Before The Sun, Hannah and Ben’s debut album as a duo, caused a few ripples in folk circles. I predict that Awake will cause a real splash; from its remarkable cover design to the mix of songs it takes everything that its predecessor had and doubles it.
Hannah’s background as an anthropologist gives us the source of some of the songs. The opening ‘Selkie Song’ is their own composition and is, of course, a retelling of ‘The Great Silkie’ with a twist and ‘Reynardine’ reminds us that Hannah recorded ‘The Werewolf’ on her solo album, Charms Against Sorrow. The use of Tarot artwork in the booklet emphasises the mystical elements of the album but in one or two cases I really would prefer the words.
Like its predecessor Awake is very much a transatlantic album, again recorded in Toronto by David Travers-Smith. Although ‘Selkie Song’ might be thought of as a very British song, it is Chris Coole’s banjo that is the key sound. ‘I Met A Man’ is very much Hannah’s song – a pop ballad with acoustic guitar and pedal steel decoration – in which she finds her inner Kate Bush. Then comes a surprise. ‘Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key’ is Billy Bragg’s setting of Woody Guthrie’s words, not a typical Guthrie lyric at that, and Hannah and Ben treat it so delicately even as the accompaniment swells behind them. It’s partnered here by ‘Santa Fe Trail’, that oh-so-evocative depiction of the American west, and Pete Seeger’s lullaby ‘One Grain Of Sand’.
‘7’ utilises the children’s magpie rhyme as its chorus which brings us back to the mystical but it’s preceded by ‘Every Night When The Sun Goes In’, a guitar instrumental of beautiful simplicity and a definite American feel. ‘Reynardine’ rocks as hard it can with acoustic instruments with Hannah taking most of the lead vocal and Ben singing the part of the nocturnal rambler.
Awake is an album that will take a long time to get to the bottom of. You can easily enjoy it but sooner or later you’ll find yourself asking ‘what’s that?’ or ‘why did they do this?’. That’s what is really great about it, apart from ‘Santa Fe Trail’, of course.
Two years ago, Hannah Sanders & Ben Savage stirred the folk and acoustic world with a stand-out debut album and there’s been little slumbering since. Now they are set to release an arresting second studio album, Awake. The combination of Hannah’s outstandingly pure, clear voice, their perfect fit harmonies and Ben’s exquisite dobro are the rock-solid foundations of this rising duo, first witnessed in the 2016 album, Before The Sun. This quality pairing unarguably has hypnotic effect, painting aural dreamscapes around them in resonant songs that are given room to breathe.
When Hannah’s folk family travels across Europe and sojourn in America ended and she returned to her native East Anglia, a chance meeting at a Cambridge folk club with The Willows band member Ben was the start of something special. Ben went on to produce Hannah’s solo album Charms Against Sorrow before they ventured into duo territory uncorking a beguiling, intricately woven, ethereal sound all their own. Before the Sun saw them named in many Albums of the Year lists including the 2016 fRoots Critics Poll and hinted at a largely untapped song writing talent amongst the expertly executed traditional arrangements and covers. That song writing skill moves more centre stage in Awake – an album that shows them fulfilling all the promise heaped on them.
Once again, they have returned to Toronto, putting Grammy-nominated Canadian producer David Travers-Smith (Madison Violet, The Wailin’ Jennys) at the helm for this album crafted with infinite care. The eleven-track release has six strong originals alongside innovative arrangements of traditional songs and captivating covers from the Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie cannons. The eye-catching album cover by psychedelic artist Alan Forbes depicts the High Priestess and a deer as The Hanged Man from the tarot card deck and tarot icons run through the CD booklet. Says Hannah:
“We used tarot throughout the recording process to help us think and feel more deeply about the music.”
A duo who delve into the mysterious and often like to release music in line with the lunar calendar, their live show sees them huddled around a single microphone, drawing the audience in. And so it is with this magnetic album.
Alongside Hannah’s trademark mountain dulcimer and Ben’s delicious dobro, they both play guitars on the album. Adding their magic are guest musicians from both sides of the Atlantic – from the UK Jon Thorne on double bass, Evan Carson on percussion and Norwich singer songwriter Jess Morgan, Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts on additional vocals and from Canada Chris Coole on banjo, David Travers-Smith on horns and organ, Burke Carroll on pedal steel and on vocals, Vancouver-born American-Canadian alt country singer songwriter Suzanne Ungerleider who performs under the name Oh Susanna.
Entwined in the sturdy roots of English and North American music, Awake stirs with two original Sanders/Savage numbers – the mythical sea woman yearns to return to her spiritual sea home in the banjo-laced ‘Selkie Song’ and there is more heartache in ‘I Met A Man’, a modern retelling of the ancient story of love between a woman and a green man, with Burke Carroll weaving in his wonderful pedal steel.
The original material continues in ‘A Thousand New Moons’ – a luminous, gossamer-spun reflection on endings and beginnings, with Ben on lead vocal. The symbolic number 7 is the title of a song Hannah wrote for those who search for omens in the natural world, prompted by a friend desperate for a life change. The haunting instrumentation adds pedal steel and horns to Hannah and Ben’s guitar duet and the popular ‘One For Sorrow’ magpie nursery rhyme provides the chorus. The beautiful title track was originally written by Ben to tempt a talented friend out of a musical hiatus but has taken on a wider meaning and here it enjoys a lush vocal crescendo with the duo joined by Jess Morgan and Oh Susanna. Reaching is an exquisite, mellow, pin-drop perfect love song written by Hannah which closes the album in this duo’s soft tread style, building to a flourish which unusually features Ben on drums.
Awake is an album that stirs the soul and further endorses the empathetic class act that is Sanders and Savage. Released on May 11 on the Sungrazing Records label it will be distributed by Proper Distribution.
For multiple JUNO Award winner Stephen Fearing, a cross-country relocation – from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Victoria, British Columbia – kicked off a period of reflection that inspired the songs which became Every Soul’s A Sailor, his ninth solo record.
While they span a range of musical styles from folk to pop to boot-stomping roots, the tracks share a common focus – the value of The Journey; the various paths we take in love, life, and even after-love, and the after-life.
From the late-night introspection and driving beat of ‘Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is’, asking listeners to reflect on how life’s energies were spent, to the haunting and ethereal ‘Gone But Not Forgotten’, featuring guest harmonies by Rose Cousins, the record gave Fearing the opportunity to blend his musical realms.
“I have travelled consistently between the two poles of solo and ensemble work. With this album I wanted to see if I could bring those two worlds together in the studio and then out on the road,” he explains.
This sonic blend created an ideal environment for Fearing’s first (in a long time) straight-up protest song, ‘Blowhard Nation’. As a spectator of Donald Trump’s con-man campaign of hate and fear, it came from a place of humour and sarcastic outrage and ended up a Merle Haggard-inspired roots rock anthem that leaves you wanting to two-step straight to your local tavern.
“Once the songs were written, I asked master drummer Gary Craig to help me shape them into what you are listening to. We chopped down the intros, added a chorus here, a half verse there, and generally aimed to ensure that even the slower tempos had trajectory and momentum.”
Together with Craig and bassist John Dymond, both of whom Fearing has worked with extensively over the past 20 years on solo projects and as the rhythm section for Blackie and The Rodeo Kings, they created a lush, propulsive sound that draws in the listener with an almost hypnotic, effect.
The album also gave Fearing a chance to work with David Travers-Smith at the console (listen too for his poignant horns on ‘Gone But Not Forgotten’). “Over the years we’ve worked together now and again, but it was always in my mind to make a record with him co-producing and engineering. David is passionately meticulous and these songs were shaped and polished by him.”
Stephen Fearing is a founding member of the Canadian super-group Blackie and The Rodeo Kings. Over the course of his celebrated career he has collaborated with a long list of artists including: Nick Lowe, Shawn Colvin, Richard Thompson, Pam Tillis, Bruce Cockburn, Sarah McLachlan, Tom Wilson, Colin Linden, Margo Timmins, and many more.
Hannah Sanders first solo album, Charms Against Sorrow, was produced by Willows guitarist Ben Savage who also played on the record and shared in the arrangements. With Before The Sun their partnership has been formalised but little else has changed except that the duo went to Toronto to record with David Travers-Smith.
To the mix of traditional songs and covers is now added some originals and the first ‘The Fall (Hang)’ opens the set. I’m still puzzling over this track – it could be a reinterpretation of a murder ballad or a macabre accident like Bob Pegg’s ‘The Hanged Man’. I think I lean towards the former. Next is the first traditional song, ‘Come All Ye Fair & Tender Maids’, a mid-Atlantic version finished with a playground round. ‘What’s It Tonight My Love?’, another original, sees Ben take the first lead vocal. Its description of night in the city puts me in mind of ‘Chimes Of Freedom’ even though there is no resemblance between the two songs, other than the feeling that it leaves you with.
Next come three traditional songs. The first is ‘Lady Margaret’, an English song with variants in the United States. ‘Clayton Boone’ is definitely American and gives Ben another lead vocal and the chance to play Dobro. It is, of course, a variant of ‘Gypsy Davy’. Finally in this section we have the haunting ‘Deep Blue Sea’, a version that doesn’t quite match any set of lyrics that I can find. Hannah and Ben’s version is rather more gentle than the standard text and rather lovely.
Hannah and Ben play guitars, dulcimer and autoharp and are joined by Kevin Breit and Katriona Gilmore on melody instruments with Evan Carson and Jon Thorne on percussion and double bass. For the most part they are used sparingly but they do get to have a blow on Richie Stearns’ ‘Ribbons And Bows’. Joining them on vocals are Jim Causley, Robin Gillan and Jade Rhiannon.
The final track is ‘Boots Of Spanish Leather’ sung as a duet as it is written. They slow it down a bit and the singing is sad and wistful where Dylan managed a blend of bitterness and resignation. He knew the back-story, of course, and it all happened fifty years ago but I’d advise anyone tackling the song to read the relevant section of a biography. It’s beautifully performed, as is the whole of the album, but to an old curmudgeon like me it misses something.