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Cry Me a Torch Song: the Video Version – July/August 2017

13 Aug

The July/August 2017 issue of Cry Me A Torch Song – The Video Version. Piers Ford reviews albums from Hafdís Huld (Dare to Dream Small: “Songs that suggest a new reckoning, a coming to terms with life’s complexities”); Alice & Battiato (Live in Roma: “A vast musical landscape, rich with diverse classical, rock, jazz and pop influences”); Susan Wong (Woman in Love: “A refreshing antidote to the excesses of far too many song reinventions”), and Gretchen Peters (Blackbirds: “Delicate, insistent harmonies with expressive lyrics that suddenly reach up through the surface and snap you into the reality of the story”).

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Cry Me a Torch Song: the Video Version – June 2017

1 Jul

The June 2017 issue of Cry Me A Torch Song – The Video Version. Piers Ford reviews albums from Elkie Brooks (Pearls: the very best of: “A good reminder that real staying power is pretty rare in pop music”); Emma Stevens (To My Roots: “Fresh melodies and uplifting riffs… the perfect album for a summer drive”); Jane Birkin (Le Symphonique: “A glorious, deeply moving album of Gainsbourg songs”), and Alison Moyet (Other: “An artist moving with assurance and serene confidence across the canvas of her own adventure”).

Cry Me a Torch Song: the Video Version – March 2017

2 Apr

The March 2017 issue of Cry Me A Torch Song – The Video Version. Piers Ford reviews albums from Edana Minghella (All or Nothing: “References that unique phrasing and tone without ever resorting to mere imitation”), Kate Dimbleby (Songbirds: “Completely refreshing and absorbing in these clamorous, noisy times”), Helene Greenwood (Exquisitely Hopeless: “Spacious, dreamy arrangements give way to incantations and spectral echoes”) and Julie KcKee (Light on the Ledge: “Story-songs bathed in nostalgia, yet bracingly contemporary”).

Interview: Sarah McQuaid – a born troubadour comes of age

18 Mar

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face: Sarah McQuaid gives a classic the acoustic treatment

Walking into White: the unforced richness of Sarah McQuaid's voice underpins songs of metaphor and experience

Walking into White: the unforced richness of Sarah McQuaid’s voice underpins songs of metaphor and experience

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.

Crucial Cornwall

“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.

Touring tips

“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.

Singing today

“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.

Album review – Reb Capper: Bakelite

20 Oct

Bakelite: crackling sonic references herald the arrival of a singular talent

Bakelite: nursery rhymes and plainsong are just some of the influences at work on Reb Capper's ambitious new album

Bakelite: nursery rhymes and plainsong are just some of the influences at work on Reb Capper’s ambitious new album

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.

Album review – Peggy Seeger: Everything Changes

10 Oct

Everything Changes: a bittersweet mix of memory and loss

Everything Changes: yielding fresh treasure with each new listen

Everything Changes: yielding fresh treasure with each new hearing

Just when you thought that every conceivable nuance and interpretation must have been wrung out of the Titanic long since, along comes Peggy Seeger with “Swim to the Star”, reducing the multifarious myths and facts surrounding the 1912 tragedy to a folk tale of poignant simplicity. And – sorry, Céline – what a breathtakingly intense and human moment it is.

This opening track on Seeger’s new album, Everything Changes, was originally written in response to a BBC commission to mark the disaster’s centenary, and it sets the tone for a remarkable set of contemporary songs, mostly written or co-written by this redoubtable artist and archivist. Fleshed out by her son, producer Calum MacColl, it distills experience into three minutes of near-perfection. Like a subsequent number, the spacious and edgy “Flowers by the Roadside”, it transports the listener into a world of lyrical clarity which is surely the legacy of Seeger’s life’s work in tracing and recording the legacy of 20th century folk music.

Everything Changes is not, as Seeger says, a folk album per se. Yet it reflects the tropes of folk effortlessly, dishing up lore, home truths, tales of death and ageing, and even salutary warnings about drug addiction – “Miss Heroin”, by Rutthy Taubb, is based on a 26-word verse which the writer chanced upon on the back of a toilet door in North Carolina – in thoroughly contemporary settings.

Not that Seeger is a stranger to innovation, as anyone who caught her 2012 collaboration with Broadcaster (Folksploitation) will recall. On that album, her voice had a shaman-like, hypnotic quality. Here, she ranges from girlish delight to seasoned cynicism and gentle wisdom, supported by a band which frames the songs with elegant, spare arrangements.

There is plenty of humour: “Do You Believe in Me?” is a heartfelt antidote to fairy tales and Santa Claus, and “You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are” a deliciously ironic, sexy take on seduction from the female perspective. But there are also deep veins of darkness: “When Fairy Tales End” considers what really happens in the happily ever after, while “We Watch You Slip Away” is a beautifully expressed observation of a loved-one fading into death. Then there is the quiet acceptance of the title track, with its bittersweet mix of memory and loss. Inspired and inspirational, this is an album which yields fresh treasure with every hearing.

Album review – Sarah-Jane Morris: Bloody Rain

4 Oct

A complicated proposition: Sarah-Jane Morris talks about how Bloody Rain came about

Bloody Rain: a scene-stealing new album from a singer who has always defied easy categorisation

Bloody Rain: a scene-stealing new album from a singer who has always defied easy categorisation

This is shaping up into a golden autumn for the elder stateswomen of rock and popular music across the genres. From Sandie Shaw’s exciting collaboration with Davidge to Marianne Faithfull’s best album in years, from Annie Lennox’s forthcoming dip into the American standards to Betty Buckley’s Ghostlight, from Kate Bush’s extraordinary live performances to Peggy Seeger’s ageless vocals, they are each a testament to their own capacity for reinvention and boundary-pushing in a notoriously youth-obsessed business. And they are producing some of the finest and most interesting work in their already illustrious careers.

To the growing list we must now add Sarah-Jane Morris, who practically steals the show from the lot of them with Bloody Rain, an exhilarating Africa-inspired journey through intimacy and friendship, passion, the political legacy of colonialism, homophobia, industrial exploitation, child-soldiers and the fractures that explode when Western culture impacts on traditional family life.

It sounds like a complicated proposition. But Morris’s song-writing is so adept that the personal and universal perspectives, swept up in a constantly shifting net of beats and lilting melodies, are always clearly defined and accessible – and unflinching.

Given many of the subjects tackled, an underlying anger throbs through numbers like “No Beyonce”, “David Kato” and “Coal train”. Morris’s skill is to keep it subliminal, rendering the shock of the shattering lyric above a seductive rhythm all the more potent.

Don’t be misled by the Joplin-esque fierceness of the cover image, which might suggest the album is a long howl of rage. The range of textures in this most distinctive of voices gives her a wide palate of choices, from the dark, ominous growl that she deploys on “Deeper well” to her eloquent narrative on the human cost of the diamond trade on “Coal train”, to the stark beauty of “On my way to you”. There’s even an impassioned take on “I shall be released” for good measure (apparently, it’s compulsory for everyone to include a Dylan cover when they make a new album – but this ties in seamlessly with the arc of Bloody Rain).

Morris has always been a nomadic singer when it comes to style, eschewing easy categorisation and gracefully side-stepping the legacy of “Don’t leave me this way”, that gloriously excessive, soulful collaboration with The Communards which could so easily have consigned a less-resistant artist to the “eighties singers” pen.

Further evidence of that versatility can be found in the album’s several love songs and tributes to friends and family, grounding its complex themes in the powerful resourcefulness of human relationships. And on the last track, the triumphantly satirical “Men just want to have fun”, with its calypso sway, Morris unleashes a needle-sharp humour to make her point about male attitudes to sexual freedom. This is a “Man smart, woman smarter” for the 21st century, frank and utterly contemporary.

With an exceptional band of musicians and backing singers, including Courtney Pine, the Soweto Gospel Choir, Pee Wee Ellis and Ian Shaw, Morris has created an enthralling work which ultimately soothes having delivered some powerful emotional punches. That’s quite a feat.

Don’t leave me this way: gloriously soulful, but don’t call Sarah-Jane Morris an “eighties singer”