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Songs Of The Week 2024: Take 1

Neil Morton


Giving: Cara Dillon

In my pocket, I found from you A handful of our memories

Cara Dillon’s mother, now 92, drummed into her children the importance of giving. It was her gift. And Giving, a stunning track from the Northern Irish singer’s new album Coming Home, is our Song Of The Week at We should really say poem-song; it is part spoken, part sung like the rest of a highly personal project accompanied by a book of poetry, lyrics and anecdotes with family snapshots of her humble ancestral home in Dungiven, Co Derry.

Dillon modestly refers to her poetry as scribblings, thoughts and observations jotted down in a journal during the surreal silence of the first lockdown. She would rise at four in the morning and sit in the garden writing, accompanied by the dawn chorus. Rarely can scribblings have held such significance.

She and her husband and musical partner Sam Lakeman were hunkered down with their children in Somerset – Frome from home – denied concert tours and the usual trips to her Irish roots. They never imagined Cara’s notes would lead to what she regards as her finest achievement of a 25-year career, their first release of entirely original material. The pull of home and the power of connection, identity and community course through an album in which Dillon extends her status as one of the most beautiful vocalists in folk, probably in any genre, to include her speaking voice.

‘I was thinking of my mother, who is an incredible character,’ she told Mark Radcliffe’s BBC 2 Radio Folk Show. ‘She always insisted that visitors should never leave empty-handed or we should never go anywhere without bringing something. It was always a bit of a pantomime but it was lovely of her. It’s easy for us all to just take, take, take.’ As the song says: Give anything, but give: hand-tied flowers from the garden, soda scones or a simple loaf.

Feathers found in the forest

A cross made of rushes

A stick, weathered, not broken

Give anything, but give

A penny from your pocket

Hair for the locket

A book, dog-eared and tired

That might just hold a mystery unfolded

Dillon writes in her book: ‘These words are both cloak and blanket, providing reassurance and giving me purpose in the moments when I am lost, and helping me teach my own children that, no matter how small the offering or how fleeting the moment, there is beauty to be found in keeping others in your heart and mind.’

The song chimes with my own family experience. Our grandchildren love to slip sticks and stones they’ve randomly found into our coat pockets, a far healthier option than the sweets we guiltily ply them with. Dillon then switches to her celestial singing voice to deliver the following stanzas…

In my pocket I found from you

The sweetest treasures wrapped in leaves

We followed the trail into the light

And searched the forest far and wide

And all the while, side by side

Gathering our scattered thoughts

You have my heart, what will I do?

For now we’re coming home

Echoes there of the equally spellbinding title track, Coming Home, a wish-you-were-here message to the singer from her late father in Derry when she was feeling homesick on tour in New Zealand 20-odd years ago:

The smell of the sea will bring you round

And we’ll dig out those songs you used to sing

And the books tidied away now

For it’s nothing but joy they bring

And you’ll scatter their words to the wind

You can almost sense the generations passing through like clouds. Co-writer and producer Lakeman’s piano playing is as exquisite here as his guitar accompaniment on Giving. The fiddle of Duncan Chisholm, the cello of Caroline Lavelle and Nick Pini’s electric and double bass deepen the textures. The delicacy of the players, who include Mike McGoldrick and his haunting uilleann pipes, can be as tear-inducing as Dillon’s vocal chords.

Like the folk tradition itself, Dillon is eager to honour history and her place in it. That objective is achieved in Clear The Path, inspired by a literal clearing of the path during lockdown. It is a metaphor for paying homage to those who came before, such as the grandmother she never knew who was a wonderful singer of traditional songs herself. Like grandmother like granddaughter; another hallowed hand-me-down.

We are the daughters

Of women that we will become

The trailblazers whose lives will never be done

For they stood on this self-same soil

Buried the seeds that germinated, birthed and fed

A new generation of tiny intricacies

Forgotten family traits and oft-remembered eyes

And hidden talents that reveal themselves

At the strangest of times

Speak of them

Search for them

For they are true

Fittingly, Dillon’s 13-year-old daughter Elizabeth adds divine harmonies here, as she does on the gorgeous track Daughter, an ode not just to her but to the twin brothers born prematurely at 26 weeks after Cara went into labour on stage. It took three months before mum and dad were allowed to take the boys home. ‘We’ve been waiting for you for a long time.’ Noah and Colm are 17 now and flourishing.

It must have been daunting to take to the stage to read and sing after plucking up the courage to present her poetry to those closest to her. Accomplished musician Sam’s eyes must have lit up at this new adventure of possibilities. ‘It’s the most authentic and honest creative material Cara has ever written,’ Lakeman told the Irish Independent. ‘At the very least, we were thinking we should print the poems into pamphlet and have them at the gigs. And then, it was a case of: Should we not make it into an album?’ And for months it was like: No, it’s the worst creative decision to make a spoken-word recorded music album. But then Cara started speaking over one of the riffs I was playing in the kitchen and we just looked at each other. This works.’

Path-clearing and ground-breaking. Dillon has always loved talking and reading and feels confident and comfortable weaving the oral and the melodic. After all she comes from a musical family of storytellers. We feel honoured to hear her stories.


Is It Like Today? World Party

In the not over-populated land of intelligent, thought-provoking pop songs World Party’s Is It Like Today? glows brightly. World Party was the solo project of the extravagantly gifted Karl Wallinger who has died at 66. Is It Like Today? is our Song Of The Week at, a dedication to a master of melody.

Wallinger was not simply a Sixties revivalist; the music he created criss-crossed the genres, most of it timeless. His love of The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Stones, Dylan, Prince, Bowie, Sly Stone and Motown was clear but the way he synthesised those influences was a joy to the ears and our dancing feet. The chorus on Is It Like Today? from the 1993 album Bang! lifts the spirits as high as many a track by his heroes.

Many years ago

He looked out through a glassless window

All that he could see was Babylon

Beautiful green fields and dreams

And learn to measure the stars

But there was a worry in his heart

He said

How could it come to this?

I’m really worried about living

How could it come to this?

Yeah, I really wanna know about this

‘I’m not retro,’ he told the Guardian’s Graeme Thompson in 2012. ‘I’m writing songs about now – in fact, the songs I wrote back then are even more relevant now. I wasn’t trying to be ahead of the curve, I was just writing about things that seemed obvious to me at the time, and we still haven’t done anything about it.’

Some of us were late to World Party and have been catching up ever since. It was that Dylanesque delivery, a political bite many sadly avoid and his McCartney-style gift for infectious melodies that captured the imagination. Debut album Private Revolution contained the classic Ship Of Fools and hits from the lauded Goodbye Jumbo such as Put The Message In The Box and Thank You World served to confirm he was an eco-warrior way ahead of his time.

Avarice and greed are gonna drive you over the endless sea

They will leave you drifting in the shallows

Or drowning in the oceans of history

Travelling the world, you’re in search of no good

But I’m sure you’ll build your Sodom like you knew you would

Using all the good people for your galley slaves

As your little boat struggles through the warning waves

But you will pay

You will pay tomorrow

You’re gonna pay tomorrow

Save me, save me from tomorrow

I don’t want to sail with this ship of fools, no, no, no

The green message of Ship Of Fools chimed with fellow environment crusader Peter Gabriel who said: ‘I had admired his work from afar but it was when we did a Real World recording week together that I had the most creative and fun week I have ever had in the studio… He was such a gifted, natural writer and player, it was a tap he could turn on at will, effortlessly. Like many a great comic and many great musicians, melancholy was strong in the mix, but his charm, humility, intelligence and razor-sharp wit made him great company.’ Mike Scott, his old cohort in The Waterboys in the Eighties (what a formidable alliance that was), called him ‘one of the finest musicians I’ve ever known’.

Britpop and Oasis were not yet a phenomenon so it is difficult to fathom why the North Wales-born multi-instrumentalist’s stock wasn’t higher despite Goodbye Jumbo being a wall-to-wall soundtrack to the early Nineties. The delicious piano-led ballad She’s The One on 1997’s Egyptology was a UK No1 for Robbie Williams two years later. We prefer the unvarnished, less syrupy original but how many people knew who had written the subsequent Brit Awards single of the year?

The brain aneurysm Wallinger suffered in 2001 – he had to relearn how to play guitar and piano – slowed down his career. There was lingering resentment over that cover of She’s The One and the perceived clandestine activity of its recording: ‘The song had a much better time than me, popping off to the Brits while I was at home eating crackers dipped in water. But thank God they did record it. It kept me and the family in spaghetti when I was ill and couldn’t work.’

His band were back in action in 2006 and performed in 2015; there was a five-CD retrospective Arkeology in 2012 and a further tour planned to promote a new album in 2022. But the peak was a view of the past for the music student classically trained in piano and oboe at Eton and Charterhouse.

Mojo magazine, in memory of Wallinger, revisited an interview published in 2021 in which the musician recalled receiving advice on melody and harmony from Beatles guru George Martin: ‘I came out of there like Billy Bunter leaving a sweet shop. You have to remember that George was the steroids that made The Beatles go Boom!’

As Wallinger’s band name suggested, his was a world view, art applied with a broad brush. Is It Like Today? cleverly explores universal questions. The jaunty song was described wryly by its author as ‘a précis of Bertrand Russell’s A History Of Western Philosophy in four verses’.

Then there came a day

Man packed up, flew off from the planet

He went to the moon

To the moon

Now he’s out in space, hey, fixing all the problems

He comes face to face with God

He says

How could it come to this?

I’m really worried about my creation

How did it come to this?

You’re really killing me you know

Wallinger said in that Mojo interview: ‘Music is the greatest thing for me, because it takes me somewhere that it’s safe to be.’ How could it come to this? Rest in peace, Karl. World peace, you never know.


Drive: Susan O’Neill

Irish indie folk songwriter Susan O’Neill’s latest single, Drive, grips you from its throbbing intro and opening line: I am an honest kind of liar. Our Song Of The Week at is a soul-baring catalogue of contradictions.

O’Neill, from Ennis in Co Clare, says the lyric ‘fell out of my mouth and on to the page in one brief sitting’. Short and bittersweet.

I’m a daughter and a dreamer

A stranger and a friend

The loser and a winner

’Til bitter be the end

I’ve got nothing to hide about

And I don't believe what you tell me

‘I’m beginning to pour my heart out again. I’m trying to be more honest with myself,’ she explains. ‘If I can know my own chaos, chill with it, wear it like a parade of paradoxes this would be me trying that on.’

She wears chaos well. The Christopher Luke-edited video is deliberately in your face, part of the disarming shedding of armour. ‘I shot the video, all in black and white, and all handheld in my locality, in many cases. The angle is up in a nostril and not necessarily flattering. It is honest.’

Courageous self-reflection, and not a mask in sight. O’Neill, who rose to prominence with her collaboration with celebrated Irishman Mick Flannery on the duets album In The Game, tells us she is ‘a roamer and a seeker, addicted to the highs’… ‘a trojan horse, a slow divorce, the habit that you feed’. Her emotions can’t be toyed with, she informs someone who thought she wouldn’t notice.

I’m a limit of my making

I’m a passion of my crime

And I’m falling short, the lazy sort

I fail a thousand times

She doesn’t fail with this engaging track, recorded in Cork. Apart from that beguiling vocal, soulful with a hint of rasp, the multi-instrumentalist plays guitar, trumpet, harmonica and whistle while also employing loop pedal techniques. Musicians include producer Christian Best and band brothers Cillian and Lorcan Byrne. Engineer Cian Riordan (St Vincent, Lana Del Rey, Sleater-Kinney) handled the mixing.

Drive marks O’Neill’s first music since her impressive 2022 EP, Now You See It, from which we chose the brooding Meet Me In The Silence for an earlier Song Of The Week. The title track won her the RTE 1 Folk Award for Best Original Folk Song. She performed mesmerisingly when we caught her on tour at London’s Slaughtered Lamb last year.

Her website biography refers to ‘a songwriter of hidden depths, a timeless voice that is equal parts balm and blowtorch’. On Drive O’Neill turns the blowtorch on herself; one trusts the effect is cathartic. The closing refrain sounds like a celebration of hard-won positivity. Noir folk has found the light.


Cashmere Grey: George Boomsma

Make a note of the name: George Boomsma. 2024 could be a breakthrough year for the singer-songwriter from Northallerton, North Yorkshire. His latest single, Cashmere Grey, is our Song Of The Week at, the first shoots of his first full album The Promise of Spring. Boomsma is blooming.

The album, due out on April 18, is dedicated to brother Tom, a reflection on grief and loss, comprising eight beautifully crafted songs that demonstrate Boomsma’s versatility as both a composer and a musician. It presents an upgrade sonically from previous releases, with his highly affecting voice and finger-style wizardry now accompanied by a full band whose understated but sweeping production elevates the music to new heights.

There are obvious comparisons with the late Nick Drake, which we feel sure Boomsma would welcome. The sensitive but self-assured vocal and accomplished guitar are a captivating combination; the mood is melancholic but never maudlin on this sombre morning. He has been mentioned in the same sentence as Thom Yorke and Fleet Foxes but his jazz-infused creations with their eloquent lyrics are just as redolent of the avant garde folk of the Sixties and Seventies.

A fleeting beat, an urge to follow

In the mid of winter’s rain and snow

A silent cry filled with sorrow

’Tis the season of men so low

It is all I can to save from a morning’s cashmere grey

I will hide my inhibitions

From the family and all friends

As I seethe my own reflection

A brother’s welcome, the monthly trend

It is all I can to save from a morning’s cashmere grey

We were first alerted to Boomsma’s talent by his 2019 collaborations with the wonderful Katherine Priddy; that alliance continues impressively on the Birmingham-born singer’s recent album The Pendulum Swing, Boomsma co-writing a couple of songs and contributing guitar and backing vocals. An album of duets must surely be among their plans.

Priddy told Mark Radcliffe on his BBC radio Folk Show how she had searched for the right male voice to harmonise with for some time and knew she had found it when she heard Boomsma sing at a concert in Durham. Some support act. Just listen to their country waltz Ready To Go and you appreciate Priddy’s eureka moment; despite the similarity of register, their voices dovetail divinely.

The imaginative Cashmere Grey features Boomsma on acoustic guitar and bass, Ally McDougal on drums, Will Looms on tasteful, tasty electric guitar, Adam Ridley on Wurlitzer and Harry Fausing Smith on strings and arrangements. Elsewhere the multi-instrumentalist reveals further strings to his bow: piano and percussion. The physical copies of the album include short extracts of his childhood family recordings, adding to the overall sense of nostalgia and underlining the deeply personal nature of this set of songs.

Boomsma’s earlier EPs Chinatown and What’s Left Behind were four-track showcases for his gifts, enhanced by a string quartet, and The Promise Of Spring promises an even richer soundscape. We were treated to radio edits of two of the new tracks late last year: the intriguing Fallen and Lily Of The Nile.

Apart from Priddy, Boomsma has played alongside Richard Thompson, Kathryn Williams, Gaby Moreno, Chloe Foy and Scott Matthews, and his guitar dexterity will adorn Hannah Scott’s upcoming album. Mark Radcliffe closed out last week’s Folk Show with the new track, describing the Birmingham-based musician as a skilled guitarist, distinctive songwriter and fine singer. Cashmere quality, we might add.


Colour Of The Rain: Oisín Leech

The last concert I attended before Covid struck featured Irish alt-folk duo The Lost Brothers. We would all feel a little lost shortly after that but the soothing sound of their 2020 album, After The Fire After The Rain, was a comforting companion during those dark days. Our Song Of The Week at is Colour Of The Rain, an evocative new composition by one half that duo, Oisín Leech, from his debut solo album Cold Sea, due out on March 8.

The song, and the rest of the album, was recorded in an old schoolhouse overlooking Trawbreaga Bay in Malin, Co Donegal, on the northern coast of Ireland. Leech and Brooklyn producer Steve Gunn remodelled the building as a studio, Gunn contributing subtle synths alongside Bob Dylan’s old bass-playing cohort Tony Garnier, guitarist M. Ward, bouzouki player Dónal Lunny and fiddler Roisín McGrory.

‘Colour of The Rain maps out the chapters of my life so far as a songwriter, living for periods in Liverpool, Dublin, London, San Francisco and Naples,’ says the Navan musician. ‘I picked up the guitar at 3am one night and it was tuned very strangely, so I went with that. This melody came to me, then I spent quite a while writing the lyric. The song plays out like a very clear film in my head.

‘My aim with the album was to write a collection of songs that told a complete story, and to record them near the ocean, using the sea as a kind of mirror for the songs. I definitely think that wherever you record a song, the atmosphere of that day will find its way into the track. I spent weeks writing Colour Of The Rain, maybe longer, with each verse addressing a stage in my life. It touches on forgiveness; looking at the past and moving on.’

A sweetly strummed and tenderly sung meditation on life’s highs and lows is enriched by Garnier’s gorgeous double bass. Leech’s moving mood music has always been guided by the landscape around him, as portrayed in the shifting scenery in the video directed by Evan Lewis and in the stunning album artwork by Sinéad Smyth. Leech is a Seamus Heaney devotee, and the inspiration is clear in the poetic lyric…

Fast come the healing days

When pleas of grace are made

Trapped by the northern light

It’s flooding through my mind

I saw leaves of gold burn on the lane

I saw seven years pass in a blaze

I heard a lonesome drum

Out in the northern sun

The water’s carpentry

It cut the open sea I sailed an arc of high betrayal

I stood the hardened light in vain

And the colour of the rain

The colour of the rain

The endless colour of the rain

Is all that now remains

There is a graceful melancholy about many of Leech’s songs but they are invariably sustained by hope; here the healing days provide solace amid the endless rain. The first single to be unveiled from the album was October Sun, released that very month last year. ‘This song is visual,’ said Leech. ‘It’s a journey, a travelogue. The refrain is a lament pleading with nature, asking what have you done?’

Fans of the Lost Brothers and haunting gems such as Fugitive Moon, a former Song Of The Week here, can rest assured about the future despite the solo offerings by Leech and fellow Lostie Mark McCausland. The Co Tyrone musician recently released a collection of instrumentals entitled Notes From The Boneyard Vol 1 with his side project McKowski. ‘We’d always had other little things going, so it’s nice to do other things now and then come back to the Losties,’ said Leech. ‘I think it kind of freshens everything up for the next Losties album.’

Lunny, who will join Leech on a short tour to air the new material in the company of Gunn and McGrory, read our thoughts when he commented: ‘Oisín’s new music is mesmeric – and completely immersive. His songs make you feel good about life and that’s what music should do.’ Hear, hear.


Does She Hold You Like I Did: Katherine Priddy

A track that might never have been heard, at least in its present majesty, is our Song Of The Week at Birmingham-born songwriter Katherine Priddy did not know what to do with her bittersweet lost-love song Does She Hold You Like I Did until it was transformed out of the blue.

‘We were sitting in the studio listening to the demo when my manager said: I reckon this could sound a bit western. It was a lightbulb moment,’ she explains. ‘My mum has always been a big fan of western films, so we often had Ennio Morricone soundtrack cassettes and CDs in the car. I love the brass and expansive atmospheres of his arrangements that conjure up the drama and dangerous beauty of the desert wastes. We’ve tried to channel a little bit of that with Marcus Hamblett’s trumpets, Harry Fausing Smith’s strings and the driving percussion and finger-picking guitar that send the song galloping into the empty desert of heartbreak and desire.’

The spaghetti western orchestration cradles the song’s heartfelt sentiments. But it is Priddy’s exquisite voice, so precise yet vulnerable, that distinguishes her second album The Pendulum Swing. Over a set of songs about the magnetism of home, the value of family, loss and regret, and the nectar of nostalgia, she achieves a remarkable intimacy. Like a whispered confidence in the listener’s ear.

The English literature graduate’s love of language, as evidenced on her extraordinarily mature 2021 debut album, The Eternal Rocks Beneath, takes a subtle change of direction. With Simon Weaver again at the production helm, the new record navigates a world closer to home than the mythology and classical allusions of her first full offering.

Does She Hold You Like I Did, one of three singles previewing the album, is lacking only punctuation, therefore the question must be rhetorical…

So I lose myself in reading books but never reach the end

And I try to find quick fixes but these fixes don’t quite mend…

Oh and darling when the sheets grow vines around you

In the middle of the night

Does she hold you like I did?

Does she wrap those dreams up tight?

‘Cause I’ll tell myself you miss me until I believe it’s true

You’re a thousand miles away tonight,

But all I see is you

‘I’ve poured so much of myself into this collection of songs, and whilst this album feels incredibly personal in so many ways, I am so happy that these tracks will now find new homes and new meanings and new stories with you,’ she says. ‘With a strong theme of home, family and nostalgia running through it, I wanted this album to feel lived in. Something you can enter, make yourself at home, inhabit for a while, leave and return to as many times as you wish.’ We shall return.

The album is bookended by two instrumentals, Returning and Leaving. What we hear in between is worth staying around for. Particularly the eloquent First House On The Left, a meditation on the home she grew up in, said goodbye to and kept returning to: ‘Is this where they slept on the way to the jail?/ Or the shop where the lady had sweeties for sale?/ Or is this just the nest that was emptied by war?/ Or the room where the next generation was born?’). A fine lyric that teases out the album title.

‘It describes the urge to leave and the even stronger urge to return – something I’ve felt a lot in recent few years as I’ve tried to carve out a corner for myself elsewhere, but always found myself wandering back, craving the comfort and nostalgia of the past. I wanted this song and the album to feel lived in, and this is captured in part by the ghostly atmospheres, mechanical clockwork sounds, creaking floorboards, indistinct whispers and old tape recordings of my family that are littered throughout.’

On Anyway, Always, a composition of quiet longing and gentle regret, we hear a phone ringing and an answerphone clicking in as Priddy tries to communicate with an old flame: ‘How was I supposed to know/ That you were never mine to keep/ And the feelings you awakened/ Were never meant to get this deep/ We’re two ships passing at night/ A moment, a trick of the light’. These Words Of Mine, with John Smith again on gorgeous guitar, tells of a disintegrating relationship: ‘All of these words and you’ve none left for me/ Just unspoken sentences lost to a breeze’.

Her collaboration with George Boomsma, in a writing and vocal capacity, is fruitful, their voices dovetailing delightfully and acoustic guitars excelling on Northern Sunrise and the country waltz Ready To Go. Northern Sunrise contains perhaps her most poetic line: ‘We don’t fall in love, we rise/ Like the dawn burns slow’.

Father Of Two is an ode to dad that, after an intro of voices when she and her twin brother were three, paints a poignant picture of a loving family: ‘And though there were times when tides were low/ It’s good to know that eight strong legs/ Trod water through it all’. Walnut Shell is closely related, dedicated to her New Zealand-bound brother. The pendulum swings dream-like from past to present.

In an earlier era Priddy could have fronted Pentangle or auditioned for Fairport Convention; a duet with Nick Drake, whose songs she has covered, would have been a lovely thing. Richard Thompson and Vashti Bunyan are among her admirers, and BBC radio DJ Guy Garvey has championed her music. So much so she will be supporting Elbow at Ludlow Castle in July. A throwback with a glistening future.


Mirror, Mirror: Olivia Chaney

Olivia Chaney’s bejewelled collection of sophisticated ballads has an exquisite new addition. The reflective Mirror, Mirror, our Song Of The Week at, was inspired by Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1975 movie Mirror.

In fact the film, in which a dying man’s dreams about his past tell the story of Russia’s history, was among the motivational tools behind the whole of Chaney’s third solo album, Circus Of Desire, recorded in New York City with long-time collaborator and producer Thomas Bartlett and scheduled for release on March 22.

Chaney gave us a fascinating insight into the creative process: ‘I finished the lyric for this song, marching happily every morning from the cold basement flat of a painter-sculptor-hoarder, where I was staying on the cheap with my family, to the bosom of Thomas’s comfortable, comforting studio in midtown New York. Tarkovsky’s Mirror was just one of many beautiful, intense movies Thomas played silently in the background whilst we made the record – his new trick for helping unlock the songwriter’s unconscious, much like the therapeutic couch.

‘I’d never written in quite this way before and I love the freshness and freedom that I don’t always find in writing where I’m more certain. Perhaps there’s a more primal universality to it for that? Or, at least more mystery and hidden meanings that are open to interpretation. The song has an uncanny quality when I listen to it – as if someone else wrote it for me!’

The beguiling song begins with a question: ‘Why are we drawn to those who suffer the same woes?’ Chaney guides us towards the answer…

Walk beside me

Hand in hand

Don’t be afraid

To tread this ground

Feel how

It’s magnetised

In harmony, in shadow

If we embrace these two halves

Become whole, the wrongs can right

Mirror, Mirror muses on the idea that opposites attract and deep love can be an antidote to trauma and loss…

Mirror, mirror

Reflecting past

Heal the echo of our hearts

The sorrow,

Sorrow and hope

Loss cannot

Be quantified

As emptiness or void

But more like

A tapestry

We wear through our lives

The 10 original tracks and one cover, a reimagining of Dory Previn’s haunting Lady With The Braid, have been five years in the making (Covid and motherhood account for the hiatus) and mark Chaney’s songwriting liberation as she draws on real-life experiences with a universal theme. The album features cameos from a cast of friends, including string arrangements by Nico Muhly, banjo and guitar from Sam Amidon and multi-instrumentalist Bartlett himself.

Florence-born Chaney grew up in Oxford and studied at London’s Royal Academy of Music. Circus Of Desire is her first record since 2018’s acclaimed, Barlett-produced Shelter whose enchanting title track was a Song Of The Week on this website. She decamped from London to Yorkshire, married and had two children. Chaney wrote Shelter in a crumbling 18th-century cottage after a long spell on the road. ‘I was struggling with the grit and loneliness of urban life,’ she said at the time. ‘I think I’d been questioning what home, belonging, a sense of purpose, and my own culture even meant. I’d been craving wilderness and a return to essentials for a long time.’ Solitude brought a rich reward.

Classically trained but not classically constrained, Chaney plays guitar, piano and harmonium but her voice is her greatest asset, soulful despite its implausible purity, ‘as fragile as the mist of a breath on a mirror’, as one critic put it. While exploring a range of styles from dance to pop, she remains faithful to her folk roots.

Mirror, Mirror is the third single to be unveiled from the forthcoming album following the inventive title track about the carnival of life (‘We’re all in a dance with death, with fire… we’re all in a circus of desire’) and To The Lighthouse about her sister who also escaped from the capital to live on a remote island.

Chaney concludes our song choice as if in celebration of her more self-assured, risk-taking self…

Take a chance

To make believe

Ensure the dream, the dream is

Exactly where

You want to be

‘I went to New York feeling I was delving into the unknown and that’s what I wanted. The result is an album of songs that are truer to the breadth of my influences and roots, and a special depiction of where I’ve come to in my life – the looking back and the looking forward. I can’t wait to get out and play this new material live.’ And we cannot wait to hear them. London’s Union Chapel awaits in June.


It’s A Fine Thing: Martyn Joseph

When Welsh troubadour Martyn Joseph was asked by his son and future wife to perform a song at the wedding, he thought they probably had something by Ed Sherin in mind. Joseph replied that he wasn’t really a wedding singer but that he would write a new song for the occasion. It’s A Fine Thing is our Song Of The Week at Lumps in throats at the reception.

As the Penarth-born singer-songwriter told us at London’s Bush Hall at the end of his UK tour, the song’s title had an unlikely inspiration: the fine, fine thing reference echoes ‘a far, far better thing that I do’ in the execution scene from At Tale Of Two Cities. Fortunately, the rest of the romantic song, like most of Joseph’s work, is full of hope and love.

May your ocean find calm as it hits the sand

May love place wisdom in the palm of your hand

May you always know peace in the crash of your day

Let every blessing flow your way…

It’s a fine, fine thing that you’re doing

It’s a fine fine thing that you do

This day has been coming, it’s ready for you

And it’s a fine fine thing, that you do

Two souls on a journey, no more delay

It won’t always be as easy as it was today

But all who have gathered, we stand with you all the way

Family and roots mean everything to Joseph, who lost his father not long before he and his wife Justine welcomed a new child into the world, a dad again at 63. ‘I’m the Ronnie Wood of folk music,’ he jokes. Makes a change from the Welsh Springsteen. His last album, the outstanding 60, came three years ago, his perspective of the world over the decades. The new album, This Is What I Want To Say, the 27th of a 40-year career, is more personal and concerns the now.

The opening track, the poignant Folding, refers to those two most momentous events with a wonderful line: ‘A vast goodbye and a small hello’. It is a song of loss, ageing and doubts about faith but defiance and optimism in the face of daunting reality. He may be ‘folding like a kite that’s lost the wind’ but he remains determined to ‘surrender to the promise of this day’.

Joseph has produced a plethora of memorable couplets but he is not too proud to enlist the lyrical skills of working poets for his songs as in the gorgeous Waiting For The Rain with Patrick Jones about a Welsh welcome for refugees (‘For we are all transported from somewhere/ Brought in by the breeze from sea to shore’) and the melodically ingenious Don’t Need No Cathedral with Martin Wroe, a celebration of the wonders of nature and humanity (‘All that we hold, holds everything else/ And it’s more than the sum of its parts/ You’re holding me, I hold you/ The infinite shape of our hearts’). Joseph’s exquisite guitar playing is showcased on the latter with Liz Hanks’ moving cello enhancing the former.

I’d Take You Out is the lone vitriolic exception to the all-you-need-is-love vibe. Putin is not named in the angry track but he has to be the loathed tyrant, the ‘thief of millions of lives’, Joseph is calling out. ‘For you I can’t find mercy in my soul/ And if I could I would leave it well alone/ My blood’s on fire, I have no doubt/ I’d lose my soul, but I’d take you out’.

Beyond the eloquent ballads at Bush Hall, there was light and shade, the reflective and the rumbustious. The timeless favourite Here Come The Young, with its infectious call-and-response, should be re-released as a single for each generation. He urges his children and grandchildren to make the world a better place; a rallying call for the present and the future. All his pet themes are here: bigotry, political corruption, social injustice, immigration and conservation.

Tired of assassination

Tired of military threat

Tired of the talk of trickle down

And they’re tired of crippling debt

Tired of corporations

Tired of broken trust

Tired of being slaughtered

And then dreams that turn to rust

Here come the young

With open minds and hearts

Inclusive from the start

Here come the young

Here come the young

They might just save the day

You’d best get out the way

Here come the young

For this observer, the sentiment of It’s A Fine Thing recalls those classic tracks by Bob Dylan and John Martyn: Forever Young and May You Never…

May the sky hold your laughter, let grace be your view

May the courage of your mothers reside deep in you

May your hope never fade or lie in the shallows for long

May the path rise before you to a house that knows peace

May you always listen to each others heartbeat

May empathy flow and guide you home every day

May empathy flow: those words could be an epitaph. Albert’s Place, our Song Of The Week in December about a food bank and soup kitchen run by a Sunderland woman and her volunteers, is probably the best example of his compassion. For Joseph activism and music go hand in hand. A campaigner of humanitarian causes, he and his wife founded a grass-roots non-profit organisation called Let Yourself Trust in 2014, supporting projects for the needy across the world. Some £650,000 has been raised through the Welshman’s music for ‘beautiful people in powerless situations’.

Joseph dedicates You’re Still Here to Justine who plays piano on the short but sweet closing track Without You. It’s a fine, fine thing that they’re doing.


Columbus & 89th: Sarah Jarosz

A love letter to New York City and the life Sarah Jarosz left behind provides our Song Of The Week at The beautifully simple Columbus & 89th appears on the Texas-born songwriter’s seventh studio album, Polaroid Lovers, a snapshot of a deeply meaningful chapter.

Jarosz made the bold move of collaborating more with other songwriters – producer Daniel Tashian, Ruston Kelly, Natalie Hemby, Sarah Buxton, Jon Randall and Gordie Sampson – and the outcome is a triumph. While she may stray too close to the rock and pop mainstream at times for some fastidious critics, there remains enough of the absorbing, thoughtful musings to satisfy the folk-leaning faithful.

Moving to Nashville in 2020 was a big wrench for Jarosz, having established new roots in New York where she had lived for most of her adult life. ‘New York signified this childhood dream that I’d had for so long, so moving to Nashville was like turning the page from youth to adulthood. Columbus & 89th ended up just pouring out of me once Daniel Tashian and I started working on it – there was so much nostalgia and melancholy that I needed to process, and now I still tear up whenever I hear it. As a songwriter my main goal is to tell the truth about my experience, and I think the fact that the song makes me so emotional means that I was tapping into a real feeling.’

It’s a delightful melody as the alluring purity of Jarosz’s voice takes us on a reminiscence ride. There’s sadness in the leaving but joy in the looking back. She begins with a nod to Joni...

I’ve been told

That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone

That you’ll recognise the real thing

When it comes along

And you can only see as far as the crow flies

And sometimes love leaves you tongue-tied

And once in a while

The stars will align

At the corner of Columbus and 89th

The support cast of Nashville players includes her bass-playing husband Jeff Picker. Tashian contributes guitars and keyboards alongside guitarists Emmanuel Valdez, Rob McNelley and Tom Bukovac, Justin Schipper on pedal steel and drummer Fred Eltringham. There’s a rockier vibe on this album, including recent Song Of The Week Jealous Moon, latest single Runaway Train and Take The High Road.

Beyond the slick Americana it is the more restrained tracks which have a lasting resonance, such as Columbus & 89th with its evocative Jody March-directed video, When The Lights Go Out, which contains the album title in its chorus, and Days Can Turn Around (‘David and I wanted to try to include as many nuggets of a mother’s wisdom that could help anyone get through a bad day’).

Sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down

Sometimes your heart’s in the lost and found

Your mind’s in the clouds but you’re stuck on the ground

And when you least expect it

Days can turn around

The 32-year-old multi-instrumentalist (banjo, guitar and ukulele are the other strings to her bow) has enjoyed taking risks beyond her comfort zone. ‘I think by co-writing all the songs and by not being in a solitary mindset, I was able to more easily slip into trying to write the songs from a more universal perspective,’ Jarosz told The Bluegrass Situation in an interview as their artist of the month. ‘I was very closed off to co-writing especially for my first couple of records. I had managers and label people always trying to set me up on co-writes and I did a couple, but I don’t think I knew my voice well enough and I hadn’t had long enough writing on my own, performing on my own, and figuring out my sound. I think I was just worried that my voice would get lost.

‘I met Daniel in March of 2022, which was when I started writing for this record, and he kind of welcomed me in to his family. I wound up going on these writing retreats, and that was cool, just to get out of Nashville, shift our perspective, and be really open to to the muse and to what would come.

‘Daniel said something when we were in the studio that really resonated: Why would you just want to make the same record over and over again? I love that, because I think you try to find your voice and hone it over the course of a career but the fun is in exploration. Maybe some people find comfort in repetition and that’s fine but I really love exploring and ultimately seeking what serves the song.’

Jarosz’s performances with Aoife O’Donovan and Sara Watkins in the magical trio I’m With Her, Chris Thile’s Punch Brothers and the Transatlantic Sessions, not forgetting her duet work with the late David Crosby, were examples of a developing collaborative spirit. These days she is happier than ever to share the writing credits. Let us hope her sense of longing leads her back to an I’m With Her reunion.

The subtle caress of Jarosz’s octave mandolin is a delight throughout the new Nashville-produced album. ‘Polaroid Lovers feels more like me than ever before. I feel that it’s very strongly my voice and my sound. I think a huge part of that is my octave mandolin being a prominent texture. Whenever I play octave [mandolin], I feel like: this is me.’ Like her voice, it is an instrument that can transport the listener; as intoxicating as Mezcal And Lime.

Jarosz is mainly looking forward now. But in Columbus & 89th she lingers on those precious New York remembrances: ‘Staying out with you ’til sunrise hit the Hudson/ Without a thought for what had passed and what was coming’. There’s something in her eye, and we know the feeling.


They Spelled My Name Wrong Again: Loudon Wainwright III

What’s in a name? Plenty, it seems. Our Song Of The Week at is Loudon Wainwright III’s They Spelled My Name Wrong Again in honour of a wonderful friend who suffered the same exasperating but amusing fate as the American songwriter, humorist and actor.

Ron Atkin, who sadly passed away last week at the age of 92, was a fine wordsmith too, the author of several books on military history and the Mexico revolution and a tennis correspondent and sports editor held in high esteem. But, like Loudon, could anyone spell his name correctly?

He told the story entertainingly himself in a piece for the website of his eldest son Tim, a wine master and writer, in 2012. He had attended a Wainwright concert in Croydon and the witty ditty was the first song on the bill in response to the neon sign outside the Fairfield Halls that advertised the presence of ‘Louden Wainright’. Double jeopardy.

As Wainwright sang...

They spelled my name wrong again

With an E between the D and the N

Some dope didn’t know it should be an O

They spelled my name wrong again

Why in God’s name can’t they check

It’s a pain in the ass and the neck

Not a capital crime, but it’s the umpteenth time

Why in God’s name can’t they check

My friend Ron had been addressed as Atkins, Aitken, Atkinson and Hatchkin, and sometimes Rod rather than Ronald, his preferred byline. When he received the Sports Journalist of the Year award in 1984, even his own paper, the Observer, managed to get it wrong, calling him Ronald Aitken.

‘It’s been going on ever since my first titled piece in the Nottingham Evening Post back in 1948. Lovingly preserved on our kitchen notice board are the originals of letters and memos addressed to Ronald Gutkin, Roy Atkin, Rod Atkin and even Mr Dorothy Atkin. There is an invoice to Mr R. Hatkin and an accreditation to the Tennis Masters Cup made out to Ryes Atkin.

‘The Raffles Hotel in Singapore reserved me a room in the name of Ronald Attkini, Scotland Yard issued my security pass to Ron Atkine and the reservation slip on the table of a Paris restaurant was made out to Mr Hatchkin. The ones awarding me the Atkins plural are so numerous as to be not worth preserving.’

Like father like son, Tim has been misnamed Atkins by newspapers, including the Observer when he was made Wine Columnist of the Year in 2009. Tim’s weekly newsletter includes a song recommendation and he has a Spotify playlist entitled Music To Drink Wine To. Marking his dad’s passing, he chose another of Ron’s favourites, Moon Shadow by Cat Stevens. ‘It’s the first piece of music I talked about with my dad. Stevens, or Yusuf as he’s now known, said that the song was his attempt to look at life in an extremely positive way. That was my old man.’

Recruiting Ron as tennis correspondent in 1998 was one of my more inspired moments as sports editor of the Independent on Sunday. His razor-sharp reporting on tennis, football and a range of other sports, deep knowledge and professionalism were exemplary and the ghostwriter of the legendary Fred Perry’s autobiography gave our sports pages gravitas for a decade.

Ron, pictured above at his 90th birthday party, came into his own during Wimbledon fortnight, not to mention the other grand slams. He was the go-to person for other journalists needing background for their reports; a tennis historian who enjoyed easy access to the heroes of the past and present. His daily previews in the Wimbledon programme were an essential read.

He was such a generous colleague, so supportive to so many. He was remarkably humble too, given his achievements were not modest – as an author (fancy being commissioned to write about the Great Bars of the World!), as a writer and sports editor with the Observer and as tennis correspondent with the Sunday Telegraph. It was a privilege to be in his convivial company, his mischievous sense of humour reminding me of a certain songwriter.

Loudon Wainwright’s second name is Snowden, with an E instead of an O; strange that he didn’t mention that in They Spelled My Name Wrong Again. The track appears on a live album entitled Daisy In My Hand, recorded in Austin in 1990 and eventually released in 2021.

In an earlier blog about his memoir Liner Notes, we wrote how the North Carolina-born songwriter has always taken on difficult subjects in his vast repertoire: death, depression, adultery, guilt, regret, sex. ‘Sometimes, like Barry Manilow, I write the songs that make the whole world cry, but often the response I’m going for is a shiver or a cringe. Making an audience uncomfortable for limited amounts of time ratchets up the dramatic tension.’

The Swimming Song, Unrequited To The Nth Degree, Reciprocity, Dilated To Meet You, Down Drinking At The Bar, The Man Who Couldn’t Cry, On The Rocks, Our Own War, White Winos, Motel Blues, I Can’t Stand Myself – his self-mocking tone is loud and clear in compositions that lay bare his faults and foibles.

I was blessed to have three former editors of the Observer contributing to the Independent on Sunday sports pages. I was spoiled for choice over who to turn to for advice. And we never spelled their names wrong.


Right Back To It: Waxahatchee

A new year, a new song, and it’s time to wax lyrical about Waxahatchee again. That is Katie Crutchfield’s recording alias, and her latest single, Right Back To It, is our Song Of The Week at A bittersweet thanksgiving to enduring relationships.

The track will appear on the Alabama-born indie folk artist’s sixth solo album, Tigers Blood, due for release on March 22, and is a collaboration with young rock guitarist MJ Lenderman. The album is eagerly anticipated by devotees of 2020’s Saint Cloud who appreciated her beacon of hope and light during the gloom of the pandemic.

This plaintive ballad is a world away from Lenderman’s alt rock band from North Carolina, Wednesday, feeling more like a gentle Sunday boat ride as the video, filmed on Caddo Lake in Texas, depicts. The versatile Lenderman switches between tiller, harmonies and classy guitar. ‘He’s got such a great, gritty, southern-sounding way of playing guitar that I really love,’ Crutchfield told the Guardian.

Crutchfield wrote the song backstage at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia, while on tour opening for Jason Isbell and Sheryl Crow in late 2022, intending it to be gritty and unromantic. ‘I wanted to make a song about the ebb and flow of a long-time love story. I thought it might feel untraditional but a little more in alignment with my experience to write about feeling insecure or foiled in some way internally, but always finding your way back to a newness or an intimacy with the same person.’

You come to me on a fault line

Deep inside a goldmine

Hovering like a moth

I lose a bit of myself

Laying out eggshells

I’ve been yours for so long

We come right back to it

I let my mind run wild

Don’t know why I do it

But you just settle in

Like a song with no end

If I can keep up

We’ll get right back to it

Like Saint Cloud, Tigers Blood was produced at Sonic Ranch in the Texas border town of Tornillo by Brad Cook, who plays bass here. His brother Phil’s banjo maintains the country vibe while Jeff Tweedy’s son Spencer sits in on drums. Crutchfield will be touring in the US soon, kicking off in April in Kansas City where she lives with musician partner Kevin Morby.

Waxahatchee, named after a creek near the family home in Birmingham, Alabama, names Lucinda Williams as her role and soul model and, like the Louisiana veteran, possesses an instantly recognisable vocal, with its earthy, southern twang. She has supplied Songs Of The Week before, notably Saint Cloud’s beautifully dark Arkadelphia, the gorgeous Other Side in a duet with Wynonna Judd and Hurricane from her glorious collaboration with Jess Williamson as the duo Plains. We hope their album I Walked With You A Ways amounts to more than a one-off.

Crutchfield herself is a one-off. The 35-year-old songwriter’s new label ANTI- describe her as ‘a powerhouse – an ethnologist of the self – forever dedicated to revisiting her wins and losses’. We love the way she navigates affairs of the heart with admirable candour and self-doubt: ‘if I swerve in and out of my lane/ Burning up an old flame/

Turn a jealous eye… I get ahead of myself/ Refusing anyone’s help’.

Saint Cloud resonated with fans for its celebration of her new-found sobriety. It helped them through lockdown. As she told the Guardian, a friend warned her she wouldn’t recognise herself. ‘That was really true. Now it’s like: OK, I fully know myself sober.’ Of the new album, she said: ‘They’re not all love dramas. There’s a lot of stuff, still, about addiction, and specifically about being in a relationship with other addicts – but there are also songs about how I feel about being in the music industry, and the culture at large.

‘With Saint Cloud I really wanted to prove that you don’t have to be so tortured to make interesting art. Tigers Blood is more like a conversation with the listener, rather than studying all the things that are happening within myself. I feel that with every door that opens, I’m very ready to walk through it. I’m making what I think is my best work right now – and there’s never been more attention on it.’

Back to Right Back To It. This ode to the privilege and resilience of long-term romance, whatever the stumbles and wounds along the way, is a quiet joy.


Wilderness Road: James Hodder

Tobacco Road, Seven Bridges Road, Copperhead Road, Telegraph Road. Bromley-born troubadour James Hodder was determined to have a road song in his repertoire. One of his all-time favourites is Bruce Springsteen’s majestic Thunder Road. The inspiration for Hodder’s Wilderness Road, one of the first songs to be written for his 2023 album, its title track and our Song Of The Week at, came from just around the corner from his home in South-east London.

‘I would pass the road most days when I left the house and thought it would make a great title for a song. Like many of Springsteen’s songs, Thunder Road describes running away to chase your dreams and using the road as a means of escape. For my song, I decided the road would lead home rather than a new destination.’

Hodder was already exploring the idea when recording his debut offering In The Beginning. One of the last songs completed for that album was Forbidden Fruit, which contained the lyric ‘…but then the light began to fade. I couldn’t see the path and I got lost along the way. I turned around to find you and saw the bridge behind go up in flames’.

‘I wrote Wilderness Road in 2017, the same year that my first album was released,’ he says. ‘Listening to it for the first time in 2023, people would be forgiven for thinking that it might have been a pandemic song, but in reality that was the furthest thing from my mind. I began by just jotting down words without a melody or any structure in mind. This was unusual for me as most of my songs would begin with a musical hook or a memorable phrase. I think this might have contributed to the unusual rhyming scheme. There is a rhyme at the end of each line, as opposed to just using rhyming couplets or alternating lines.’

The first word makes the track instantly topical, and what follows is powerfully poetic...

January bares its teeth

Hands the world a winter wreath

Lays to rest the autumn leaves

In the dirty ground beneath

Summer left without a note

Downed his drink and grabbed his coat

Cashed his chips and hit the road

Where he is now I don’t know

We’re much too young to feel this old

We can find our way back from Wilderness Road

‘I would go on to write most of the lyric in order. Again this was unusual as more often than not I begin with a chorus or if starting with the first verse, I might write the last verse next to establish some sort of character arc, connection or narrative twist.’

In the second verse Hodder references another musical hero, Leonard Cohen, borrowing a phrase or two from the aptly named Anthem. ‘Whatever genre you are writing in, I always think there’s a folk tradition of passing on ideas and showing your connection to the past and present. There’s rarely anything new, it’s like all writing is part of a big musical tapestry. The innovation comes from combing influences and making unusual connections. I often think audiences like to hear those kind of references in the lyrics or melodies too; it weaves threads between the artists and songs they listen to.’

Shadows shift along the ground

Spreading darkness all around

Steal the light without a sound

Seal the exits out of town

But I once heard a wise man sing

There’s a crack in everything

That’s the way the light gets in

Some you lose and some you win

On their album The Record last year the all-women supergroup boygenius (Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus) also sang of ‘There’s a crack in everything’ in a more direct homage, simply titled Leonard Cohen. On Wilderness Road Hodder doffs his hat to Joni Mitchell in the lovely Out Of Their Hands while Jackson Browne, Billy Joel and Marc Cohn must have been touchstones too. Bittersweet tracks such as One Clean Shot and When It’s My Time suggest it should be his prime time soon. The material for his next project has already been written and should be recorded later this year.

While Hodder’s first album was a stripped-back acoustic affair for budgetary reasons, Wilderness Road benefits from a more expansive sound. The supporting cast – Beth Reid (backing vocals), Dan Cooper on bass, Tom Monks on keyboards, drummer Jim Kimberley and John Appleyard on harmonica – provide an impressive foil for the frontman’s accomplished guitar playing and rich vocal. The album launch at London’s Betsey Trotwood was a memorable evening and can be enjoyed again on Hodder’s Bandcamp site.

Wilderness Road’s theme of change and transition, and the way we navigate adversity, would become the thread for the whole album. ‘When I wrote the song the experience was a personal one, but I hope the message is universal. It’s about seeing the light ahead of you and leaving the darkness behind. The characters I wrote about on the album either look to chase their dreams or accept their fate but they’re all wrestling with a transformation of some kind.

‘The only other song that began with a title and lyric was Hillbilly The Kid. I incorrectly read the name Billy The Kid when reading one night; a slip of the tongue which would become the basis for a song. While we in the UK might consider it fairly innocuous, in America the word can be used in a derogatory way, to make fun of certain sections of society in the South. This is something which has been discussed in Ken Burns’ epic documentary series on the history of country music and more recently in the novel Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver.

‘When thinking how I could use that title for a song, I thought about the awful headlines which some tabloid newspapers will use to describe people in order to belittle them and avoid empathy or compassion for their situation. I wanted the character Billy to be relatable and emphasise that while we are all ultimately responsible for our actions, the choices we make are often born from our upbringing or social circumstances which are not of our choosing.’

As Hodder sings on that engaging title track, a road sign that turned into a meaningful metaphor, hope will find a way:

Shed your skin right down to the bone

And we’ll find our way back from Wilderness Road


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