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Songs Of The Week 2023: Take 4

Updated: Nov 1, 2023

Neil Morton


The Insider: Robert Vincent

Who to trust? It is one of the questions of our times, whether it’s our leaders, news commentators, social media or even ourselves. Robert Vincent, one of the musical questioners of our times, has captured the internal dilemma in his latest single, The Insider, our Song Of The Week at A tour de force by a songwriter of substance.

The Merseyside musician has unveiled his first original track since award-winning 2020 album In This Town You’re Owned, which featured two former Songs Of The Week here in Conundrum and The Ending. The Insider appears in the same politically-charged vein as that album although Vincent points out that his forthcoming fourth studio offering, Barriers, is his most personal statement yet.

Crosby-born Vincent, as celebrated in Nashville as he is in his home city, questions the idea of dark, overburdening forces in society. Discussing the song’s theme, he said: ‘The Insider, who can you trust? In an age of the despot, the dark, unknown, underhand influence, that casts a shadow over all our lives, who am I to you?’ The unseen influence of the hidden persuaders, as Vance Packard called them in his seminal book on the power of advertising.

The accompanying video, premiered by Rolling Stone, shows the renowned Liverpool actor and Vincent aficionado David Morrissey as the central character, fighting the voices in his head. Vincent is the one wearing the make-up. As he said on Facebook: ‘I will have explanations of the mask, clown face, whatever you want to call it. People have been asking and all I can say is, it’s theatre darling, but it’s about the theatre we all create within ourselves with our own barriers and masks we present to the world.’

I’m the insider, at the back of your mind,

The doubtful dull niggle, that helps you decide

I’m the exposer, your Jekyll & Hyde

Who am I to you?

I don’t decide who’s right or wrong,

I don’t choose sides, I just help them along

I’m the imposter, that you thought you knew

Who am I to you?

The sweep-you-up chorus is glorious, showcasing the strength and subtlety of Vincent’s soulful tenor, as the track reaches its nub about the peddling of lies and the need to find a better way.

We can’t change this

It’s gone too far

No, we must find a better way

No, we must find a better way

And I can’t change this

It’s gone on too long

No, we must find a better way

No, we must find a better way

It’s time for explaining, just so you know

I am the conclusion to the divide we all know

I am the suspicion you’ve had for a while

I’ve sold lies to you, I’ve sold lies to you,

I’ve sold lies to you, I’ve sold lies to you

Morrisey explained his role: ‘I do a show on Boogaloo Radio with my son Gene and every year we do a roving mic show from the Black Deer Festival. I checked Robert out and immediately loved his sound. We hit it off backstage, sharing music we loved and vowed to keep in touch, which we did. When he asked me to be in the video, I jumped at the chance. He is a great talent and it’s a privilege to be part of this.’

The Insider is the first leakage of new material from Barriers, set for release early in 2024. ‘The songs are less traditional sounding,’ Vincent says. ‘I’m learning how to lower my barriers and have made a more personal album than ever before. It’s always the plan to shift a gear, stir something up and tell the truth of where I am in the world.’

Despite the impact on touring and promoting as the world shut down, In This Town You’re Owned earned him Album and Artist of the Year accolades from Americana Music Association UK for 2021. Since then he has released a collection of covers (check out his version of Between The Dirt And The Stars by one of his champions, Mary Chapin Carpenter) and three volumes of stripped-back live performances.

‘The new album has more of a concise sound,’ he said. ‘The songs arrived throughout 2022 and are born from my own personal experiences, rather than the social commentary of the last album. This one contains a very intimate set of tunes.’ Producer Ethan Johns is again entrusted with the task of conserving that intimacy. In addition to Vincent’s core band – Anna Corcoran on piano and vocals, Adrian Gautrey on guitar and keyboards, bassist Danny Williams and drummer Jim Kimberley – stellar guitarist Joe Coombs and violinist Amy Chalmers apply impressive textures.

‘I suppose it’s an album about love and how it’s only love… it won’t kill you to show it,’ Vincent added. ‘These songs are about connection and trying to overcome mental and physical barriers with love and empathy towards ourselves and others.’ Vincent’s favourite new song is Follow What You Love And Love Will Follow – ‘We all need a bit of that right now.’ As The Insider says, we must find a better way.


Killer Line: Rachel Sermanni

Most songwriters can probably recall a costly memory lapse: a pleasing phrase lost to the labyrinth of sleep. Should have woken up and written it down or recorded it with my phone. Our Song Of The Week at is Killer Line from Rachel Sermanni’s fourth solo album, Dreamer Awake, her most ambitious project yet.

One of three singles released ahead of the album, the track was written after a friend and fellow musician told Sermanni he had dreamt they’d been collaborating and she’d come up with a killer line that, on waking, he could not remember. ‘I thought this to be a most beautiful concept,’ she says, ‘and an idea for a creative piece in itself.’

I said the magic words

You’ve never heard

Words like it in your life

That killer line. Killer line

Give me a minute, it’ll come back

Believe me I saw it like a deer on the track

Motherhood, the loss of a friend, the ending of a long-term relationship and a journey of self-discovery cast a long shadow over an album that, despite the personal pain, fights back with hope and compassion the victors.

The indie folk singer from the Scottish highlands was influenced in her musings by Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain and the ideas of psychologist and mythologist Sharon Blackie. Her last album, 2019’s folk noir classic So It Turns, was created after a period studying and working at a Buddhist monastery in the Scottish borders.

The principal theme of Dreamer Awake, Sermanni explains, is ‘becoming and being a woman of power through learning to come to terms with oneself, one’s choices, environment and experience. This links deeply to my physical and spiritual exploration of the organ of the womb and its natural cycles of life, growth and death’. Complex thoughts framed within a beautiful simplicity.

The documentary about the making of the album provides an insight into the democracy of sound encouraged by Sermanni and her co-producer Peter Miles in the homely rural surroundings of Middle Farm Studios in Devon. She deliberately chose jazz-oriented musicians to achieve a looseness and air of experimentation behind her delicate acoustic finger-picking and that captivating voice. Guitarists Paul Santner and Elio Evangelou, Declan Forde on piano, drummer Max Andrjewski and James Banner on double bass echo her emotional twists and turns with their deft meanderings. The cello playing of India Bourne on Killer Line is stunningly atmospheric.

Inspired too by ruminations on Carl Jung, the album connects deeply with ideas of the subconscious, and nothing embodies this more perfectly than Killer Line. It captures the agony of the creative process: ‘The film that saw the light too soon to make the cut’ and the chase for ‘the perfect take’, both real and imagined.

Recorded live to tape, like the rest of Dreamer Awake, the song is a tender study in space and subtlety and the video a soft sweep of the live take that became the track. As we move around the room, we are shown the intimate studio, adorned with candles, as the musicians, on sofas and chairs, slowly realise the dream that is Dreamer Awake.

As Sermanni says in the documentary, the album is an exploration of womanhood, an ethereal experience to be floated through, spontaneous and playful, where anything is allowed to happen and ideas are honed.

Two of the other album highlights, Choosing Me and Jacob, were composed in the wake of a traumatic break-up. The former was ‘recognising that the liberation I had sought was choosing me whether I liked it or not’. The latter could be termed a Sermanni sermon to herself with her therapist as the mouthpiece: ‘A single act of recognising that I’m loved, and worthy of love, even when the person I care for loves someone else.’

Written after meditations at a Yoga Nidra, In Her Place could be a dedication and a teaching aid to her daughter while Big Desire is a celebration of sensuality rediscovered. The attractive opening track Dreamer is vindication of a life spent following her visions and True Love Lets Go reflects on ‘how love and grief go together like siblings, inevitable and inseparable’. The road to renewal is within her grasp thanks to these songs of empowerment.

We are currently enjoying a playlist of songs by thought-provoking artists such as Sermanni, Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker, Laura Marling and Lucy Farrell whose alluring vocal styles seem to pay homage to each other and who consistently conjure memorable, lyrical imagery. Killer lines that should not be forgotten.


Guest: Joy Clark

Whenever New Orleans guitarist Joy Clark is asked about her musical genre, she says: ‘I make people cry.’ Her long journey to recognition and self-esteem is reflected in her latest single, Guest, our Song Of The Week at Tears of joy and pride, not sorrow.

In this charmingly sung ballad, Clark describes having felt as if she had been living like a guest in her own life. The track, following earlier singles Good Thing (an ode to love, trust and ‘all things that make you vulnerable’) and Love Yourself, her personal anthem from the 2020 EP Here, is the first earmarked for her debut album on Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe label next spring.

Clark, now based in Nashville and a member of Allison Russell’s supporting cast, The Rainbow Coalition, invites us to ‘step into the spotlight of our own lives, embracing our truths, and finding joy in the symphony of our experiences. As we grow older and continue to emerge, this song is a reminder to embrace the process, to embrace the messy, to embrace it all’.

The songwriter received messages from friends saying they were reduced to tears listening to it in their cars. ‘But it’s not a song of sadness,’ she told them. ‘It’s a song of revelation, of realising how you’ve been living your life and how you aim to move forward from now on.’

Here’s my story

I confess

I’ve been living like a guest

In my own life

I’ve been missing happiness

Settling for less

In my own life

Chasin’ my own life

Now I’m back in my own skin

The way I was before I learned

I shouldn’t be someone who celebrates their wins

And I fought like hell to free myself

Fired up every single cell

So I can revel in the beauty of my world again

Clark has been touring with Russell who along with Brandi Carlile, Cyrille Neville and Lilee Lewis has been a champion of her singing and guitar-playing prowess. Her enlightening talk on Rhiannon Giddens’ PBS My Music show explains why the 38-year-old’s career has been a slow burner with all the predictable barriers and understandable insecurities along the way.

She tells Giddens about the blue guitar referenced in Love Yourself, bought by her nagged parents from a pawn shop. ‘I learned to play by ear. The guitar was a conduit for my feelings and my true self. It was self-affirming. When I did first started playing, people were saying: are you trying to be country, are you trying to be white. I’d go to the magazine section in the record store and I couldn’t see myself. It made me not want to buy any of them.

‘There were lots of times when I was feeling embarrassed about it because people thought it was weird. I always got the message that black people don’t do this, black people don’t do that. It took a lot of will and self-assurance. I knew in my gut this was going to be the key to my life.’ The lyric to Love Yourself is her mantra:

I’ve been told

Don’t be too bold

Girls don’t do this

Girls don’t do that, and so on

But I listened to my heart

I never played that part

I’ll choose who I’m gonna be

And If I knew back then what I know now

I wouldn’t worry if I stood out

I’d take those doubts and turn them into jewels

And I would love myself

Yeah I would love myself

You gotta learn to love yourself

You gotta love yourself

Clark’s debt to Russell, such a generous collaborator, is substantial. When she was invited to become one of her ‘goddesses’ it was a dream fulfilled. ‘I love the way she approaches working with other people,’ Clark told Country Queer, a voice for the LGBTQ+ community in music. ‘Working with women, you have a chance to speak… both verbally and through our instruments. There’s no fighting for a lead position or lead part. Everybody figures out what they can offer to the conversation of the song, and we present it.’

They met through Black Opry, an organisation that supports black artists. The alliance led to appearances at Carlile’s Girls Just Wanna Weekend festival in Mexico, where she was invited by Russell to take the mic for an unrehearsed verse of Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide, and the Jimmy Kimmel Live! pre-Grammy Awards show. Last year’s big thrill was to be told by Rissi Palmer’s Apple Music radio show, Color Me Country, that she was a member of the 2022 class. It was seeing a magazine cover featuring Palmer and other black musicians which provided Clark with a landmark moment.

The latest turning point in her burgeoning fanbase was her appearance at this year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival where she backed Russell and fronted her own trio. She told ‘I was in the moment. I was like, I’m on this stage at this time of my life. I’m really grateful, and I love it here. I don’t want to leave.’

Music has been a mainstay in her life. She grew up in Harvey, Louisiana, the youngest of five children. She was home-schooled by her mother while her father taught English and preached at the weekend. Dad’s nondenominational gospel church was her stage: ‘Whenever I’m writing, church is in there. I can’t take it out. It’s the best training ground.’

Tracy Chapman is an obvious influence but she learned a lot from playing with Neville at twice-weekly gigs in New Orleans and on tour around the world as his lead guitarist. ‘It was like a continuation from church, and a master class in funk.’ The wide smile on her face when she is singing her intimate songs is infectious. ‘Making the decision to go to Nashville and broaden my community… things have been firing on all cylinders ever since. But it always comes back to black women keeping that light on me and lifting me up.’

We are delighted to be guests at the latest performance of an ode to Joy.


Steady Away: Chris Brain

Steady Away, the title track of Leeds troubadour Chris Brain’s second album, picks its way through your senses and takes root there like the bucolic imagery embedded in his highly literate songwriting. Our Song Of The Week at is a track to keep you warm as winter whispers its arrival under our doors.

Brain’s honeyed vocal is so in synch with his mellow guitar style and with the piano and violin flourishes of husband and wife duo Simeon and Mary-Jane Walker who are retained from last year’s debut album Bound To Rise. The sound is still minimalist but a crucial addition is Alice Phelps’ subtle double bass playing which lends heft and depth as Brain turns from the wide-eyed wonder of his first offering to a more self-reflective mood.

The musician was eager to exploit the positive response to those early songs, written during the eerie stillness of the pandemic. ‘I just thought, I’m addicted, I just want to keep on making albums every year,’ he told The Yorkshire Post. ‘I was still writing songs every day and I wanted to record them.’ He regards it as his calling: ‘I just don’t know what else to do with my life. I’m on the road and I can see in the distance what I want and I’m just walking towards it ever so slowly.’

If not on the road, he is walking the Yorkshire Dales or beavering away on his allotment where he made the video for a live version of Steady Away. ‘I think these new songs are more personal and self-reflective just because I feel a bit more mature with my music and ready to talk about that. Whereas the songs on Bound To Rise were an accumulation of three or four years of writing, this one is all one period of time and written over a couple of months, so I guess the theme is strongly connected because of that timeframe. I just wanted to share more of myself.’

Play the game, state your claim

And we’ll see who’s to blame

Name the place, don’t be late

And we’ll see who shall stay

Steady away, another day

Parallels with Nick Drake and Bert Jansch in his singing and dexterous finger-style guitar playing are hard to avoid but other influences have been detected: John Martyn, Roy Harper, Colin Blunstone, Joni Mitchell, Anne Briggs, Sandy Denny and even Donovan. But Brain, whose style has matured since he began running folk clubs in Leeds not to mention a full-scale festival, is no impersonator; he is happy to honour his gurus while shaping his own sound.

Naturally, it all began with Bob Dylan, Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright being mastered before the budding songwriter moved on to James Taylor’s Fire And Rain; then he was in thrall to Drake, Martyn and Mitchell and their technical wizardry. He told the Yorkshire Post in an earlier interview: ‘It felt like home playing in those alternate tunings and with it being a bit more intricate. Especially when you play on your own, I think it sounds a big stronger when you can play in that style and sing at the same time. You don’t always need to be accompanied.

‘Joni’s structure is incomparable, I can never figure where the song is going to go next. No one plays like her. I’ve listened to a lot of her work and it’s seeped in over time.’

The 30-year-old Yorkshireman’s introspective meditations on tenderness, loss and awe of the pastoral have a thoroughly contemporary feel – sample Curse (a deeply personal song about a painful dalliance with drugs), Golden Days (whose optimistic outlook reduced his partner to tears), Please, Rolling Wave and Silence.

His respect of the folk tradition, though, can be clearly heard. The final track, Now Westlin Winds, is a cover of a cover: his own fine reworking of Dick Gaughan’s interpretation of a Robert Burns song, remarkably written by the poet at the age of 16 in 1775. Beauty and beastliness (‘The savage and the tender’) go hand in bloody hand here as mankind’s duplicitous relationship with the natural world is captured in a track bathed in poetry and pertinence:

The partridge loves the fruitful fells

The plover loves the mountain

The woodcock haunts the lonely dells

The soaring hern the fountain…

Avaunt! Away! the cruel sway

Tyrannic man’s dominion

The sportsman’s joy, the murdering cry

The fluttering, gory pinion

The album’s 11 tracks were produced by friend Tom Orrell at The Nave Studios in Leeds – ‘all hard walls and a natural warm reverb’ to reflect the intimacy of Brain’s songwriting. He will be forever indebted to the Bert Jansch Foundation and Help Musicians for their financial backing. As the title of his debut collection suggested, here is a musician whose standing is bound to rise.


These Days: Rachael Price & ymusic

We’ve been singing the praises of Rachael Price for some time now, especially for her performances as the voice of sophisticated Boston band Lake Street Dive. She loves her covers and side projects too, as demonstrated by her gorgeous rendition of Jackson Browne’s These Days, our Song Of The Week at

Browne supposedly wrote the song at the age of 16 in 1964-65 but did not record it until his second album, For Everyman, in 1973, allowing others to steal a march. The German model and singer Nico was the first to release it in 1967 on Chelsea Girl (with Browne playing that distinctive descending pattern on electric guitar) followed by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Tom Rush, Johnny Darrell, Gator Creek, Jennifer Warnes, Ian Matthews and, crucially, Gregg Allman.

The songwriter’s definitive version was closer to Allman’s take on his solo Laid Back album released earlier in the same month; indeed Browne credited Allman for the arrangement in his For Everyman sleeve notes.

Perhaps Browne was uncomfortable with how a song about love, loss and regret by one so inexperienced in life might be perceived; more likely, he felt he had not quite refined the lyric. A couple of the looser lines sung by Nico were omitted on the three more concise verses he produced later. Gone was ‘These days I seem to think about/ How all these changes came about my way/ And I wonder if I’d see another highway’ to be replaced by ‘Now if I seem to be afraid/ To live the life I have made in song/ Well it’s just that I’ve been losing so long’. The rambling/gambling rhyme was dispensed with too.

‘I wrote this when I was about 16, although not precisely in this form,’ said Browne when introducing it on his 2005 live album, Solo Acoustic Vol 1. The Californian first cut These Days under the title I’ve Been Out Walking for a 1967 demo tape for Elektra’s Nina Music publishing arm, with whom he was a young staff writer in New York. The song was then given to Nico, the Velvet Underground singer, and it was her recording that was used for the soundtrack for the 2001 movie The Royal Tenenbaums. Browne had given his endorsement at some point but was still surprised to hear himself playing on the track behind images of Gwyneth Paltrow when he eventually viewed the film.

Browne explained why he changed I’ve stopped my dreaming/ I won’t do too much scheming: ‘Over the rest of my teenage years and into my 20s I developed a kind of optimism, a kind of resoluteness, so I changed it to I’ll keep on moving/ Things are bound to be improving,’ he said. ‘That’s more to me what life is made of, the idea that I’ll get through this, I’ll continue looking.’

Of course the most quoted stanza of These Days and the one admired for its remarkable maturity closes out the song…

These days I sit on corner stones

And count the time in quarter tones to ten, my friend

Don’t confront me with my failures

I had not forgotten them

Bruce Springsteen, who inducted Browne into the Hall of Fame in 2004, described the first time he heard Browne perform many years earlier. ‘As I listened that night I knew that this guy was simply one of the best. Each song was like a diamond and my first thought was: Damn, he’s good.’ His second thought was he needed to sing fewer words; a game-changer for The Boss.

Browne, the epitome of elegance and economy in his melodies and lyrics, has just released a remastered edition of his eponymous debut album in 1972. He recently covered one of his classics from that record, Doctor My Eyes, for Playing For Change’s Song Around The World initiative; reunited with his old buddies from The Section, drummer Russ Kunkel and bass player Leland Sklar, Browne invited contributions from musicians around the globe via Zoom.

Any reimagining of These Days, and there have been countless, invariably suffers through the absence of David Lindley’s poignantly played slide guitar. But Price is indebted to the subtle chamber music accompaniment provided by ymusic, a New York ensemble lauded for their collaborations with singers around the world and captured by video production company stories on YouTube. It would be doing her supporting cast a disservice not to list the accomplished players here: Ryan Lerman (guitar), Alex Sopp (flute), Hideaki Aomori (clarinet), CJ Camerieri (trumpet), Rob Moose (violin), Nadia Sirota (viola), Gabriel Cabezas (cello).

Whether the music is smouldering or tender and laid-back, Price can be relied upon to be soulful. Lake Street Dive’s blend of soul, rock, pop, country, blues and jazz, founded on Price’s gloriously versatile alto and the songwriting skills of stand-up bassist Bridget Kearney, has produced a number of Song Of The Week picks: Shame Shame Shame and Musta Been Something from 2018’s Free Yourself Up and Nobody’s Stopping You Now and Hypotheticals from 2021’s Obviously. The latter leans on Nashville-based producer Mike Elizondo’s hip-hop recording expertise.

Australian-born, Tennessee-raised Price now lives in Brooklyn with her singer-songwriter husband Taylor Ashton. She met her future bandmates while graduating from the New England Conservatory of Music. Lake Street Dive, named after a street with many dive bars in former member Mike ‘McDuck’ Olson’s hometown of Minneapolis, once declared they ‘wanted to sound like The Beatles and Motown had a party together’ but their genre-hopping sound has always been difficult to classify.

In 2015 Price boarded the Jefferson Airplane 50th anniversary tour with Hot Tuna, singing the Grace Slick parts. Her roots, however, are essentially in jazz and blues, inspired at the age of five when hearing Ella Fitzgerald sing The Lady Is A Tramp. In 2004 she was a semi-finalist and the youngest contestant in the history of the Thelonius Monk Institute vocal competition.

It was no surprise, given her passion for jazz and swing and Tin Pan Alley songs of the 30s and 40s, when she teamed up with her old music student pal, the guitarist, singer and inventive writer Vilray Blair Bolles, for their eponymous album, Rachael & Vilray, in 2019. I Love A Love Song! followed this year (Is A Good Man Real? gives you a good idea of their cabaret style).

Price’s jazz background has furnished her with a sonic palette wider than most of her rock contemporaries. Those side projects, such as her appearances on Chris Thile’s much-missed Live From Here radio show, will no doubt continue and one hopes Lake Street Dive will feed off her stunning voice to attract an even bigger audience. These days she is content to lap up every musical challenge that comes her way.


The House: Michele Stodart

Michele Stodart’s third solo album is an Invitation that cannot be refused. Our Song Of The Week at is The House, a haunting ballad memorable for its metaphors for a life once lived inside.

The Trinidad-born, London-based multi-instrumentalist and songwriter dedicates Invitation to the three women in her life – mother, daughter, partner – and to ‘everything we have had to overcome, together and apart’. She widens the dedication to ‘all women finding their voice… trying to believe in themselves, especially when there are undermining words, controlling actions or even violence, weakening you in a way that makes you feel less than you are.

‘We unknowingly give ourselves away when our hearts, minds or bodies are subject to abuse. We can be gradually and subtly chipped away at over time, inevitably shutting down the essence of ourselves. Suddenly we find that our thoughts are no longer our own, that the stories we’ve been telling ourselves belong to someone else.’

Stodart’s hushed, plaintive vocal invites you to share her anguish over the shell of a building that has lost ‘the essence of what made it a home: its warmth, its soul, its heart, its life’.

Now the garden’s overgrown

And the weeds have taken hold of the windows

Where no light now shines through

Still I’m outside looking in

Can’t help from wondering

Will there be no trace left of her

Won’t she be hiding in those walls of yours

Did the music leave the day we closed the doors

There is nothing more…

But the black spot that won’t rub off

And the dampness in the walls they rot

On the fireplace resting photographs no more

And the peeling at the paper

On the surface is where it lingers

Now the house a shell that we once called home

She explains: ‘The house is a metaphor for life and what we want to bring into it, how we want to live our lives. The internal space within you, your head, your body, heart – when it loses its spirit, that lust and love for life. That feeling when you go numb, when dissociated and not there. All that’s left are traces of what’s been left behind. The dust marks under the photograph that no longer exists. The images give a sense of decay and neglect, but there is also hope in change.’

Stodart’s bass playing is exquisite here, accompanied on piano by her brother and Magic Numbers bandmate Romeo, by her own acoustic and electric guitars and the subtle drum brushes of CJ Jones.

We were spoiled for choice when hearing this intimate, deeply personal record with songs that navigate motherhood, relationships, transformation, loss and fresh beginnings: Push & Pull about the bittersweet nature of life on the road; the irresistibly poetic Come Dance With Me; and the beautifully dark Drowning with Stodart’s single electric guitar chords like crashing waves.

These Bones has a blues-jazz vibe that vocally recalls Ricky Lee Jones; Stodart features on guitars and tubular bells and Nick Pini’s fine double bass dovetails dramatically with CJ Jones’ percussion. ‘Musically and visually I wanted to create a feeling of dragging a body (my body perhaps) behind me – like a much-needed rescue, a reclaiming of myself after feeling muted, repeatedly criticised and gradually chipped away at. There is a waking up that happens when you’re no longer stuck inside, but instead suddenly becoming the watcher, realising you have a choice.’

The album’s other contributors to the stripped-back sound are Andy Bruce (piano), Alice Phelps (harp), Will Harvey (violin and viola), Joe Harvey-Whyte (pedal steel) and Dave Izumi Lynch (synths), who co-produced with Stodart; Joni Belaruski’s artwork is stunning and enhances the storylines.

The vivid imagery of The House will still be resonating when we attend the sold-out official album launch at St Pancras Old Church in November. ‘Invitation is about inviting in the darkness, the hard times, the ray of light, sadness, anger, love, loss and grief,’ says Stodart. ‘Listening to the child within, to the wisdom within, and truly connecting to all those unknown feelings that get woken up inside. To practise staying with them, no matter how uncomfortable – to realise they are trying to guide you.

‘I believe that it is in the listening, the learning (and the un-learning) that we can transform, grow, stay conscious and wholeheartedly true, open and honest with ourselves and others. Songwriting has always been my way of trying to do just that.’

Stodart spent her early years immersed in Caribbean music and culture until she and her family fled a military coup attempt and landed in Queens, New York, where she spent much of her childhood. There she pursued her own writing, encouraged by Romeo, and nurtured a love for artists such as Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch. Anaïs Mitchell, Brandi Carlile and Allison Russell have become more recent favourites.

Alongside her role in Mercury-nominated band The Magic Numbers, she has built an enviable reputation for her solo work and generous collaborations. She was musical director and leader of the all-female house band for this year’s UK Americana Awards, having been named Instrumentalist of the Year in 2022. She has been curator, director and performer in a successful annual series of shows celebrating International Women’s Day at venues such as Bush Hall, Camden’s Green Note and The Sound Lounge in Sutton. In 2019, she appeared in the Danny Boyle-Richard Curtis film Yesterday and on its soundtrack. 

Stodart, a champion of women in music and gender equality in the industry, possesses the producer’s skill set. Her songwriting and versatile musicianship have led to many alliances on stage and in the studio: with Kathryn Williams, Billy Bragg, Judy Collins, Allison Russell, David Ford, Bernard Butler, Natalie Imbruglia, Ren Harvieu, Charlie Dore, David Kitt, Julian Taylor, Hannah White, Rachel Sermanni, Emily Barker, Diana Jones and O’Hooley & Tidow. She is rarely short of invitations – or magic numbers. Our recommendation is on The House.


Jealous Moon: Sarah Jarosz

Sarah Jarosz’s musical journey is exploring fresh frontiers: the Texas-born, Nashville-based multi-instrumentalist has embraced a richer, rockier sound while collaborating more with other songwriters. The result will be her seventh album, Polaroid Lovers, whose opening track and advance single, Jealous Moon, is our Song Of The Week at Farewell to the comfort zone, welcome to risk.

Jarosz co-wrote the song with producer Daniel Tashian, of Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour fame. ‘It started as a quiet melody on ukulele and nylon string guitar, but when we got to the studio it became something much more powerful. It’s a song about the times when the parts of ourselves that we try to keep hidden rise to the surface and we have no choice but to ride the wave. Sometimes that means doing your own thing to figure it out so you can emerge stronger on the other side.

‘It’s not about the end of a relationship, but rather a moment of self-reflection and a promise to keep showing up even when things get tough. Once Daniel played the opening riff on piano I knew it had to open the album. I’m always seeking to push myself into new sonic territory, and this song gave me permission to not hold back.’

Jarosz began work on the sequel to the Grammy-winning 2020 album World On The Ground and 2021’s Blue Heron Suite during a period of change as she moved from her New York City base to Nashville where she lives with bass-playing husband Jeff Picker. Her music also shifted to a more electric-based sound than the acoustic folk and Americana for which she is best known. Her octave mandolin solo is sparkling on Jealous Moon, propelled by Picker’s fretless base and Fred Eltringham’s high-in-the-mix drums. There’s a drive here we haven’t heard before.

On Polaroid Lovers, scheduled for release in January, Jarosz sings about those strangely ephemeral moments that make a profound impression, snapshots that indelibly shape our lives. ‘What I love about a Polaroid is that it’s capturing something so fleeting, but at the same time it makes that moment last forever,’ she says. ‘It made sense as a title for a record where all the songs are snapshots of different love stories, and there’s a feeling of time being expansive despite that impermanence.’

Her voice, whether soft in Jealous Moon’s verses or effortlessly soaring in the chorus, is an alluring instrument…

Standing out in a summer lawn

Queen bee buzzing round my right arm

Wonder how she keeps her kingdom spinning

Talk is cheap, rumours travel

Now I can’t sleep, my heart’s unravelled

Thought I knew the truth now I’m not so sure

Here we are

Under a heartbreak sky

Baby I don’t know why

I flew away too soon

I can’t help tears burning in my eyes

Leave me alone to fly

Under a jealous moon

For the first time in her career Jarosz opened herself up to collaborators through writing sessions with Tashian, Ruston Kelly and Natalie Hemby. The fuller studio sound was achieved thanks to the stellar players she was able to enlist: Tashian on piano and a roomful of other instruments, guitarist Rob McNelley, Tom Bukovac on guitar and organ, Justin Schipper on pedal steel and the rhythm section of Picker and Eltringham. In the Jealous Moon video Seth Taylor appears on guitar.

‘Historically I’ve been somewhat closed off to co-writing, but in the past couple of years I’ve felt curious to get out of my comfort zone,’ Jarosz says. ‘For a long time it was important to me to write for myself, so that I wouldn’t get lost in those rooms full of amazing writers. But now that I’m more confident in my musical identity, I know I can collaborate but still stay true to my own voice.’

Jarosz, now 32, released her debut album at the age of 18 and immediately earned her the first of 10 Grammy nominations; she has collected four awards now. She began playing mandolin at the age of 10 and soon after learned guitar and banjo. In 2018, she joined Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek and Aoife O’Donovan to form the supergroup I’m With Her who were named duo/group of the year at the Americana Awards and won a Grammy for Call My Name as best American roots song.

The gifted Jarosz has been a regular contributor to Songs Of The Week: her delectable duet with the late David Crosby on a cover of Joni Mitchell’s For Free; her harmonies and octave mandolin magic on Caitlin Canty’s Quiet Flame; Johnny and Orange And Blue from her World On The Ground album and Green Lights from Undercurrent; Build Me Up From Bones, a 2013 title track; and Little Lies with the beguiling I’m With Her. A follow-up to See You Around from the trio would be a fine thing.

On Polaroid Lovers’ 11 tracks Jarosz flicks through a musical photo album, reflecting on old loves and youthful dreams. ‘It was a big step for me to reach out to Daniel, but it showed me how important it is to keep taking thoughtful chances,’ she says. ‘This whole album reminded me that I never want to play it safe – if anything, I want there to always be that element of being a little scared, because that means I’m taking a risk.

‘That’s what’s so wonderful about art: if you’re lucky, you never reach the finish line. You just keep searching and chiselling away at the stone, and putting everything you can into making something that tells the truth but hopefully leaves space for others to find meaning too.’ New directions, new landmarks, new reasons to keep listening.


Love Wore A Halo (Back Before The War): Emmylou Harris

September looks like being Nanci Griffith Appreciation Month. The Texas-born, Nashville-based songwriter, whose life was cut short at 68 two years ago, is the subject of a tribute album, and one of its 14 tracks by the good and the great of country folk is our Song Of The Week at, Love Wore A Halo (Back Before The War) by Griffith’s cherished friend, Emmylou Harris.

The track appears on a collection paying homage to Griffith’s treasured songbook, entitled More Than a Whisper: Celebrating the Music of Nanci Griffith, with contributions from Brandy Clark, Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle, Lyle Lovett and Kathy Mattea, Iris DeMent, Shawn Colvin, Steve Earle, Sarah Jarosz, Todd Snider, Ida Mae, War & Treaty and Aaron Lee Tasjan with Patty Griffin.

Harris’s jaunty treatment of Love Wore A Halo, which first appeared on her soulmate’s 1988 album Little Love Affairs, has a Cajun lilt. Harris, an esteemed interpreter, and producer Buddy Miller recruited a stellar group of musicians for the recording, including guitarist Jedd Hughes, multi-instrumentalists Sam Bush and Michael Webb, Dennis Crouch on bass and drummer Fred Eltringham.

Griffith’s memory is further honoured with the boxed set Working In Corners, which reprises those early, long-out-of-print albums: her 1978 debut There’s A Light Beyond These Woods, the 1982 release Poet in My Window, 1984’s Once In A Very Blue Moon, and The Last Of The True Believers in 1986.

Furthermore, the annual Americanafest in Nashville later this month will feature a dedication to Griffith, whose best-loved songs include From A Distance (she was the first to record the Julie Gold ballad though Bette Midler enjoyed the mega hit), Love At The Five & Dime, Once In A Very Blue Moon and Lone Star State Of Mind. Her 1994 album Other Voices, Other Rooms, named after Truman Capote’s debut novel and comprising 17 versions of songs by her folk forebears and contemporaries, including Malvina Reynolds, Woody Guthrie, Janis Ian, John Prine, Townes Van Zandt and Bob Dylan, won a Grammy for best contemporary folk album. Emmylou made a guest appearance.

Griffith, who managed to straddle the genres of folk and country with two different vocal styles depending on the tempo, dubbed her music ‘folkabilly’. Her parents had moved to Austin during her childhood before divorcing in 1960; it was there she first performed at the age of 12. Her specialty was the homespun, vignettes of life, love and loss in small-town America, bolstered by the Blue Moon Orchestra who accompanied her for a decade. Love Wore A Halo is a typical example of her finely observed storytelling wit…

He owned a hotel on the Jersey shore

She made her living seeing the sailors door to door

He was a small Hawaiian with a crooked smile

But he made her eyes light up like the heavens on the Fourth of July

She ran the numbers, they say she ran them clean

Those porcelain hands keep a ledger even in her sleeves

While he worked the See-Bees in the Philippines

They say she made more money than you and I will ever see

No wonder they struck a chord with the like-minded Prine whose version of Love At The Five & Dime was the first single released from the forthcoming tribute record. Prine recorded the tender duet with Kelsey Waldon shortly before his passing in 2020. The song tracks a couple’s romance from its teenage origins through to their twilight…

Rita was sixteen years, hazel eyes and chestnut hair

She made the Woolworth counter shine

And Eddie was a sweet romancer, and a darn good dancer

And they’d waltz the aisles of the five and dime…

Eddie travelled with the barroom bands

’Til arthritis took his hands

Now he sells insurance on the side

Rita’s got a house to keep

Dimestore novels and a love so sweet

They dance to the radio late at night

So much of her work, particularly the Southern story-songs influenced by a performance by the laconic Texas troubadour Van Zandt in her formative years, were gratefully covered by others: Love At The Five & Dime and Listen To The Radio by Kathy Mattea; Outbound Plane by Suzy Bogguss; Gulf Coast Highway by Emmylou and Willie Nelson; and Trouble In The Fields and the superb It’s A Hard Life Wherever You Go (‘If we poison our children with hatred/ Then the hard life is all that they’ll know’) by a host of artists. Van Zandt’s Tecumseh Valley was an early favourite; its sharply drawn narrative would become a trademark of her own work.

It is heartening to hear Emmylou’s voice again too. The 76-year-old’s last studio album Hard Bargain, her 26th, was released in 2011, although there have been live recordings, compilation cameos and outstanding collaborations with Rodney Crowell (Old Yellow Moon and The Traveling Kind). In 2021 she and Luke Bulla guested on Prayer, a single by the country-folk gospel singer Barbara Cowart. Love Wore A Halo: so does Emmylou and so did Nanci.


The Greater Wings: Julie Byrne

Julie Byrne can be addressing a crowded room but so intimate is her style you feel as though she is singing only to you. When that husky whisper of a voice is navigating personal trauma the listener is made to feel almost like an eavesdropper, an intruder in the dust of a once perfect life. Our Song Of The Week at is The Greater Wings, the opening track of her third and latest album.

When her closest friend and partner in music, Eric Littmann, died suddenly in June 2021 during the making of the album, it was no surprise she decided to shelve the project for six months. Post-lockdown she had left her Los Angeles base for Chicago, joining the musician in his home studio to work on the follow-up to 2017’s breakthrough album he also produced, Not Even Happiness. While there was some progress before her collaborator’s passing, the rest of the record was completed in the grip of grief.

The poignancy of her lyrics is powerful but not suffocating as she responded to loss by honouring Littmann’s memory and clinging to hope among family and friends. ‘Distant galaxies move/ I’m not here for nothing.’

Byrne’s beautifully delicate guitar is enhanced by Jake Falby’s lush string arrangements, the subtlety of Marilu Donovan’s harp and Littmann’s shimmering keyboards and synths; replacement producer Alex Somer captures every breath of Byrne’s clear and nuanced delivery to ethereal effect. There are no drums or percussion to disturb the hypnotic quietude.

Some lyrics were altered amid the heartbreak but only one track fully emerged after the tragedy, the closing Death Is The Diamond, a tribute to Littmann with just piano and vocal. ‘Does my voice echo forward?’ she asks. And we cannot resist going backwards, returning to the hush of the title track and its aching poetry.

I feel it, the tilt of the planet, panorama of the valley

Measure me by what I’ve risked

For these are not ordinary moments

But the circle that I traced in the palm of my hand

You’re always in the band

Forever Underground

Name my grief to let it sing

To carry you up on the greater wings

Forever Underground was the final record released by Phantom Posse, the instrumental ensemble launched by Littmann in 2012. Forever enshrined in song. ‘Eric was a truly brilliant person, he had so much faith in me and what we had set out to do together. That never wavered. It wasn’t even his vision or technical skill or artistry that made the collaboration so rich and singular, it was his love and care.’ At his memorial Byrne covered one of his favourite songs, Jackson Browne’s These Days, the first time she had performed since the start of the pandemic.

‘Grieving, in my experience, isn’t just sorrow,’ the indie folk songwriter told the Guardian. ‘I’ve heard it described as a motivational state, a state of yearning. The record does contain grief but it’s so much more about life and memorial, what it really means to count on someone. There’s a lot of unending love there that was clear before and it’s perhaps even more clear now.

‘I don’t really make a habit of regret. I’m so grateful that I got to spend so much of his last year doing what we love side by side… I lost part of myself. I’m still living to remap that part of me that is so accustomed to being able to reach him that it almost felt like a phantom limb.’

The 32-year-old Buffalo native’s fingerstyle picking was learned and adapted from her father, a sound she grew up with until multiple sclerosis deprived him of that pleasure. She still plays her dad’s guitar. She left her home town at the age of 18 and adopted a somewhat nomadic lifestyle, moving to Chicago and New Orleans.

Byrne and Littmann met in 2014 and later settled in New York, where he encouraged her to study environmental sciences and work as a seasonal ranger for the parks department. Her love of the natural world permeates Not Even Happiness. It is touching to revisit her NPR Tiny Desk gig in 2018 when Littmann and Donovan joined her for three songs after a solo rendition of that album’s opener Sleepwalker, including a composition she wrote for him, Follow My Voice.

With Littmann she was able to take risks and experiment with cascades of dreamy textures which elevate the new album, especially on celestial ballad Moonless (‘I’d been learning you by heart’), the first song she composed on piano, the glorious Hope’s Return and the gorgeous Summer Glass (‘You are the family that I chose’). Taylor Swift counts among her admirers.

It feels cold and heartless to suggest that the worst of times inspire the most artistic moments but in music the finest songs are frequently the desolate ones. ‘I drank the air to be nearer to you.’


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