Tag Archives: Mary Hopkin

Cry Me a Torch Song – the Video Version: October 2018

8 Oct

The October 2018 issue of Cry Me A Torch Song – The Video Version. Piers Ford reviews albums from Betty Buckley (Hope: “Reinforces her reputation as an astute interpreter of lyrics”); Barb Jungr and John McDaniel (Float Like a Butterfly – the Songs of Sting: “These songs emerge into brilliant Autumn sunshine as if dressed in fresh, flowing robes”); Anne Sumner (Beacon: “An arresting, throaty voice which brings a touch of soul to these harmonies”); Laughing With the Raindrops (Laughing With the Raindrops: “A polished sound that evokes languorous evenings and long summer nights”); and Mary Hopkin‘s new recording of Those Were the Days (“It’s astonishing how little-changed her voice is.”)

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Album review – Mary Hopkin: Painting by Numbers

7 Feb

Gold and Silver: a delicate and hypnotic threnody

Mary HopkinSomewhere in a parallel universe, Mary Hopkin presides as an insightful grande dame of British popular music, afforded her due as a fine singer and an astute, thoughtful songwriter.

In reality, of course, she has long-since eschewed such a high-profile path, preferring to maintain a low-key presence in the industry, taking a gently cynical stand against some of its more outrageous manifestations, and popping her head above the parapet on Twitter from time to time.

Thankfully, however, there is still new music coming from the Hopkin household, and that lovely, expressive voice – with the extra shades and textures of maturity – continues to captivate.

Following on the heels of You Look Familiar (her 2010 collaboration with son Morgan Visconti) and the contemplative Spirit, her latest album – Painting by Numbers – is an intimate set of mainly home-made recordings featuring just Hopkin and her guitar, with occasional guest musicians adding some harmonic depth at the mixing stage.

As she explains in her sleeve notes, most of them have been lifted from DAT copies and even a worn cassette (the gorgeous “Incurable Romantic”), the master tapes having vanished long since. Polishing is kept to a minimum. A handful have been mixed and engineered in the studio, a few harmonies added here and there, but always without sacrificing the sense of a spontaneous take, complete with its slight hisses and clicks.

Painting by Numbers emerges as a sweet, thoughtful, honest work of integrity, showcasing Hopkin’s distinctive, effortlessly wistful voice and making it seem impossible that more than 40 years have passed since “Those Were the Days” made her a household name.

The essential melancholy of that signature song, with its undertow of life-lessons learned the hard way, found the perfect vehicle in Hopkin’s timbre, and it unravels further through these ten numbers, from the title track, through the touching reassurance of “Fair-weather Friends” (mixed by Alan Britton, who has also added some rich, steely guitars, and featuring Hopkin’s own backing vocals mixed by Visconti), to the poignant “Love, Long Distance”.

Part timeless folk melody, part meditation on love’s ability to survive the passing of time, the Visconti-mixed “Gold and Silver” is the standout track on the album, a delicate and hypnotic threnody that hangs tantalisingly in the air before it dies away.

There are other delights. “Improvisation” is a wordless chant which works its way under your skin, “Fresh out of Favours” a world-weary emotional stock-take, “Die for you” a reminder of the power of constancy,  and “Teardrops” a cautionary look in the mirror. Rounding things off, “Love Belongs Right Here” perfectly captures the lump-in-the-throat moment of parting, and is one of several moments when the album’s bittersweet quality gives your heartstrings an unexpected tug.

Studio interventions aside, you are left with the overriding sense of a singer at peace with her art and content to let it speak for her, plainly and simply.

The tale behind the song: Those Were the Days

1 May

Mary Hopkin: those were the days… of floral prints

It’s Eurovision season again, which is a tenuous hook for introducing an article about “Those Were the Days” – an evergreen hit for Mary Hopkin who, of course, represented the United Kingdom in 1970. Alas, it wasn’t with this number, an old Russian folk song. If it had been, she might have sent Ireland’s Dana packing. Instead, she came second with the rather dismal “Knock Knock, Who’s There?” She’s never made any secret of her dislike of this typical old-school Eurovision ditty.

The following article was from a long-running series called Songscape, which I contributed to the now-defunct Singer magazine for several years. I’ll be posting a selection here during the next few weeks. I note that I referred to Mary’s spasmodic returns to recording. Happily, in the interim, she has been back in the studio – and the album (You Look Familiar) she made with her son, Morgan Visconti, a couple of years ago proved that her golden voice is still in fine fettle.

Those Were the Days

If you like your nostalgia tinged with a dose of world-weariness, “Those Were the Days” is guaranteed to send you into a reverie populated by your own loved and lost, tempered with a dark veneer of experience. It’s a folk survival anthem in a minor key, occasionally betraying its somewhat lugubrious, fatalistic Russian roots before rallying itself for that instantly recognisable, bittersweet refrain that harks back to more carefree times.

The melody of “Those Were the Days” is possibly an ancient Russian folk tune, although some sources claim it was written by a pair of Russian songwriters towards the end of the 19th century. Its early history is traced on Pat Richmond’s fascinating Mary Hopkin website, which includes an audio link to a native interpretation by Rada and Nikolay Volshanivovs.

But the song was probably first heard more widely when it was sung by Maria Schell in the 1958 film adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov. Around the same time, the great American folk composer and songwriter, Gene Raskin, encountered it and produced the English lyrics we know today.

Raskin and his wife, Francesca, kept it in their repertoire and when they appeared at the Blue Lamp club in London in the mid-1960s, Paul McCartney heard it and stored it in his memory bank. A couple of years later, he retrieved it and suggested it as the debut single for his protegée, the Opportunity Knocks winner and new Apple signing, Mary Hopkin.

Armed with a voice as pure and true as anything that has graced the charts in the decades since, and a plangent arrangement that featured various strings – including a Hungarian version of the dulcimer – and a boys’ choir, Hopkin scored a huge international hit and secured her own place in pop history.

On paper, it shouldn’t have worked. Hopkin, a vision of youthful innocence with her unspoilt folk-singer’s soprano, was hardly a convincing prospect for lyrics imbued with the hard-learned lessons of life and the wages of experience. But somehow, she got to the truth at the heart of the words and made them her own. The recording, as evocative today as ever, never leaves you doubting that the lonely woman she sees in her reflection is really herself.

Both Hopkin and Sandie Shaw recorded “Those Were the Days” in a number of different languages for the international market, singing phonetically in the custom of the time.

Shaw’s Italian, French, German and Spanish efforts have recently resurfaced, nicely packaged, on a series of compilation CDs. Unfortunately, they trade the subtleties of the Hopkin arrangement for the brassy oom-pahs that tended to characterise so many of her records. Despite her valiant efforts, she always seems to come second to the band.

When Hopkin recorded the song, perhaps she was already anticipating how quickly life in the mainstream recording industry would stale. To the regret of her contemporary fans, and plenty who have discovered her since, Hopkin turned her back on a commercial career after a couple of albums. She has made only spasmodic returns to public performance, always on her own musical terms.

Those Were the Days, Dolly-style

How touching it is, then, to hear a familiar voice among the harmonies for the title track on Dolly Parton’s album, Those Were the Days. Parton, an immensely likeable, serious musician, almost claims the song for her own. But she had her people call Mary’s people, and Hopkin’s tones – remarkably undiminished by the years – shimmer through the proceedings in delightful memory of times past.

Three of the best

Mary Hopkin, Postcard, EMI

The 1968 worldwide hit is still fresh and arresting after all these years. A concert version is also available on Live at the Royal Festival Hall 1972, released on CD by Mary Hopkin Music.

Dolly Parton, Those Were the Days, EMI

One of the highlights of a jewel-studded album from an artist who, beneath the wigs and the front, just keeps on getting better. Hopkin guests on the harmonies.

Sandie Shaw, Pourvu que ca Dure, EMI

Interesting collection of Shaw’s French language recordings, including “Le Temps des Fleurs” (“Those Were the Days”). She races the band all the way to the finishing line.

Album Review: Judie Tzuke – One Tree Less

17 Jan

“If”: Judie Tzuke at Union Chapel in 2010 – still a voice to be reckoned with

Here’s a piece of advice for Adele, Jessie J, Emili Sandé and everybody else who is riding the crest of a huge wave of fascination with young female singers and songwriters in the UK: make the most of your hour in the sun. Because once you’ve hit middle age, you’ll find it virtually impossible to get any kind of coverage in the mainstream music press.

A flurry of New Year articles hailed 2012 as the year of rock’s illustrious old guys. Bowie, Elton John, Meatloaf, Ronnie Wood and Mick Fleetwood will all turn 65 in the next 12 months, pointed out The Independent. While in The Daily Telegraph, Neil McCormick hailed forthcoming new albums from Leonard Cohen (77) and Paul McCartney (69), Springsteen and the E Street Band, and rumours of 50th anniversary tours from the Rolling Stones and the Who.

The usually excellent McCormick’s crystal-ball piece did at least name check Florence and the Machine, La Roux and Lana del Rey – prime examples of contemporary young female talent, all. But the absence in any of these stories of any reference to mature women singers (Madonna aside) reveals once again the curious neglect of a significant category of talent that frequently blights the best broad music journalism. It’s as if the media suffers from an odd, sexist/ageist blind spot. Even The Guardian’s TV listing for New Year’s Eve fell into the trap, wondering vaguely what Sandie Shaw was doing in Jools Holland’s Later line-up, apparently ignorant of her well-received participation in his 2011 tour.

At least Shaw got a mention at all. Frankly, with the exception of Kate Bush (as left-field in her career management as in her approach to her music) and Annie Lennox (who is, in any case, more likely to garner column inches for her socio-political activism than her music these days), senior British female singers seem to become invisible to the press once they pass 40. Which means that a whole range of performers and recording artists – Eddi Reader, Elkie Brooks, Barbara Dickson, Mari Wilson, Barb Jungr and Mary Hopkin, to name but a handful – are now producing some of their finest work in their middle years, without the hope of a mainstream profile or review to remind people that they’re out there, no less creative than their male contemporaries and in many cases a great deal more active.

Let’s add Judie Tzuke to the list. Her new album, One Tree Less, is a beauty. Troubled, uneasy lyrics juxtapose natural references with smarting, visceral explorations of broken relationships, fractured trust and self-doubt. The arrangements are string-laden, echoing aural landscapes, liberally sprinkled with epic piano riffs and sparkling guitar sequences that draw you in, making the occasional sharp jab of the words all the more startling.

“Stay With Me Till Dawn”: Judie Tzuke’s slow-burning torch song is still a classy affair after all these years

Tzuke has been making records for 35 years. She had her first hit, the torchy, slow-burning ballad “Stay With Me Till Dawn”, in 1978, lifted from the album Welcome to the Cruise, while she was signed to Elton John’s Rocket label. From the start, there was an edginess beneath the ethereal voice and polished pop lyrics – a restlessness and an anxiety that hinted at more substantial themes. In the wake of its success, she was put in the same bracket as Kate Bush, simply by dint of being a new, happening female singer songwriter. Truly, the music industry’s marketing imagination has never known its own bounds.

A stellar future seemed assured as Tzuke became a much in-demand touring artist and released a series of acclaimed albums through the early 1980s (she moved from Rocket to Chrysalis in 1982). But like so many before her, she found herself buffeted by an industry that has never been great at promoting and sustaining singular female talent. Ricocheting from one record company to the next for the rest of the decade and into the 1990s with diminishing returns, and occasionally beset with management disagreements, she took time out to have her two daughters (the eldest, Bailey, is now a singer in her own right and contributes backing vocals on the new album) before returning to the fray with her own label – finally in complete charge of her own career (Elton John handed back the copyright on her first three albums in 1999).

These days, the voice has a pleasing mahogany-dark timbre that compliments Tzuke’s misty upper register. From the title track, the ominous and agitated “One Tree Less”, with its tentative discovery of hope, to brooding, thoughtful numbers like “The Other Side” and “Till It’s Over”, the album showcases the ripeness of her talents – and particularly her ability to suggest an inner life in which doubt and uncertainty are constantly preying shadows, without ever sounding trite or pretentious. In other words, she is still exploring the consequences of that first dawn.

“Joy” is a deeply personal take on a friendship interrupted by tragedy. “Humankind” favours a dramatic piano intro, leading into a bleak wonder across the face of the human condition. “The Other Side” bridges the divide between life-as-a-bitch and security – but as always, with Tzuke, that note of hesitation is left hanging in the air: “though I might be wrong…”

“I Can Wait” is an up tempo, guitar-driven ballad about the sudden discovery of passion, “A Moving Target” an urgent, self-directed plea for acceptance of the way things are.

More substantial themes, indeed. So yes, Judie Tzuke is very much alive and kicking – and apparently in her prime. And more people should know about it. She’s touring the UK throughout March – which sounds like a good opportunity to catch up with one of our foremost, lamentably unsung, female singer/songwriters.

Album review – Mary Hopkin: Spirit

15 Dec

Mary Hopkin reminisces about her childhood in Pontardawe

Spirit: Mary Hopkin explores her early musical influences

If you’re in a contemplative mood and want to create a little corner of peace and tranquillity, you could do a lot worse than to light a few candles and give Mary Hopkin’s Spirit a spin. Reissued on her own label under the guidance of daughter Jessica Lee Morgan, this 1989 album offers an intimate and deeply personal insight into the early influences that coaxed Hopkin into her singing career. So intimate, in fact, that you occasionally feel that you are eavesdropping on private thoughts about her Welsh childhood.

That is the charm of Spirit. In a new note for the album, Hopkin states candidly, “No aspiration to classical accuracy here… just me and my memories.” So classical purists probably need proceed no further. But they’d really be missing the point if they started grumbling. Mary Hopkin is no pop star trying to be an opera star.

Her Introit and Kyrie from Fauré’s Requiem are honest, unfussy interpretations. “One Fine Day” from Madam Butterfly, sung in English, is a clear and touching narrative which eschews the potential for overblown drama and actually allows you to hear the thoughts of the tragic heroine – although there is one slightly tricky moment when the keyboards evoke a Hammond organ at its most tremulous. And there is an ethereal “Intermezzo” from Cavalleria Rusticana, which confirms the fact that Hopkin always had one of the sweetest voices of any popular female British singer. Mozart’s “Ave Verum-Corpus”, the sentimental parlour song “Sweet and Low” and a soaring “Ave Maria” evoke the childish innocence that must have informed those early performances at chapel or in the school choir.

Two composers’ takes on Pie Jesu are offered. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s – the only contemporary offering – recovers much of the dignity it has lost over the years at the hands of over-hyped juvenile stars, while Hopkin’s crystalline soprano weaves a moving threnody with Fauré’s version. But the highlight of the album is a delightful, folk-ish interpretation of “Jerusalem” that allows you to hear the beauty and strength of Blake’s words in a way that is the antithesis of the hearty tub-thumping treatment it usually receives.

Mary Hopkin lets the words come first

Following the success of her recent release, You Look Familiar, which was written and produced with son Morgan Visconti, Spirit is a touching reminder of the range and depth of Mary Hopkin’s singing talent. It’s great to see her back catalogue being made available while we look forward to the possibilities of new work.

CD Review – Jessica Lee Morgan: I Am Not

12 Feb

Jessica Lee Morgan: “Your Girl” – mixed by Morgan Visconti

I Am Not: don't be fooled by the sweetness and light - it isn't always what it seems

“My mamma always said, ‘Keep your powder dry’,” sings Jessica Lee Morgan in “I Wanna Be Famous”, one of the standout tracks on her debut album, I Am Not. And she pretty much did as she was told for years. Which makes sense, considering mamma is Mary Hopkin, that fine singer with a healthy contempt for the more fatuous aspects of the music industry, whose advice would probably be worth its weight in gold to any young woman who thinks X Factor is the fast track to success.

As things turn out, it’s rather a pity Jessica kept us waiting to appreciate her vocal and song-writing talents for such a long time. As she explains on her web site, despite growing up steeped in music (dad is the legendary producer Tony Visconti) and writing her own songs since she was four, she spent the first part of her life rebelling – ultimately to no avail – against following in the parental footsteps. So this record has been a very long time in the gestation. And it’s full of good stuff that marks her out as an idiosyncratic force, capable of drawing on decades of musical influences to create songs that veer from plangent folk to the insistent beats of state-of-the-art electronica – exemplified by two contrasting versions of the tender “Your Girl”.

The songs on the album span her passage from teenaged belligerence – some of which, pleasingly, she retains throughout – to introspective 30-plus maturity. It is, like her mother’s well-received new record (You Look Familiar, co-written and produced with Jessica’s brother Morgan Visconti) a family affair. Mary comes through, pristine as ever, on several of the backing vocals, melding highly effectively with her daughter’s lower, more resonant timbre in a way that brings to mind the recent collaboration between Eliza Carthy and Norma Waterson. Tony and Morgan Visconti share arrangement, co-production and mixing duties. But Jessica, who also plays piano and guitar, is always in the driving seat.

Things kick off with a country-rock ballad, “Texas Angel”, setting the tone for the tales to come, full of crystal clear imagery, smooth-flowing harmonies and a very eloquent style. But just when you think you’ve got the measure of her, she shatters the mould and moves on to something completely different. There is a real lyrical edge to many of these tracks that repays the attentive listener. The sweetness and light is rarely what it seems.

“I Wanna Be Famous” is an acerbically ironic comment on the fast-track promises of celebrity culture, all the more effective because it has such an ear-worm of a riff and would fill the dance floor in a second, calling the listener’s double bluff. In a just world it would be a mega hit.

Morgan is at her best on these electronica-dusted tracks, her voice cutting the swirling, atmospheric, retro arrangements like a knife through fine butter. “Leave the Light On” is another multi-layered beauty, echoing and poignant in its hope that things will come right in the end. “Just A Song”, a riposte to somebody’s accusation that singing cover versions was a sell-out, knocks all the pretence out of the song writer’s art.

“Whatcha Do” has a distinct R&B feel – think Mariah Carey or Beyoncé without all that infernal melisma. And on “Here it All Comes Again”, a pull-yourself-together-and-go-and-get-it, guitar-driven ballad, co-written with Hopkin, Morgan reveals a tougher vocal sound at the eleventh hour. Talent will out. There’s no need to keep that powder dry any more.

CD review: Mary Hopkin and Morgan Visconti – You Look Familiar

27 Dec

Those were the the days: Mary Hopkin sings her signature song on a very strange choice of set

You Look Familiar: Mary Hopkin shakes off the shreds of nostalgia with a fascinating new album

It’s hard to believe that more than 40 years have passed since a Welsh teenager with a melancholy, angelically crystalline voice and a curtain of blonde hair won a British TV talent show – Opportunity Knocks (how quaint that now seems compared with the global machine that is X Factor today) – and secured a substantial chart career that lasted into the early 1970s.

The name Mary Hopkin will be forever associated with the Paul McCartney-produced “Those Were the Days”, a fatalistic traditional folk song, probably originally from somewhere east of the Urals, which gave her a number one hit. Hopkin was an important early signing for the Beatles’ iconic Apple label.

A blast from the past: Mary Hopkin sings Temma Harbour, produced by Mickie Most, on Top of the Pops in 1970

She went on to work with Mickie Most on a number of hits and represented the United Kingdom in the 1970 Eurovision Song Contest. But while she came second with “Knock Knock, Who’s There?”, the experience of singing a song that she has never made a secret of loathing only added to her growing distaste for the manipulation of the music industry – and a lack of influence over her own career that was the lot of most young female singers at the time.

Although she continued recording intermittently through the 1970s and 1980s, much of Hopkin’s subsequent work was within the collaborative security of project bands Sundance and, later, with Peter Skellern and Julian Lloyd Webber, Oasis (long before a pair of Mancunian brothers changed the trajectory of British rock with a group of the same name).

Hopkin seemed bent on putting as much water between her and the days of her greatest commercial success as possible. And although there have been occasional snippets of new work in the intervening years, interviews became rare and accordingly, she acquired a reclusive, increasingly enigmatic reputation – not unlike that of Kate Bush.

Now, she has released a fascinating new album (You Look Familiar) written and produced in partnership with her son Morgan Visconti – and it’s a treat from start to finish, not least because those pristine vocals are utterly undiminished by the years. But it is also a work of real, thought-provoking depth that references Hopkin’s folk roots (“Chime” is the most overtly folk-accented track) and influences as she relates a sequence of rounded, modern stories, from the opening track (“America”) with its tale of the young stowaway heading East to the uneasy warnings of “Eve’s Revenge” and the easy, resigned chug of “Dog Eat Dog” – a catchy pub song.

Intriguingly, many of the arrangements are cradled in infectious, synth-style riffs, beats and echoing overlaid harmonies (some courtesy of daughter Jessica Lee Morgan, a singer in her own right) that often create a retro sense of lush 1980s electronic pop.

But don’t be seduced simply by the sound. Piercing barbs lurk in the lyrics, reminders that Hopkin now has the lifetime of experience that she was only able to hint at as the 18-year old singer of “Those Were the Days”. There is darkness and stinging cynicism, too. I don’t know who she had in mind, writing “Heaven Knows”. But even if her target was personal, the stinging words could equally apply to higher, more public figures and I can think of one or two politicians who would be usefully caught in their firing line.

I love “People Say”, a wise and touching account of an unexpected encounter that could lead to something more, the motherly advice of “Walk Like Me” and the epic, hypnotic forebodings of “Pretenders”. With You Look Familiar, Hopkin has emphatically shaken off the shreds of nostalgia and reminded us of a voice and pedigree that have much to offer in 2011. Don’t leave it so long next time, Mary. We’d like some more – and soon.