FEATURED SONG OF THE WEEK
Robin: Dominie Hooper
2023 should be a landmark year for indie folk singer-songwriter Dominie Hooper if the quality of her debut EP Anno is a barometer. The clincher is Robin, an engaging new single she calls ‘my lovely little queer Christmas song’, our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com.
Its sentiment is serious and celebratory, and its refrain irresistible...
Robin, Robin why do you sing
Is it to bring the warmth in?
You flew down to the window sill
And saw the flame within
Mother, mother, purest love
It pains me to pretend
It’s here that I call home
It’s not here I feel free
Well in my belly lives this fire
As true as an evergreen tree
And as Christmas comes round every year
You are as you are as I am me
The Dartmoor-born, London-based guitarist and cellist sings about the winter bird as a metaphor for her pursuit of identity, self-discovery, survival and acceptance. Her website offers this advice for her live shows: prepare for a hug and a punch in the guts. Such is her uncompromising style.
The single, ‘a message of solidarity with LGBTQ+ folks’, was produced by Kate Stables, aka This Is The Kit, a favourite at Here Comes The Song, who also contributes backing vocals and chimes. The horns – tenor sax, flugelhorn and trombone – are sublime. Her long-time cohort Phil Self adds accomplished guitar. The harmonies are a delight, especially when the vital line is reprised for emphasis: You are as you are as I am me. That would be an apt title for her first full album.
Hooper explains: ‘I wrote it for everyone, wherever you are on the spectrum of finding home a challenge at Christmas. Some queer folks spend it with chosen family, and some spend it with their birth family – whatever the case, it’s very personal and can be tricky and exhausting. It’s not about me – it’s about all of us, and everyone who is trying to make it work. I hope this song provides solidarity and comfort. And if nothing else, I hope it’s a palate cleanser to the annual tinsel-fest that is thrust upon us; think of it as a wholemeal mince pie. A Heston number. If Heston was gay.’
Stables, revelling in her first production project, admired the ‘honesty, emotion and hope’ in the song. ‘I also love the acknowledgement that the winter holidays can be a time when sadness surfaces in our hearts – that family isn’t always easy even if there’s a lot of love. To be a part of the story of this record has been a total privilege and an incredible learning experience.’
The song was originally commissioned by Michael Betteridge for Manchester’s LGBTQ+ low-voice choir The Sunday Boys. Betteridge says: ‘Whilst for many people this time of year is an uncomplicated celebration of family coming together, not every queer person feels comfortable, or even safe, returning to the towns and villages that we may have grown up in. I’m delighted that after commissioning Dominie in 2019 for our first every queer Christmas carol that this powerful song gets a new lease of life in this fantastically arranged single.’
My colleague Phil Shaw compiled a playlist of alternative Christmas songs for those tired of the same old festive fare the radio stations repeat ad nauseam. Robin would be a strong contender for a place in an expanded list in the company of the Pogues, the Pretenders, the Cocteau Twins, Davitt Sigerson, Joni Mitchell, Lady Maisery and the Waitresses.
A session player with Tom Odell, Yola, Band Of Burns, Ríoghnach Connolly (The Breath) and Alabaster Deplume, Hooper is on course for a big breakthrough year. Her cello work is a joy on Anno (just listen to Lungful); her voice, whether tender or fiery, is alluring. Yola says she ‘sings like a mother bitch’. We can feel the flame within.
Check out Phil Shaw’s Top 30 Songs of 2022 and his 10 favourite covers here
’Tis the season to be different: Phil Shaw’s alternative festive playlist
Bobcaygeon: Mariel Buckley & T. Buckley
If Christmas is about family and nostalgia, then Canadian siblings Mariel Buckley and T. Buckley have released a timely track, a cover of The Tragically Hip’s classic 1999 single Bobcaygeon, our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com. A duo joined at The Hip.
The solo artists collaborated for one of their favourite songs after playing at a fund-raiser in hometown Calgary following the death of Gord Downie, singer and lyricist with the legendary Canadian band, in 2017. They were encouraged by fans to record it, and three years after the event that honoured him they did just that.
Singer-songwriter Tim (his reason for the T. should be obvious) and younger sister Mariel have been appearing as The Buckleys at shows in Alberta this month. ‘One of the great things about singing with your sibling is you don’t have to word hard on phrasing because you’re already kind of wired the same way,’ he says.
Tim’s father introduced him to live music and The Hip in 1995 – ‘one of the first wanna-do-that moments in my life’. The song is named after a town in the Kawartha Lakes region of Ontario, a rural idyll where the narrator tells us ‘the constellations reveal themselves, one star at a time’. Downie described it as ‘a cop love song’.
Downie, hailed as a Canadian icon by prime minister Justin Trudeau, said Bobcaygeon could have been any small town which induced homesickness; he chose it because it came closest to rhyming with the word constellation. ‘He loved every hidden corner, every story, every aspect of this country that he celebrated his whole life,’ said Trudeau. Downie’s evocative composition, which appeared on The Hip’s sixth album Phantom Power, is acknowledged as one of the 10 best Canadian songs. There are echoes here of The Waterboys and Thunderclap Newman’s Something In The Air.
The Buckleys’ attractive, stripped-back interpretation, acoustic except for Mitch Jay’s swirling pedal steel, begins whimsically as Tim sings: ‘I left your house this morning/ About a quarter after nine/ Could have been the Willie Nelson/ Could have been the wine.’ Mariel joins in for the Willie Nelson line and introduces the second verse as the siblings develop the ballad’s dark side. Has the sky ever been described as ‘hypothetical’ in a song?
The ambiguity and mystery of the original is maintained with its anti-fascism undercurrent, ‘evil just below the surface’, as Downie put it. There’s a line about ‘the men they couldn’t hang’ and voices that ‘rang with that Aryan twang’. A convincing theory is that it refers to a British folk-punk band of the 80s who played their song, Ghosts Of Cable Street, about the backlash against Mosley’s Blackshirts in London’s East End in 1936, at Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern where a brawl broke out.
Our protagonist is thinking about quitting his police job:
That night in Toronto
With its checkerboard floors
Riding on horseback
And keeping order restored
I got to your house this morning
Just a little after nine
In the middle of that riot
Couldn’t get you off my mind
The song suits Tim’s storytelling-style and honeyed vocal. Mariel is a rising alt-country star with a liking for gritty lyrics – k.d. lang is a fan. Neon Blue, Shooting At The Moon and Let You Down from her latest album, Everywhere Used To Be, are evidence of her uncompromising approach. ‘I wrote the album for losers and underdogs. I want every outsider and lost soul to feel seen and safe with these songs.’ Rather like The Tragically Hip. The Buckleys have a fondly remembered song off to a T.
Tear It Down: Amy Ray (featuring Allison Russell)
Amy Ray, one half of US roots duo Indigo Girls, will never stop fighting her good fights. Anti-racism in her beloved South is a constant cause, wonderfully expressed in our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com, Tear It Down, from her seventh solo album, If It All Goes South.
Senator Raphael Warnock’s election runoff victory in her home state will be sweet music to her ears but Ray knows that the battle for social justice, unity and reform is far from won. Tear It Down is a jazz- and gospel-tinged ballad enriched by the soulful harmony of Ray’s friend Allison Russell. It should become an anthem.
I was that lonely kid in old cinemas
Watching Gone with the Wind
Tradition runs the core of me
And The Song of the South, whistling Dixie again
Oh, that tune lived and breathed in me, and it wants to live again
But we must fight with all our might to kill that racist hymn
Tear it down
Tear it down
That ragged cross of race
The stone and the ore
Beaten into monuments
That rose out of hate
All the Georgia-born activist’s pet themes are tackled on this sequel to the acclaimed Holler in 2018: white supremacy, gun control, anti-abortion, homophobia, misogyny, indigenous rights, protection of the planet. On the upbeat A Mighty Thing, propelled by Alison Brown’s banjo and Sara Jarosz’s mandolin, Ray confronts the conflict of her lesbianism and Christian faith. ‘They taught me how to hate myself,’ she sings. ‘How could I shine? I cannot win.’ How can a place she loves so much be so bigoted and backward in its thinking?
Ray, who formed Indigo Girls with Emily Saliers when they were still at high school in Atlanta in the late 80s, comes from a white, ‘very middle-class, suburban, slightly progressive Republican family that didn't talk about our past’. She says of Tear It Down, like most of the album written during the pandemic and recorded direct to tape in Nashville: ‘I wanted to put it in that kind of Nina Simone/Billie Holiday school because I was thinking of their contributions as singers to civil rights, and what they’ve meant to me as influential voices.’ Russell’s enunciation of the line ‘As dusk sings her lullaby’ is so evocative of Holiday.
The video features a protest group Project Say Something who campaigned to have a Confederate monument in the courthouse square in Florence, Alabama, moved to a cemetery where Confederate soldiers are buried. ‘You can read the racism in some of the speeches when they erected these monuments,’ says Ray, who admits to being obsessed about the Civil War. ‘Everybody wanted to stamp down any progress the black population was making. It’s in the name of white power. I guess part of the point of the song is, I know it’s hard, but you’ve got to reach down deep and kill this part of yourself because it’s got to go.’ It explains why she and Saliers were presented with a lifetime achievement award by the Americana Music Association.
Like Russell, Ray is a believer in the empowerment of community. The other guest contributors include her champion Brandi Carlile (Subway) and Highwomen bandmate Natalie Hemby (From This Room), I’m With Her (Chuck Will’s Widow) and Phil Cook (North Star). Jeff Fielder’s lovely Derek Trucks-inspired slide decorates From This Room. The beautiful ballad Subway is an homage to pioneering New York radio DJ Rita Houston. ‘She was so dynamic – at a time when there was so much homophobia, she ended up driving a lot of people’s careers,’ says the 58-year-old Ray. ‘I wrote the song thinking how liberated I always felt there as a young queer person just starting to get comfortable with myself.’
Tear It Down features the majestic couplet ‘All the lives that fertilised and the manifested hand/ The human bondage that provides the bounty of this land’. It ends with an indelible message: ‘The epitaph I long to read is: Here lies slavery.’
Songbird: Christine McVie (Fleetwood Mac)
Christine McVie’s maiden name was Perfect, and her compositions were just that. Our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com is a ballad of enduring beauty which adorned Fleetwood Mac’s spectacularly successful Rumours album of 1977. McVie’s passing at 79 persuaded us to revisit an old Desert Island Discs episode. Here comes the Songbird...
Always a pin-drop moment of Fleetwood Mac shows and a wedding dance choice of countless couples, Songbird was proof that classic music can be created almost by chance. She told Kirsty Young on that BBC radio show in 2017 that the song was written in half an hour during a sleepless night in the condominium she shared with American bandmate Stevie Nicks in Sausalito.
‘I woke up at 3am and the song just came into my head. Fortunately, I had a piano in my room but nothing to record it on. But I had to play it. The whole song came out complete: chords, words, everything. I couldn’t go to sleep in case I forgot it, so I had to play it all night long. It was as if I’d been visited. It was a very spiritual thing.’
Later that morning she took her memory of the song to producer Ken Caillat and put it down on a two-track recorder. ‘I don’t know where it came from. I wish it would happen more often but it hasn’t.’ The previous day was notable for its cocktail of cocaine and champagne; McVie was acknowledged as the most restrained of the band – ‘but I was no angel’.
It was remarkable anyone in the band remembered anything of those drug- and drink-fuelled days of superstardom. Even more extraordinary was how they managed to stay together amid the personal schisms, toxic relationships and excess of the 1970s and 80s. Cumbria-born, Midlands-raised McVie, following the turmoil of her divorce from bassist John in 1976, remained loyal to the band and the love of music. ‘There was an alchemy.’
She told the Guardian that she found her family name ‘difficult’ which is why she retained McVie. ‘Teachers would say: ‘I hope you live up to your name, Christine.’ So, yes, it was tough. I used to joke that I was perfect until I married John.’ They would become close friends.
Rumours was testament to the artistic importance of turbulence. ‘We need angst,’ said the daughter of a concert violinist and psychic healer about the tools of her songwriting craft. McVie took a 15-year break from playing after her father took ill. She barely looked at her baby grand during her reclusive life in a Tudor house she had bought in Kent. But a reunion was in the stars. When she was eventually lured back in 2013 by drummer Mick Fleetwood and a nagging Nicks, it was as though she had never been away.
Before Californian couple Nicks and guitarist Lindsey Buckingham joined the band in 1974 when it was decided to relocate to Los Angeles, McVie was told that if she felt uncomfortable with another female singer, it wouldn’t happen. But she got on famously with both newcomers and was more than happy in the semi-spotlight behind her keyboards. Understatement suited her. The quality of those hits – Over My Head, Say You Love Me, Warm Ways, Don’t Stop, You Make Loving Fun, Little Lies, Everywhere and Songbird – could not be upstaged.
This self-styled queen of hooks had a gift for melody and her smoky alto was a crucial element to the stunning commercial soft-rock success of Fleetwood Mac, a journey that began for her with blues band Chicken Shack and a fine rendition of Etta James’s I’d Rather Go Blind. Her last album was a self-titled offering with Buckingham at the time of the Desert Island Discs programme, backed by the rest of Fleetwood Mac minus Nicks who had decided to pursue solo projects. McVie’s penchant for a radio-friendly tune was undiminished, as evidenced by Red Sun and Carnival Begin.
A McVie retrospective – Songbird: A Solo Collection – released in June this year included an orchestral version of Songbird which retained her original vocal. It was lovingly produced by Glyn Johns and arranger Vince Mendoza but that absent piano – her desert island luxury item – had made it lovelier.
And I wish you all the love in the world
But most of all, I wish it from myself
And the songbirds keep singing
Like they know the score
And I love you, I love you, I love you
Like never before
RIP Ms Perfect.
It’s So Hard To Hold On: Trampled By Turtles
The wonderfully named Trampled By Turtles provide our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com, It’s So Hard To Hold On, from their 10th album, Alpenglow, in a career spanning almost 20 years. Frontman Dave Simonett has never sung or written better, and his incredible string band show why they’re a hot ‘live’ act.
Trampled By Turtles, from Bob Dylan’s backyard of Duluth, Minnesota, benefit from the inspirational production skills of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy on Alpenglow, named after the optical phenomenon when the sun casts a rosy glow across the mountains at dawn or dusk.
It’s So Hard To Hold On is a nostalgic track about the passing of time and the importance of savouring it while you can. Simonett implores the listener and himself to ‘grab your lover and hold them’ and ‘sing a song in a way that you never did before’.
Turn around don’t tell me what I’m missing
I already know, I know what this isn’t
Hold it down, just pretend for a minute
Man, it crawls, yeah it crawls when you’re in it
It’s so hard, it’s so hard to hold on
It’s so hard, it’s so hard to hold on
The six-piece – Simonett (guitar, lead vocals), Erik Berry (mandolin), Dave Carroll (banjo), Tim Saxhaug (bass), fiddler Ryan Young and cellist Eamonn Mclain – recorded the album at Tweedy’s Chicago studio The Loft. ‘I found inspiration in witnessing Jeff’s work ethic,’ said Simonett. ‘Wilco make cool art the way they want to make it, whenever they want to make it. And they have a blast with each other. Every band should aspire to that.’
Trampled By Turtles really do have a blast with music that locks arms with bluegrass, Americana, folk and indie rock. We love the harmony-rich foot-stompers such as All The Good Times Have Gone and Burlesque Desert Window but just as impressive are the slow-burners like Central Hillside Blues and Nothing But Blue Skies, which opens with a tuning session and becomes a swaying waltz with violin and cello players triumphantly in tandem. These accomplished players can switch effortlessly from carefree and frenetic to tender and forlorn.
Tweedy’s outstanding song, the plaintive A Lifetime To Find (a dialogue between the narrator and the grim reaper), is the only track of 11 not composed by Simonett. ‘It takes a lifetime to find/ A life like the life you had in mind’ makes for an affecting refrain. It features on Wilco’s latest album Cruel Country too. Tweedy contributes backing vocal on the Alpenglow version and plays acoustic guitar on four other tracks, including It’s So Hard To Hold On.
Most of the album was recorded ‘live’ in the round in the studio, with Tweedy’s deft handprint everywhere. Simonett was open to advice, adaptation and even rewriting; none of his songs left The Loft in the way they had entered it. ‘Almost every song got rearranged in some way by Jeff, vamping on ideas,’ he told The Bluegrass Situation. ‘Anybody that writes, you look at yourself and find yourself falling back on familiar turf. He helped take these songs apart and find different and maybe more interesting ways to put them back together. It was a fun process. I learned a lot from it, about never settling for something being done until you explore a lot of options with it.’
That curious moniker is explained by banjoist Carroll: ‘We were trying to avoid at all costs a name that sounded like a bluegrass band. Trampled By Turtles sounds like an unlikely and slow accident.’ Which is how the band was born in 2003, as a trio in a Duluth sandwich shop ‘with a stage about the size of a coffee table’. They can’t believe that, with virtuoso strings attached, they are still playing two decades later.
The final Alpenglow cut is The Party’s Over (no, not that song). Fortunately, this good-time ensemble, who perhaps stray too far from the genre for the liking of some bluegrass purists, are still in the mood to party. As Simonett sings on Central Hillside Blues: 'Hallelujah broken glass/ A song ain’t worth nothing if it doesn’t last.’
Bird I Do Not Know: Lady Maisery
We may have just heard the folk album of the year. Lady Maisery’s Tender is a masterpiece of fearless songwriting, deft musicianship and exquisite harmonies. Ah, the agony of choice for our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com. At the moment it is Bird I Do Not Know, for the hope we all crave.
The uplifting composition is one of four penned by Hazel Askew and showcases the trio’s arranging skills as well as their multi-instrumental gifts and celestial voices. We were tempted by Askew’s dark and cautionary climate change tale Scientist, her clever Pandora allegory The Fall and glorious closing track Birdsong but the infectious joy of Bird I Do Not Know was perfectly timed to make our spirits soar.
Askew’s five-string banjo, Hannah James’ accordion and Rowan Rheingans’ viola conjure a majestic landscape for a song that took flight in the eerie peace of lockdown when the natural beauty around us could be appreciated before the return of busy lives and engine noise. The caveat here and in Birdsong is that the imperilled must be protected.
I can hear the sound of a bird I do not know
I can hear the sound of a bird I do not know
Between the pavements and parked cars, love
Chasing between houses and street lights, love
Sometimes it’s quiet as a feather, love
Sometimes I fear the wind will lose it, love
I can’t see where it’s coming from, love
Only brick walls unending, love
‘The tune and refrain of this song just appeared in 2020, fluttered down from somewhere and landed with me as I was playing banjo,’ Askew told Folk Radio UK. ‘They accompanied me through the pandemic and came to mean many different things during the turbulence of those times. Eventually, they acquired some verses...
‘It still has many unfolding meanings for me, but one thing it is, is a love letter to the hard work of embracing the unknown, the possibility of keeping a glint of hope that there is something else, even when you can’t believe it. I’m not sure a song has ever arrived before that felt so much like it was trying to tell me something, to teach me something I couldn’t quite make out.’
We could have chosen Rheingans’ beautifully observed title track in which Askew’s harp washes over the writer’s metronomic banjo like the rain on a window that opens the record or her moving homage to suffragettes, bygone and modern, Rest Now. Rheingans takes us to ‘the edgeland of the east where the dawn is breaking’ before delivering this compelling verse:
We’ll climb to the top of the mountain
The top is the best place for seeing
How far we’ve come now
How far we’re going
Till there’s room enough to let the truth in
Contenders too were James’ subtle lament about the scourge of dementia, Echoes, and her gorgeous ode to ‘blinding love’, Noughts And Crosses, with Rheingans’ atmospheric electric guitar reverberating around James’ accordion.
Lady Maisery’s fourth studio album is their first for six years, a long hiatus, but we know how busy they’ve been with their separate projects despite the pandemic: Rowan’s stunning musical drama Dispatches On The Red Dress, based on her grandmother’s experiences in 1940s Germany; the Rheingans Sisters and the Askew Sisters; James’ alliances with French cellist Toby Kuhn and the JigDoll Ensemble.
The best collaborators frequently find space for covers, and there are three imaginative renditions on Tender: Björk’s Hyperballad (an acapella performance except for the body percussion), Tracy Chapman’s indictment of racial inequality and violence against women, 3,000 Miles, and Lal Waterson’s Child Among The Weeds.
The ambitious yet deliberately understated album, co-produced by Adam Pietrykowski, is contemporary without eschewing the tradition which informs most of the melodies. There is melancholy and a quiet anger, political and personal, but there is also sunlight in the trio’s celebration of womanhood, of courage and resilience. ‘Rest knowing that we made our daughters proud,’ as Rheingans sings. A collection of Songs Of The Week, every track played with tender loving care.
Wild Horses II: First Aid Kit
Those harmony-rich Swedish sisters First Aid Kit have revealed a lyrical maturity on their first full post-pandemic offering. Our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com is Wild Horses II, about a road trip, an old musical favourite and a love turned tired.
Their fifth album Palomino is pop-bathed Americana and, as the majestic beast in the title suggests, signals a more optimistic, free-spirited direction. Johanna and Klara Söderberg have moved on emotionally since their break-up album of 2018, Ruins, whose title track and Fireworks are former Songs Of The Week here.
The last original track the siblings released was 2019’s Strange Beauty, a tribute to the late David Berman of Silver Jews fame, and there have been plenty of cover recordings such as Willie Nelson’s On The Road Again and Don Henley’s The Boys Of Summer. Now they really are back on the road and introducing Palomino to audiences in the UK and Europe.
In Wild Horses II self-acceptance and strength take over the reins from the melancholy of Ruins. The track asks the question: ‘How can a lifetime fit in an hour?’ The narrator sings with an air of resignation:
‘I hate who we’ve become’ spoken like an absolute
Just listened to you speak, there was nothing to dispute
Guess something shifted, I guess something died
Thought I couldn’t change it, so I didn’t even try…
We played Wild Horses on the car stereo
You prefer the Rolling Stones’ and I like Gram’s
The Jagger-Richards original, written in 1969, appeared on the Rolling Stones’ 1971 album Sticky Fingers but was recorded the previous year by Gram Parsons’ Flying Burrito Brothers. Mick Jagger denied claims it was about Marianne Faithfull, Keith Richards adding: ‘It was about not wanting to be on the road, being a million miles from where you want to be.’
The traveller in the First Aid Kit composition echoes that sentiment:
Where do you go to when you look past me?
Do you see yourself miserable and free?
Such a strange notion, to see you clearly
When love’s shadow stood up and left the room
The siblings recorded back in their homeland for the first time since their debut 12 years ago. The undulations of organ, brass and strings are more frequent than on earlier albums and transport those sumptuous vocals. Some of the tracks are co-writes with producer Daniel Bengtson and Björn Yttling including the joyously defiant Angel with its nods to Fleetwood Mac and Abba…
Sometimes I feel I have to shout
At the top of my lungs and just let it out…
So give me love, and give me compassion
Self-forgiveness and give me some passion
I love you even if you don’t love me
‘It feels special to release a song after such a long hiatus,’ the sisters said of Angel, describing it as ‘a hopeful tune for these crazy times about accepting other people even if you don’t always see eye to eye. It’s also about being kinder to yourself. We wanted it to feel really big, but vulnerable at the same time, something you can cry to and dance to as well.’
Who can forget their 2015 performance at a Polar Music Prize concert for Emmylou Harris in Stockholm where the guest of honour was reduced to tears as the young songwriters sang their song Emmylou. The track, which appeared on their second album The Lion’s Roar three years earlier, referenced Gram Parsons as well as Cash and Carter: ‘I’ll be your Emmylou and I’ll be your June/ If you’ll be my Gram and my Johnny too.’
Tugging at the heartstrings is what First Aid Kit do best.
Etta’s Song: Christina Alden & Alex Patterson
Norwich folk duo Christina Alden and Alex Patterson specialise in music that explores the relationship between humanity and the natural world. Etta’s Song, our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com, is a love letter to their baby daughter and their harmonious bucolic life. Charming and touching.
The single will appear on their second album which, like Etta, is still in its infancy but will spread its wings next year. The song features a field recording of birdsong early one morning near their home in rural Suffolk. ‘It was inspired by the cold winter nights cradling our new baby and the quiet and calm huddled up in our little house,’ says singer-guitarist Alden.
The multi-instrumentalists are deeply inspired by the beauty of the landscape around them, crafting stories with the environment at its heart. But the thrill of the wild is accompanied by the chill of apprehension over its future...
Here I will love you as you grow and grow
Your roots are buried, your branches grow tall
The light is fading as Luna draws near
And night bids farewell to the day
I’ll sing you stories of old, the sun she is setting the night follows on
I’ll sing you stories of old, the sun she is setting the night follows on
Counting the hours, oh sleep darling sleep
Time runs away and is fast on his feet
The sparrows are nesting and the blackbirds call home
And night bids farewell to the day
The track is the couple’s first release since last year’s lauded debut album Hunter, composed and recorded in lockdown at their studio base in Norwich. Bright Young Folk called it ‘a milestone for contemporary folk songwriting’. Check out the title track (the curious tale of a magical bond between a wolf and a bear in Finland’s forests), My Boy, The Fox Song, Land Corridors and The Greenland Shark. Migration, in its many forms, fascinates them.
The story of their life during the pandemic when the gig economy dried up will be a painfully familiar one to struggling but resourceful musicians. ‘Initially it was very hard to come to terms with; losing our work and our sense of identity,’ they told Folk Radio UK. ‘We wanted to channel our energy into something positive and so decided to record our debut duo album. We used our new-found time and space to be creative; to write, compose and develop new music.
‘The album was made during the lockdowns of 2020-21 at home in The Folk Cellar on King Street in Norwich. Our house is in the middle of the city centre but the normally busy streets were quiet and so we were able to record everything at home. We really enjoyed returning to old instruments that had not been played for a while and revisiting fragments of song ideas written in old notebooks.’
Now they have turned over to a new page, inspired by a new arrival. On Etta’s Song Alden’s delicate, subtle vocal is affecting and Patterson’s imaginative fiddle playing impressive as are the other strings to his bow. Their voices blend effortlessly with bass contributed by Calum McKemmie.
Alden has confirmed that their trio project with good friend and dobro player Noel Dashwood, dislocated during the pandemic, may resume at some point in the future. We fondly recall By The Night from their independently-released album Call Me Home.
Meanwhile, the couple continue their UK tour with daughter in tow. Etta is the priority. In life and song.
No Reason: Sunny War
Sunny War sounds like a contradiction, which is exactly what the US roots musician of that name is. The dichotomy of hope and helplessness is explored on her new single, No Reason, our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com. Portrait of the artist as angel and demon.
The hypnotic track will appear on her latest album, Anarchist Gospel, her debut with New West Records, due out in February. ‘I feel like there are two sides to me,’ she says. ‘One is very self-destructive, the other is trying to work with that other half to keep things balanced.’
Born Sydney Lyndella Ward to a single mother, the Nashville-born singer-songwriter quit school and home at 16, hitchhiked and jumped trains, gravitating to the boardwalks of Venice Beach in LA where she busked and sang at clubs but descended into drink and drug dependency. Her punk-folk acoustic music – she played in a band called The Anus Kings – helped pull her through.
War eventually returned to Nashville but is now planning a move to Chattanooga where she and her brother have inherited their father’s house. She tweeted: ‘Nashville doesn’t have a punk scene and Chatt actually does. That’s not why I’m moving there but it is a crazy coincidence. I’ve already discovered hella Chatt-based hardcore bands and haven’t found that in Nashville. Chatt’s also more diverse.’
Her love of punk (‘I was obsessed with AC/DC, and I loved dramatic 80s guitar bands like Motley Crüe’) was balanced by a passion for the guitar playing of Elizabeth Cotten and the writing of Bob Dylan, which may explain the title of one track on the new album, Shelter And Storm.
War adopted the crab claw guitar picking technique used by many of the old blues legends. Her distinctive style, allied to an unpretentious, vulnerable voice, was best described by Michael Simmons of LA Weekly: ‘Her fingers are long and strong – Robert Johnson hands – in jarring contrast to the waif they’re attached to. The walking bass line sounds like a hammer striking piano keys in perfect meter, while the fills are dynamic flurries – like cluster bombs.’
No Reason, the 31-year-old songwriter says, concerns ‘the internal struggle all people face just trying to be the best version of themselves. And the guilt you feel when you’re not being the best version of yourself’.
Good intentions that you keep
Don’t change the fact that you’re a beast
Better than most to say the least
Imperfect man-made masterpiece
You’re an angel
You’re a demon
Ain’t got no rhyme
Ain’t got no reason
The album, produced by Andrija Tokic (Alabama Shakes, Hurray For The Riff Raff, The Deslondes), represents ‘a crazy period in my life, between a painful break-up and return to Nashville and my dad dying. Now I feel the worst parts are over. What I learned is the best thing to do is just to feel everything and deal with it. Just feel everything’.
At one point it looked as if her self-destructive side might win but it is 12 years since she plucked herself from the pit of addiction, founding the Skid Row chapter of Food Not Bombs in LA. The one-time recipient of food handouts was giving back. Her resilience has been constantly tested. ‘Everyone I loved died before they reached 25. They OD’ed or killed themselves. We were just kids who didn’t have anyone looking out for us. You’re not supposed to know so much about death at such a young age. Maybe that’s why I write a lot about not taking shit for granted, because it always feels like something’s about to happen.’
She gained a soulmate and champion in Allison Russell whose formative years endured similar traumas and who described last year’s release Simple Syrup as ‘endlessly rewarding’. The standout tracks are Like Nina (as in Simone, a meditation on the plight of black women in the music industry), her Covid song Its Name Is Fear and Deployed And Destroyed, an homage to a busker friend who suffered from PTSD after serving in Iraq, a soldier abandoned by the system...
You’d believe in angels if you heard him sing
He’s got a gift only hardships bring
He’s been called a man since he was a boy
Fought for Uncle Sam and they left him
Russell appears as a guest singer in the call-and-response choir on Anarchist Gospel along with Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Dave Rawlings, Micah Nelson, Jack Lawrence of The Raconteurs and Chris Pierce, her partner in the duo War & Pierce. If you like Russell, Layla McCalla, Tré Burt and Valerie June, you will be moved by Sunny War. Her story of survival and perseverance is a remarkably uplifting one. No reason not to listen.
I Could Have Loved You: Lizzy Hardingham
Lizzy Hardingham launched her latest album How Did We Get Here? in rousing style at London’s Slaughtered Lamb this week. Her formidable voice deserves to be heard far and wide. Our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com is the chilling, thrilling I Could Have Loved You.
It probably began life as an unaccompanied gospel-fused song about a relationship that turned sour. Like the rest of the album, the track is transformed by the richness of the backing band with Lukas Drinkwater’s majestic bowed double bass and electric wizardry providing the eerie backdrop the Hertfordshire-based Hardingham had in mind for her modal melody.
I could have loved you living this dream
I would have waded the shivering foam
I was a salmon swimming upstream
And you took me from the river
The hook turns to baiting
The fisherman’s waiting
And I cannot save you
The live show benefited from the presence of fiddler Katriona Gilmore, Jonny Wickham on bass and Ellie McCann on banjo. For the album Gilmore plays mandolin and adds harmonies with her musical partner Jamie Roberts, strings are provided by Izzy Baker, and producer Tom Wright contributes drums and guitar. But it is Hardingham’s remarkable vocal that grips the senses. We were reminded of Christine Collister in her pomp: a folk artist who can soar and swoop with such pure facility, switching soulfully from dynamic to tender, from strident to soothing.
Violin was the first instrument Hardingham learned as a youngster. Born into a musical family, she gained a music degree at Liverpool University. She also plays piano, mandolin, the shruti box and harmonium. ‘All these instruments come into their own on my studio albums,’ she told Unicorn Folk, ‘but for my live gigs I usually accompany myself on guitar.’ She served her apprenticeship at nearby Watford folk club where she built a natural rapport with audiences, putting her music theatre training to good use.
Hardingham’s back catalogue contains sufficient quality – Harvester Of Gold, Nana Was A Suffragette, the lockdown gem Dance With Me, Orpheus, Pendle Hill – to suggest a breakout future. She told Jon Bickley on the excellent Invisible Folk Club podcast that How Did We Get Here? was not a departure from her traditional roots but an expansion aimed at spreading her message to an audience beyond the folk clubs. She had long envisaged a band playing the other parts she could hear in her head during the writing process.
The album, funded by Help Musicians UK, explores the relationship between music and mental health. Audio clips are woven between the eight tracks as various artists from Nancy Kerr to Blair Dunlop talk about their battle to remain creative and the importance of mutual support and connectivity during the pandemic when the lifeline of touring was snatched away. A certain politician crassly suggested they might have to contemplate retraining; perhaps our current leaders should follow their own advice.
Hardingham deals with the loneliness of the long-distance troubadour on the opening track, The Road, a tale about ‘the duality of touring – the love of travel conflicting with the craving for home’. As one fellow musician wryly observed: ‘We’re professional drivers who do a bit of music on the side.’
Five Lonely Voices tells of a therapeutic evening at the Old No7 folk club in Wrexham; Old No7 might have been the title until she was reminded it was a whisky brand. Other highlights are Jumping Waves, a reimagining of an old track she recorded on her iPad in a cupboard under the stairs; the lovely They Will and the even lovelier Piano In The Woods; and the anthemic Singing Together.
Among the voices off, Julie Matthews’ eloquent postscript says it all: ‘Without the arts, there is no point to life. Because the arts is the beauty.’ Hardingham’s compelling new set of songs proves the point.
Talk To Me Of Mendocino: John Smith & Katherine Priddy
When two of your favourite songwriters join forces and release a cover of a beloved song from the vaults, you’re likely to be uplifted. Thank you, John Smith and Katherine Priddy, for our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com, a beautiful rendition of the McGarrigle Sisters’ classic, Talk To Me Of Mendocino.
The Canadian siblings’ anthem of wandering and yearning, which appeared on their eponymous debut album in 1976, is lovingly reimagined, Smith’s guitar guiding the melody instead of piano as played by Kate McGarrigle. Kate, who died at the age of 63 in 2010, would have approved of Priddy’s graceful vocal and Anna, now 77, will appreciate Smith’s imaginative harmony.
Smith and Priddy, who share a love of John Martyn and Nick Drake, decided to collaborate after a chance encounter in a Kansas City hotel lobby earlier this year. They will tour the UK in November, playing a mix of original songs – from Smith’s superb sixth album The Fray (check out our former Song Of The Week choice Deserving) and Priddy’s acclaimed The Eternal Rocks Beneath of which the celestial Eurydice was another Song Of The Week here.
Rolling Stone magazine once described the McGarrigles as ‘probably the finest singer-songwriter team ever to go ignored by the American public’ and said of Kate’s singing: ‘Not since Carole King’s Tapestry has the female voice been recorded with such unblemished intimacy.’ That intimacy, which Priddy has recaptured with aplomb, dates back to their singing parlour songs, often in French, in Saint-Sauveur north of Montréal in Quebec. Village nuns taught them piano.
‘Never had the blues from whence I came/ But in New York State I caught ’em.’ Wonderful lines not devalued by Priddy singing them rather than ’em. The Birmingham native is untroubled too by the characteristic cascade of words in the second verse: ‘Rise up over the Rockies and down on into California/ Out to where but the rocks remain.’
Essex-born, Devon-raised Smith tweeted: ‘Listen, share, sit with it a while. I hope it speaks to you in some way.’ It spoke to many on these shores when the McGarrigles sang it on the Transatlantic Sessions BBC TV show with Karen Matheson adding harmonies, when Linda Ronstadt sprinkled a little of her stardust and when Kate’s children Rufus and Martha Wainwright paid haunting homage with Anna on piano.
Priddy and Smith have honoured the memory. I will never forget the Transatlantic Sessions concert at London’s Festival Hall in 2010 following Kate’s passing. The inaugural Sessions TV show 15 years earlier had featured the McGarrigles. Here, a poignant rendition of Talk To Me Of Mendocino was performed, featuring all women artists on stage led by dobro guru Jerry Douglas and Shetland fiddler Aly Bain: Matheson, Cara Dillon, Sara Watkins, Eddie Reader and bluegrass doyen Tim O’Brien’s sister Mollie. Magical.
BBC Radio 2 Folk Show host Mark Radcliffe, who premièred the single, billed the forthcoming Smith-Priddy tour as unmissable. We won’t miss their Teddington show. Our home away from home.
Talk to me of Mendocino
Closing my eyes I hear the sea
Must I wait, must I follow?
Won’t you say: Come with me?
Let Her Go: Courtney Marie Andrews
The ache is back. Our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com is a track from Courtney Marie Andrews’ new album Loose Future. It signals a fresh start, a defiantly optimistic outlook. But she remains at her most alluring when the heartstrings are being plucked. Let Her Go is one of those songs that just won’t let go.
The American singer-songwriter would appear to be advising a friend about the dubious attractions of a rival, ‘an emotional Aries dancing to Tim McGraw’ and ‘an actress with a voice as pure as honeybees’. Most of the material here was composed at the height of the pandemic at a Cape Cod beach retreat where Andrews took solace after a painful break-up. She painted, wrote poetry and, remarkably, a song a day.
She’ll give you advice that she wouldn’t take
Freer than the winds blowing off the Cape
While you have her attention, love her and let her know
Then let her go, let her go
The album, co-produced with Sam Evian, benefits from the multi-instrumental skills of Josh Kaufman, whose fine new record Rolling Golden Holy with Bonny Light Horseman was released on the same day, and Grizzly Bear drummer Chris Bear. The sound is deliberately more pop-leaning than the organic Honest Life and May Your Kindness Remain of 2017 and 2018 respectively but that ethereal voice shimmers through the synths and understated psychedelia.
After the mournful majesty of 2020’s Old Flowers and her book of dark poetry The Old Monarch, Andrews opted to reflect her new-found happiness by pleasing her critics, including family and friends, who wondered why she always sang sad songs. So pop was the new direction. It mightn’t last; after all she is keeping her future loose. ‘I don’t want to make the same record twice,’ she told The Line Of Best Fit. ‘Something changes in you when you’ve experienced a love that you thought would be a forever thing, but it doesn’t work out. I’ve come to feel a lot more contentment in the now than I used to.
‘I wanted Loose Future to be a pop record. I’ve never felt a desire to make an album like that until recently, it never felt natural to me. But I feel that after the few dark years we’ve had, the world deserved a pop record.’ The lead single Satellite, These Are The Good Old Days and the title track prove her point although those wallowers in melancholy (my hand is raised) might have preferred more classics such as Near You, If I Told, It Must Be Someone Else’s Fault and Rough Around The Edges. No need for churlishness: it is the latter half of the record where her beautiful voice is at its most subtle and her lyrical powers are sharpest, on Let Her Go, You Do What You Want, Change My Mind and The Delines-flavoured Me & Jerry. Is this the new love she is referring to?
If there’s a God above I bet he’s making love
And it’s a good day on Earth when love is enough
I’ve lost count of all the people at my door
All the almost-fairytales with only a before
‘This album was made with the intention of testing sonic boundaries,’ she told Brooklyn Vegan. ‘I love the idea of rebirth, and I wanted to surprise myself. No idea was off limits. Exploring is one of the most beautiful parts of making music, and I feel that Sam and I adventured every day in the studio. The album cover, a painting of mine, embodies what this record is about – falling in love after being hurt, space, hesitation, living in the now, acceptance, letting go. The window, the stairs, the mountains, they are all symbols of change, new horizons.
‘Working on healing some inner-childhood wounds and facing some past demons helped me embody these heart-filled songs. That work allowed me to welcome external love into my life and create a record that does not hide from demons, but names them alongside embracing others’ love. This is my first record that has love songs without caveats and I truly believe that wouldn’t have been possible without learning to love myself as much as I can.’
The 31-year-old Phoenix-born songwriter has been promoting Let Her Go and other tracks from the album on a short tour of UK record stores. After her Brighton appearance, she stumbled on the scene of her first gig on these shores at the age of 20, the Fiddler’s Elbow. She ended up playing to the bar staff and a couple of diners. Lucky people. We hope she sang Table For One.
Ian Malin on Courtney Marie Andrews and the Springsteen parallel
Been To The Mountain: Margo Price
If Margo Price’s deeply candid memoir about the precarious road to recognition in Nashville had to be defined by one song, it would be Been To The Mountain, our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com. Maybe We’ll Make It is the memoir’s title. She nearly didn’t.
Been To The Mountain is a rousing, soul-baring track of defiance, a mission statement co-written by husband Jeremy Ivey and released in advance of her fourth album due in January, Strays. The alt country luminary describes the Jonathan Wilson-produced album as ‘a snapshot in time, a search for freedom in a society gone mad’ and the single as ‘part one of an introspective trip into our subconscious’.
Price arrived in Nashville at 19 from small-town Illinois hell-bent on success. It took her 14 years to secure a record deal. She busked, worked as a waitress, endured personal tragedy (the death of a twin son at birth) and fought alcoholism. Her chronicle was inspired by Patti Smith’s autobiography Just Kids.
Willie Nelson has been a Price cheerleader. ‘Margo’s book hits you right in the gut – and the heart – just like her songs,’ says the veteran troubadour. Been To The Mountain goes for the gut and has a real Patti groove.
Well, I wish I was God, but I’m glad that I’m not
’Cause I think too much, got my head in a knot
The world’s on fire, better save your brother
I’ve been a child and I’ve been a mother
I’ve been a victim and I’ve been a tumor
Used to be your waitress but now I’m a consumer
I’ve been on food stamps, I’ve been out of my mind
I’m rolled in dirty dollars, stood in the welfare line
I’ve been a number, I’ve been under attack
I have been to the mountain and back
In an insightful interview with Fiona Sturges for the Guardian, the 39-year-old Price says of her notoriously misogynistic industry: ‘I feel it’s just like a web set up to eat artists… The way we have taken the power away from the people who write songs is so frustrating. And there’s the fact they just try to beat the individuality out of everyone.’
Like Lucinda Williams in her early days, Price was cursed by the ‘too rock for country, too country for rock’ misconception. Now she has never been more confident she is on the right track, and a follow-up single Change Of Heart, with Mike ‘Heartbreaker’ Campbell on backing vocals, hinted at a new, more rock-orientated direction. ‘I have high hopes for this next chapter and truly believe this is the most exciting music I’ve ever made in the studio with my band. We have all grown so much, we operate like one single organism – it’s telepathic.
‘Courtney Hoffman brought my wild visions to life with the help of an incredible cast and crew in the music video. I wanted the story’s hypothetical eight to 12-hour window to feel like a mini-lifetime. We also wanted to portray how an intense psychedelic experience has the potential to become a spiritual experience, and how that can change your perception of the world around you.’
Been To The Mountain has much to commend it: from Price’s urgent, at times shouty vocal to The Pricetags’ pumping bass and Doors-like organ. If it sounds as if it was recorded live, that’s because it was. She has launched her own radio show and podcast, Runaway Horses, with Emmylou Harris featuring in the first episode; Amythyst Kiah, Swamp Dogg, Bob Weir, Bettye LaVette and Lucius will follow.
‘I feel this urgency to keep moving, keep creating,’ says Price. ‘You get stuck in the same patterns of thinking, the same loops of addiction. But there comes a point where you just have to say, I’m going to be here, I’m going to enjoy it, and I’m not going to put so much stock into checking the boxes for everyone else. I feel more mature in the way that I write now, I’m on more than just a search for large crowds and accolades. I’m trying to find what my soul needs.’
The country rock survivor with a renegade heart is thriving at last.