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Songs Of The Week 2023: Take 5

Neil Morton


Sounds Of Earth: Jim Moray

Salute a master of reinvention. Jim Moray’s latest album, Beflean: An Alternative History 2002-2023, includes a new version of his epic tale, Sounds Of Earth, which first appeared on 2016 offering Upcetera. There have been many musical musings on the mysteries of the cosmos but we would rank this, our Song Of The Week at, as one of the brightest stars in the galaxy.

A love story and scientific adventure rolled into one, it was inspired by an interview with the American author and documentary producer Ann Druyan, widow of astronomer Carl Sagan, on a 2010 Radiolab podcast about the Voyager expedition and its celebrated time capsule in 1977 as humanity’s symbolic embrace of other civilisations. Moray’s alluring voice, backed by his own beautifully played acoustic guitar, bass and haunting pedal steel, presents an affecting account:

Carl he knew exactly how a tale should be told

How an idea could be broken, how a story could be sold

He says Let’s send a message to whoever finds it first

To tell them that we come in peace, let’s send the sounds of earth

So he made a list of all the sounds to sum up who we are

A mixtape of humanity to travel through the stars

Back at the university he gathered up his team

Linda, Frank and John and Timothy and last of all there’s Ann

The mission set out to explain our planet and cultures to another life force in 117 pictures, greetings in 54 different languages and one from a whale, and a selection of the sounds of Earth, from an avalanche to an elephant’s trumpet to a kiss, as well as nearly 90 minutes of some of the world’s greatest music – ‘a mixtape of humanity to travel through the stars’ in the shape of ‘a record made of gold’.

Stravinsky, Bach and Mozart and 50s rock and roll

The crying of a baby and the calling of a whale

Dogs and rain and laughter and the singing of the birds

Images and diagrams and maps of all the earth

‘Some of the lyrics are even direct quotes from the podcast,’ says the Cheshire-born, Liverpool-based Moray. ‘Then I filled in all the detail from a programme that my friend Dallas Campbell presented about Voyager. All the initial verses are taken from making notes while watching.’ Images of the Voyager mission were used in the stunning video that accompanied the Upcetera release. A new video is expected soon.

‘There is a Sagan quote on the back cover of one of his books [Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record]: They say there is a kind of spirit music in the world.

The final verse referring to Please don’t disturb me. Let me travel to the stars – that inscription was suggested by Arthur C. Clarke.’

Moray is rightly lauded for his staggering reimagining of tales of yore, describing his own compositions as modern traditional songs; borrowings from the past. ‘I think there’s some sort of hidden disciplines that you learn from performing and editing traditional songs for a long time about pacing and how to include real factual points in a way that doesn’t weigh the song down. So there’s some influence from people like Graham Miles or Alan Bell who were writing new traditional songs in the 60s. Plus a big chunk of Richard Thompson-like Vincent Black Lightning structure to cut the story up into episodes.’

Now Ann she was so diligent and Ann she was so keen

She searched among the archives just to find the missing piece

An out-of-print recording of an ancient Chinese lute

All their hopes depending upon discovering this tune

One night she called to tell him that she’d found the flowing streams

She called but found he wasn’t home so played it into his machine

Says Ann I’ve found the missing piece, I think I’ve found our song

Says Carl it’s good to hear your voice, I’ve been waiting for so long

I’ve been waiting for a moment when the planets would align

Waiting for the feeling, waiting for a sign

They talked for hours until the sun came glistening o’er the sea

And as the dawn was breaking he says, Annie marry me

The old English word Beflean means to strip to the bone, and Moray’s intention with his self-produced 21-year retrospective was to recast some of his favourite material, from his ground-breaking 2003 debut Sweet England to The Outlander in 2019, in a sparing way, eschewing many of the instruments he plays or the electronic gadgetry he has become renowned for. This is the case with Sounds Of Earth but he didn’t quite manage to follow his own brief, perhaps because of the inspiring vibes of Abbey Road Studios where he sung into mics used by John Lennon, Kate Bush and Thom Yorke.

‘I decided to take these guitar and vocal tracks and invite some of my favourite musicians to add their contributions to these new versions of songs I’ve lived with for my whole adult life. Some of the songs are well-worn favourites, some are deeper cuts that maybe haven’t been played as much outside of the original albums, and a few are tracks that I’ve performed live but not committed to record until now.’

Step forward Tom Moore, Archie Churchill-Moss, Cormac Byrne, Jon Boden, Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne, Angeline Morrison, BJ Cole, Jude Rees, Jamie Francis and Murat Savaş​. There are highlights a-plenty: Fair Margaret And Sweet William, Dog And Gun, the enduringly excellent Lord Douglas, Lord Ellenwater, Long Larkin, Lord Bateman. But the heart-tugging Sounds Of Earth, which has been played at weddings despite its 12 verses, reverberates loudest.

The 42-year-old folk pioneer, multi-instrumentalist and producer modestly points to another inspiration for Sounds Of Earth: ‘When we first started going out my wife was a science blogger for the Guardian and did loads of science communication work, so I met lots of new people who were involved in combining comedy and music and science. I think this song was my attempt to impress them and make something that could fit in with their world.’

Next morning back in New York they connected the machines

Attached the sensors to her skin to record her EEG

As soon as they had started, well she knew what she should do

The sound of someone falling in love, all the time I thought of you…

Beyond our solar system there’s a golden calling card

Inscribed ‘please don’t disturb me, let me travel to the stars’

If one day someone finds it they will hear the sound of love

That could last a billion years or more

The sound of love that could last a billion years. If only. Beflean is Moray’s own Golden Record and Sounds Of Earth his message of cosmic proportions. We are so grateful that he at least followed the science.


Aberfeldy: Foy Vance

The 10th anniversary edition of Foy Vance’s seminal album Joy Of Nothing leaves its most joyous surprise until last. The closing track, our Song Of The Week at, is a simply beautiful ballad, Aberfeldy. Let it wash over you.

One of three bonus tracks and written at the same time as the rest of the 2013 album, Aberfeldy is a paean to Vance’s beloved adopted town in the Scottish Highlands. The Northern Irish musician had recently taken refuge there from a hectic life in London and has been a local ever since.

So now the spring here has begun

Soon we’ll watch the setting sun

Mountain water on our tongues

Lift our eyes toward heavens

And in the summer months we’ll rise

Wipe the morning from our eyes

Watch the ages passing by

Think about no other

The strum of a guitar, the poetic musings of an intoxicating tenor, and the yearning of an ooh-ooh refrain:

And when the autumn’s all but gone

Though heather blooms the leaves will bronze

Negative ions

Will bring us peace and shelter

And when the winter mornings yawn

Fireglow will keep us warm

Snowfall coats the mountain charms

And we will be together

The epithet Celtic soul best describes Vance’s music and alluring vocal style. A preacher’s son, he was born in Bangor, Co Down, his family settling in Belfast after a nomadic period criss-crossing the American Midwest and Deep South. After developing his craft in a covers band he spent seven years living in London. That Joy Of Nothing album, his first since 2007 debut Hope, would never have happened but for the move to Aberfeldy and the inspiration of its bucolic backdrop.

‘It seemed the world was one big city connected by flight paths and motorways,’ Vance told The Independent the year Joy Of Nothing became a sweeter something. ‘Then I’d come back to a city and it was driving me insane. Much as I love London, I was having to work too hard to make ends meet. It was like living in a washing machine. It didn’t feel conducive to writing songs or expressing yourself in any way because you’re always on the back foot trying to make ends meet. I had friends living in the Highlands in a wee village. I decided to move up there.

‘That move was really the beginning of this record. The catalyst was a song called Closed Hands, Full Of Friends. All the other tracks came in a couple of months. I had written loads of others before the move but they all got binned. I felt like I’d moved from the humdrum of the industry to this haunt of the ancient bards. I had that sense of stillness.’ It informed his next offerings too, 2016’s The Wild Swan and Signs Of Life, recorded there during the pandemic.

Vance told The Courier in Scotland earlier this year: ‘As soon as I came over the hill from Crieff I announced I wanted to move here. This was in the October, so Aberfeldy was in its autumnal glory, like a sea of orange and gold, with smoke coming out of the chimneys. I was living in a house I couldn’t afford and this place looked like paradise, which it still does to me.’

Vance’s musician fan club includes Bonnie Raitt, Ed Sheeran and Elton John whom he has supported on tour. On the Joy Of Nothing original Raitt provides delectable harmonies on You And I and Sheeran shares vocal duties on probably Vance’s most celebrated song, Guiding Light. As close to an anthem as any track in Vance’s canon, Guiding Light was re-recorded for the anniversary edition, with Sheeran, Sir Elton and Keith Urban featuring.

Sheeran was so besotted with Vance’s talents he has co-written with him (sample Afire Love and Tenerife Sea), having made him the second signing to his Gingerbread Man label in 2015. Sheeran collaborated again for his tribute to the lure of Vance’s sanctuary, The Hills Of Aberfeldy, before persuading his recruit to record Guiding Light, a song he had played over and over in his bedroom as a 15-year-old after hearing it performed live on YouTube and wondering why it had never been officially released.

In a video about the remaking of Guiding Light, producer John McDaid says of a moment of inspired vocal improvisation by Vance: ‘Only Foy could do that. With the preacher dad, we know the apple didn’t fall far from the tree there.’ McDaid was determined to honour the original by making it different. You can immediately hear the difference in the blend of voice memos of both men’s fathers singing in church, ‘an atmospheric bed as a foundation to build on. I love that they exist in the ether’.

Urban, who contributed otherworldly guitar, found the experience so moving, describing it as more of a hymn than a song. ‘It captures the beauty, the struggle... everything it is to be a spiritual being having a human experience.’

‘Guiding Light is the person or the thing that brings you back to a safe space, somewhere to lick your wounds and convalesce,’ said the 49-year-old Vance, still highly recognisable for that flat cap and Salvador Dali-esque moustache. ‘To see this song resonate with so many people over the years has truly been a beautiful thing.’ Elton John commented: ‘When Foy asked me to do it, it was a no-brainer because I’m such a huge fan.’ For Vance, hearing back the superstar’s unmistakable vocal on one of the verses was surreal:

Well the air is cold

And yonder lies my sleeping soul

By the branches broke like bones

This weakened tree no longer holds

Vance replayed the chorus (When I need to get home/ You’re my guiding light/ You’re my guiding light) sung by a studio full of performers and friends who have meant a lot to him down the decades, and thought: ‘What have I done to deserve this?’ No, what have we done to deserve such beautiful music? The answer lies in Aberfeldy.


Wild To Be Sharing This Moment: Emily Barker

Apart from her beguiling voice and melodies, you can always rely on Emily Barker’s sense of humanity to permeate and illuminate her songwriting. Our Song Of The Week at is the Australian-born artist’s new single, Wild To Be Sharing This Moment.

In this world of war-mongering, extremist tendencies and political heartlessness, empathy can be an elusive quality. Barker possesses it in abundance. ‘If I could ask anything from this song, it would be a reminder of shared experience and vastness as humans,’ she says. ‘We each hold vulnerabilities, complexities, passions, inner worlds, and compassion is the best tool to navigate home, each other, this very thimble of time.’

Thimble of time is one of the track’s many memorage images, appearing in the chorus of a song about the need for tolerance and the pursuit of truth.

I see a thousand worlds in the window

Of a train as it passes me by

Each one plugged into an orbit,

Their own pain, their own lullaby

Isn’t it wild to be sharing this moment

The same very thimble of time

Isn’t it wild that we each hold an ocean

Yet fail to fathom other tides

Down at the edge of the water

A mother weeps on the shore

How can we study the wounds of our history

And still send our children to war

Barker says she was inspired to write the song while waiting for a train at King’s Cross in London. She told the Melbourne music website Black Of Hearts: ‘I was people watching and thinking of how vulnerable we all are, with our own stories and secrets, all sharing this same moment in time and space. There were passengers sleeping at awkward angles, some reading, some playing games on their phones, some with masks, most without, some listening to music and tapping a foot, children clinging to parents.

‘I found myself questioning where empathy has gone. The song is about compassion. The war in Ukraine had just started and it was all feeling very intense, much like it is right now [in Gaza]. I’m an advocate for keeping conversation alive across divides, for trying to approach each encounter as an opportunity for connection. We must find our common humanity in order to make the world a safer, better place for us all to live in.’

The accompanying Headjam-produced video visits a typical school photo session, filmed in Newcastle, New South Wales, with Barker behind the camera. ‘Do you remember what was happening in your life at the time? What was going through your head as the photographer clicked away? Perhaps you faked a smile, or perhaps a smile came easily on that day. It’s such a pivotal moment – saying goodbye to some peers and friends, teachers, familiar corridors and classrooms, readying to take a leap towards the unknown.’

The innocence of youth, that leap towards the unknown, and those huge questions about how we live, behave and interact. Barker may also be touching on one of her pet themes, the plight of indigenous populations…

A child with hands in the soil

Wakes without question and grows

Truth is a hope to hold on to

And where it blooms we will go

It was a subject she dealt with powerfully in her haunting song Machine. She said she was ‘ashamed and sickened’ at the result of the recent referendum in which Australians voted against enshrining Aboriginal people into the constitution. As she explained: ‘Most non-indigenous Australians, at some point in their lives, come to realise that they’ve been raised on stolen land; choosing whether or not to acknowledge this is another thing altogether. For me, the moment came when I chose Indigenous Australian Studies as part of my BA degree.

‘The six-month course, taught by indigenous Australian academics, opened my eyes to the ongoing injustice and deeply-embedded racism that prevails in law, in land rights, and in Australian society at large. It shouldn’t have taken me going to university to find out the truth of how Australia was colonised, but the sad fact of it was that during my childhood education, this was not a topic taught in schools.

‘I wrote Machine after watching Ava DuVernay’s powerful documentary 13th. There are many other inspirations for the song, but this film in particular exposes the insidious methods used by those in positions of power to subvert historical narratives to their own advantage.’ Hence the lyric: This machine runs on its own. The road to reconciliation, that Voice to Parliament, has become longer and more fraught.

The track featured on Barker’s influential album A Dark Murmuration Of Words, which spawned Songs Of The Week in The Woman Who Planted Trees and Sonogram. Other choices have included tracks from Room 822, her lockdown covers album with bass-playing producer husband Lukas Drinkwater (Under The Milky Way), and her work with the all-female band Applewood Road.

Barker recently returned to her native Western Australia, accompanied by Drinkwater, after over two decades in the UK. She is still perhaps best known for Nostalgia, the theme song she recorded with The Red Clay Halo for the BBC version of the Swedish TV series Wallander, but we recommend looking far beyond that classic. Her collaboration with the Carducci String Quartet produced an EP this year entitled A Dark Murmuration Of Strings, an inspired reimagining of her own compositions. And spare time for her poetry: here’s That Time I Was Aretha Franklin’s Niece.

On the new track the bass is played by Tim Harries; Drinkwater was probably busy touring back here with Tobias Ben Jacob, the other duo in his life. Tom Visser’s military-style drums echo the distant rumblings of war. The rest of the supporting cast comprises: Luke Potashnick on guitar, percussion and synths, Richard Causon on keys, and Tim Harries whose string arrangement features Rebekah Allan (violin), Laura Anstee (cello) and Rachel Robson (viola). Not forgetting Barker herself – on vocals, guitar and empathy.


Chains Of Ours: Hannah White

Music has such a power over me. It’s got me through some of the darkest times and I don’t know what I’d be doing without it. I feel so strongly that if everybody had that opportunity, so many people’s lives could be transformed.

What a year it has been for Hannah White, beginning with Best UK Song for Car Crash at the Americana Music Association UK Awards. She has captivated festival audiences – Black Deer, Glastonbury, The Long Road and Folk In The Park in Sutton, Surrey, run by the club she co-founded The Sound Lounge – and supported Paul Carrack and Deacon Blue frontman Ricky Ross on tour.

Her latest album Sweet Revolution will feed the feelgood factor and swell the number of her champions and admirers. It is a commentary on her own transformed life, ‘a collection of songs about going from growing up on a council estate, and all of the hopelessness, the sadness and the loneliness, to homelessness and then finding a sense of power through words and music, and becoming an artist.’

Chains Of Ours, our Song Of The Week at, has quickly become a driving signature tune of the London-based roots artist’s vibrant live shows. ‘It’s about being a woman – when doors keep closing before me,’ she explains. ‘It’s about trying to have a voice but still needing permission from the gatekeepers. In every area of my life facing the assumption that I am not quite up to it because of my gender – and also fighting my own instinct to cower down and go quietly rather than speak loudly and insist on being heard.

‘Everything takes me longer and feels harder and the lyrics – the cold on a moonlit night, the shadow of a bird in flight etc – refer to the forces people don’t see; or maybe they see them but don’t want to talk about them.’

Like the hold of a firm embrace

The feeling of a hand against my face

Under thumb, I’m the one

Seems these chains of ours will never be undone

Fighting talk from a time long gone

With words that make absurd my wrong

And another door closed on me

Fatea magazine described the track, with its memorable foot-stomping chorus and sizzling Keiron Marshall guitar solo, as the best Fleetwood Mac hit they never wrote. As ever with her sharply crafted writing, she wraps complex emotions, dark truths and socially aware observations in arresting, joyous melodies. The hypnotic hooks keep coming.

The stellar supporting cast, led by producer Michele Stodart on bass and guitarist Marshall, her partner in life and music, features Basia Bartz on violin and cello, Daisy Chute on banjo and vocals, Holly Carter on pedal steel, Lars Hammersland on keyboards, drummer Emma Holbrook, Beth Rowley on harmonica and James Le Guerrannic on rhythm guitar. Special guest Ross joins White for a delightful duet on the album closer, A Separation, with its Will The Circle Be Unbroken melody and country-style modulation.

The accomplished Marshall even has a song (and video) dedicated to him: Right On Time, with its dusting of Dusty Springfield, is about finding the right person when you thought that chance had hightailed it...

Only just a breath ago, I’d never believe

Love could be a place to go

For a damaged heart like me

White, like music, is a force for good. She and Marshall have been travelling the country on a tour of record stores and small independent venues, of which their own is a shining example of their importance to local communities. The empathy she expresses in her soul-baring lyrics emanates from her tough, humble background. The Sidcup-born songwriter played piano and violin at an early age. ‘I got to learn because our borough gave free music lessons to families on benefits. I first picked up a guitar because my cousin had one and showed me a few chords. Although I couldn’t do much on it, I ended up playing it more than the other instruments because of how portable it was and great to write with.’

There is a vulnerability in White’s voice despite the power it can generate on the more percussive songs. The gorgeous River Run attests to the allure of her tender side and her disarming candour (‘Craving attention like a child so sore/ I don’t even know what I’m craving it for/ Holding on to hope ’til my hands are blood bare/ I can’t wade against this current anymore/ I can’t fight when I’m the only one at war’). One Night Stand, about the challenges of life on a suburban council estate, has a soulful, dreamy ache enhanced by exceptional bass from Stodart: ‘All the nobodies like me we are lining up outside each bar/ That has promises on offer for the price of a door still left ajar… This deadend street and these tired feet are going nowhere.’

The brooding Chris Isaak-tinged opener Hail The Fighter, a salute to all those who refuse to be cowed by adversity (‘Got the courage and the strength to rise up), underlines her lyrical dexterity and sense of social justice. She even tries to fool us into thinking she’s an Ordinary Woman (‘I’m nothing special/ No heads will turn my way’). But more and more ears are turning. These extraordinary storytelling songs beg our attention. This could be a White Christmas.


Land Of My Other: The Breath

Rarely has a musical project been so aptly titled as The Breath. There’s a kind of hush all over the world when you hear their beautiful sound. Singer-lyricist-flautist Ríoghnach Connolly and guitarist Stuart McCallum provide our Song Of The Week at with Land Of My Other, the title track from their third album. Breathtaking.

‘We work like two halves of a single songwriter,’ says McCallum, the Manchester-based composer. ‘Imagine a guitarist and a singer who are not separate but are separate people. We just have this really special connection that lets us listen, adapt and evolve a piece of music together.’

The alt folk duo’s extraordinary bond is similarly acknowledged by Northern Ireland-born Connolly. ‘Stuart is the yin to my yang,’ says the BBC Folk Singer of the Year. ‘He has one face. I have many. He’s very measured. I’m not. I like mayhem. He doesn’t. I know where I am with him.’

Their Thomas Bartlett-produced album is described as ‘a place of memories and melodies, lyricism and lore. A place of sunlight, faerie tales and rowan trees; of grief, incarceration and thunder in darkness. A place where ancestral trauma and colonial injustice meet blazing pride, romantic self-rule and hands held in a circle in the sea’.

On the title track McCallum’s acoustic and baritone acoustic guitars are double-tracked while Connolly’s haunting voice and her plaintive flute solo are flecked with Bartlett’s sensitive piano flourishes. Connolly’s lyric was probably inspired by the dislocation of the pandemic but it could apply to other times during her two decades in Manchester away from Armagh where she was raised during The Troubles.

This is a song for the generations, a longing for family, for the land and its whispered ancient secrets, and there’s an ache in these impassioned lines:

On the altar

You held a match to the mother oh

Mary lied to your mother oh

She lies for another

In the wars oh

He’d die for another oh

Heed the land of my father

Heal the heart of my mother oh…

In the waking

How the lost were taken o’er

Keep a watch on my children oh

Keep a watch o’er my other

McCallum says in the liner notes: ‘On this album Ríoghnach is really getting to the root of what she’s about. We’ve done a lot of gigs as a duo and become stronger and more confident in just us two, in not hiding behind anything. There’s no way Ríoghnach would have been this open five years ago.’

Connolly is speaking to her father, a piper and republican who died in 2019 shortly before the birth of her daughter. The sense of loss and joy unconfined of Little One has a moving companion in Letters From Long Kesh about the impact of her father’s imprisonment. She explains: ‘My dadaí got lifted when I was seven years old. My mum, who’s Mancunian with Irish parents, was a badass and did her best. But it was tough and dangerous. My father was such a good dadaí in gaol, even if I was always grieving him. He used to write me every day, telling me stories and funny wee jokes. I kept the letters in a shoebox under my bed.’

Fingertips to paper, soft words in your head

Secret stories hidden under your bed

Oh little daughter hold your head up high

And never be ashamed of me

Always look them in the eye

And I read and I read

Thunder in darkness, head astray

Childhood fear will buckle under the weight

Worried heavy, always alone

But will always love you

To the bone, to the bone

The Ireland-born, US-based Bartlett, notable for his work with artists such as Sufjan Stevens, St. Vincent, Florence Welch and Irish-American supergroup The Gloaming, opted for a stripped-back approach, a sparser but no less rich sound than on the duo’s last album, 2018’s Let The Cards Fall.

Land Of My Other was recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios. ‘I’d sit at the piano not playing very much, just locating the energy and helping to focus it in a way I wanted it to happen,’ says Bartlett. ‘Sometimes I wanted to join in the fun. Stuart’s facility on guitar is astonishing. With that level of musicianship, my main task was simplifying and focusing. So, while Stuart is still playing complicated things, he is anchoring Ríoghnach’s phrasing, which is so wonderfully unfettered. ’

A sound like no other. Glorious and enriching in the same breath.


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