FEATURED SONG OF THE WEEK
Meet Me In The Silence: Susan O’Neill
Irish singer-songwriter Susan O’Neill’s beguiling vocal and lyrical gifts can be heard to memorable effect on Meet Me In The Silence, the closing track on her new EP Now You See It. The multi-instrumentalist from Ennis, Co Clare, is a talent to watch.
The atmospheric track, driven by ominous piano chords, is a co-write with producer Sam Kassirer and celebrated Irish artist Mick Flannery, who collaborated with her on 2021’s lauded album In The Game. It’s a love song in which the narrator yearns for a lost love in the hope that the magic can be regained. The ache in her husky, soulful voice, once described as ‘equal parts balm and blowtorch’, has a lasting resonance.
I’m not waiting for you
But I know you’re there
I’m not waiting for you
But believe me I can stay
I’m not pining for you
With nowhere left to go
I forget that you are out there
‘It came together in a flash – old lyrics I had stored in a distant drive in my mind and computer. When I was in Maine with Sam we started jamming and an hour later we’re tracking the song live in his studio. The take you hear is one time straight through. It was so new, my eyes were half closed and I was just getting to know the words.’ Her trumpet parts were recorded in a kitchen in Lahinch back home in Ireland and added later. Elsewhere, she plays guitar, harmonica and whistle while also employing loop pedal techniques.
Flannery has been a major influence on her writing, and Truth Can Be Kind is a delicious duet which almost made the cut on In The Game. O’Neill, who has used the recording name SON since her debut album Found Myself Lost, says: ‘Co-writing with Mick helped me not be afraid of owning the truth and honesty of what is being said… it’s good to expose vulnerabilities.’
On their themed album of duets about two lovers coming together and falling apart, Flannery says: ‘There was a lot of unspoken stuff going on. With Susan, every time she sings something, you can hear the consideration from her – she knows what sentiments need to be delivered and in what way.’ Baby Talk is a fine example of how their writing and singing complement each other.
On Now You See It, with Tony Buchen again involved on the dials, O’Neill continues to explore ‘the dark and the light of the nature of relationships’. Two advanced singles from the six-track EP, the title cut and the compelling Hear Us All, were well received but Meet Me In The Silence lingers loudest. O’Neill, a songwriter of hidden depths, has been called Ireland’s best-kept secret. Surely not for much longer.
Ships In The Harbor: Tommy Prine
Tommy Prine has bravely grasped the songwriting baton from his celebrated father John, and the early signs are highly promising. His debut single, Ships In The Harbor, is our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com. Here comes the son…
Before John Prine’s Covid-related death in April, 2020, his youngest boy had only dabbled in lyric writing but took up songwriting seriously while trying to cope with grief. ‘It was the healthiest and most intense way for me to process all emotions,’ he told Garden & Gun. ‘I just fell head over heels with the idea of being a songwriter and a singer.’
Ships In The Harbor is a lovely meditation on loss and the fleeting nature of life. It grows in poignancy, verse by verse, without descending into mawkishness. The sun, a bluebird, an old friend, the stars, the water, and of course those ships in the title are metaphors for the pain he is suffering.
It must be the morning again
The sun through the window felt good on my skin
But it must be leaving soon
As it should
When I’m standing by water
It gets harder and harder
It’s why I get sad when there’s ships in the harbor
Cause they must be leaving soon
As they should
The dénouement plucks the heartstrings:
When I’m by peaceful waters
It gets harder and harder
I’d do anything to talk to my father
But I guess he was leaving soon
As we do
Yeah, I guess he was passing through
And I am too
Tommy wrote the song in a spurt of creativity around his 26th birthday last year ‘to try to capture the beauty of mortality’. He explained: ‘I always get super existential around my birthday and I had a thought that we as humans can only feel as deeply as we do and love people and fear things and all the other intense emotions is because everything we experience is finite, including our own lives. So I wrote a song about these little powerful moments and reflections in the human experience.’
A second single, Turning Stones, is promised for October with the full album expected in the first half of next year. Tommy is currently on tour, having appeared at AmericanaFest in Nashville, and will support Todd Snider at shows in November. He knows the expectations will be high but doesn’t appear daunted: ‘I’m very grateful for my dad’s fans but I can tell from the first song that people are like: ‘This isn’t John Prine Jr.’ And I’m just like: ‘All right, buckle up. We’ve got fifty more minutes of Not That John Prine Jr’.’
Tommy Prine has a YouTube channel which includes a cover of his father’s treasured song Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness. His guitar picking and the cleverness of his imagery might remind us of dad but the son has his own attractive, distinctive voice. He used to keep his compositions to himself; now he is letting us in on the secret. And so he should.
Once There Was No Sun: Jake Blount
It is difficult to grasp that there are still those who deny the perils of climate change. An old song given new impetus and emphasis is our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com. The theme of Once There Was No Sun, by US roots musician Jake Blount, is the protection of our endangered planet.
Blount, a singer, fiddler, banjo player, guitarist and music scholar based in Providence, Rhode Island, says the track is ‘an invitation to reflect on the impermanence, fragility and beauty of a world we too often take for granted’.
The traditional Once There Was No Sun, unearthed by the late American folk singer Bessie Jones, opens with a reading from Genesis, describing the world in the days prior to the creation of light, the sun and the moon. ‘The lyric reflects on the same period of time, reminding us that many things we treat as universal constants did not always exist – and, by extension, could recede into nothingness at any time,’ says the multi-instrumentalist.
The track appears on Blount’s second solo album, The New Faith, released on the non-profit label Smithsonian Folkways Recordings as part of its African American Legacy Series and billed as an Afrofuturistic concept album. Conceived and recorded during the hopelessness of the pandemic and shortly after the outrage over the murder of George Floyd, it reinterprets field recordings of Black spirituals and archive blues songs against a dystopian backdrop of a globe devastated by war and climate change.
The video for Once There Was No Sun, filmed on a small island off the coast of Maine and featuring the South Sudanese dancer and choreographer Veeva Banga, is ‘a celebration of beauty in some of its most elemental forms: wind, light, sea and stone, and human bodies moving through it all. It’s my hope that, through such celebrations, we can learn to better care for all these things’.
The innovative Blount told The Tennessean: ‘Digging deeper into the full repertoire of the Black folk tradition and how Black people have always made music in dire circumstances was my inspiration. Since I picked up the banjo a decade ago, I have slowly been welcomed into the folk tradition. Moreover, as far as religion is concerned, being a gay Black man, I felt there was no room for me there because the Black church – even though we’re oftentimes leading the music – isn't always super-welcoming to people like me.’
We can draw a parallel here with Rhiannon Giddens and her fellow members of roots supergroup Our Native Daughters, Allison Russell, Amythyst Kiah and Layla McCalla, who have railed against the whitewashing of folk traditions and whose material is immersed in the misfortunes of violated and enslaved black women.
‘Throwing the traditions I worked with on this album into a dystopian future allowed me to envision a reshaping of communities where attitudes evolve and a broader spectrum of people feel welcomed,’ said Blount. ‘Making music that’s unambiguously darker and more challenging is allowing me – and others – to feel salvation. The New Faith represents digging deeper into spaces where ideologies and sounds naturally intersect, creating many avenues for everyone to discover freedom.’
Co-produced with Brian Slattery, the album was recorded mainly in Blount’s bedroom in Providence, Slattery adding percussion, guitar and strings, with guest appearances from Demeanor, D’orjay the Singing Shaman, Samuel James, Kaïa Kater, Lizzie No, Mali Obomsawin, Brandi Pace, Rissi Palmer and Lillian Werbin. ‘It was an absolute honour and privilege to be part of this masterpiece,’ tweeted Palmer.
‘The traditional songs I adapted originally developed among a people who had but recently been robbed of home, history, family, culture, and society,’ said Blount. ‘The unique history of African American people made our musical tradition an ideal candidate for my ambitious task. The New Faith is a statement of reverence for our devastating, yet empowering past; of anticipation and anxiety toward our uncertain future; and of hope that, come what may, something of us will yet survive.’
Blount, who fronted a band called The Moose Whisperers before embarking on a solo career with the acclaimed Spider Tales in 2020, released an earlier appetiser Didn’t It Rain, performed notably by Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson, and given a more sinister twist. His next preview, with its infectious gospel handclaps and harmonies, is just as captivating. Essential if uneasy listening.
Spanish Shoes: Ricky Ross
One of the most endearing songs written during the pandemic, Spanish Shoes, provides our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com. Ricky Ross, the Deacon Blue veteran and BBC radio show host, finds comfort in the small pleasures taken for granted in less traumatic times. Laced with melancholy and hope.
The piano-driven ballad was the lead single from Ross’s eighth solo album, Short Stories Vol 2, released the day after his memoir Walking Back Home, in which he revisits his early days in Dundee, his musical stirrings and the rise, fall and resurrection of Scottish rock band Deacon Blue. ‘It was a lovely chance to talk about the community I grew up in and how much love there was, how much affection I had for it, and how much I learned from that.’
Each track on the companion album is an intimate vignette, Spanish Shoes taking us on a journey through the silent streets of lockdown, with Ross’s honeyed vocal backed by two Deacon Blue comrades, his singer-actress wife Lorraine McIntosh and Gregor Philp, who adds an exquisite Spanish guitar break. ‘Spanish Shoes is the promise I made myself about celebrating the end of a brutal time, to which I pray we never return,’ he says.
If I get out of here I’m going to put on my Spanish shoes
And walk out just to be with you
If I get out of here I’m going to wear my Spanish shoes
To make you feel good
And make me feel good too
Ross, who formed the highly successful band in 1985 taking their name from a Steely Dan track Deacon Blues, released a second single just as melodic, relatable and moving, I Was The Beatles, which recalls a childhood friendship and ‘all those dreams that needed dreaming’. Nostalgia rarely sounds this good.
I was the Beatles, you were the Rolling Stones
I tried to reach you but you were never home
You were out living while I was in thinking
Too many days we can’t get back again
The prolific songwriter has been busy clawing back the days, his latest solo excursion following two quickfire band albums, City Of Love and Riding On The Tide Of Love. His first solo outing, So Long Ago, preceded Deacon Blue’s 1987 debut Raintown, by three years. Raintown was reissued earlier this year. ‘I’m grateful, every day, we got that chance to make an album we still hold up to be the template of what any Deacon Blue album should be. That we are remastering the album for an audience who still want to hear it 35 years later is something none of us expected.’ Songs he fell out of love with he now embraces; Real Gone Kid is suddenly ‘an all-time favourite’.
Short Stories Vol 2, like its 2017 predecessor a deep mood swing from the band’s exuberant pop hits, was recorded at the pianist’s home studio in Glasgow, the production sparse with a light dusting of strings and brass. This has been a time for quiet reflection before Deacon Blue roll back the years again. Among the new material of another lyrical triumph Ross reimagines the old, including a lovely stripped-back version of a band classic, Your Swaying Arms. ‘I’ve been longing for a new world waiting…’ Haven’t we all? Bring on Vol 3.
You’re Not Alone: Allison Russell (featuring Brandi Carlile)
Two of our favourite roots artists have collaborated to revisit the inspirational You’re Not Alone for our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com. Allison Russell and Brandi Carlile trade sumptuous vocals on a gem of a song that first appeared on Our Native Daughters’ debut album in 2019.
Russell, the Montreal-born songwriter of Grenadian heritage, wrote her ‘meditation on the power of ancestral strength and the essential nature of community’ for the all-women folk supergroup she co-founded with Rhiannon Giddens. This reworking is richer vocally, augmented by the cellos and violin of Larissa Maestro and Milwaukee siblings Monique and Chantee Ross, aka SistaStrings, who are members of Russell’s touring band, The Rainbow Coalition Of The Loving. In fact all are currently on tour in the States with Carlile herself.
Russell recruited her guiding light and soul sister for the single, which has benefited charities close to their hearts, campaigning for safer gun controls and women’s reproductive rights. The track begins with Russell’s trademark banjo and builds beautifully with the two women harmonising and then engaging in a call and response before the Canadian introduces a verse in French, highlighting the song’s universality. In the original version Dirk Powell, who co-produced the album with Giddens, delights on the accordion among his multi-instrumental contributions.
The powerful lyric speaks to her daughter, stressing the message that during traumatic times we can gain hope from others, past and present. As we discovered during her work with her husband JT Nero in Birds Of Chicago, Russell’s voice can somehow communicate joy and anguish at the same time.
Hey my little evening star
How bright you are
Anywhere you go
You’re not alone…
You’re the North Star and the compass
Always finding something wondrous
Anywhere you go
You’re not alone
Wish that I could keep you from
Sorrow and harm
None of us is here for long
But you’re not alone
In the cradle of the circle
All the ones who came before you
Their strength is yours now
You’re not alone
The song’s second coming was provoked by recent events such as school shootings and the Supreme Court’s anti-abortion stance. Russell, whose acclaimed debut solo album Outside Child dealt with her harrowing experiences as an abused youngster, says: ‘Every child deserves to be loved and protected. Our families with LGBTQIA+ parents are just as precious. No one should be forced into the sacred role of parenthood against their will. We are more than the sum of our scars. Human rights are worth fighting for. We’ve come a long way but must go further still.’
The unspeakable hardship Russell suffered at the hands of a white supremacist stepfather will be the subject of a memoir. Her American champion Carlile recently released the superb In These Silent Days as a companion to her own lauded autobiography Broken Horses, and plays in a women’s alt country supergroup The Highwomen she formed with Amanda Shires. Russell and Carlile were among the cast for an unforgettable set with Joni Mitchell at the Newport Folk Festival. Mitchell is a newfound fan of both women. She is not alone.
Life According To Raechel: Madison Cunningham
We have long championed the songwriting talents of Madison Cunningham, and it’s mad about Madi time again at herecomesthesong.com. Our Song Of The Week is Life According To Raechel, a beautiful ode to her departed grandmother.
The Los Angeles-based singer-guitarist excels at universal home truths and this song oozes love, sadness, guilt and regret without straying into over-sentimentality. ‘Once your girl/ I’m always your girl/ When I’m here or when I’m there/ Or on a plane headed somewhere.’ Her poignant message embraces all who lost loved ones during the pandemic; the things we forgot to ask or say.
The track is the fourth to be aired from her September release, Revealer. ‘A little over a year ago, producer Tyler Chester convinced me to hop in a van headed for Sonic Ranch in El Paso, Texas, with a day’s notice,’ Cunningham says. ‘In what I can only describe as a holy set of circumstances, all of the pieces fell into place that week to record a song that I was deeply afraid to record, about losing my grandmother.
‘Many tears were shed, and I felt the power of real community and friendship, packed with its imperfections and confessions.’ The word revealer is the binding theme of the album, the 25-year-old Californian says. ‘The hand that slowly chips away at the mirror in which you see yourself and the world and replaces it with the reflection that is most true.’
Our introduction to Cunningham’s gifts came with her appearances on Chris Thile’s fondly remembered radio show Live From Here and the gorgeous 2018 single Beauty Into Clichés. We’ve already heard Anywhere, Hospital and In From Japan on Revealer. But her love letter to grandma may be her most compelling composition yet, its haunting melody and deeply sensitive guitar undertowed by dissonant strings.
Once I knew it
I was always a know it all
Too busy, too stressed out
To take your call
Thought I would always find you there
Sitting in your TV chair
While time is in a bar having a laugh somewhere
The nurse said you were waiting for me
To let go, to let it be
Cunningham’s website describes Revealer as ‘a warts-and-all self-portrait of a young artist who is full of doubt and uncertainty yet bursting with exciting ideas about music and life, who has numerous Grammy nominations but still feels she has far to go, who turns those misgivings into songs that are confident in their idiosyncrasies… Revealer is more than simply a document of a dark time in her life. It’s a survival guide, a chronicle of growth and change’.
On Life According to Raechel she is painfully candid about grief. ‘You’ve got this wound that’s never really going to heal,’ she explains. ‘It’s never going to be resolved. When I realised that, I turned a corner I knew I wouldn’t come back from. When I was able to finally be honest about what it felt like to grieve her, I was able to properly grieve the state of the world and the other things I had lost. Like earning your first grey hair. You could pluck it, but it would just keep growing back.’
We were given an even earlier taste of the song last year with acoustic versions before the studio beckoned. It’s the track she is most proud of, and you can feel it in her impassioned delivery. We know Cunningham dislikes lazy comparisons with her myriad influences but we hope she won’t be offended when we say there is a whiff of Rufus Wainwright here. A cover by one of her heroes can’t be long in coming. Her songwriting is that good.
The Matador (Live): Gretchen Peters
Of all the memorable songs written by the New Yorker Gretchen Peters, few resonate as powerfully as The Matador, our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com. So good she recorded it twice. Magnífico.
The Nashville-based songwriter’s announcement that she will call a halt to touring life from next summer has been greeted with great sadness by her many devotees on this side of the pond. So we will savour her current UK tour even more – and the live album she is promoting, The Show, recorded at three concerts here before the pandemic to celebrate 25 years of stage appearances on these shores.
The pièce de resistance of The Show is The Matador from her 2012 album Hello Cruel World, remodelled and reinvigorated. We didn’t think the original could be matched, never mind bettered, with the exquisite accordion playing of Peters’ husband and musical director Barry Walsh. For the live version Walsh reverts to his seat at the piano and the accordion bows to the wonderfully expressive violin of Seonaid Aitken of the Southern Fried String Quartet.
Pathos is turned up a notch as Aitken more than preserves the song’s haunting beauty and Peters’ aching vocal is delivered slightly slower. Fellow Nashville songwriter Rodney Crowell said he was so moved he ‘cried from the soles of my feet’. The lyric is poignant and piercing…
I come to each and every show
The woman in the second row
I watched them in their ancient dance
And I knew I never stood a chance
’Cause while other demons prance and clown
It’s vanity that takes you down
I thought that I could be the one
Bit I’m just another hanger-on
The matador is a symbol of the artistic giants who have fascinated Peters. She told Billboard: ‘The woman in that song is coming to grips with loving someone with such a creative force, and what kind of sacrifices she has to make. I’ve known my share of difficult men.’ She name-checked Hemingway and Picasso, hence the bullfighting analogy.
Peters explained her reasoning behind the live album: ‘Living through the last two years of the pandemic I became convinced that there’s nothing – absolutely nothing – that can replace the magic of several musicians and several hundred people in a darkened room having a moment together.’
Now we are told those moments are coming to an end. In a typically eloquent statement which should act as a wake-up call to her industry, she said: ‘The music business has become increasingly, relentlessly demanding of artists. The pressure to release new content (not a synonym for art), to churn out singles and albums and videos and reels and posts on a prescribed schedule, often utterly out of sync with the artist’s internal one, isn’t producing more or greater art. It’s just increasing the noise and exhausting the artists. As someone who has always needed to let the field lie fallow in between creative bursts, I understand the pressure on young artists – and I hope they will resist. We need better songs, not more of them.’
Thankfully, this is not the end: more great songs will be written, albums created, and there will be the occasional live appearances and online shows. Peters paid tribute to her husband Barry: ‘I need to say once again what I’ve said for over 30 years now: there’s no one on earth I’d rather make music with. Since the first recording session of mine he played on in 1990, since the first tour we did together in 2001, his sensitivity and intuition has been nothing short of inspiring. I still get a thrill waiting to hear what he’ll play next. It’s never the same, and it’s always just right.’
His contributions to The Matador, whether it’s piano or accordion, are masterful. As with all the finest musicians, it is as much about the spaces, what is not played as much as what is. ‘His left hand is a band,’ says his wife. Subtlety runs in the family. We look forward to ‘sharing that sacred space in the dark with a song’ at London’s King’s Place just as we did in 2019. On A Bus To St Cloud, Idlewild, Blackbirds, Independence Day, Arguing With Ghosts, The Boy From Rye, Lowlands. Disappearing Act, Pretty Things, The Matador. The legacy remains a work in progress. Let The Show go on.
I threw a rose to the matador
Not sure who I was cheering for
My aim was true, my heart was full
I loved the fighter and the bull
When England’s victorious women footballers have tired of Sweet Caroline and Three Lions (Football's Coming Home), they might consider something more chilled and contemplative for their winding-down playlists: Champion by US indie rock band Warpaint. Our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com is a track made for Lionesses.
The launch single of Warpaint’s fourth album, and their first for six years, Radiate Like This, builds subtly and the ethereal groove is hypnotic. The Los Angeles quartet – Theresa Wayman, Emily Kokal, Jenny Lee Lindberg and Stella Mozgawa – say the song is about ‘being a champion to oneself and for others. We are all in this together; life is too short not to strive for excellence in all that we do. It’s about finding your confidence and self-belief and uplifting your loved ones to do the same’.
I’m an ocean
Breathing in and out
I’m a million years old
I’m a champion
We’re all the same sun
We’re all our own sun too…
And here it is, I’ve got you
And here it is, I talk to you
I hope you figure out
Everything you’re on about
This could be the Lionesses’ mantra. Their eloquent captain Leah Williamson has spoken about an Apple Music playlist of songs that helped her tackle setbacks such as injury lay-offs and upbeat tracks that motivated her for admirable action on the pitch. It is an eclectic mix.
There are familiar choices such as Adele, Cat Burns and Ed Sheeran but then there are more discerning picks featuring Aretha Franklin, Solomon Burke, Sam Cooke, rapper Tems, Nathaniel Rateliff and country artists Chris Stapleton and Mickey Guyton. A former Song Of The Week here, Sam Fender’s Spit Of You, is included. Could there be a place for Warpaint on the subs’ bench?
‘I’m a person that likes to feel the emotion of whatever situation has presented itself,’ says Williamson. ‘And I switch when I’m back at work, like, OK let’s go for it now. And I’ll turn to Motown and soul tracks which connect me to real life. I’m a bit different from others in the sense that generally you listen to pumped-up music with a strong beat to get you moving, but I like music that also chills me out before the game.’
Warpaint’s intricate melodies and hazy harmonies have been described as dream-pop but that is a lazy description for a multi-layered, cerebral approach that channels soul, hip-hop, Weather Station-style jazziness and Radiohead electronica. They have been playing for nearly 18 years and although the pandemic meant they wrote and recorded in isolation their chemistry has not been compromised.
Their recording sabbatical since 2016’s Heads Up was not just Covid-related. Motherhood beckoned, house moves were made (drummer Mozgawa back to her native Australia to record with Courtney Barnett and bass player Lindberg to Utah) and there were solo projects and collaborations. But this Warpaint is hard to wash away. Listen to follow-up single Stevie, Hard To Tell You, Melting and Proof and you realise they are tighter than ever, the celestial guitars of Kokal and Wayman shimmering among the synths and above an imaginative, dynamic rhythm section.
Champion could be the wistful soundtrack to a highlights package of the Lionesses’ extra-time triumph over Germany in the Euro 2022 final. No need for crazy dancing, just a gentle, self-satisfied sway – and a place in Leah Williamson’s playlist of chills and thrills. To the sound of Warpaint the Lionesses can bask in dreamland for a little longer. Game-changers can radiate to this.
Empty Cups: Amanda Shires
Among the canon of songs about rocky relationships Amanda Shires’ Empty Cups has to be one of the most powerful lyrically. Our Song Of The Week at Here Comes The Song appears on her new album Take It Like A Man. Shires somehow manages to wear both hearts on her sleeve.
The album is a disarmingly candid exploration of womanhood, her life as a mother and her marriage to fellow Nashville singer-songwriter Jason Isbell, who plays distinguished guitar on seven of the 10 tracks. ‘Everything on the record is autobiographical. I didn’t hold anything back,’ she says. We are left feeling like reluctant intruders as raw stanzas hang in the air like laundry on full show…
You’re leaving now through the hole of an argument
I guess for a while you’ve been looking for the exit
You slammed the door so hard I still hear rattling spoons
The sound of silence rings in every room
My hands are two empty cups
Maybe I was asking for a little too much
To keep the newness from wearing off
For every start there’s gonna be a stop
It could have related to a past liaison or another couple – we don’t mean to pry. She is being as honest as Isbell was in the making of his 2020 album Reunions. Shires has rarely sung as emotionally as this, perhaps inspired by producer Lawrence Rothman who championed her cause during the pandemic, co-writing over the phone and online and encouraging her to trust in a voice high in the mix at a time when she seriously considered giving up on music. ‘They understand me and my songs, and don’t make me feel small,’ she told Billboard. ‘I write songs the way I write. They may not be tied up in little bows, but life is not like that. I learned you gotta be an advocate for yourself.’
The 40-year-old west Texan is a fearless trail-blazer on women’s rights; listen to the couple’s performance on The Problem, their song campaigning against draconian abortion laws. She told Rolling Stone: ‘I have had reproductive healthcare – that some might call an abortion– when I was hospitalised in Texas on August 9, 2021, with a ruptured fallopian tube caused by an ectopic pregnancy. For those who are unfamiliar, it is impossible for an ectopic pregnancy to go to term. I would have died; my daughter, Mercy, would have lost her mother; my husband, Jason, would be a widower. I was lucky. This happened to me two and a half weeks before Texas’ abortion ban went into effect.’
Shires’ meditation on the turbulence of her marriage, now consigned to the past, proved cathartic. As she told NPR: ‘We were having a disconnect. People don’t really talk about that kind of thing. My grandparents, they say marriage is hard work sometimes, and then that’s all they say. They don’t have reasons because sometimes it is so vague and nebulous and hard to relate to. But at this particular moment there was just a wall, and it took this music and working on it together to get us to a place where we could talk about our lives.’
Shires, a part-time member of Isbell’s backing group The 400 Unit, compiles diaries and highlights favourite lines, couplets, images and potential verses. She transfers those to index cards, which she pins on the walls of her barn-turned-studio outside Nashville. ‘I start seeing themes and observations that match them.’ Those cards have conjured memorable poetic lines on Take It Like A Man.
Maren Morris, Shires’ bandmate in the country supergroup she founded, The Highwomen, provides stirring backing vocals. ‘I recorded Empty Cups after everyone left because I didn’t want to accidentally cry or get a shaky voice in front of my friends,’ Shires says. ‘I asked Maren to sing on this one because our voices blend like sisters and because I knew that whenever my voice wavered, she’d be steady.’ You can hear the catch in the throat as Shires sings ‘That last talk left me a makeup rainbow of tears’. Vulnerability is as important an attribute as inner strength. As she proclaims on the title track, take it like Amanda.
That Dolly Parton quaver in the voice, belittled by an earlier producer, is at its most alluring on slow-burners such as the faultless Fault Lines, the plaintive Don’t Be Alarmed and the horn-bathed Lonely At Night. The strings on Empty Cups don’t include Shires’ celebrated fiddle but she uses it to explosive effect on the Neil Young-esque opener Hawk For The Dove with her husband duelling on sizzling slide guitar. Sparks fly, as if a metaphor for the volatility of old; or more likely a new surge of creative fire.
Woman Of The Waterways: Ellie Gowers
Ellie Gowers’ forthcoming debut album Dwelling By The Weir is a love letter to her home county of Warwickshire and provides our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com, the joyfully optimistic Woman Of The Waterways. Folk with personal living roots.
The song, an homage to those who live on the water and the river traders of old, was inspired by Rose and Joe Skinner who eventually retired to a canal-side house but who returned to spend nights on the water after yearning for the rocking of the narrowboat as the stillness of home became hard to bear.
‘I had so much fun writing this song and looking at the lives of all the women who had worked on the canal ways,’ says Gowers. ‘With Johnny Holden behind the camera for the video, we took a couple of days rambling around the canal banks and visited places such as Sutton Stop, Hatton locks and Shrewley, each providing its own history and beauty.’
Rose is the principal character in a celebratory song but Gowers was careful not to glamorise or patronise; she acknowledges how tough barge life can be. ‘The days are gruelling/ And the nights are cold/ My hands aren’t as smooth as they should be/ I am told.’ The delicious interplay between See Bye’s violin and Ewan Cameron’s whistle adds an air of melancholy to a buoyant melody.
All the tracks were written when the world shut down without being about the pandemic. ‘The album came together naturally over lockdown when I had time on my hands to explore the place I had grown up. After being away from home for so long, it was nice to return and delve into the history of Warwickshire, taking a look at the people and stories who have shaped it into the home it is today. There are themes of love, loss, nostalgia, and belonging; themes that I’m sure we can all find a meaning in one way or another.’
When Lukas Drinkwater, whose distinctive double bass adorns the album, recommends an artist worth hearing, we take notice. Gowers’ voice combines range, elegance and an inner ache. Here’s a young artist steeped in the tradition but keen to embrace other genres with the talent to achieve that goal. Sample the blues and jazz-inflected Against The Tide and her eco-warrior cri de coeur The Sky Is On Fire from 2021’s highly praised EP Parting Breath.
Woman Of The Waterways follows earlier single Brightest Moon, based on a tragic tale of Coventry evacuees during the blitz in 1940 and the families in Kenilworth who offered them sanctuary. Neither community expected such a devastating outcome. With its poignant ‘Come in, come in’ chorus, it is an apt reminder that we should always welcome those seeking refuge from adversity with open arms.
The title alludes to the Luftwaffe’s use of the full moon for their bombing raids. There is no mention of flights to Rwanda but the sentiment of the song’s wider message is clear. Gowers, who shows respect and empathy for bygone generations, enjoyed a triumphant debut at her home festival at Warwick Castle this weekend. Shakespeare country is a natural stage for a literature-loving songwriter. ‘The earth has music for those who listen.’
Hold That Line: Tedeschi Trucks Band
Tedeschi Trucks Band’s ambitious four-part I Am The Moon project provides our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com. The glorious Hold That Line, from the second instalment, Ascension, must already be a contender for Song Of The Year,
Hold That Line manages to match if not eclipse the splendour of Midnight In Harlem for its blend of southern soul-rock with Eastern flavourings. Derek Trucks’ slide is superb as much for the space he allows between the sinuous bouts of virtuosity while his wife Susan Tedeschi bends her aching vocal as well as he does the strings.
The Florida-based band’s epic undertaking comprises 24 songs written by members of the band during the isolation and dislocation of the pandemic, inspired by a mythic Persian tale of star-crossed lovers. It all began with an email from vocalist Mike Mattison, suggesting a group reading of Nizami Ganjavi’s poem of 1188, called the Romeo and Juliet of the East by Lord Byron. ‘When Mike said: Well, what does Layla think about all this? I thought that was an amazing way to look at the story,’ said Trucks.
The poem about lovers Layla and Majnun will sound familiar because it inspired Eric Clapton’s 1970 double album with Derek And The Dominos, Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs. Trucks, long associated with the Allman Brothers Band, was named after Clapton’s alter ego; Tedeschi was born on the day it came out. Tedeschi Trucks Band recorded a magical live performance of the album in 2019, releasing Layla Revisted two years later.
Mattison, who co-wrote Midnight In Harlem and Bound For Glory, harmonises beautifully with Tedeschi, and another delicious feature is the interplay between Gabe Dixon's keyboards and the horn section. Dixon wrote the majestic title track which appears on volume one, Crescent.
‘I came across this line,’ said Dixon, who joined the band in 2018, ‘where Layla’s locked up in her father’s house, pining for Majnun – I am the moon and thou the radiant sun. Her identity seems to be only in relation to him.’ His exquisite sparring duet with Tedeschi is sung like a lovers’ exchange.
The decision to structure I Am The Moon in four episodes came the band thought of records they loved. Trucks singled out Axis: Bold as Love, the 1967 LP by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. ‘It’s 36 minutes long. That’s the way to digest a record.’
Mini-albums three and four, The Fall and Farewell, follow soon, and like the first two are preceded by a film première available on the band’s YouTube Channel. Rolling Stone described I Am The Moon as ‘one long unrequited love song’. Like Layla and its Domino effect, it is heavenly...
Out here hanging on a string
Holding so tight, I feel everything
Out here with the clouds rolling by
I see your face as I wonder at the sky
All I know
Don’t let go
Hold that line
Out here in the desert on the wind
I hear the voice of a lover and a friend
Hanging on while it’s slipping away
Like the twilight at the end of the day
You’re not alone
Don’t let go
Hold that line
When The Light Is Dying: Joan Shelley
Joan Shelley’s mesmeric When The Light Is Dying, in which she namechecks one of her heroes Leonard Cohen, is our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com. The Kentucky songwriter’s captivating contralto has never sounded wiser.
The standout track appears on her seventh studio album The Spur, written at her farm during the eerie quiet of the pandemic and recorded two months before the birth of her daughter. It is a landmark moment in her career, shared with musical partner and husband Nathan Salsburg who provides the gorgeous acoustic guitar hook here.
The song was inspired by Shelley listening to Cohen’s haunting final album You Want It Darker on repeat while crossing the endless Kansas plains in the back of a tour van. As her surname suggests, the lyric is especially poetic in describing a world where natural beauty conflicts with humanity’s sinister side.
I traced the black outline of every stubborn human thing
Alone on the horizon. You want it darker, Leonard sings
Well, the light is dying, darling, come inside...
Sad is the beginning if the end is all it brings
But still the world keeps turning between the wood, the rocks, the springs
A sense of renewal permeates the album (cue Why Not Live Here and Completely) but Shelley’s surface domestic contentment is tempered by trepidation over what kind of world her daughter will inherit. Perhaps Kentucky is too conservative to be her home state for too long. She explains in her eloquent liner notes: ‘I was tired from touring, remembering the long drives across the midwestern plains at dusk, against the pale yellow sky seeing the black outline of the horizon with the occasional silhouette of a little farmstead, a corn crib or windmill, beyond, a breaking society, beyond, the aches of a world in pain.
‘A powerful tugging between apparently opposite things, hopelessness and resilience, isolation and togetherness, all at once. A deep connection to our homeplace, to staying, a complex reckoning with family, with the past, with the rubble, with the wind taken out of everyone’s sails, with new life and constant death.
‘I started reaching out. I wanted these people I admire to be close to me in the game, in the tangle of my emotions, in my unaddressed fears… Together we shook these things out of the rug, our shared anxieties, our guilt, our joy, discomfort and heartbreak… Dying breath, wind-breath, singing breath shared beyond the language song, strings and brass, heartbeats and drums, wooden and stone breath, water and light, non-human breath, written breath, the little breaths of a newborn thing.’
Forever Blues (with its echoes of another idol, Nick Drake), the memorable title track, showcasing her fine steel resonator guitar, and the lovely Amberlit Morning (with Bill Callahan lending lyricism and baritone harmonies) capture those sentiments wonderfully. But When The Light Is Dying, like Leonard’s sad swansong, is in play-again mode here. Lia Kohl’s staccato cello stabs and Anna Jacobson’s brass embellishments, arranged by Chicago-based producer and multi-instrumentalist James Elkington, combine elegantly with Salsburg’s hypnotic prompts.
Shelley’s gift for melding the ancient and modern in her melodies retains its lustre. From her breakthrough 2015 album Over And Even to her previous release in 2019 Like The River Loves The Sea, which incorporated string musicians from Iceland, she has maintained a stripped-down, intimate sound with added textures subtly layered.
‘I always want there to be a landscape in my music,’ the guitarist-pianist, now 36, told Uncut magazine. ‘It’s not overly done but I want to be haunted by some weird thing. I think of it as a tiny orchestra, the ghost of Frank Sinatra’s studio band. A little swell.’ Take a bow, Joan of art.
Miles Between: Darden Smith
Texan troubadour Darden Smith’s mantra is: Write songs, tell stories, move people. All boxes ticked. Our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com is Miles Between, the haunting opening track of his latest album, Western Skies. We shall be moved.
The Austin-based songwriter, who at 60 may at last gain the wider recognition his 15 previous albums in a 35-year career should have guaranteed, shares the finesse and sophistication of Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, Bruce Hornsby and Marc Cohn: common denominator a richly engaging voice and a penchant for affecting songs.
Miles Between, co-written by country artist Jack Ingram, is a standout track inspired by a desert road trip through Texas to southern Arizona undertaken during the pandemic as part of Smith’s Songwriting With Soldiers charity he founded in 2012. The song is as cinematic as the landscape he crisscrossed with an old Polaroid camera to draw inspiration from its wasteland wonders. Song ideas, poetry and lyrics were dictated into his phone for later attention.
Smith describes the album as ‘a love song to the mythology of West Texas. Not the cowboy and Indian version but the one that exists only in my mind’. This multi-media project includes a book of photographs, essays and lyrics although the album can be bought and enjoyed separately. Rodney Crowell in the foreword to the book pays tribute to ‘narrative gems hidden in plain sight’.
Smith’s philosophical musings on mortality, relationships, loss and longing permeate the whole album. Miles Between has a world-weary theme but one never tires of listening to it. Ricky Ray Jackson’s pedal steel dovetails sumptuously with the electric guitar of Bob Dylan’s regular sideman Charlie Sexton after Smith sets the mood on piano and Nashville singer-songwriter James House provides backing vocals.
Lately I’ve been wishing that the earth was flat
Walk out to the edge let that be that...
There’s miles between
All I see inside my dream and reality
There’s too much noise I lose my voice
Make me want to walk out into the desert at night and scream
I’m lost in the miles between
‘Jack’s the real deal,’ Smith says of his collaborator. ‘The day we wrote this song, I was trying to think about his life and write the song from his perspective, but it wound up being as much about me as him. Sometimes that’s the way it is with songs. And though I didn’t know it at the time, it was really the beginning of Western Skies.’
As the video illustrates, there’s beauty in the bleakness, in the vastness of time and space. Smith told Americana UK: ‘About 20 years ago I did a radio documentary for BBC Radio 4 and it was on Texas songwriters and landscape. It was fascinating how many songwriters talked about the horizon line and its importance, Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Lyle Lovett, they all talked about the value of this horizon line in opening up your mind. It was really fascinating.’
The melodious title track, Running Out Of Time, Not Tomorrow Yet and the lovely Los Angeles run Miles Between close. There’s a hint of Hall & Oates about Turn The Other Cheek and a Nick Cave ambience in I Don’t Want To Dream Anymore, which would have suited the Peaky Blinders soundtrack. Dark and brooding.
Smith has just completed a short tour of the UK where audiences couldn’t fail to be impressed with his insightful compositions. ‘Still I keep talking, hoping that you're listening,’ Smith sings before the closing bars of Miles Between as if bemoaning his lack of mainstream acceptance. Rest assured: more and more of us are listening.