near Schneider’s birthplace in Michigan. His stylish artwork adorns the accompanying video as well as the LP cover. After the astral plane of their last album, 2018’s Vide Noir, we return to the high plains and shadowlands visited on Lonesome Dreams and Strange Trails. ‘For a while I was held by the myth of the lost highway…’

Long Lost is the title track of Lord Huron’s fourth album, recorded at their Whispering Pines Studio in LA and due out on May 21. We were served two earlier tasty appetisers, Mine Forever (echoes of Chris Isaak here) and the foot-tapping road song Not Dead Yet. Two of the band’s most popular songs, Ends Of The Earth and The Night We Met, are among several to have been used in American TV series. The singing cowboy on Long Lost surely merits a silver screen engagement.

Leave me where the moonbeams

Carve through the leaves like blades

Lay me in the tall grown grass in a shallow grave

Let it have me

Send me to the mountains

Let me go free forever

I’ll be running through the forest

Dancing in the fields like this forever

Their entertaining online streaming shows, Alive From Whispering Pines, have featured a make-believe character called Tubbs Tarbell who tells the story behind the making of the album. ‘This new stuff sounded eerily familiar, like something from a past life I’d heard before but brand new, all at once,’ he says. ‘Like a note plucked long ago that had moseyed through time to belly up to my bar.’

Schneider is convinced the old studio, long abandoned and in disrepair when they bought it, is haunted, and Tarbell is their friendly ghost. Much of their new material, written before the pandemic struck, has an eerie, otherworldly feel which chimes with the studio’s undiscovered past as well as these dark times. Long Lost will be long remembered, and not just round the prairie campfire.

Bloomsday: Samantha Crain

Our return to the gym felt like an invitation to relative freedom as the lockdown reins were loosened. What first track to play over the headphones to welcome back hope? Our Song Of The Week at is Samantha Crain’s Bloomsday. You can hear the spring in her step.

The native American of Choctaw heritage is rediscovering her home town Shawnee in Oklahoma where she decided to sit out the pandemic – ‘vacationing in my own backyard’, she called it. Bloomsday is the engaging single from her new EP I Guess We Live Here Now, its earworm chorus echoing that old gospel tune This Little Light Of Mine.

Crain, a compelling voice for the less fortunate and marginalised in society, says: ‘The song is an anthem of sorts about the possibility of each new seemingly meandering and unimportant day. Although it feels like most of the time we are being pulled along in life, we have the instrumentality to find within us light and belief.’

Her last album, 2020’s A Small Death, which featured one track, When We Remain, in her ancestral tongue, marked an extraordinary comeback for the indie folk-rock artist who had been bedridden for 18 months after a series of car crashes. She was left with no feeling in her hands and feared she would never hold a guitar again. Open tunings provided a way back, and the audio diaries she kept inform her storytelling from the achingly beautiful Holding To The Edge Of Night to the vibrancy of Bloomsday.

She told American Songwriter: ‘The EP is an expression of myself increasingly at peace with uncertainties and becoming stronger in the agency of my own decisions. And just like finding undiscovered love in my heart for others, and also sort of beginning the lifelong process of balance between ambition and satisfaction.’ Her aim as a songwriter is to be both intimate and cinematic, a difficult combination which she manages to achieve, and to celebrate the culture of indigenous people who she feels have been robbed of their traditions as well as their lands.

Bloomsday, the title borrowed from James Joyce’s Ulysses, opens with jingle-jangle chords and handclaps before the vocals of Crain and Penny Pitchlynn sweep us away with piano ripples and Isaac Stalling’s shimmering electric guitar for company. Crain’s Okie is from Okmulgee rather than Merle Haggard’s Muskogee. The lyric is a joy…

Give me something, Bloomsday’s coming, open up the doors and have a goddamn beer

Ring the baker, the butcher, the charioteer, the palm readers in Salem, the engineer

So are you a socialite, do you buy candles too pricey now to light?

Or are you an Okie from Okmulgee just making do with wax and pride?

And everybody’s wondering where their little light is

That little light is burning big and bright. Crain describes the EP as an epilogue or postscript to A Small Death. To these ears, it sounds more like a positive new chapter.

Avalon: Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi

The remarkable roots musician Rhiannon Giddens and her Italian partner Francesco Turrisi have articulated the emotions of the pandemic so creatively and comfortingly with their new offering, They’re Calling Me Home. Our Song Of The Week at is Avalon.

Giddens wrote the song a decade ago but reworked the verses to resonate with these traumatic times. Avalon, which imagines a family reunion beyond the grave, is the mythical island of Arthurian legend, a paradise as solace for the soul. Joy holds hands with melancholy.

She explains: ‘The song represents the two sides of the contemplation of the final transition: the sadness of the ones left behind, and the joy at the idea of being reunited somehow, some day down the road. This contrast of hope and longing fills our every day, and is such a part of us all.’

The track oozes influences from Giddens’ adopted home in Ireland and her birthplace in North Carolina to Africa and the Middle East. Multi-instrumentalist Turrisi’s frame drum and the Irish-based Congolese Niwel Tsumba’s nylon string guitar are joined by Giddens’ viola as her haunting vocal weaves a modern spiritual...

In Avalon, in Avalon

We’ll all be together in Avalon

It was three weeks ago one cold summer day

Mother went on her lonely way

Through the glass, all alone

He followed his lover home

From the couple’s lockdown in Limerick, they explore the concept of home – the belonging, the longing and contemplation of our final resting place – mainly through interpretations of old tunes, from the folk tradition to Italian opera. ‘There are pieces of our birth homes that musically speaking really came out in our comforting ourselves through music,’ Giddens told NPR. ‘There’s the sad part of it, but then there’s this undercurrent of joy that came out in the way it was written and the way we performed it.’

With artists preparing to re-emerge in the limelight, it will be a privilege to see Giddens and Turrisi perform again; likewise the American’s all-female project, Our Native Daughters, who tackled slavery, historic racism and unspeakable abuse on their influential debut album. As Songlines commented, Giddens appears ‘incapable of producing an album that is not simultaneously a fascinating musical education and deeply enjoyable listening experience’.

They’re Calling Me Home is more sparingly produced than 2019’s There Is No Other, a necessity of the pandemic, and no less impressive for its mournful tone and subject matter. We thought we'd heard all we needed to as far as that gospel staple Amazing Grace is concerned, but it is given fresh lustre here. Giddens’ wordless mouthing around the melody speaks eloquently with Turrisi’s drum dexterity and Emer Mayock’s pipes movingly atmospheric. We are even treated to an Italian lullabye, Nenna Nenna, sung by Turrisi as he once did to his baby daughter.

The other standouts are the remodelled Alice Gerrard classic Calling Me Home, that pacifier for homesickness Waterbound and a mesmerising rendition of the hymn-like When I Was In My Prime, recorded by Pentangle in 1970, sung a cappella until Turrisi’s cello banjo and Giddens’ octave viola combine to heighten the solemnity. Fortunately for us, Giddens’ prime has yet to come.

Hurt In Your Heart: Katie Spencer

Katie Spencer’s gorgeous reimagining of John Martyn’s lost-love lament Hurt In Your Heart is our Song Of The Week at, the title track of her new EP and an affecting tribute to her musical guru.

The song first appeared on Martyn’s acclaimed Grace And Danger album in 1980, a moving response to the breakdown of his marriage to fellow songwriter Beverley Kutner. Spencer’s swirling, dream-like arrangement perfectly captures the heartache and sense of loss.

Island Records owner Chris Blackwell, a friend of the couple, delayed release of the record by a year so disturbed was he by its painful emotional intensity. He thought it was just too sad. Martyn later explained: ‘I freaked: Please get it out! I don’t give a damn how sad it makes you feel. It’s what I’m about: direct communication of emotion.’

The gifted East Yorkshire-based singer-guitarist Spencer is joined by two members of Martyn’s band in the 90s, Alan Thomson on fretless bass and pianist and synth exponent Spencer Cozens, who produced Katie’s impressive debut album in 2019, Weather Beaten, showcasing the strength of her own songwriting.

All three Martyn-penned tracks – Couldn’t Love You More and Small Hours from his 1977 One World album complete the EP – were recorded live at Steinway Recording in rural Lincolnshire. According to Spencer, they define her musical upbringing (Martyn’s Solid Air is her favourite album). So many artists down the decades have owed a debt to the jazz-rock-blues innovator.

Spencer sang Hurt In Your Heart at the Celtic Connections commemoration of Glasgow’s adopted son in 2019, which also featured Danny Thompson, Eric Bibb, John Smith, Rory Butler, Eddi Reader and Paul Weller. She will also be playing at a Martyn Gathering in Bedale, North Yorkshire, on 27 June. Interpretation is the key here, rather than imitation.

Katie told me: ‘I think John Martyn had that incredible ability to distil his emotions into their purest form, capturing them within his music in such a haunting and mesmerising way. To me, Hurt In Your Heart is an embodiment of his soulful originality. I also think it is particularly poignant because he continued to perform it right until the end of his life, proving how honest the song remained.’

Spencer’s accomplished finger-style acoustic guitar and her soulful, beguiling voice lovingly honour the memory of Martyn who died in 2009 at the age of 60. Hearing his original of the song makes you admire Spencer’s imaginative rendition even more. Despite the absence of some of the original lyric, you can still hear the hurt.


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