Born and raised in Derby, Ward was a BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award finalist in 2009, won the Horizon award (for best newcomer) in 2012 and her recording of ‘Maids When You’re Young’ nominated as best traditional track and, last year, was nominated for Folk Singer of the Year. So, I’m a little embarrassed to say that I was somewhat ambivalent about her first two albums. However, I’ve no such reservations regarding her third, released on her own label and again produced by Megson’s Stu Hanna (who also provides keys and guitar), with all but one number being self-penned.
I was instantly taken by the haunting violin (courtesy Anna Esslemont) intro to ‘Summers That We Made’, conjuring images of sun kissed dusks over English country fields, Ward’s voice , with its hint of accent, arriving on a ray of light, sounding more assured and tender than before. It’s a gorgeous way to start an album and, potentially, a hard act to follow. However, ‘Ode To Whittaker Brown’ rises to the task, Lukas Drinkwater accompanying on double bass and Hanna providing subtle piano notes on a muted and moody song with clear Nativity imagery inspired by mother’s birth in a Nissen hut after being made homeless following WWII.
The country’s social history also fuels ‘Creatures and Demons’, triggered by a BBC Radio 3 commission to write a song based on Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel North and South, resulting in a slow march rhythm, fiercely swelling protest number about the great divide between rich and poor, the powerful and the helpless, its crescendo showing just how much her vocals have developed.
Her political conscience is also in evidence on ‘Lion’, a song inspired by the WWI execution of young rifleman Robert Loveless Barker for cowardice, originally commissioned by Billy Bragg for the 14-18Now project and performed at Glastonbury, here revisited and recorded in collaboration with the haunting backing of the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band. Likewise, the album’s closing track, a densely textured ‘Return To Earth’ with its banjo spine and witchy violin, is an environmental warning that the planet takes back what its spoilt children have wasted, inspired by the bronze age burial ground of Titterstone Clee Hill in Shropshire which is slowly sinking back into the earth.
On a lyrically relatively lighter note, with its moodily spare, siren call instrumentation, ‘Daniel and the Mermaid’, from whence comes the album title, is a musically shimmering slice of family history recalling the story of how her great-great uncle and his crew mates supposedly caught a mermaid off the Isle of Mull. Another true story is at the heart of the poignant, acoustic guitar and keys-based ‘Connie and Bud’ which tells the bittersweet no hope tale of two star-crossed lovers struggling to survive in 1950s Wales, living out of a car. Rather more lyrically upbeat, ‘Song For Lola’ is a dreamy acoustic sexually ambiguous ballad about a day’s chance encounter with a free spirit that again highlights Ward’s developed vocal range.
The only non-original is her version of the much-covered doom-drenched border ballad ‘Lord Randall’, Ward’s East Midlands accent clearly to be heard in an atmospheric arrangement that sets her breathy, sensual delivery against pensive guitar and keyboards backing that gradually swells and builds to a sonic storm climax. I may have been a little slow getting on board, but this album has made me a fully fledged convert.
Artist’s website: http://www.lucywardsings.com/
‘Return To Earth’ – official video: