With a background as much in art as music (she studied fine art at Reading University), and despite notions about devoting half her time to each pursuit, it was music that won the early battle for her attention. Teenage influences – spells as vocalist with a big band, an occasional classical lesson, and a love of British and Irish folksong – all left their mark on a vocal style variously described by the press as “quintessentially English”, “one of the most stirring female voices in contemporary British folk music”, and “a superb voice that defies categorisation”. Hilary James’ voice is certainly one that easily crosses the great musical divides.
Despite albums and countless tours with long term partner Simon Mayor, it wasn’t until 1993 that her solo debut Burning Sun appeared, a mix of British folk ballads, evocative originals and a nod to the classics. The follow-up, Love Lust & Loss, was a collection of mostly traditional songs, and a collaboration with that remarkable pianist, the late Beryl Marriott. It wasn’t until her third album, Bluesy, that Hilary returned to her other, earlier influences and explored her, well… bluesy side.
With Lullabies With Mandolins in 2004 she and Mayor briefly returned to their early work with children. The duo had previously presented music education programmes for the BBC for six years, were among the last hosts of the iconic BBC TV programme Play School, had written over fifty songs and released five Musical Mystery Tour albums for children. The new CD was a bedtime collection of traditional songs and classical tunes, and like their previous recordings for children, proved just as popular with adults. “Exquisite, magical, delicate, intriguing” said Roots Review; “Get two copies” raved Irish Music Magazine (one for the nursery and one for the adults).
Eventually, paint brushes were retrieved from the loft, new canvases appeared, and so it was no coincidence that her 2011 album was entitled English Sketches, a celebration of English rural life. It was her best received album to date, gaining a place in The Sunday Times ‘Best ten world music albums of the year’. The sleeve features – of course – sketches by Hilary. Which brings us by a rather circuitous route to the album You Don’t Know and a return by Hilary to the bluesier side of her repertoire.
You Don’t Know is the ‘other side’ of Hilary James. Her last album, English Sketches, celebrated the English landscape, weather and seasons through traditional song and new settings of English poetry, but her formative years were influenced as much by the blues, the Great American Songbook, and singing with a big band.
Nods to her folky side are still evident here. ‘Deep River Blues’ is as beloved of ragtime guitar pickers as of bluegrass and old-time bands, but done here as its title requests, Hilary’s voice competing with Brendan Power’s soaring harmonica and Simon Mayor’s violin. It’s performed here with a new bridge section written by Hilary. The granddaddy of ragtime guitar pickers himself, Reverend Gary Davis, wrote ‘Say No To The Devil’, in an effort no doubt to guide his followers towards his religious world view; it’s arguable his massively influential guitar playing earned him far more secular disciples. ‘Frankie & Johnnie’ is the only narrative song on the album: the age old story of love, betrayal and revenge, with a doubly tragic ending.
A long love affair with the music of Hoagy Carmichael surfaces here with three tracks. ‘Skylark; and ‘The Old Music Master’ are both collaborations with Johnny Mercer. Mercer was said to have written the tender lyrics of ‘Skylark’ with Judy Garland in mind, a stark contrast to the ‘roll-over-Beethoven’ themed flippancy of ‘The Old Music Master,’ but both display his lyrical genius to the full (how many could rhyme spinet with infinite?). Carmichael’s own, brief but fondly affectionate lyrics to ‘New Orleans’ witness once again the predilection of American writers for “songs called cities”.
The words to the throwaway ‘Separation Blues’ were actually written by a man; it’s a song not wholly typical of Patrick Sky, a product of the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene who became infamous for biting political and social satire. His album Songs That Made America Famous was rejected by numerous labels before eventually gaining publication. Utah Phillips, a man also prominent on the 20th century American folk scene, wrote the enigmatic ‘Rock Salt And Nails’. Like Sky, he took a strong political stance, but was more protester than satirist.
Gershwin’s ‘They All Laughed’, a favourite from the Great American Songbook, has been a lifelong part of Hilary’s repertoire, dating from her days with the big band. It featured in the 1937 film Shall We Dance and incorporated a classic Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance routine.
A few years ago, an old recording by Gracie Fields of the rather long, but intriguingly entitled ‘The House Is Haunted By The Echo Of Your Last Goodbye’ featured on the long-running BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs. After the broadcast, the phone began to ring with friends and relatives suggesting it would suit Hilary’s voice – so here it is!
‘Need Your Love So Bad’ has achieved the status of a standard among blues-rock artists, similarly in the jazz-blues scene with ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’. ‘Last Show Tonight’ is a song Hilary first wrote some twenty years ago, dusted off, polished up, but decidedly not to be taken literally…!
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