Formerly part of Waking The Witch as well as collaborating in duo or trio form with Ashley Hutchings and violinist Ruth Angell, the clear-voiced Yorkshire-born Mills released her solo debut back in 2013, so the follow-up has been long anticipated. Joined by both Hutchings and Angell and featuring Blair Dunlop’s electric guitar on two tracks, this won’t disappoint.
All self-penned with an ear for the tradition, it opens with ‘My Brother’s A Farmer’, cello, concertina and violin colouring a slow waltzing song about her pheasant farmer brother and how the job leaves him no time for romance or a private life.
Featuring Dunlop with Angell on pump harmonium, there’s a further family connection with the six-minute ‘The Lady Of Ballantyne’, sung in the voice of her storytelling grandmother Eve Mills (nee Ballantyne) recalling her family history and of a young girl taken from her land of black stone across the waters to marry an older man she’d never met, the story coming with a rare happy ending.
A sparse arrangement of just guitar, cello and wine glasses, the intimately sung, highly traditional sounding ‘Crocuses’ was written in memory of a family member and how, her grave unmarked for some time, Mills planted crocuses which now return each year in commemoration of her life.
Hutchings and Angell joining on in the backing vocals, her grandfather gets his turn in the songbook on breezy strummed swayalong ‘The Gunsmith’s Daughter’, the old man a self-taught gunsmith who’d shoot at anything that flew, much to the consternation of his daughters, Then, hospitalised, he’d lie in bed watching the birds flying away, living their lives, and underwent sea change, never again shooting a living thing.
Mid-way in comes a brace of songs recorded live with Angell on violin and backing vocals at St. John’s Church in the North Yorkshire village of Newton-upon-Rawcliffe, the first being the slow waltz ‘No Tears For My Fisherman’, the story of a comfortable-off widow from near Robin Hood’s Bay who married a younger fisherman from Saltburn, thinking she’d be rescuing him from a life at the waves only to find their calling was stronger than that of the marriage bed, although she remained content to wait for his return, his third mistress after the sea and his boat.
The second is ‘Last Look At Home’, a jauntier fingerpicked melody serving a song about facing the uncertainty of days ahead with optimism and in the company of the one that matters to you most, assured in the knowledge that the sun will rise again.
Returning to the studio and family, the playful ‘City In My Lungs’ is sung in the voice of her great grandmother who, when she married a sailor, left the family grocery store in Wallsend where she worked to move in with the in-laws in North Yorkshire, only to become homesick for the noise and smoke of the docks, not comforted by her moody husband (“he sulks all day in his shed with his Dad/And in six long weeks I’ve only ever known him bath once”) and unable to make friends on account of her strong accent.
The song, strummed in a lively 60s folk troubadour style and accompanied by acoustic bass, concertina and violin has her begging her folks to let her come back, laying out all her woes , swearing she’d even become a nun for “a great big drag of the city in my lungs”. There is, however, a cute turnaround as he agrees to let her go, but says he’d miss her, and she decides “the city life was never much of a place for raising babies on”.
The same grandmother is the narrator for ‘William’, a low key, spare solo showcase for Mills that talks about how, in 1941, the ship on which her son was serving was torpedoed with only fourteen survivors, he not being among them. Her hair turned white overnight, but she refused to accept he was gone, everyone thinking she’d gone mad with grief. Just under four years later, at Christmas, he knocked on the front door.
Again featuring Dunlop and with Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne on melodeon, Mills returns to marriage for skittering ‘The Wheeldale Crossing’, or, more accurately, not marrying but living together, commonplace enough today but a rare thing in the late Georgian era, other than, of course, on the Moors where they make their own rules. `Not that this is a celebration of liberal sexual mores, but rather a tragic tale of how Jack drowned when he got caught in the crossing (“turning like a monkey on the wheel of chance”) and was washed away, only for the locals to accuse her of being a witch when, in a ritual, she burns his clothes but leaves his boots at the churchyard gate for his ghost to retrieve.
The final credited track is the strummed ‘Row Like Grace’, Angell back on pump harmonium, which, as you might rightly assume, is about Grace Darling, one of Mills’ heroines, her courageous actions here serving as a metaphor for her riding life’s tempestuous waves for her other half if he needed her.
There remains a hidden bonus number, ‘Barry Sheene’, a robust strummed singalong tribute to the legendary 70s motorcycle rider and star of the Scarborough circuit (not to mention ladies man) with Dunlop on guitar, a violin solo from Angell and everyone piling in on backing vocals. Ride on indeed.
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‘No Tears For My Fisherman’ with Ruth Angell: