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Songs Of The Week 2024: Take 2

Neil Morton


Magic Somehow: Josienne Clarke

The journey to self-discovery and fulfilment can be a perilous one and few songwriters articulate the pitfalls more eloquently than Josienne Clarke. As a champion of sad songs and their capacity to empower, she has a gift for extracting hope from life’s murkier moments. Our Song Of The Week at is Magic Somehow, the closing track of her latest album Parenthesis, I. Beauty from the Isle of Bute.

On a soul-baring, cathartic fourth solo album, Clarke saves her mission statement until last...

Sing us one of your sad songs

The one about love

Make it make us give in and never give up…

Sing us one of your sad songs

The one about time

Make us die on the inside

And feel so alive…

Sing a sound that we’re drawn to

When we’re feeling low

Spin your alchemy, give us hope

Clarke’s back story has been told and retold: how she rescued herself from a duo arrangement she found demeaning through lack of credit. Suffice to say, after the excellence of last year’s Onliness on which she reclaimed and reimagined her old material, she has truly found herself. A victim of the destructive nature of the music industry, she now owns her own label, produces her own records and plays most of the instruments: saxophone, clarinet and recorder as well as acoustic and electric guitars. The vision is under her control. ‘No part of me is a part of you,’ she sings in the angry Do You Know Now.

Amid the gaslighting and othering, regaining that control has been a frightening but ultimately liberating experience. ‘Sometimes your continued existence is enough,’ she says, ‘the bold move, an act of resistance. Going through something difficult and coming out the other side is an achievement in itself.’ In Spherical she acknowledges that resilience and inner strength. ‘I’ve been drawing a circle/ Back to myself/ So slowly it looked like a line.’ From self-doubt to autonomy.

The Sussex-born songwriter says of Most Of All, an invitation to vulnerability: ‘It is a licking of wounds and counting of blessings, taking stock and setting straight in my head. It’s one of those songs where I’m a bit exposed and I almost can’t bring myself to share it. Several times I nearly took it off the tracklist, but experience has taught me, those ones end up being among my audience’s favourite songs.’ The heart-rending Forbearing reflects on the trauma of a miscarriage: ‘If damaged fruit is all I can give you, that’ll have to do.’

Opening track Friendly Teeth could be aimed at our politicians: ‘There’s nothing more ugly than lies upon lies upon lies… I’ve been everyone’s fool/And lies are the harshest cruelty.’ Fear Of Falling tells of her determination to put the past in its place now she has the sanctuary of her Scottish island. Double-Edged Sword is short and bittersweet, underlining her refusal to surrender. The multi-tracking of her hypnotic vocal in the bridge on The Calm is becalming and becoming.

The track that best illustrates her status as a voice for the ages is the chilling Dead Woman’s Bones, a modern allegory of a macabre traditional tale, The Two Sisters, about a musician who makes a harp, fiddle or lute out of the bones of a poet drowned by her jealous sister; the instrument plays itself and sings about the murder. Clarke decides to home in on the man who took the kudos. There is no finer line on the album than ‘His literal hands on her metaphorical throat’ in a song that ends devastatingly: ‘For what’s a song/ Without a strong man/ Stringing along.’

On Parenthesis, I she again leans on the support of her bass-playing partner Alec Bowman-Clarke, drummer Dave Hamblett and Matt Robinson on keyboards – ‘the sound of my journey to some kind of resolution, seeking and finding a safe path of my own’. The defiant title track strips away the brackets and ushers in a life without caveat or qualification: ‘Parenthesis, I (think I) am done with you/ Put cessation in its place and face down the demon/ Now darkness is only an absence of light in its space/ To keep staring into the void/ Re-wounding indefinitely is a choice/ I choose not to make/ A path it didn’t take/ Undestroyed.’

No wonder fans have shed tears at the merch table: her songs pluck a nerve with their honesty and empathy. ‘On all my album journeys I take you to the depths of despair and then give you a reason why it’s all going to be OK in the end.’ Somehow she magically achieves that aim.

Sing us one of your sad songs

The one about truth

Speak for all of us and only for you…

Tell us the world is illusion

But you know the truth

Say it’s beautiful, show us proof

Clarke’s melancholic songs are beautiful, and she has shown us proof.


Talk To Me Of Water

Mystery and mythology in an urban setting: this is the territory explored by MG Boulter whose songs of hopes and dreams are a sonic wonder. No more so than the dreamy Talk To Me Of Water, our Song Of The Week at

It is a standout single from his fourth album, Days Of Shaking, a collaboration with the supremely talented Jenny Sturgeon from the Shetland Islands whose harmonies hover alongside Boulter’s alluring high tenor. The classically trained Harriet Bradshaw and Furrow Collective luminary Lucy Farrell display their delightful choral skills elsewhere on the album.

Boulter, known to most as Matt, is in demand as a session musician on other artists’ records, notably for his exquisite pedal and lap steel guitar work which gives Talk To Me Of Water its ethereal feel, dovetailing beautifully with Bradshaw’s cello and Sturgeon’s keyboards. The song seems to float and drift without a discernible beat that catches out our tapping toes.

The songwriter says the track is ‘about stillness and the things the mind conjures in quiet moments’. Never has the simple act of shaving sounded so elegant. He adds: ‘Jenny and I have been secretly writing songs for the past year or so in between our busy schedules and this was one of our first attempts at co-writing with each other.’

I contoured a map of Canada

White snow from iridescent foam

I pictured myself following footsteps

Hearing ‘blue’, hearing ‘blue’

The steam on the mirror

Tracing outlines from your fingers

A heart from long ago

Broken now, it comes and goes

It comes and goes

Talk to me of water and other such things

Talk to me, talk to me

Your voice through the door

Softly spoken brings me to the moment

Canada has gone

Bled now into other continents Other continents

Born in Southend-on-Sea, Boulter dedicated his acclaimed 2021 album Clifftown to his coastal home, its hidden histories and eccentric characters. The release was accompanied by a podcast series and followed by the similarly themed EP A Shadow Falls Over New Brighton. Memories like benign ghosts.

His imaginative storytelling about ordinary life turns Days Of Shaking into a tour de force, albeit a gentle, tranquil force. A theme was not originally intended but Boulter later realised the songs were strangely connected. The album is again produced by long-time cohort Andy Bell and features accomplished accompaniment from Hudson Records colleagues Neil McSweeney (bass), Tom Lenthall (piano) and Helen Bell (violin and viola).

Boulter’s inspiring suburban vignettes blend the mystical with the mundane, folklore with suddenly introduced reality, superstition with the unexplained: the magical musings we all use to bring shape and hope to our lives. There is the childhood memory of a UFO sighting in the title track, the escape from reality of fishing with yearnings for a better life in City Map (‘Is it true you can wake up somewhere new/ Just shrug it off and transform?’), would-be cave gods and visitations of the dead – enter, of all people, the actor James Mason (‘You’re not destined for dust/ We are all not just destined for dust’).

It hovered above my house, I was maybe twelve

There were triangles of red and green

Standing with the neighbour’s son

He was a weekend child who visited occasionally

Maybe it was a trick of the night

Unknown movement in the atmosphere

Maybe it was a hope for something bigger than ourselves

These are days of shaking

Where pillars will fall to the ocean

We’ll lie in the long grass of the garden

And speak in dead tongues, we are blind to ourselves

Boulter has been a musical collaborator with Blue Rose Code, Emily Portman’s Coracle Band, The Owl Service and Southend band The Lucky Strikes and was a touring member of US groups The Duke and the King and the Simone Felice Group. He played more recently with Jon Boden’s Remnant Kings.

The studio diary on his website blog gives a fascinating insight into the recording process at a Welsh mountain retreat near Brecon in March last year. Boulter’s week in residence at Martin Levan’s Red Kite Studio was overshadowed by the threat of ill health. ‘I awake to a raspy throat, my chest a ball of catarrh which sits at the top of my lungs – this is the one thing I don’t need, of all days and weeks… Silver Birches takes a few hours to get right, I sing flat at a few key points of the song mainly due to a blocked nose. By this time I am well used to Andy’s voice in my headphones from the control room: ‘Just do it again, one more’... I steamed my voice over a saucepan last night and I’m chewing so many menthol cough sweets my mouth tastes of medicine all day, but it won’t shift... I love all my songs but I know not all of them make the cut and I am happy to let them dwell in the background maybe to return at a later date or, most likely, to never surface again.’

Remarkably, Boulter’s voice held together; you would never guess there was ever a problem when we absorb Days Of Shaking. Thank goodness Quiet, The Masterless Man and The Hotel At Midnight, gorgeous all, made the cut. As he writes in his liner notes: ‘Not everything is science and fact. The magic follows us everywhere we go.’ May his poetic daydreaming and dreaming in the dark continue to ignite imaginations, touch hearts and offer down-to-earth hope.


Release Myself: Bess Atwell

An invitation from The National’s Aaron Dessner to travel to upstate New York to record an album at his Long Pond studio was a dream come true for Brighton-based songwriter Bess Atwell. There was an instant musical chemistry. Light Sleeper, two years in the writing but produced over just five days, contains the wonderful Release Myself, our Song Of The Week at No wonder Atwell didn’t want to go home.

Atwell calls the Ohio native her ‘pipe-dream producer’, and when she arrived with 12 songs he asked her to open her cast-off folder. A number of songs she had lost confidence in were resurrected with encouragement from the multi-instrumentalist who has worked with Taylor Swift, Fleet Foxes and Ben Howard. The title track was one of those songs. Dessner had expressed a liking on Instagram for Time Comes In Roses from her 2021 album Already, Always and Atwell wondered if he’d care to hear demos of her new material.

He did, and the soon invitation followed. ‘It’s rare that you find new music that really touches you and that you keep coming back to,’ Dessner told Rolling Stone. ‘And I kept coming back to Bess’s songs. There’s this humanity and lyricism in Bess’s writing that immediately caught hold of my heart, a wistful effortlessness. I’ve always been a fan of music which isn’t trying too hard to hit you over the head, or lets you come to it on your own terms.’

I don’t wanna be scared anymore

I’m tired of being tied up

And too cynical

To believe anything new

I can only release myself

I can only release myself

Got a lot to be forgiven for

Gave a lot of hell

I don’t wanna be wrong

I don’t wanna disappear

If anything should come along

And make me brave

In a video about the making of her third album, Atwell talks about the cathartic impact of her love and anti-love songs, confessional meditations that almost make us feel we’re peeping into a personal diary. ‘Lyrically, a lot of the album focuses on feelings of dissociation and wanting to feel alive and feel that warmth again, feel that rawness of life,’ Atwell says. On Release Myself and Light Sleeper she achieves the transformation from ‘the walking open wound’ poetically but painfully confronted in The Weeping. ‘I’m ready to be a light sleeper again/ To wake up and feel everything/ I can carry the weight of it.’

The London-born singer-songwriter describes the album as ‘an exploration of coming to terms with the fact that I have to help myself and stop waiting for life to get easier. Because this is life, and it is messy, and family is difficult for almost everyone to varying degrees. And we have to be honest about that. It’s not shameful.’ Her courage about an ASD diagnosis and coming off anti-depressants is admirable. She tackles her sister’s high-needs autism in The Weeping.

The drive of Release Myself, with its effortlessly beautiful vocal and intoxicating cascade of guitar riffs, reminds us of Alison Moyet in her pop prime. Dessner recruited a stellar supporting cast – Big Thief drummer James Krivchenia, Beirut’s Ben Lanz and Sufjan Stevens collaborator James McAlister – to supplement his own myriad contributions. But Dessner’s polished production never overshadows the compelling intimacy of Atwell’s vulnerable vignettes.

Atwell’s disarming honesty about her mental health is liberating. ‘There are always a couple of songs on a record that just sort of fall out of you and this was one of them. This was the first time I’ve managed to write about my panic disorder without slipping too far into sorry-for-myself or cheesy, faux-empowering territory. It’s a song that says: Hey, I’m struggling, but I’m not a victim.’

She continues to face up to her insecurities as a means of moving beyond them. Resilience and self-acceptance have an eloquent champion.


Chapel Avenue: Kim Richey

Those of us beguiled by the melodic charms of Kim Richey for nigh on 30 years have a new favourite to savour: the nostalgia-rich Chapel Avenue, our Song Of The Week at It appears on her 10th album, Every New Beginning, her first new music in six years. It was worth the wait.

The Ohio-born Nashville resident wrote the opening track about love and regret, revisiting childhood haunts and touchstones, with friend Don Henry. ‘We started out talking about what it was like growing up when we did, and all those memories turned into a song. We had a great time writing it.’

Listening to it is a joy too. Chapel Avenue is a list song, a collection of memories reminiscent of Both Sides Now; Joni Mitchell is acknowledged as an enduring influence. Mind you, so are Jackson Browne, Karla Bonoff, Carole King, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Tom Petty, Steve Earle, The Chicks and The Beatles.

Skateboards and lemonade stands

Fourth of July parade bands

Creature feature matinees

High dive – I double dare you

Hormones enough to scare you

Day-dreaming summertime away

The chorus, delivered by that affecting voice devoid of affectation, follows delightfully…

All the gold of yesterday

Is a debt I can’t repay

I owe it all to you

Chapel Avenue

Like the Fab Four, Richey has a gift for earworm melodies, hooks and harmonies that are difficult to articulate to the all-consuming fan. ‘They just happen,’ says Richey. ‘I don’t know how. It comes from messing around on the guitar with different chords. All of a sudden a melody will appear over the top of the chords. Then a lyric will come to mind that fits that melody, and it’s up to me to decipher what the words mean.’

The album, a new beginning in every sense by a 67-year-old artist who shows no sign of putting down her songbook for good, was produced by Doug Lancio, a stellar guitarist. There are notable contributions from bassist Lex Price, multi-instrumentalist Dan Mitchell (‘a beautiful singer’), drummer Neilson Hubbard (producer of Richey’s 2013 album Thorn In My Side), and Savannah Buist and Katie Larson of The Accidentals on violin and cello respectively.

As well as her affinity to London, Richey told Nashville Scene about her loyalty to Music City: ‘There’s no place like it. There’s so much collaboration, so many world-class musicians there. It has always seemed a bit more down-home and more community-minded.’

Nashville neighbour and indie roots rocker Aaron Lee Tasjan lends his in-demand musicality to the proceedings, co-writing Joy Rider, a theme song for an East Nashville kid who became a big noise on his mini-bike during lockdown. Nothing stopped him, ‘neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night’.

She describes Tasjan as ‘super talented’ and linked up with him and Brian Wright for the lovely single A Way Around: ‘Drop the needle on your favourite sad song/ You’re not the only one who ever got it all wrong/ Just another lonely one.’ From melancholy to mirth and back is no distance for a songwriter of her skill.

The luscious Feel This Way is another lyrical triumph, co-written by Jay Knowles, as it grapples with heartbreak: ‘They say one day I’ll look back and laugh/ If they wanna make it better they gotta do better than that…/ It hurts like it’s always gonna feel this way.’ Goodbye Ohio is a delicious paean to her native state and a farewell to a faltering romance (‘Don’t let the fire die down/ Don’t let the light fade in your eyes/ To think we’ve lost the spark/ Is enough to break my heart’).

Richey’s songs have been covered by so many grateful artists: Jason Isbell, Radney Foster, Brooks & Dunn, Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, Gretchen Peters, Shawn Colvin, Chuck Prophet et al. When she started out in Nashville she wrote for a publisher, Tin Pan Alley style. She told Americana UK: ‘They hook you up with somebody you’ve never met, it’s like a blind date, and you sit in a room with all the inspiration of a cubicle or an office; and you are there from 10 until 2 and meant to come up with a song. That never worked for me.’

Her latest album may not be as new as the title suggests. ‘Some of the songs are older songs because when I first started out all I did was write all the time. I wasn’t touring as I am now. I’ve got a huge back catalogue to pick from, so when I’m making a record I choose songs that speak to me at that point.’ No themes except excellence, hypnotic tunefulness and rich vocal clarity.

Edgeland, her shimmering 2018 album, spawned two Songs Of The Week here: Chase Wild Horses and Pin A Rose. Chapel Avenue is right up our street too. Poignantly, Richey played the song for her ailing mother in hospital shortly before she died. ‘These are the things I leave behind.’


Fragile As Humans: Emily Barker

The Australian songwriter and poet Emily Barker says her latest album, Fragile As Humans, came from a quiet place, a period of reflection and introspection. The title track, our Song Of The Week at, is a beautiful meditation on nostalgia, love, loss and the human spirit.

The song was inspired by a line from the work of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Mojave American poet Natalie Diaz: We go where there is love. The activist and associate professor at Arizona State University wrote Grief Work in 1978. It contains another memorable phrase: ‘the terrible beautiful’. Barker’s album is no less poetic.

The album was recorded at Wool Hall Studios near Frome in Somerset as her two decades living in the UK was drawing to a close, Barker directing her lyrical gaze inwards before returning to her native Western Australia with bass-playing husband Lukas Drinkwater. The expansive themes of A Dark Murmuration Of Words are replaced by empathy for matters more personal, familial, closer to home. The pain and heartache are thankfully matched by hope and compassion.

She writes of the title track: ‘We live lives of complexity, grappling with loneliness and disconnection, searching for compassion, connection and community – we are all fragile as humans and made of who we love.’

The three stanzas refer to different phases which shaped her life ‘in ways I’m still learning’: the first recalls a schooldays crush on ‘a boy with a Bulls cap turned to one side’ (Barker is a Chicago Bulls fan while Diaz herself was a professional basketball player); the second is a love letter to her husband and musical partner (‘Our roots seem to deepen/ With each day that passes/ He’s my favourite way to spend my time’); and the third honours her father.

It is the third verse and accompanying refrain that chimes poignantly with our family’s experience at the moment, solace for our own loss:

My older self knows one day he won’t be with me

There’s an order to life should it obey

And I’m daily reminded by those who left early

To always find the time to say:

It’s true that you shaped me

In ways I’m still learning – as if I were made of you

And it’s true we are living, living then dying

Fragile as humans and made of who we love

Luke Potashnick’s subtle production puts Barker’s vulnerable yet assured voice at the forefront, showcasing its full emotional range, backed by Richard Causon on keys, Tim Harries on bass and Tom Visser on drums, with Potashnick himself contributing additional guitars, synths and studio effects. There are atmospheric strings from Rebekah Allan (violin), Rachel Robson (viola) and Laura Anstee (cello). Drinkwater, aptly, plays double bass on Fragile As Humans as well as the elegant closing track, Acisoma, the first song Barker wrote for the album which uses a dragonfly named after Sir David Attenborough as a metaphor for a short life well lived.

Barker spoke to the Melbourne-based website The Partae about the experimental nature of the project: ‘I’ve never worked with a producer in this way before where he became my editor as well. We put each line under the microscope and it was brilliant. He asked me to dig a bit deeper, be persistent. I loved that. I think it’s ultimately made the songs stronger even though it was just a few tweaks here and there. Sonically, I trusted Luke’s vision and musicianship from the get-go. We seemed to be on the same page immediately and both felt the songs had a cinematic feel to them that the production should push.

‘I pushed myself harmonically in these songs in terms of chord progressions and extensions. I wanted to favour the odd and unexpected but pull it together melodically. I think with Luke’s taste too, he pushed some of the production sounds beyond what I might have thought safe and I’m so glad for it.’ Part of the experiment too was her use of piano instead of the customary acoustic guitar to write most of the material, allowing her vocal more space.

The other mesmerising track, Wild To Be Sharing This Moment, was our first Song Of The Week from the album. There were other contenders: Life Is For An Hour on the impermanence of existence (‘If life is for an hour I was seconds with you/ Time enough to flower for you to imbue’); The Quiet Ways (‘What of this will stay the same?/ The slowing down, the smaller days’); Feathered Thing, inspired by the Emily Dickinson poem Hope, about the couple’s agonising loss of a child; and Call It A Day about the pull of home and her farewell to these shores…

There’s not enough to keep me here

My heart is with another sea

Oh it’s time for me to move on

It’s nothing that you’ve done wrong believe me

Goodbye to pebbled shores I’ll write of you no more

I’ll fill my notebooks with white sand

Goodbye to all of those who loved me through the lows

I hold your light now in my hands

Farewell to Emily Barker for now after her UK tour of record stores; we are sorry we missed her Q&A and performance at the Sutton Sound Lounge this week. There will be other tours. Like us, she understands the fragility of humans.


Staring At The Moon: Jenny Colquitt

We love Jenny Colquitt’s latest album to the moon and back. Her impassioned balladry deserves to capture many more hearts and minds. Our Song Of The Week at is the bewitching title track, Staring At The Moon.

The Widnes-born songwriter possesses a formidable voice that can turn a whisper into a hurricane within a few stanzas. Not all of her songs contain a crescendo but most do. We chose the title track not for its building of tension or trademark anthemic chorus but for the soulful singer’s delicacy and appreciation of nuance.

When she delivers the opening lines – ‘Gravity hates us, it brings us down/ I want to wake up, far from this ground’ – it is a public invitation to private pain. The track’s central message is echoed through the whole album: the power of unparalleled love.

As Colquitt explains: ‘The album follows the themes of love, loss, and our ingrained vulnerability. It explores the dichotomy we are posed with being small humans on a planet floating in the mystery which is space. The moon and stars are our only reminder that the things we face daily are only so small in this beautiful universe yet the power of our love is stronger and larger than anything we can see with our eyes above us.’

I can see the world ’round us is fallin’

And here we are spending our days staring at the moon

Everything we touch here is broken

And all I can think of is thinking of you

The album’s title is referenced in another stellar track, No One Loves Me Like You, whose production Bruce Springsteen would applaud. Colquitt says: ‘Together, the two songs bring the album full circle. Staring At The Moon is centred around the chorus which is the most important lyric on the album. It describes how we are living in a falling society but the mystery and size of the moon overpowers this. It is a constant reminder that we are so small in comparison to the universe. There is  also the romantic element which centres around love and the fact that no matter where we are in the world, we can always stare at the same moon.’

Both compositions were given pride of place during the indie artist’s album launch tour show at the Music Room at the Liverpool Philharmonic last week. She closed her sparkling set with the title track and played its sister song during the encores. It was lovely to hear a former Song Of The Week, the magnificent Soldier Of The Modern Day, from her Lost Animals EP.

Fallin’ Angels was a standout at the Philharmonic too, a track made for Glastonbury. Colquitt had asked fans to send her audio clips of them singing the song’s rousing chorus: ‘Let’s not fight, let’s unite, we are fallin’ angels tonight, and we’re beyond the wall’. That word falling again.

The stirring song covers many angles: forgiveness, peace, mental health, societal issues and the environment. ‘I wanted to write a song that became an anthem for my supporters to sing at shows, a song that makes the people in the room feel connected through the music. It’s very important to me that my music brings people together and that the topics I write about can uplift people, so that they walk away from a gig feeling a little bit less lonely and disconnected.’

I Won’t Let You Drive is another thought-provoking, piano-led track, showcasing Colquitt’s glorious vocal range. ‘It follows the intimate journey of a relationship, the turmoil and hardships of true love and the protagonist’s wishing for perfection. Metaphorically it’s about love but equally follows the literal journey of the characters through miscommunication and heartbreak.’

Colquitt specialises in heartbreak, fragility, love and hope; dramatic earworm melodies that make room for both sensitivity and full-throated conviction; introspection with universal themes. A singer-songwriter who can promise the moon and deliver it.


Oh Honey: The Hackles

It’s time to raise The Hackles – and praise them. The Oregon band’s dreamy contemporary sound, rooted in old-time folk and country, is showcased on a new single, Oh Honey, our Song Of The Week at Elevated by the distinctive trumpet of trusted collaborator Bart Budwig, it is as sweet as its title suggests.

The Astoria-based husband-and-wife duo of Luke Ydstie and Kati Claborn became a trio after recruiting revered fiddler Halli Anderson from River Whyless and Horse Feathers, who had been a frequent guest instrumentalist, and last year released a garlanded album, What A Beautiful Thing I Have Made. It more than lived up to its weighty name. Oh Honey is the next beautiful thing they have made.

The track seizes your senses with its picked electric guitars and Ydstie’s honeyed opening line: ‘I am not a ghost, I’m not a memory.’ Claborn’s meandering clarinet melds gorgeously with Anderson’s violin and Budwig’s hallowed horn like birds flitting and flirting in the sky.

The divine three-part harmonies heighten the sense of yearning. Is this a glorious left-over pandemic song? A lament to a lost love or a treasured time? Or merely the protagonist’s plea not to be forgotten? ‘We have always seen the ashes on the breeze.’ As their Bandcamp liner notes say, The Hackles are in no rush to break your heart, but it is assured.

Drifting through another winter dark as wine

I’ve been leaning on those good-time friends of mine

Make it through until the sundown finish line

Late-night ballads frame the haze of fine old times

Carved and hollowed ’til we’re almost slipping free

Oh, honey, don’t you lose your hold on me

Oh, honey, don’t you lose your hold on me

Near neighbour Anderson became a Hackle after River Whyless had taken a sabbatical and she had moved to Astoria, the oldest settlement west of the Rocky Mountains, from North Carolina. Serendipity. She is an outstanding addition. Her old group’s celestial Heaven And Light is a former Song Of The Week on this website. The American poet e.e. cummings, who used lower-case spelling for his work as well as his name, loved to invent words, such as ‘the whyless sky’. It struck a chord with the band who chose the prefix ‘river’ for its ever-changing, ever-bending qualities that reflected their music.

Ydstie, a proud pioneer of the Portland and Pacific North West community of musicians, told Americana UK before last year’s tour: ‘We’ve known Halli for a long time. We first met on the road when River Whyless were opening for our other project Blind Pilot and we just got along. When she moved to a block away she started sitting in with us on our gigs whenever she was able to and she played on both of our albums. When River Whyless had a hiatus it seemed natural for her to join us.

‘Having Halli allows us to do three-part harmony which we love to do and and she’s a wonderful fiddle player. It’s really nice to have a third instrumental voice, the dynamic range is just bigger and it’s just much more fun with the three of us interacting on stage, it just builds up the energy.’ It was a thrill for Ydstie to play the Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow last year; his grandmother hailed from Edinburgh.

The Hackles’ last album, made during the pandemic hence its themes of longing, loss and regret, featured a number of memorable tracks: Damn The Word, a reflection on how unspoken thoughts can leave you ‘Just waiting to die like a Christmas tree’; Anderson’s Water For Your Bedside (‘Don’t go out out when your will is off its chain’) and the brooding bluegrass-tinged Birdcage based on a bizarre local newsporter report about a man arrested for shooting a deer, dressing it and parading it in the street; Claborn’s poignant tribute to her father First Time For Everything; and the majestic, swirling, harmony-rich title track led by Ydstie.

The Hackles share a gift for warm, engaging melodies that cradle thought-provoking, often dark lyrics. Now they’re treating fans on their current UK tour to Oh Honey. Oh, it won’t be losing its hold on us any time soon.


Your Story: Jessie Reid

The Woman On The Train sounds like a would-be sequel to Paula Hawkins’ best-selling novel. But no, it’s the theme of a new single by indie folk artist Jessie Reid. Your Story, our Song Of The Week at, is billed as ‘an intimate celebration of the power of human interaction’. It is a heart-tugging tale.

‘One night on the train I met a middle-aged woman who had recently lost her husband,’ explains the Shropshire-born Reid. ‘She told her story to me and two others cramped around a table and, despite her pain, made us all laugh, listened to everyone intently and offered words of wisdom. There was something so beautiful about her strength, how she felt able to share her story with strangers, despite all she’d been through.’

Oh won’t you

Sit down beside me

Tell me the bones of your story

Where did it go wrong?

Is that what it took to make you feel so strong?

Make you feel strong

Lines on your face make a picture

Let them unfold

And you say the world is what we make it

At least that’s what we’re told

I’m just so glad you came

So glad you came

When we featured Reid on this blog with her delicious ballad Every Stranger, a meditation on learning to cope during traumatic times, we welcomed ‘a new voice of empathy’. Your Story offers fresh testimony. A regular on the last train home from London, Reid has witnessed the beauty of strangers interacting on a deeply personal level, sharing experiences of joy and anguish.

I know you loved him through the good days

You loved him through the bad ones too

You loved him through the good days

You love him now he’s gone for good

Every Stranger spoke about her own loss, now it was her turn to listen to the grief of others. ‘It struck me that many of the individuals sharing those late-night journeys had no doubt worked through their dark times but still found the strength to extend kindness and compassion to others.’

Words don’t do justice To what undid your soul

To hurt means you care, don’t be scared

I’ll be right here

I’m just so glad you came

So glad you came

Reid’s hushed, almost conversational vocal is as soothing for us as it must have been for her companion on the train. ‘Even breathing can be so hard/ With the odds stacked against you/ You’re feeling your way through the dark.’ Her percussive fingerstyle guitar is augmented by the gorgeous strings of Scottish fiddler Essa Flett and producer Joey Walker’s bass synth pads in the tender chorus.

As with earlier impressive singles Let Your Love Run Cold, Every Stranger and A Little Closer (a duet with Easymess) in the wake of 2022’s mini-album Other Hand, the Lancaster University music graduate draws on the Celtic roots of her Scottish and Welsh grandparents to create music that spreads hope amid the uncertainty and the helplessness.

Her festival appearances were followed by three recent sold-out London shows supporting Loudon Wainwright III. The acoustic stage at Glastonbury 2024 awaits for an understated, richly talented songwriter. Reid is currently crowd-funding her full debut album; we trust her Samaritan spirit will attract a host of patrons. Lend an ear, as she does so generously; the train is arriving at a platform near you.


If You Know Me: Charm Of Finches

The charming new album by Australian sisters Charm Of Finches may have been recorded in a snow-bound forest in Nova Scotia but it exudes a fireside warmth. Our Song Of The Week at is the lovely If You Know Me, a collaboration with Sam Bentley of The Paper Kites. Harmonies to melt the hardest heart.

Marlinchen In The Snow, the fourth album by Melbourne sisters Mabel and Ivy Windred-Wornes and their first since 2021’s acclaimed Wonderful Oblivion, was inspired by the frozen beauty of the landscape in which it was created. With Canadian producer Daniel Ledwell at the helm, the alt-folk duo reflect on their transient life on the road, the idea of home and belonging, and the fragility of relationships. 

The sisters quip about If You Know Me: ‘The song is about navigating communication in the initial stages of a relationship and having a resting bitch face, haha, how someone’s facial reactions aren’t necessarily who they are inside. When we were recording we felt it needed something extra and so we cheekily asked Sam if he might jump on it in some capacity. He came back with an incredible second verse which completed it perfectly.’

Mabel and Ivy, both multi-instrumentalists like their producer, have that uncanny synchronicity as vocalists, seemingly the precious gift of siblings. Their lyrics can be mischievous and melancholic and dark but always bewitching. Their month in Canada with a frozen lake on their cabin doorstep, following five months of touring across Australia, the UK and Europe, was richly rewarding.

If You Know Me has an alluring melody and finely crafted lyric…

No one will ever know all the secrets that hide behind my frown

You think I’m cold as the winter, warm as the sun when it’s down

The second verse is sung by their guest, fellow Melburnian Bentley, whose tender tone dovetails snugly with the sisters’ celestial voices.

And I know I can be misleading when I don’t give you what you’re needing

Like a light in the evening, rain on a summer’s day

Appearing too keen can be misinterpreted. With the attractive chorus, we are getting warmer…

But if you know me

You know that I like to talk

That I like to read your thoughts

And I’ll hold you if that’s what you want from me tonight

Ivy’s violin and Mabel’s cello are elegantly prominent here before all three vocalists join in the most poetic verse…

And I know I can be a downer, a pessimistic, killjoy, frowner

But I wanna be around you, know that I do

And I’ll say what I wanna say even if it’s not what you wanna hear today

And I’m sorry for your dismay

The fairytale winter landscape of the recording location was inspirational, especially as far as the title track is concerned. The haunting Marlinchen In The Snow turns the pages of a gruesome Brothers Grimm tale the sisters recall from childhood, The Juniper Tree. The character Marlinchen buries the bones of her dead brother, decapitated by her stepmother, beneath the same tree where her mother lies and he is transformed into a bird singing the truth of his demise.

A modern murder ballad? ‘We feel it’s a story of female strength, battling oppressive obstacles and rising above them to pave a way led by your inner voice. These themes inhabit a lot of the songs on the album and in a sense encapsulate what it’s been like for us as artists.’

The dreamy, piano-led Atlantis is riddled with doubt about the depth of a relationship: ‘Shimmering walls and scaly skin/ The cold has a way of creeping in/ Voiceless mouths, unseeing eyes/ No one hears your cries in the city of disguise.’ That inner voice again, and those inescapable echoes of First Aid Kit.

Beyond the pop playfulness of Clean Cut and Middle Of Your Mess, two intoxicating tracks examine the paradox of longing for travel and pining for home. Leave It All Behind and Temporary Home were both written far from the nest. When their manager described touring as ‘just a long a long series of goodbyes’, the songwriters hurriedly noted the line.

‘Coming from searing hot Australia to the icy depths of Canada gave us a perfect framework to play with images and feelings to express the polarities of adventure and homeliness.’

Adventurous and homely: the music of Charm Of Finches in a nutshell.


Free Treasure: Adrianne Lenker

Adianne Lenker’s sixth solo album Bright Future sounds almost like a practice session, a bootleg of first or second take demos that recalls the looseness of the Basement Tapes. But spontaneity is its strength, befitting the Big Thief singer’s glorious songwriting. Our Song Of The Week at is Free Treasure, an indie folk jewel.

Big Thief were formed in Brooklyn but they’ve always felt more at home in a rural location. It’s the same with her new collaborators. Lenker gathered co-producer Philip Weinrobe and musicians Mat Davidson, Nick Hakim, Josefin Runsteen and her brother Noah to play piano, guitar, fiddle and percussion at the Double Infinity studio in New England in the autumn of 2022. As Mojo put it, their music is ‘as pure as an upstate creek, their commune vibe generating an old-school, vegetable-dyed-in-the-wool hippy aura’.

Welcome to the Woodland Tapes. Lenker’s melodic and lyrical gifts flourish in such an intimate, bucolic setting. The front porch has moved indoors. Away from her main band she prefers minimalism. Free Treasure, a co-write with Jim Krivchenia, is cosmic poetry, a large doffed country hat to Gillian Welch and the McGarrigles. Her voice, so fragile and vulnerable it might shatter at any point, is achingly beautiful. Weinrobe describes her singing as ‘so honest and so true’ . ‘She’s willing to go to the edges of her skill without fear or embarrassment.’

Stove light glows like a fire

We’re sitting on the kitchen floor

Just when I thought I couldn’t feel more

I feel a little more

I feel a little more


Patience and pleasure

Time and attention

Love without measure

Love without measure

Bright Future, an ironic title if ever there was one, was cut straight to tape, the playing and production polished but unvarnished, those little imperfections contributing to the down-home feel. We are in the room with them. The 32-year-old Indianapolis-born Lenker’s songs explore romance and heartbreak from different perspectives amid life’s impermanence, the search for emotional truth and her belief that we are destroying the planet.

Lenker and Davidson, aka alt-country artist Twain, performed a lovely version of Free Treasure on the Jimmy Fallon Show. The track is an appreciation of the gifts of nature and the little things in life and in a relationship, the seemingly humdrum.

There’s a guy on the nape of my neck

And he hangs out there all day

He quantifies my every thought

And tells me not to play

He tells me not to play

We lay around for hours

Talk about childhood pain

Mom and dad and past lives too

I can tell you anything

I can say anything

Lenker’s complicated, unconventional back story helps to explain the disarming honesty of her songs. She was born into a spiritual commune before travelling round in a van with her nomadic musical parents, who later divorced. Her music became a calling amid the turbulence: ‘It was this thing that was always there for me that I could pour my heart into safely.’ She began playing guitar at six and wrote her first song at eight. Her father took her to open mic nights when she was 12; her first album followed at 13 and dad managed her career until she broke away.

To a bright future. Sadness As A Gift, which could be the wording on Lenker’s badge of honour, is as poignant as Free Treasure. More unbearably so. Runsteen’s violin and Davidson’s harmonies build around Lenker’s strummed acoustic in a lament to a relationship that will never quite end (‘Chance has shut her shining eyes/ And turned her face away’).

‘I still like looking at the world around me with softness and an open heart,’ she told the New York Times. ‘To live in this life is to be burdened by the heaviness of whatever existence is. I feel that burden through each person I know – it’s like a loop. If you can really allow yourself to feel it, your sadness doesn’t have to be so scary. You wouldn’t feel it if you didn’t have this immense care – and so you can see your own love through the lens of the sadness, which is a beautiful thing.’

Lenker’s two last solo records, Songs and Instrumentals, released in tandem in 2020, were recorded in the early days of lockdown, a period she spent grieving for the world and her own world. On Bright Future she opted for a more relaxed regime. ‘Quiet can also be powerful and intense – when I’m just sitting and playing, I like that feeling of not having to push at all. And I really wanted to push into the naturalness of not pushing.’

Other standouts? Real House, a collection of profound childhood memories propelled by Hakim’s deliberately discordant piano; the charming, harmony-rich No Machine; the exuberant, recast Big Thief favourite Vampire Empire notable for Lenker’s Dylanesque delivery; and the desolate heartache of piano ballad Ruined, the oldest song of the set. On Real House, a paean to lost innocence and so-called because she never had one, Lenker sings: ‘When I was seven, I saw the first film that made me scared/ And I thought of this whole world ending/ I thought of dying unprepared.’

She is still having nightmares about ecological disaster, as in the mischievous wordplay of Donut Seam (‘This whole world is dying/ Don’t it seem like a good time for swimming/ Before all the water disappears?’). But as long as there’s time she still has pure love and fractured love to write about. Music to treasure.


America, Come: Aoife O’Donovan

Irish American songwriter Aoife O’Donovan’s remarkable tribute to the empowerment of women through the suffragette movement, All My Friends, provides our Song Of The Week at The stirring America, Come revisits the words of activist Carrie Chapman Catt to reflect on ‘what has changed – and what hasn’t – for American women in 100 years since gaining the right to vote’.

Inspired by two commissions to write music to commemorate the anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which enshrined women’s right to vote, for the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra and the Massachusetts FreshGrass Foundation, O’Donovan researched the speeches and letters of suffragette Chapman Catt, founder of the League of Women Voters in 1920.

As the Boston-born, Brooklyn-based musician says: ‘Woman has fought bravely, and hard, so damn hard, for her place in American society. And now, in 2024, she is watching her work crumble.’ America, Come implores us to commit to democracy values which many believe have been eroded in recent times. The chorus of this swirling, atmospheric track echoes a century-old address by Chapman Catt…

What is the democracy for which the world is battling

For which we offer up our man power,

Woman power, money power, our all?

Her fourth solo album was produced by O’Donovan, her husband Eric Jacobsen and Darren Schneider and features a lustrous supporting cast: Sierra Hull on mandolin, Noam Pikelny on banjo, New York chamber orchestra The Knights, brass quartet The Westerlies and The San Francisco Girls Chorus. The more we hear those synchronised, anthemic voices, the more we are convinced this soundtrack could transfer to the Broadway stage. All we need is a script.

America, Come is propelled by the electric bass of Alan Hampton and Dawes drummer Griffin Goldsmith. With a nod to Leonard Cohen’s Democracy, it references Lady Liberty, the ironic symbol of a democracy in which women were denied a voice, never mind a vote. ‘It’s disappointing that we’re still facing so many of the same inequalities,’ O’Donovan told The Colorado Sound. ‘There’s a part where she implores ageing senators to step aside to make room for new blood and new ideas, and it’s almost hilarious to think this is still happening today.’

Some of you are old, I know

Are you willing that those who take your place

Might blame you for not keeping pace?

Is there any gain for you, or gain for the nation to delay?

Don’t drive us away, don’t wait...

The title track was the first single to be unveiled, released on Chapman Catt’s birthday to mark the movement’s 1920 crusade to persuade Tennessee to become the final signatory and make the proposed amendment law. ‘The seeds of this song predate the entire project,’ explains the Crooked Still and I’m With Her artist. ‘All My Friends is about camaraderie, companionship, people united in the common struggle against oppression. I imagine the women literally marching in Tennessee as the dawn lifted over the fields. I imagine the struggle of needing just one more state to ratify, and just how much weight that final vote held. I imagine the collective longing for the country of our birth to open her arms.’

Over The Finish Line recalls O’Donovan’s previous release The Age Of Apathy, which stresses the importance of commitment – complacency must be resisted. It features the divine harmonies of Anaïs Mitchell, the songwriter behind the hit musical Hadestown, based on Greek mythology, and the perfect collaborator for that aforementioned Broadway project if she can ever summon the energy again.

Like the track simply called Daughters, the gorgeous Someone To Follow was written for her daughter as O’Donovan imagines what hopes and expectations the mother of Chapman Catt might have had for her in the 1800s. ‘These bold and brave women from a different time, who were their mothers? And what were they thinking? It was scary to be a powerful woman in those days. I really did start writing with that in mind. Those are words that I think every parents can relate to. You want your children to be leaders, to be the ones who are fighting the good fight.’

The majestic Crisis is named after a Chapman Catt speech. ‘I couldn’t help but feel that it could be written and delivered today,’ says O’Donovan. With its jazz inflections and glorious brass and string arrangements, we hear strains of another mighty Mitchell, Joni. ‘Wow, how was this written in 1916. This is insane.’ As O’Donovan sings, the boulder is gathering speed.

Oh America, look up, the star is getting nearer

It’s time to shout aloud to everybody who can hear us

The woman’s hour has struck

The woman’s hour is now

The woman’s hour is here

O’Donovan has accustomed us to ambitious projects, last year reimagining Bruce Springsteen’s classic oeuvre Nebraska in its entirety. On All My Friends, after eight original songs, she treats us to ‘a kind of coda’, a rendition of Bob Dylan’s early folk ballad The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll, an inventive reworking of a tale of racist outrage that remains as relevant as it did then. Those of us who still prefer the rawness of Dylan’s stripped-back original about a black maid killed by a privileged white man who escaped with a six-month sentence cannot help but applaud O’Donovan’s determination to honour the subjugated as well as the inspirational women who came before.

Her crystalline voice has a strength that belies its delicacy. She first performed the Dylan cover during a performance with the National Symphony Orchestra on the lawn of the Capitol in 2017, a few months after Donald Trump took office. Her friend Gabriel Kahane’s stunning arrangement borrows its opening from the Battle Hymn of the Republic. She decided to include the song as an epilogue to the new album. ‘There’s a parallel story there, injustice then, injustice now, and how we react to it. The starkness in the folk melody haunts me, and though the final phase is ominous, it reminds me there is an urgency we can’t ignore.’

O’Donovan would not describe herself as a protest singer or political heavyweight but justice is a subject close to her heart. Democracy is too fragile to sit back and say nothing. She has created a beautiful homage to the women of the past who fought for a better future. Her desire for women to exercise their vote in the forthcoming presidential election is a strong undercurrent. We still await the first woman president, and women’s rights in certain states remain undermined. ‘Suffrage is coming… you know it.’ Sadly, one suspects the suffering may last a little longer.


The World Turns: John Smith

‘I’ve never felt this good about a record ever. I tend to think, I hope this is good… With The Living Kind, I know it.’ John Smith’s burgeoning band of admirers agree. Our Song Of The Week at is drawn from it: The World Turns. The Essex-born, Devon-raised songwriter has emerged from a dark period in his family’s fortunes to discover ‘a new way to feel’.

The album was recorded in just four days in February last year in producer Joe Henry’s remote home in Harpswell, Maine; the creative process there took six weeks with Henry – dubbed Captain by his English guest – co-writing two of the tracks (Silver Mine and Lily).

Smith relished the serenity of the location despite the sub-zero temperatures outside, feeding off a stellar cast of musicians: Henry himself and his multi-instrumentalist son Levon, superb jazz bassist Ross Gallagher, Patrick Warren on keyboards and Jay Bellerose and Joshua Van Tassel, who share drum duties.

Smith was keen to create an intimate, atmospheric record, inspired by three classic albums: Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden, John Martyn’s Solid Air and Joni Mitchell’s Hejira. This sequel to 2021’s highly impressive The Fray tells of a period spent rebuilding lives when the Smith family’s world turned upside down within three traumatic months at the start of the pandemic: his mother began radiotherapy for breast cancer, his father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and his wife suffered a life-challenging miscarriage.

The poignant opening track Candle (‘There are days when I find it easy and there are days I don’t find at all/ When I reach for the hands that held me and they’re waving at me as I fall’) tackles his father’s dementia, Milestones is a gorgeous ode to his young daughter, the upbeat, call-and-response title track celebrates hope itself and The World Turns, a collaboration with Iain Archer, is an optimistic love song dedicated to his wife. The theme here is healing, a turn for the better, confronting despair and remaining positive.

The couple sold their house in Sussex and relocated his parents from Spain to a new home ahead of treatment. ‘This is a song about holding tight as the world carries on, unflinching,’ he says. ‘Some days it seems that life is carrying on about its immense business and there is nothing any of us can do. I do believe that if you can find something or someone good to hold on to, it becomes almost possible to stay balanced.’

I gotta find a new way to feel

Caught in a spiral

I spin like a wheel

Pull away with me darling

To some innocent field

We’ll be stronger if we soften and yield

The world turns

And I still love you

The world turns

I won’t turn from you

As the world turns

Moving under our feet

Smith told the Americana magazine Holler:‘When I started writing these songs, I knew immediately what was happening; in the space of three years, I had essentially become a different person and had a lot more to deal with. I wrote the songs just as we were beginning to rebuild our lives. They are about changing for the better in the face of loss, celebrating the good things and facing up to the bad. Trying to keep an eye on the centre, holding on to those we love and working towards a better future.’

A consummate guitarist and soulful singer, Smith alternates between acoustic, electric and slide, picking his old Martin or pedalling his inner Martyn. That percussive style is his trademark. ‘I was singing and playing how I’ve always wanted to… and these were the songs I had always wanted to write. I do feel without my guitar and without song-writing I would have lost my mind, many times. I had finally got out of my own way. It might be the first record I’ve made that really sounds like me, and what I’m trying to do.’

We described The Fray as vaccine for the soul when we chose the hypnotic Deserving as a Song Of The Week in 2021. The World Turns offers further balm as Smith finds shelter from a personal storm. ‘Outside it’s raging and we don’t hear a sound.’ He is winning the battle.


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