Fifteen years on from taking a short break to raise a family, the Sunderland-based former Radio 2 Horizon Award winner finally returns with her fourth studio album. Produced by Ian Stephenson, who also plays guitar and double bass, and featuring Jean-Pierre Garde on strings, percussionist Stephen Henderson, Santi Jayasinha on flugelhorn and with backing vocals from Anne Hills and Gareth Davies-Jones, the wait for Wonderful Fairytale has been worth it. Indeed, opening with the Hills co-write swayalong ‘The Arboretum’ (its traditional feel partly down to the fact it’s a version of ‘The Trees They Do Grow High’), a tale of love blossoming over a shared love of botany, it’s like she’s never been gone.
There’s another borrowing for the piano waltz inner Cinderella/Snow White domestic drudgery-themed title track which interpolates the well-known chorus from Lavenders Blue before moving to one of only two non-originals, ‘A Far Cry’, a swaying love song by Peter Crossley, in whose band Who’s That Man? she played in the 90s and which also features on his own new debut album.
Her passion for traditional music is clear throughout the album, both in her own songs and in arrangements or reworks of songs from the repertoire. A case in point being ‘The Cold Susquehanna’ which, again co-written with Hills and coloured by icy piano, Henderson’s rumbling percussion, and Niles Krieger’s violin, offers a twist in ‘The Two Sisters’ that spins a gender twist on the original murder ballad’s victim as well as its sibling bonds.
Featuring just her yearning warbling voice and piano, ‘My Elfin Knight’ is a dreamy pastoral folk ballad about love and loss that gives way to another love song, this time for her adopted home in the piano country waltz roll of ‘The Wear County Line’, a widow’s coming home song. Krieger’s fiddle puts in another appearance, Jones providing the accordion, on the playful ‘Humphrey Kynaston’ which, in 70s folk rock manner, tells the story of the Shropshire highwayman and spendthrift son of the county’s High Sheriff.
The only actual traditional number comes with ‘The Three Ravens’, her doomy arrangement for sombre piano and mournful viola and featuring flugelhorn that combines words from that, the ‘Twa Corbies’ and her own additions, the pace picking up with jaunty sway of ‘Never A Lad’, her accordion giving it a European folk flavour, Hill’s lyrics drawing on the same lover poisons her man to stop him straying narrative of ‘Lord Randall’.
The last of their collaborations comes with ‘Myself At Home’, a descending scales, almost hymnal piano ballad Garde’s viola adding extra wistful emotional texture to a lyric about reflection and self-discovery, time passing and growing older that chimes with the earlier ‘Wear County Line’.
Featuring a full string quartet, ‘Caden’s Lullaby’ is what it says, a song for her youngest son, a “little bonny boy” with a habit of not being inclined to visit the land of nod and referencing his dad and two brothers too. It all ends with the other cover, an acapella reading of English folk singer and promoter Alan Bell’s ‘So Here’s To You’, a parting glass song she first performed 17 years ago alongside Hills and Aoife Clacy as with Faire Winds, Hill here harmonising on the second verse and joined by Davies-Jones for the chorus.
After fifteen years’ absence, when she sings the line “now I know we will meet again”, it fair gladdens the heart.
Artist’s website: www.brickwallmusic.com
‘My Elfin Knight’ – official live video: