Returning from Brazil determined to pursue her ambition of becoming a professional musician, Stevenage-based Oliver has had a busy and fruitful year. Since playing her first folk club gig in June 2013, she’s opened for such acts as The Urban Folk Quartet, Gilmore & Roberts and Dave Swarbrick, played numerous festivals, Cambridge included, released an EP and won a Help Musicians UK Emerging Excellence Award. Now comes her debut album, a simple, uncluttered affair predominantly constructed around her guitar playing and occasional harmonica that bears witness to her traditional influences (she’s been often likened to Annie Briggs) as well as her songwriting prowess on a largely self-penned set, drawn, the blurb says, from her Irish grandparents and “a dose of indignation”.
It’s one of her own that gets the ball rolling with ‘The Witch of Walkern’, an acoustic strummed number that mine the folk tradition of tales about women falsely condemned for witchcraft, though here, as in the titular case of Jane Wenham, a Hertfordshire woman whose 1712 ordeal is claimed to have been the last witch trial in the UK , the accused secures her pardon.
The perversion of justice is also at the heart of the bluesy, harmonica blowing ‘Mr Officer’, a song about witnessing a murder built around a repeated line, as she declares “that boy you have taken in is not the guilty man you seek” while righteous anger burns through ‘Off To The Market’, a familiarly traditional styled tune that addresses the cruel trade in human organs, guns, animal hides and horns, and girls abducted to be sold into prostitution.
She spins engaging stories, though most are haunted by dark shadows; the light, shimmering melody of ‘Grandpa Was A Stoker’, on which Swarbrick contributes fiddle, conceals a lyric about the hardship of life in a ship’s engine room that drove men mad, ‘Playing With Sand’, on which she harmonises with herself, talks of a prejudiced education system that assumed Irish immigrants to be ignorant and in ‘Diamond Girl’, a lovely rippling, descending chords ballad on which Luke Jackson provides harmonies, although the girl could do no wrong in her devoted lover’s eyes, she proves less forgiving of his mistakes. An a capella version is also hidden away at the end of the album.
There are, however, some patches of light. Although in the steady strummed ‘Dear Daughter’, the father refuses to let his daughter follow her lover to America, he does so because he won’t let her waste her life on a banished ne’er do who “shamed the girls and .. stole from all around’ and ‘only wants a wife to keep him from the cells’” And, while the gentle ‘A Gush Of Wind’ documents, rather like some Victorian ballad, how a milling family falls on hard times with the baby dying, being made homeless and the father accused of theft, they retain faith in prayer to deliver then which, in the ambiguous final line, seems to have been finally answered.
The remaining two numbers are non-originals, the first a crystal pure reading of the traditional ballad ‘Mary And The Soldier’ and the second, on which Sunjay Brayne provides guitar accompaniment, a heart-aching stripped down version of Dougie Maclean’s much-covered ‘Caledonia’ that makes me recant my desire never to hear it again.
With a full tour almost completed and featuring on November’s anti-war charities fundraiser cover of Pete Seeger’s ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone’ by folk supergroup Armistice Pals, alongside such leading folk names as Judy Dyble, While & Matthews, Reg Meuross, Dave Swarbrick, Christine Collister, Johnny Coppin, Merry Hell and Edwina Hayes, it’s been a remarkable year for Oliver. On the evidence so far, that’s just the tip of what promises to be a very big iceberg.
‘Diamond Girl’ – the official video featuring Luke Jackson