With her second album, High Romance, Emily Mae Winters has taken a big step towards the mainstream. Both ‘Wildfire’ and ‘Gin Tingles & Whiskey Shivers’ would make hit singles even in these strange days. Her backing band makes a big sound which is remarkable given that there are only three of them. Ben Walker clearly enjoys playing electric guitar, there’s John Parker on double-bass and producer Matt Ingram on drums, percussion and piano.
The first track, ‘Come Live In My Heart & Pay No Rent’, is slightly odd, being based on an old Irish poem by Samuel Lover and I couldn’t help feeling that it misplaced in the running order and that ‘Would The World Stop Turning?’, a slow rootsy song about searching for a life never known, would make a better opener. All the other songs are written by Winters and several could be trimmed back to be closer to her earlier folk style. But clearly that isn’t Emily Mae’s intention.
‘This Land’, for example, is about the plight of the outsider; whether refugee, immigrant or runaway isn’t clear, but it’s a powerful statement about fighting to belong. ‘How Do You Fix A Broken Sun?’ is a clever song on the subject of climate change while ‘Take Me In’, although slightly opaque, returns to the theme of the outcast. I particularly like ‘Flaming Rose’, about an office worker living out her dreams of stardom alone in the nights and ‘Across The Wire’ is about separation and the power of the internet to keep people together, at least I think it is.
High Romance is essentially a pop/rock album with touches of country, soul and blues and not at all what I was expecting. Emily Mae’s voice is spectacularly good and her band is excellent but a lot of it doesn’t move me and my attempted interpretations of her writing are speculative at best. Emily Mae Winters is moving on towards a big future but I’m not entirely sure that I’m going to follow her.
Ben Walker is known as a guitarist, composer, arranger and producer but he is neither a lyricist nor a singer. For his debut solo album it would have been easy to re-run his first EP by recording a set of instrumentals and, to judge from the examples included here, it would have been very good. But it would not have been the statement that Echo is. Ben has gathered lyrics from a number of sources and recruited musicians and singers to perform with him and the result is stunning from start to finish.
The opening track is a sparkling instrumental, ‘Afon’, and if you didn’t look at the sleeve you’d be expecting more of the same. The piece ends with an almost triumphal chord and everything changes. Next is a song from William Blake’s Songs Of Innocence And Of Experience sung by Thom Ashworth and the tune that Ben has given to ‘The Ecchoing Green’ sounds perfectly traditional. ‘Ha’nacker Mill’, sung by Laura Hockenhull, was written by Hilaire Belloc and comes from Bob Copper’s archives. I’d never heard it before. ‘Rings’ is essentially an instrumental led by Basia Bartz and Anna Jenkins but it starts with a snippet of an archive recording of George ‘Pop’ Maynard. It’s not quite what Chumbawamba did on Readymades but it tips its hat in that direction.
Hazel Askew sings ‘Let Me In At The Door’, in fact a mysterious poem called ‘The Witch’ by Mary Elizabeth Coleridge. I can’t help but think that it’s an example of no good deed going unpunished but I’ll leave you to decide for yourselves. The song is enhanced by a moody, unsettling accompaniment which continues via Jo Silverston’s cello into ‘Cross Fell’. ‘On Humber Bank’ comes from a broadside ballad. Sung by Laura Ward, its accompaniment seems to reflect the sound of a heavy engine although that may be anachronistic. Jinnwoo sings another broadside, ‘How Stands The Glass Around’, which has an interesting history beyond the scope of this review and Bella Hardy takes the lead on ‘The Island’ from a poem by Dorothy Wordsworth. I’m sorry but I’m afraid that you must look this one up, too – it’s rather too metaphysical for me to explain. Then we return to Blake in the company of Kitty Macfarlane for ‘Nurses’ Songs’ before Echo closes with a final instrumental, ‘Eostre’ for which Ben is joined by Katherine Price’s oboe and Laura Ward’s flute.
The recording is immaculate, as you expect, with Ben mixing field recordings with his music to produce haunting, atmospheric tracks. There is more to Echo than that, though. The songs and poetry are deeply thought-provoking and, if you’re anything like me, you’ll spend a good deal of time reading about them.
“The Men were up from Kent, and out of Essex too – Though naught but the Thames divides us and unites us onwards – Through all the villages of England and on to London town”. Well maybe not quite the “Wat Tyler” rallying cry (by way of Fairport Convention) … However … Paul Johnson was coming from Kent and I from Hampshire to see Naomi Bedford and Paul Simmonds launch Singing It All Back Home at Cecil Sharp House in North London on Wednesday 5 June and it felt like a traditional folk and Appalachian call to arms.
Many will know Naomi Bedford, but for those that have not made her acquaintance yet, she is an English roots singer that was introduced to the wider world in 2001 after a guest appearance on later with Jools Holland with the band Orbital. Justin Currie from Del Amitri describes Naomi as “An English Emmylou” and Shirley Collins as “A favourite voice of mine… I love to hear her sing”.
Naomi Bedford’s official debut album, Tales From the WeepingWillow was released in 2011 and featured guest contributions from Paul Heaton, Justin Currie, Alasdair Roberts and Paul Simmonds (from The Men They Couldn’t Hang).A History of Insolence (reviewed here – https://wp.me/p5SuEn-4eU) followed in 2014 which picked up a Radio 2 Folk Award nomination in the Best Original Song category (alongside her musical partner Paul Simmonds), for The Spider and the Wolf. This was then followed by Songs My Ruiner Gave to Me (reviewed here – https://wp.me/p5SuEn-aGQ) in 2017 which added Paul Simmonds name officially to the album title.
However, the concert was all about the new album Singing It All Back Home, as indeed was the first half of the show. You could tell it was going to be a special night as the musicians joining Naomi Bedford and Paul Simmonds incorporated the national guitar, banjo and mandolin wizardry of Ben Walker (who also produced the album), the 12-string guitar and backing vocals of Richard Leo, the stunning harmonies of Donna Edmead and the bass of Rhys Lovell.
I Must And Will Be Married kicked things off with some great stage banter on the songs content preceding it. I was also filming and taking photos throughout the performance, so I’m not sure of the exact running order but feel confident that A Rich Irish Lady (learnt from Naomi’s mother from the Hedy West version), Hangman and The Rebel Soldier were all in the first set. Hangman had its roots in the Jean Ritchie and Peggy Seeger version with a nod towards the folk/country/rock versions of Gallows Pole. The Rebel Soldier closed the first set and that wonderful moment was captured in my video below.
In the second set, the Hedy West theme continued (one of Bedford’s seminal influences) with The Sheffield Apprentice, again from the new record. The harmonies throughout the night were really amazing with songs like Hands On The Plough and Who’s That Knocking (again from the new album) benefitting from the full 4 part harmony with Bedford, Simmonds, Edmead and Leo.
In traditional territory, but closer to home came Gypsy Davy (from the album A History of Insolence: Songs of Freedom, Dissent & Strife), with a vocal delivery approach from Bedford that was very much on the other side of the Atlantic, drawing on Jean Ritchie (Naomi’s favourite version) and the Tom Paley and Peggy Seeger version to produce a mashed up version of the two with the sentiment of Woody Guthrie.
The second set also included the chilling The Cruel Mother, this version set in New York to accommodate the arrangement from the album Songs My Ruiner Gave To Me. They closed with Railroad Bill from the album Tales from the Weeping Willow from 2011.
A great night, that breathed new life into their collected versions of Appalachian songs that had very much been rooted in the heart of the English and Scottish song tradition. Cecil Sharp House was the perfect place to launch the album.
Paul Johnson and I caught up with Naomi and Paul after the show. Click the play button below to listen to the interview.
It has been my experience that any record with Naomi Bedford’s name on it is worth listening to and adding Paul Simmonds to the mix practically makes it mandatory. With Singing It All Back Home they turn their back on their customary songwriting and present a set of Appalachian songs with roots in English and Scottish traditional songs. Despite their southern English backgrounds, Naomi and Paul sound authentically American particularly when they hit their harmonies.
Alone, they are just two voices and acoustic guitar but here they’ve assembled a cast of musicians who work together seamlessly well. Dan Stewart and Ben Walker, who co-produced the album, play banjo because you can’t have an Appalachian album without banjo and Ben also plays guitar and mandolin. Ben Paley plays fiddle, Rory McLeod adds harmonica and Lisa Knapp supplies hammered dulcimer. All of this comes over the engine room of Rhys Lovell’s bass and Billy Abbot’s drums and percussion.
The first few titles are the less familiar ones – Naomi and Paul have delved deep into the archives – but from the first notes you know what these songs are and where they are from. The first, ‘I Must And I Will Be Married’, begins in a Celtic style but when Walker’s slide guitar comes in you know that you’ve crossed the Atlantic. The melody of ‘The Fateful Blow’ sounds vaguely like ‘Johnny Todd’ but not quite and ‘A Rich Irish Lady’ surfaced later as the better-known ‘Pretty Saro’.
The first well-known track is a raucous ‘Hangman’ (‘Prickle-Eye Bush’ or ‘Gallows Pole’ if you prefer) and ‘Matty Groves’ needs no introduction but here there are rarely sung verses and variations I haven’t heard before. ‘The Sheffield Apprentice’ isn’t a song I expected to find here but I should have known that Hedy West recorded back in the 60s. Finally we have ‘The Foggy Dew’, a song well-known on both sides of the water.
If I must be critical, I would have liked notes about the origins of these versions. Not only is Singing It All Back Home a very enjoyable album, and it can be listened to on that basis, but also an important collection, particularly for someone like me – by no means a scholar but with a more than passing interest in the history of the songs.
The Appalachian ballad form has been liberally sprinkled throughout Naomi Bedford and Paul Simmonds’ albums to date. For the next project, they have recorded a full set of songs with English and Scottish roots entitled Singing It All Back Home.
This is no museum piece. In keeping with the folk tradition, the songs have been revised and re invigorated whilst staying true to the heart of the stories.
The project began with a very simple premise; to rediscover, explore and celebrate the ballads that had been such a strong influence throughout Bedford’s childhood. It’s only the most vital works that can survive nearly three centuries as living, still valid pieces and the Appalachian ballads are certainly that.
Greatly aided by the marvellous Shirley Collins, who generously donated her time, encouragement and research materials, and by Folk Award winner Ben Walker on production and multi instrumental duties, the material was chosen, rehearsed and recorded live in the summer and autumn of 2018 in Brighton. With a cast that also included Justin Currie, Rory McLeod and Lisa Knapp, the album moulds influences from England, Scotland and South East USA to stir the great melting pot of folk and roots styles.
Launching officially at home of folk music Cecil Sharp House in London on June 6th, the project will then tour throughout the UK in 2019. With new arrangements and the power of Bedford’s evocative voice, these legendary songs continue their transatlantic voyage.
‘A partnership that is complementary in every respect’ Songlines Magazine
‘Easy to get besotted with’ Froots Magazine
‘Thrills, soothes and haunts in equal measure’ Uncut Magazine
“Concerning Love, Madness & Obsession” is what is says. I’m never sure what to expect from Naomi Bedford but I’m not sure that this was it. Songs My Ruiner Gave To Me sort of picks up on Tales From The Weeping Willow except that it’s more Americana, verging on C&W. I confess that I listened to it three times through before I even felt able to venture an opinion.
The first track, ‘We’ve Hardly Started Yet’ is pure country. I’m guessing that it’s about two people in the prime of middle life rejoicing that they still have lots to look forward to. Probably autobiographical, then. ‘Misty, Golden Road’ picks up on the same theme, this time reflecting on the places they’ve been and the things they’ve done and featuring Ben Walker’s banjo. Then comes ‘The Cruel Mother’, located in New York to accommodate the arrangement. It seems oddly placed given that it’s followed by ‘The Still Want You Blues’ with Andy Summers’ slide guitar. Things get even stranger, now. Percy Bysshe Shelley could never have imagined ‘Young Parson Richards’ sounding like this. It’s not the most pleasant poem but it takes Gerry Diver – who else – to really bring out the oddness in it. This track also supplies the album’s title.
Paul Simmonds wrote six of the songs here but mostly takes a back seat to Naomi when it comes to lead vocals. An exception is ‘Ballad Of A Self Made Man’, which Paul might have considered for The Men They Couldn’t Hang but it isn’t really them although it does have the political edge of their best work. ‘Ramshackle House’ revisits and updates ‘Misty, Golden Road’ then it’s Naomi’s turn with ‘I Hate You’, reminiscent of ‘Positively 4th Street’ but with rather more empathy.
Finally, Paul’s ‘Better Than The Best’ is a sort of song of praise to his partner, Naomi. I’ve omitted mention of a couple of titles, mainly because I’m still figuring them out but Songs My Ruiner Gave To Me is an album that I’ve really enjoyed getting to grips with.