In 2009, Swindon-born Richings, then frontman with indie outfit Sleeping With Giants, was diagnosed with a rare and severe form of colitis which eventually metastasised into cancer. Three live saving operations later, he’s doing well and is expected to live a relatively normal life. Except a normal life has now taken on something of a different meaning, as, while he was recovering, he decided to make the most of the chance he’d been given, jacked in his decorating job and started taking his music seriously. To which end, he released the Half Way Up EP last year and then set about putting together his debut solo album, Parkas And Boots, recording this time not in the New Forest, but in Sydney, with Passenger producer Chris Vallejo at the helm and featuring the Enigma Quartet on strings.
As you’d imagine, the album, a collection of troubadour folk songs, is very much informed by his illness and recovery, opening with the rhythmically shuffling reflective title track, a touch of the Simons perhaps, about childhood dreams and how time moves on and friendships wane. That same idea also informs the simple acoustic slow waltz ‘Glorious’, an older years remembrance of those brief fairy tale moments of a boyhood living in rural Ireland.
Taking a slightly funkier, more soulful turn, the organ-underpinned ‘Ten Seconds’ (reminiscent in places of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams’) was written at the height of his illness, using the experience of how the day starts off fine before reality kicks in for a song about optimism. The softly fingerpicked, tinkling keys, slow swaying ‘Halfway Up’ is another number directly relating to the same experience, about adopting a glass half full attitude in the face of hardship and how what goes around comes around. The same notion that things can turn on a dime rings true of the minimal, strings-backed ‘Curse of the Lonely’, where he sings “I live on a fault line and I sleep with the lights on. I’m scared of the shadows and what’s not yet happened.”
Loss and hope go hand in hand. On the hymnal-like community spirit piano ballad ‘Give’, to the accompaniment of yearning violin he talks of hanging on to a miracle and how “maybe if we gave a little more than we did, If we all had trust, love, hope and belief… it’s all we’ve got to do if we want to live.” Likewise, having faith in things getting better is also at the heart of Jenny, a song about a fractured relationship and a woman who’s lost touch with herself, but advising her bruised heart partner to hold on because “when Jenny decides that it’s right, she’ll come back to you.” The healing power of love and connection is there too on the lap steel tinged mid-tempo ‘Mississippi’, another reflection on years passed, distances between and wisdom gained (“it’s a long way back but I’m coming. I’m hoping the years have been kind to you and maybe you still think of me too”), the tug of home and the need to settle down seeping over into the guitar rippling ‘Sunset In Tibet’ (“Been running all my life…it’s time I turned around and run home”), another number that calls Paul Simon to mind.
The remaining number is also one of my favourites; slowly gathering to a swelling finale, ‘Crossbow’ is a song about regrets, but also, drawing on the nature of bird song and the changing seasons, about the hope of redemption and salvation. Rob says he doesn’t want his illness to define what he does and who he is. It doesn’t need to, the heart and honesty of his music speaks for him.
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‘Ten Seconds’ – live: