Cardiff-based musician and songwriter Bel Blue’s debut album Our Places developed out of her idea to record a few songs for an EP in the locations where they were composed. So, during the late autumn of 2015, she and producer Kevs Ford, the multi-instrumentalist co-founder of John Peel favourites Llwybr Llaethog, set up a couple of microphones and a laptop close to a bend on the River Ely and – between interruptions from the busy nearby railway line and A48 – recorded a live version of what was to become the album’s title track.
The vagaries of the Welsh weather limited the possibilities of further location recording, so the rest was recorded through sensitive condenser microphones within the more controlled confines of Dog Rose Studios. However, to keep the natural live feel going, whenever possible, the songs were recorded in one take. The collection’s opening song, Longings Gone is a perfect example of this and Bel observes that as the recording session’s final piece, it embodies her growing comfort with the process. Accompanying her fragile voice with just a gently-strummed guitar, she reflects on a relationship that has lost its way and would perhaps benefit from restarting, observing how our perception of others can change, with “Every story needs a villain; I never meant you to be mine.”
In 1961, archaeologist and parapsychologist Thomas Charles Lethbridge proposed an explanation for ghosts with his Stone Tape theory, suggesting that human memories could be stored and replayed by natural objects such as rocks and trees. While Lethbridge’s contemporaries dismissed the idea as irrational, the romantic notion that our treasured events and departed loved ones remain all around us is the theme for Bel’s song ‘Our Places’. This studio version sets the at-one-with-nature tone with a snippet of birdsong before a melancholy guitar introduces the moving lyric. During the second verse, Bel is joined by prolific, award-winning violinist Jamie Nemeth, whose emotive strokes, along with harmonised vocals add to the evocative, haunting feel of the piece. The song is perhaps best described by the Welsh word hiraeth. There is no direct English translation but it is an approximation for homesickness, longing or nostalgia. Although it is impossible to tell from hearing the song, the music and words came together quickly that day on the river bank; perhaps Bel was being guided by the countless people’s memories stored in the surroundings.
The following two songs feature guitar contributions from Kevs Ford – his tremolo electric enhances ‘In Its Time’’s dreamy examination of the nature of time, then ‘Waterfall’ finds him playing both nylon-stringed classical and steel-stringed instruments to provide a river-like, flowing feel. Written in the Waterfall Country part of the Brecon Beacons, Bel employs the fast-moving body of water as a metaphor for lasting love, singing in an uplifting double-tracked vocal, “Our love is strong like a river … it goes on and on.”
Kevs discards his guitars in favour of a portable Pearl River harmonium at the beginning of ‘Wild Dog Rose’, where he is joined by Jamie’s rhythmic violin on a wholly acoustic full band piece that also includes Ben Steer’s mandolin and percussion from Andy Constable. With Bel’s fingerstyle guitar and lyrics that striving to find peace of mind while pleading for grace, the song builds to a dramatic, sparkling crescendo at its climax. Written at Cenarth Falls on the River Teifi and partly inspired by the area’s mythology (it features in the late-Medieval Welsh prose the Mabinogion) ‘River of Dreams’ ponders what happens along the journey when dreams are followed. Again employing Kevs’ harmonium, as well as classical and steel guitars, the low-key feel of the music is tempered by Bel’s optimistic vocal.
Somewhere has a distinct country feel, fitting well with the location of an old railway bridge that inspired its conception. Kevs’ warmly shimmering electric steel guitar provides a perfect compliment to Bel’s acoustic rhythm but Ben Steer takes over guitar duties for ‘Nant Ddu’, a lovely folk-style tribute to a yew growing in that area of the Brecon Beacons. Jamie’s haunting violin and Andy’s gentle percussion paint pictures of the mighty majesty of the tree in a breeze, as it calls for human contact.
The final songs here are ‘Our Places Live’, the location recording of the song that’s referred to in the opening paragraph above and a radio edit of ‘In Its Time’ but before those, Bel plays the harmonium as the sole accompaniment for her voice on the lament ‘Along the Way’. Lapping waves and the cries of seagulls introduce and close the song, which takes a sorrowful look at those we’ve lost and the hearts we’ve broken, along the way. It’s a sad but pleasant end to the collection.
Irish-born Bel has resided in Wales for most of her adult life and the album takes us on a journey of her songs, many of which are anchored in the rivers and landscapes of South and West Wales. The artwork centres around a map showing the scenery that inspired the songs and the places where they were written, while the cover depicts a candid shot of Bel on a rope swing on the River Wye, which she feels is a good reflection of the album’s themes.
Our Places is a fine demonstration of what can be achieved by a natural coming together of minds. Bel Blue has gathered together a host of Wales’ musical talent, including chief collaborator Kevs Ford, to produce a remarkable debut collection of beautiful songs looking at time, place and nature and the way that we all fit delicately into the balance. It will be interesting to hear what comes next from this association.
Artist’s website: belblue.co.uk
‘2000 Days’ – an otherwise unreleased track: