Signe Tollefsen sings You, Me & The Brewers. Folk at its noirest
I’ve just been reading Richard Metzger’s fascinating analysis of torch singing on the exciting and eclectic Dangerous Minds blog, in which he gives a generous assessment of the Art of the Torch Singer. Thank you, Richard. Metzger draws particular attention to male artists who have specialised in the genre and his post is well worth a visit. It’s already attracted some interesting comments about singers who should be included in the genre. You’ll find plenty of other connected, music-related material on the site as well. And now, here’s some folk noir for these dark winter days…
You know how the idea of a crisp, snowy December twilight will occasionally work its way into your mind on a steamy summer day, shocking you with a pang of longing to sip whisky in the halo of a flickering log fire while everything hibernates in the shadows beyond?
That’s the effect Signe Tollefsen had on me as I spun her eponymous offering for the first time just a few months ago: perverse, edgy, hankering for the kind of emotional workout that only comes with alcohol-soaked, troubled and troubling relationships. Yikes.
This is folk noir, apparently. And it’s as dark and compelling as anything you’ll find this side of Brel. Tollefsen spins brilliant, diamond-hard images against a gently loping undercurrent of guitar – lots and lots of guitar (some of it of the steel-pedal variety, which in the right hands is always good for conjuring a sense of knives twisting in wounded souls) – banjo, accordion, wailing fiddles and dulcimer. Misery has rarely sounded this inviting.
Dutch-American and an Amsterdam resident, Tollefsen is a born troubadour with a sound as capable of evoking solitary journeys across interminable plains as it is of hypnotic story-telling in the intimacy of a cellar bar.
A cool musicality is revealed in this work (she studied classical singing at the Royal Northern College of Music in her teens) as she plays with rhythms that showcase her bleakly sensual lyrics. “Mama tell me why can’t I sing… Mama let me wallow in my pain,” she sings with uncompromising purity. “I am an art, deprived of a king,” she laments at the receding figure of a dead lover. Vulnerability is exposed. Characters spring to life, doomed unions are played out in a voice of considerable range and, despite the essential gloom of the material, sweetness. ‘The other woman’ is regularly referenced, and themes of duplicity and infidelity creep insidiously into the picture.
And Tollefsen has created a sound that’s very much her own, too. Occasionally, I found myself reminded of Joni Mitchell or the steel-eyed clarity of June Tabor. More prosaically, there is a rather shouty outburst in “History Class” that will certainly appeal to lovers of the full-throated Florence Welch approach to singing. But for the most part, vocally, she keeps her own counsel.
As for the songs, each one is a complete story, told by turns viscerally, through a sequence of potent sensual images, or through a more conventional narrative. I love the opening track, “It Smells of You”, about how the essence of a departed lover hangs around long after the physical presence is gone; the ominous sense of entrapment in “Hooked (You Spit in my Whiskey)”; and the gritty emotional bargaining at the heart of “Up to No Good”. And any lyric that contains the line “I wake up to the smell of gin and regret” (the song has the rather unpromising title, “It Was Ooo”) will always get my undivided attention. Tollefsen sounds like she’s been there. I’ve certainly been there. Haven’t we all? And wouldn’t we all go back for more?
Now those December nights have closed in, the fire is flickering and I’m ready for a bit of heavy catharsis, and Signe Tollefsen is at the top of my playlist. Just thinking about it gives me a chill. Oh go on, then. Pass the bottle, dammit.