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Songs Of The Week 2023: Take 5

Updated: Feb 4

Neil Morton


FEATURED SONG OF THE WEEK

Albert’s Place: Martyn Joseph

Two of my favourite songs of the year were inspired by the same initiative: BBC Radio 2’s 21st Century Folk. Thea Gilmore’s beautiful She Speaks In Colours was a Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com earlier in the year; now we belatedly sing the praises of Albert’s Place by Welsh troubadour Martyn Joseph.


Joseph bears the gifts of a mellifluous voice and an accomplished guitar style but it is his social conscience, his sense of justice, that elevates him above many singer-songwriters. One verse in particular in Albert’s Place captures his dismay that food banks in this country should far outnumber real banks; that a so-called affluent society should tolerate poverty and be in denial of it.


And the measure of a country’s prosperity

Is not the wealth it holds

But in the absence of poverty and equal opportunity for all


The track chronicles the extraordinary work of Andrea Bell, who, with her fellow volunteers, runs a soup kitchen and food bank in Sunderland which serves the homeless and anyone struggling financially. The cost of living crisis has caused a big increase in demand at the centre which provides food, clothing and shelter. It opened after the nearby church facility was overwhelmed with needy families queueing out of the door.


The project commissioned singers to write new compositions capturing the essence of life in the North-east, a modern take on the classic BBC Radio Ballads created by Charles Parker, Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger during the late 1950s that weaved the voices of working communities with traditional music. ‘I’ve always felt that music can be a big conduit of empathy and hope, and can come alongside us and remind us that we’re not alone in the world,’ said Martyn. ‘If you want to present a picture of a big issue in a song, then find one person within it and tell their story.’

Albert’s Place is named after former owner Albert Gibbons, a butcher and businessman in the city. ‘He used to help families in need by giving them food. Hopefully we are following in his footsteps,’ said Andrea. Joseph’s filmed presentation of the song reduced his subject to tears. ‘It’s incredible to have a song written about us and be part of this time capsule encapsulating life in Sunderland,’ she said. ‘It was great to meet Martyn and we actually went to see one of his concerts. He visited the kitchen and said he was humbled by what he saw.’


Penarth-born Joseph was never going to turn down the opportunity of writing a song about a food bank’s worth. But he told the Lancashire Telegraph: ‘Part of you does think, How the hell am I going to do this? The writing process is in part very mysterious and there’s nothing you can guarantee about it; it’s beyond analysis.


‘Andrea’s a larger than life personality and thankfully there was no awkwardness from the start. I just thought about the best song ever written about homelessness – Ralph McTell’s Streets Of London – and what he’d done with that song. I got Andrea to tell me about the various people she’s helped and the key story was about a lady who was at a church event who was clearly outside the group. Andrea went over and said: Here’s a cup of tea for you with love. That’s such a powerful line it stuck with me.’


With head bowed low she walks on through her city

Rain seeps through the only coat she owns

But on High Street West there’s a place

A place she knows


Albert’s Place has seen it all

The meat and coal when the big ships called

But maybe now its greatest day of all

Brings tea and a cup of love

Tea and a cup of love

Gilmore’s contribution to the project was a moving tribute to the memory of Ellen Raffell. The Oxfordshire songwriter had met Delyth Raffell from Blyth to hear about her extraordinary daughter who died after an acute allergic reaction to a food additive at the age of 16 in 2019. Delyth and her family set up a charity, Ellen’s Gift of Hope, in her honour to support other children who face challenges in life due to health issues, special needs and disabilities. Gilmore described presenting her song to the grieving family as her scariest ever gig. She Speaks In Colours appears on one of our albums of the year, Thea Gilmore, self-titled despite it being her 20th volume of work.


Joseph’s back catalogue comprises 26 albums, the last of which, 1960, is a particular source of pride. ‘It was a far more personal record for me. I suppose that’s because we had lockdown and I sat at home with time on my hands to look a little bit backwards. Also I entered into my seventh decade and I became a grandad. Plus I lost my dad who had Alzheimer’s.’ One of the songs, Shadow Boxing is specifically about that illness (It’s time to call my father, he’ll be sleeping in a chair/ He’d kiss me if he knew me but his mind resides elsewhere). The Art Garfunkel-inspired Born Too Late (I should have gone to Laurel Canyon in 1971/ Could have sung some songs to Joni/ Hung out in the sun/ Born too late/ I was born too late for that) with John Smith on slide is another standout.


In Wales the human rights campaigner and fighter of causes is regarded as a national treasure, a storytelling singer of songs with poignancy as well as political weight. Albert’s Place will appear on album No23, This Is What I Want To Say, along with Folding, another wonderful track aired ahead of the January 12 release. ‘Even though I’m 63 now I feel like I’m on top of my game. I’m still hungry to make my best record ever, I’m still hungry to write that song that will be the defining song, I still want to make the best art I can and I know in my heart that what I’m producing now is the best it’s been.’ Maturing like a fine wine – even if ‘the road ahead is shorter than the one behind’.


Meanwhile, back at the food bank. Albert’s Place, the song, has set a high bar. So has the community hub and its shelter from the storm. Politicians should be invited to watch the video of Albert’s Place; that such a service is so vital shames the nation.


See the pensioner and the veteran

The unemployed, the homeless and the lost

The confused, misused, refused

Gathered here


But you’ll be surprised at who’s beside you

A businessman just wants to feed his kids

A nurse ashamed to cross that line

But arms welcome her


And Albert’s Place has seen it all

The meat and coal and the big ships tall

But maybe now its greatest day of all

Brings tea and a cup of love

Clothes and a cup of love

Shelter and furniture and a cup of love

Humanity in a cup of love


Hope and compassion: a suitable message for Christmas and the new year.


 

Chasing Spirits: Jess Williamson

As an opening line to a song, it was one of the year’s finest: ‘Are my love songs lies now that the love is gone?’ sang Texas-born Jess Williamson in her memorable break-up single, Chasing Spirits. It is our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com. The closing line isn’t so shabby either: ‘Now who is a bigger mystic/ And who’s winning a bar fight?’


We will be writing about our 30 favourite albums of the year after Christmas, and it’s not giving too much away to say the bittersweet Time Ain’t Accidental will be one of them. The Los Angeles-based indie artist devoted much of her fifth studio record to reflect on the impact of a long relationship with a musical partner that had painfully fractured; it’s an alt country road trip that navigates the storms of her own loss, the isolation of the pandemic, her recovery and the hope of a new beginning.


She talked about the track to Stereogum: ‘I don’t think the songs are lies, but I think they change. The thing is, they change as soon as you put them out. Everyone is going to have their own interpretation. In that same vein, the title itself has this double meaning. Chasing Spirits is supernatural, chasing a higher self, trying to connect with other entities and spirits. But it’s also booze, that earthly, carnal thing. You go to the bar and get a shot and a chaser. I think it’s OK for songs to take on a life of their own. I think that’s part of the beauty of it.’


Are my love songs lies now that the love is gone?

There’s the one about forever and loving you in a past life

Or whatever

The difference between us is when I sing it, I really mean it

But I guess I wasn’t listening ’cause you always had the same questions


You’ve been chasing spirits

And staying up all night

You said if you don’t rein it in

You’re shaving ten years off your life

There’s a timeless quality to Williamson’s vocal: we can hear echoes of The Chicks and Linda Ronstadt but also the modern emotional intensity of Courtney Marie Andrews, especially in the raw, soul-baring ballads A Few Seasons (‘How I did accommodate and get so small/ Stepped so far out of the way, now nothing’s there at all’) and the piano-led Stampede, a farewell letter to her old flame (‘We hit like a stampede, them cows just runnin’ from a ghost/ In the dark off the back deck of where I loved you the most’).


Williamson’s style is deliciously conversational, more confident and emphasising the benefits of her collaboration with Katie Crutchfield, aka Waxahatchee, in their Plains project. If she had been worried about writing solo, her doubts were misplaced: ‘I learned that less is more and that sometimes the best songwriting is the most simple and straightforward.’ Her lyrics have observational depth, a searing honesty and a keen wit. ‘My love is as pure as the universe,’ she sings on Hunter, ‘Honest as an ashtray.’


Multi-instrumentalist Brad Cook, who had produced for Plains, was on board again and encouraged her to keep the iPhone app drum machine beats she had programmed for some of her demos as she travelled far and wide during the silence of the pandemic, then blended them with banjo, dobro, piano and Deshawn Hickman’s divine steel guitar for Time Ain’t Accidental.


The quirky title track, about a whirlwind liaison, and Roads, where she found a more promising romance in Marfa, Texas, were the last songs she wrote for the record. She told Stereogum: ‘They bookend this whole difficult, winding road that it took to land at the final outcome, with this new partnership and living in two places I love. Roads is a very hopeful song (Find what’s freely given/ Real love’ll come to you). In life, it can be easy to grasp for things, to chase things, to want things. My experience was that you can just sit back and real love will come to you. It’s not something you need to beg for. If you’re just living your life and being a version of yourself that you respect, you’re going to end up in the right place at the right time.


‘I wanted to end the record with Roads because it’s this hopeful image. I picture this road going off as far as the eye can see, with clear skies ahead. There’s no certainty, no one knows what the future holds. But it’s a way to end the album on a high note. We went through the highs and lows of this experience together, me and the listener. We can trust that the timing was no accident and things are going to work out.’


Williamson says her voice feels different now, liberated. And we are the beneficiaries. Talent ain’t accidental.

 

Couldn’t Wish More For You: Roseanne Reid

Steve Earle knows a good songwriter when he hears one. The Texan troubadour has championed the cause of Scottish-born Roseanne Reid since her first appearance at his Camp Copperhead songwriting workshop in 2014. Couldn’t Wish More For You is our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com. You couldn’t wish for a lovelier sentiment.


We mightn’t walk 500 miles to hear Reid sing but it would certainly be worth the drive. Couldn’t Wish More For You is from her second album Lawside. The daughter of The Proclaimers’ Craig Reid has released a record that leans more to folk than Americana but we could imagine her wowing the audience at the Bluebird Café in Nashville, evoking the style of a young Gillian Welch or Patty Griffin with the accent as much Celtic as Appalachian.


Leith-born, Edinburgh-raised Reid is now settled in Dundee where she lives with her wife and their young son. He wasn’t born when these songs were written but our song choice, first aired as a New Year message in December, 2018, and featuring on an earlier EP, could be viewed as a heart-tugging ode to his future self.


‘I didn’t really have anyone specific in mind when I wrote it, more just the people I love generally,’ she tells me. ‘Over the years as I’ve sung it, it’s taken on new meaning. Now with my son here, it encapsulates all I want for him in his life. It’s a warm song, it’s written from a place of hope and it’s the one many people have sent me beautiful messages about. I love hearing how this song has played a part in their story. That’s what makes life amazing as a songwriter.’


Because of the pandemic, Reid couldn’t promote her debut offering Trails as widely as she would have liked, so she kept on writing. With a baby on the way, you can feel the love flowing through an album dedicated to his arrival. ‘This album just sounds much more self-assured throughout,’ she told Americana UK. ‘I’ve been a bit bolder with the vocals. With Trails, they were blended a bit more, and this time they’re front and centre. I feel that bit more confident with my voice.’


Trails was produced in a five-day flurry in Brooklyn with Teddy Thompson at the helm. Lawside, named after the Dundee district where she has taken root, was almost a home-made affair, recorded in Perth, with producer, musician and fellow Scot David Macfarlane. ‘Dave owns the studio in Perth, so he’s the engineer there as well. He’s a multi-talented guy, and a multi-instrumentalist, so he played on the album as well. It’s fantastic to have someone like that just down the road.


‘We started it at the tail end of that time when people were still unsure about being in the same room together, and masks were still a thing. So, we did it in segments. I’ve been in the studio a dozen times over the past few months, just layering instruments, and vocals and guitar as a foundation.


‘It’s been a much more prolonged process, but that’s worked well for me, especially with the wee one. It’s meant I’ve not had to be away for the whole week. I can commit to a half day here and a half day there, so it’s more manageable for family life.’

Graham Coe’s cello heightens the emotion of Couldn’t Wish More For You, a track of simple majesty. Many of the songs are odes to her partner, but this one appears to extend a welcome to the boy to be:


May you relate to the world through the eyes of a child

May you leave your yesterdays to the passing miles

And may you find your horizon when the sea turns wild

And I couldn’t wish more for you

I couldn’t wish more for you...


May the mountains marvel at the size of your heart

May your soul only settle for the highest star

Yeah, I hope you find peace wherever you are

And I couldn’t wish more for you


The joy of All My Days, enhanced by Owen Nicholson’s pedal steel, about life before motherhood and the early days of it, contrasts with the fraught emotions of Shine On, Reid’s reaction to the tragic death of television presenter Caroline Flack. 


We love the album’s opener, All I Need, with harmonies and acoustic guitar from Rory Butler, Coe on cello and Macfarlane on violin; the Earle-esque Til Kingdom Come whose lingering refrain begs participation; and the glorious What Constitutes A Sin with that cracked country delivery to the fore.


The latter is a particular favourite, a courageous inclusion by Reid for its powerful, soul-bearing lyric. ‘It’s a hugely personal song,’ she says. ‘There are some themes in there that I haven’t written about before. I was very nervous putting it on the album because it hits really close to the bone. I think essentially it’s just a cathartic song for me, in which I face down my own demons. It’s digging up some old stuff and mixing it with new vulnerabilities. Although I’m proud of it, I do feel really exposed having it out there.’


Well baby I’m just dying to know what constitutes a sin

Is it the killing in your smile or the red dress on your skin

‘Cos I was happy in my life and then you walked on in

So baby I’m just dying to know what constitutes a sin


Dad will not be surprised at his daughter’s achievements and neither will Earle, for whom she opened on tour this year and who sang with her on Trails song Sweet Annie. She has not traded on the fame of either guru. The quality of Lawside, nominated for UK Americana album of the year, proves that she doesn’t have to. Her talent does all the proclaiming.

 

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 herecomesthesong.com, 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 herecomesthesong.com, 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 herecomesthesong.com 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 herecomesthesong.com, 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 herecomesthesong.com 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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