On her own: Frances Ruffelle turns iconoclast – in a good way
Gamine and quirky one minute, drenched in melancholy despair the next – and with the occasional dash of Rive Gauche insouciance – Frances Ruffelle’s I Say Yeh-Yeh is an album of startling contrasts: part homage to the fragile-voiced yé-yé singers of the 1960s, part tribute to the wrenched-from-the-gut emotional force of that chanteuse réaliste nonpareil Edith Piaf, and part affectionate nod to the part played by Les Misérables in the launch of her stellar stage career.
Throughout, her profound love of Paris shines through with luminous clarity. An air of nostalgia, tempered perhaps with the odd regret, shimmers around the whole project. The moment things threaten to get a bit too Proustian and rose-tinted, an edgy dash of uneasiness undermines you, coaxing you into a darker place. The gritty “Paris Summer”, for example, which features newcomer Rowan John, is a case in point, infused with complex shifts and sinister nuances.
Ruffelle’s “La Foule” is a hubristic risk, but she swerves the dangers of a Piaf pastiche by refocusing on the song as a piece of street life, easy-come and easy-go: a soaring, fleeting experience snatched on an evening breeze rather than the whirling descent into madness suggested by the original. But as befits a true Piaf fan, there are respectful, spare versions of “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” and, most touching of all, the tumultuous “Hymne á l’Amour”.
The quirky comes courtesy of the Cher classic “Bang Bang” and a revitalised Francoise Hardy number, “À Quoi Ca Sert?”, brought up to date with Rufffelle’s own English lyrics. Elsewhere, her French is impeccable, giving the lie to the notion that British singers can’t cope with the francophone demands of the chanson.
The creative partnership behind Les Misérables – Schönberg and Boublil – is saluted with the inclusion of “L’un Vers l’Autre”, a gentle ballad written for Eponine, which didn’t make it into the show, and “On My Own”, the song which became her calling card in the role. This is an iconoclastic take on such a well-loved number but again, the risk pays off as she transforms it into a poignant, swinging pop song.
Ruffelle’s vocals are sublime. And in her quest to evoke the spirit of this eclectic material, she has an exceptional ally in producer Gwyneth Herbert, one of the great musical talents of her generation. Herbert’s arrangements, sprinkled with accordions and clattering tin-pot percussion, are inspired in the way they conjure scene after scene.
It comes as no surprise to learn that the record was made in just three days, recorded on vintage 1960s kit, in a converted East London brothel. You’d expect nothing less from this perfect coupling of idiosyncratic artists.
Mount the Air: the single version of the epic track from the mighty new Unthanks album
From the first note, it is clear that Mount the Air, the long-awaited new album from The Unthanks, is more than a mere collection of songs.
It’s a lot to do with the honest, unfussy vocals of Rachel and Becky Unthank, which are the calm at the centre of each vividly rendered folk tale. It’s partly due to Tom Arthurs’ insistent, mournful trumpet, which is one of the driving forces in this immersive listening experience. And Niopha Keegan’s mesmerising fiddle. And the layers of sound that build beneath elemental lyrics without once overwhelming the compelling stories as they unravel.
In fact, there soon comes a point at which you stop analysing what makes Mount the Air such a quietly majestic piece of art, awash with inspired musical references and nuances, and just let it happen to you.
Not bad for a record that’s taken two years to make, was crafted in a home-spun studio in an old granary, and is released on the band’s own RabbleRouser label – The Unthanks having stoutly resisted overtures from major names clamouring to represent them.
The extraordinary result is an important album, which shimmers on the cusp between drama and documentary – like a classic Ken Loach film. It is rooted in the environment of The Unthanks’ Northumbrian heritage but equally, reaches out across a far wider musical landscape to embrace Blue Note jazz accents, lullabies, cinema soundtracks, Balkan beats and world music influences. And it’s a testament to the collaborative song-writing skills of the five-strong band.
From the title track to “Madam”, a bleak tale of faded beauty and betrayal, to the harmonic glories of “Magpie” – a perfect earworm for a long train journey punctuated by sightings of that troublesome bird – and the bittersweet cadences of “Foundling”, navigating the delicate line between hope and despair, the album’s elegiac progress is a triumphant blend of atmosphere and emotion.
Numbers like “Hawthorn”, “Flutter” and “Waiting” combine the ancient feel of classic folk songs with a contemporary resonance that marks The Unthanks as a vital, innovative presence on the British music scene. Essential listening.
Rachel and Becky Unthank at the London launch of Mount the Air
Valkyries: Maggie Beth-Sand and Serpentyne take on Wagner and win
Here’s a thought for the dullards in charge of the UK’s annual Eurovision efforts. Why not ask Serpentyne to sing for us next year? I have no idea what the self-styled ‘Medieval-World-Folk-Rock’ band would feel about that. But I do know that the rousing fusion of their beats and the Game of Thrones vibe of their spectacular act is more in tune with broader European musical tastes than anything we’ve entered in the last two decades.
Their new album, Myths and Muses, is a rampaging set of epic tales told through the lead vocals of Maggie Beth-Sand, so evocative of great British female folk singers, from Sandy Denny to Anne Briggs and Shirley Collins.
What sets her apart is a robust musicality that allows her voice to hold its own in some pretty fierce arrangements, where it becomes as much an instrument as Mark Powell’s guitar, cittern and hurdy-gurdy, or the mandolin, didgeridoo and tin whistle that contribute to the variety of sounds. In this, she is equally reminiscent of the more esoteric voices of world music – Norwegian Sami throat singer Mari Boine, for example, or Greece’s Mariza Koch (who actually did Eurovision service, accompanied by a bouzouki, back in 1976!)
Back and forth we are swept, from the fiery story of Boudicca and the Iceni uprising against the Roman occupation of ancient Britain, to the legendary library of Alexandria, and on to an account of the Valkyries that elbows Wagner aside. There’s a Breton dance (“Douce Dame Jolie”), and several traditional English folk songs including “A Rosebud in June”, not forgetting Henry VIII’s convivial testament to “Pastyme with Good Company”.
Comparisons with Steeleye Span are inevitable, particularly with the inclusion of the Span staple “Gaudete”. But Sand and Powell have mixed in their own arrangements, introduced new melodies and lyrics, and with the other versatile players of the band they bring a wide-ranging set of new influences and idiosyncrasies to the feast. There is a ferocity in their playing which binds electronics, choral settings and swirling strings into a glorious whirl, underpinned by irresistible thudding rhythms.
The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face: Sarah McQuaid gives a classic the acoustic treatment
Sarah McQuaid might live in Cornwall these days, but it’s hardly surprising that her inner troubadour regularly urges her to get out on the road. A quick skim through her formative years reveals the origins of a nomadic streak that will only be satisfied by taking her distinctive, guitar-driven stories directly to a rapidly growing audience – wherever it happens to be.
She was born in Madrid, the child of a Spanish father and an American mother, raised in Chicago (the touring bug struck early – McQuaid was a member of the city’s Children’s Choir, which travelled widely across the North American continent), and made regular visits to her grandmother’s home in Indiana. When Europe called, she spent a year studying philosophy at the University of Strasbourg and eventually arrived in Dublin in 1994, where she lived for 13 years, carving a career as a music journalist and dabbling in songwriting, before moving to England in 2007.
McQuaid says the reasons that she now calls Cornwall ‘home’ were initially purely utilitarian: when her mother died, she took over her house – which then became the natural place for Sarah and her husband Feargal Shiels to settle down and raise their own family . But she also appreciates the county’s significance in her evolution as a musician.
“Cornwall is wonderful and I don’t know if I’d be doing what I am today if it hadn’t happened that way,” she says. “It was here that I met Zoё [Pollock, the singer/songwriter best known for her 1991 hit ‘Sunshine on a Rainy Day’]. Our kids were at the same school. We got to know each other and she came round and played a few songs for me – with nonsense lyrics. I wrote some words and it was great, just exhilarating, working with her.”
The two women formed a folk duo, Mama, and released an album in 2008. “I’d made records before that [she released her first album in 1997] and if a song came to me I’d write it, but it was never something I specifically sat down to focus on. But the whole process of working with Zoё filled me with energy and I thought this was something I could actually do, write my own songs for a career. It was the first time I started to think about myself as a songwriter,” she says.
Walking into White
It was also, clearly, the foundation for McQuaid’s status as a rising star in the UK’s eclectic galaxy of notable singer/songwriters. She has just released her fourth solo album, Walking into White, self-penned apart from a fresh, unadorned cover of ‘”The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. It showcases a quiet confidence in her skill as a lyricist, a commitment to her craft that is maturing at an opportune time, and a diversity of influences.ranging from lullabies and Latin beats to traditional folk and ballads of quality.
McQuaid’s voice has an unforced richness which is the perfect foil for the echoing, spacious arrangements of her songs – and for her guitar, which here assumes a dazzling array of guises; one minute it’s as plangent as a piano, the next, it’s buzzing on a rock-an- roll riff. A unique, multi-textured sound emerges as each song pours out a new narrative. A melancholy trumpet gives an imaginative edge to many of the songs.
When we speak, she has just returned from an extensive visit to the States and is already planning her next set of UK gigs. This will lead into a European leg and eventually to a full-scale spring tour of Britain, and you can sense her eagerness to get out there and recreate the acoustic idiosyncrasies of the album in an endless variety of live settings.
That considerable task weighs on the shoulders of her manager and touring sound engineer Martin Stansbury who helped with creative direction on the album, co-produced by McQuaid’s cousin Adam Pierce and Jeremy Backofen. Her professional hook-up with Stansbury was another key influence on her progress as a fully-fledged singer/songwriter.
“If I hadn’t started working with Martin, I would find it very hard to tour,” she says. “He handles everything. The album has quite a cinematic feel. Recreating that quality, with its musical interludes and shifting sounds is tricky and requires some technical wizardry. Some of these songs became completely transformed during the recording, and now I have to try and recreate Adam’s feedback loops live…”
The US tour was an exhausting success, which taught McQuaid a few logistical lessons.
“I’ve been touring since 2010 so this is my fourth year and I feel like I’m finally getting it,” she says. “My tip for every travelling musician is to buy nuts and put them in zip-sealed bags! I love it. The way you settle into the rhythm and life actually becomes very easy. You get up, drive, stop for an interview, check in to your hotel, do your sound-check. It’s almost military in its precision.
“However, I planned the US tour very badly. On paper it looked so reasonable – gigs interspersed with rest days. Only I hadn’t factored in the 600-mile drives on those rest days! I mean, Colorado is breath-taking but Kansas doesn’t change at all, mile after mile. But the gigs were great and it gave me the chance to return to places that I know and love. You get novelty on a tour. Every place, audience and venue is different. Even so, by the tail-end of the US tour, I was getting weary and thinking it would be nice to get home.”
Home is also the source of a lot of McQuaid’s inspiration: three of the songs on the new album were inspired by Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books, which she discovered through bedtime reading sessions with her husband and their two children, and she would always catch up if a gig meant she missed a chapter.
“Because I grew up in the States I hadn’t been aware of them – my contribution has been Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books. I love children’s literature. E. Nesbitt is another favourite,” she says.
These tracks are among the most magical on the album, taking the listener into a world of metaphors and life experiences. The ‘white’ of the title isn’t necessarily innocence – it could be a blizzard full of danger; and there is plenty of shade in McQuaid’s evocative lyrics.
“I now consider myself a singer/songwriter,” she says, after a pause to think. “There’s a hell of a lot of talent out there. And because of the technology, everyone can put their music out. Record companies don’t have all the control any more. But there’s tons of bad stuff as well, and it’s daunting that you have to plough through so much of it to get to the good stuff. The upside for an artist is that if you don’t want to perform and tour, you can just make albums and work to get them heard.”
McQuaid, however, intends to carry on doing both, and perhaps it’s a sign of her growing confidence that she included the Ewan MacColl classic on Walking into White.
“I like to do a cover on every album, and I just love this number. It’s one of the most perfect love songs ever written,” she says. “But I’m acutely aware that he wrote it for Peggy Seeger and hated all the other versions. I’ve tried to be true to it. I was aiming to sing it as though I was singing quietly to the person whose head was on the pillow next to me. “
And with that, prompted by her manager, she has to call time on our conversation. The road beckons, and there’s another destination to reach before McQuaid reels in another audience in thrall to her sonic way with a story.
There’s no Sondheim on Ghostlight but in the absence of more current video content, here’s a blast of “Children Will Listen”
I wonder if I was the only one whose heart sunk just a little with the release of Barbra Streisand’s commercially fail-proof duets album. Not because there would be any doubt about the quality – which is as clinically polished and pitch-perfect as we’d expect – but because this great, great artist is treading such predictable water at a time when other mature singers are forging ahead into new territory.
Cue – and all hail – Ghostlight, the shimmering, moody new album from Texas’s finest, Betty Buckley, which sounds positively experimental in comparison. There has always been a freedom in Buckley’s song choices that, while paying glancing obeisance to her status as a Broadway leading lady, suggests an independence and elegant wilfulness.
She has never been a conventional belter, and in this eclectic selection of standards, torchy ballads and soft rock and country songs, she takes some of the most familiar lyrics in the American songbook to darker, outlying terrain – exposing them to the ghostlight of the title and stripping them back to a kind of minimalist perfection. She is joined in her quest by producer T Bone Burnett, a life-long friend, who is responsible for the album’s stark, spacey beauty.
Looking back to a review I wrote of her 1993 record Children Will Listen for The Gramophone Good Musicals CD Guide, I note my remark that Buckley is “Refreshingly unafraid to try something different… [her] voice is unusual – husky and intense – often falling away almost to a murmur…” I would change little about those observations today, beyond adding that the years have simply brought greater depth and resonance to her interpretations.
She never forces the issue – as these beautiful versions of “Body and Soul”, Bewitched” and “This Nearly Was Mine” aver, pressing all the right emotional buttons without ever going over the top. Heartbreak is only a note away. “Lazy Afternoon” takes on an extraordinary air of mystery, hinting that anything could materialise out of the haze.
But the most interesting tracks fall in the album’s second half. There’s a sublime take on the Jefferson Airplane number “Comin’ Back to Me”, with its exquisite string arrangement, a poignant “Take it With Me When I Go”, and an honest, lyrical reading of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “When Time Stands Still”. Effortlessly majestic.
Bakelite: crackling sonic references herald the arrival of a singular talent
There must be something in the Suffolk water that is particularly good for nourishing the county’s female song-writing gene pool. Artists like Fiona Bevan, Rhiannon Mair and Reb Capper all have steadily rising profiles that are capturing attention well beyond the county boundaries.
With a generous 14 tracks showcasing a prodigious gift, Capper’s first full-length album is a curiosity shop of influences, styles and genres. Inside, nursery rhymes are retold, folkloric sprites summoned, passions collide, and the calming notes of evensong counterbalance gypsy dances and the crackling sonic references of the title track, “Bakelite”.
Capper’s ability to create a vivid idiosyncratic world in song has inevitably already drawn comparison with Kate Bush – and equally inevitably, garnered her the ‘quirky’ tag. There are certainly echoes of Bush’s early work in a shared gift for fusing human emotion with myth and earthy nature (“Voodoo Doll” is a case in point) but the similarity is mainly present in Capper’s eclectic range of influences – cinematic one minute, rooted in English folk music the next – which fuel her personal musical vision.
Bakelite is an ambitious album, full of charm. Lush emotional ballads like “Masquerade” and “Egg Shells” rub shoulders with numbers such as “Teddy Bears Picnic”, “Lemon Aid” and “Goblin Song”, which evoke a joyous early 1970s spirit reminiscent of the late Lynsey de Paul or Blue Mink. “Evening Song” grows from its plainsong intro into a soaring, hey-nonny folk number, eventually combining the two in an audacious mix, while plangent church bells segue into a blue-grass jig on the wry “Wedding Bells”.
All in all, a tasty feast, beautifully produced by Steve Mann and Capper herself, heralding the big-stage arrival of a singular talent.