Although A Woman’s Work is her seventh album, there’s a very good chance you’ve never heard of the piano-playing New England singer-songwriter. It is, however, very likely you’ll have heard one of her songs. She’s and had her songs covered by such superstar names as Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, Trisha Yearwood, Stevie Nicks and Bette Midler. She also wrote the title track for Johnny Cash’s 1996 Grammy winner, Unforgiven. From hanging out at the recording sessions for The River, invited by Clarence Clemons, and singing on albums by T Bone Burnett and Cohen to being asked to co-write with Dylan, Johnstone’s had a pretty eventful musical life, but it would be good if her own music got the exposure it deserves.
An introspective and reflective set, the female perspective songs largely informed by the end of her 28-year marriage and recorded live over the space of two days, this may well be the one to do that. Backed by organ and streaked with pedal steel, it opens with the quietly aching pedal steel streaked Americana of ‘Never Leave Amsterdam’, a resigned farewell to a holiday romance that will always linger. If the waltzing piano and cello accompanied title track sounds familiar, it’s because it gave Trisha Yearwood a No 1 some 25 years ago, but this the first time Johnstone’s ever recorded it herself. It was worth the wait.
Things switch mood and style for ‘People Holding Hands’ a bluesy slouch, a feel that later carries over into ‘Turn Me Into Water’, though here with the organ and backing vocals bringing an added soulful, gospel touch. There’s softer blues tones to be heard on ‘Little Boy Blue’, a drum program providing the shuffling beat upon which keys and strings build an early hours vibe.
Here forte, though, is soulful piano ballads that recall 70s Carole King and her ilk, and there’s plenty here to illustrate the fact, ‘The Woman Before Me’ augmented with pedal steel and cello, the reflective, confessional ‘What Do I Do Now’ with its harp and viola having the air of a Broadway showstopper while ‘Road to Rathfriland’ introduces penny whistle and button accordion for an Irish-infused slow march and the defiant, slowly swelling ‘I’ll Cry Tomorrow’ is swathed in string heartbreak with a deep resonant guitar break by Grammy-winning sessioneer Andrew Synowiec.
The album closes on another such ballad, the wistful ‘Before You’, a song you can almost see being delivered on a darkened stage, Johnstone alone in a spotlight as cello, upright bass and drums whisper their support from the shadows. Heartfelt, intimate, melancholic but yet somehow hopeful, could be one of the best things you hear this year.
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Artist’s website: www.judejohnstone.com
‘Before You’ live: