NORTHERN FLYWAY – Northern Flyway (Hudson Records, HUD013)

Northern FlywayThis eponymous album from Northern Flyway is a beautiful addition to a rapidly growing body of music prominently featuring birdsong. Northern Flyway is Jenny Sturgeon and Inge Thomson’s new audio-visual project, featuring Magnus Robb’s bird recordings. Subtly drawing parallels with human migration and diversity, it’s also an alarm cry of disconnection from our natural world.

The rhythms and patterns of birdsong create audible landscapes of seasonal change, starting with the honking geese of opener, ‘Flyway’, which suggests the drone of an invisible aerial motorway of migration. The dawn chorus’s bubbling crescendo is transformed into a delirious, giddy fairground ride in ‘We Are The Morning’.

‘Rosefinch’ is the first of many songs dedicated to particular species. It’s a warm, bright song, with Jason Singh’s churring beatboxing and an accordion motif to mirror the bird’s phrasing. ‘The Gannets’ is a perfect example of how the album intertwines interview snippets and birdsong, often digitally manipulated to form beats and punctuations. The birds’ eerie, scratchy cry cuts through the airy, chant-like vocal, as a gently curling flute breaks free, soaring over a dully metallic percussion.

‘Lost Lapwing’ with its rather brusque, mantra-like vocal takes the bird’s eye view; the manipulated birdsong at times adding a whale-song-like melancholy before eliding into Robbie Burns’ delicate ‘Sweet Afton’. The richly-layered ‘Curlew’ evokes the bird’s wide-open-skies call (like a bleaker, saltier skylark), and the wisdom attributed to ‘The Owls’ (inaccurately, say some who work with them) is contemplated over a delicious curvy, sinuous beat.

The powerful ‘fragment of the past’ that is ‘The Eagle’ sees mediaeval touches added to Tennyson’s poem fragment. More early music influences, plus Singh’s menacing animalistic beatboxing, feature in closing track, ‘Huginn And Muninn’ (the names of Odin’s ravens), in celebration of the darkly intelligent corvid.

‘No Barriers, No Borders’ makes a pointed comment on migration, its breathy atmosphere faintly calling to mind The Unthanks’ Mount The Air (no bad thing). Sarah Hayes’s lovely, plangent piano lead on this and the rather more autumnal ‘Nomad’.

As a high, shimmering wave of sound moves across ‘Loch Carron Flame’, the listener’s viewpoint plunges from migrating geese down into the flame shell reef of the murky Scottish waters. Videos of the reef are available to watch online: it gives the song’s repeated ‘goodbye’ an added pathos that is almost unbearable.

Northern Flyway portrays the beauty of these birds and their often precarious environments without preachiness. Original and multi-layered, this is an enigmatic, gorgeous piece of work.

Su O’Brien

Artists’ website:

‘Curlews’ – official video:

Jenny Sturgeon and Inge Thompson announce release of their new project

Northern Flyway

Humans have always looked to the birds.  In mythology, they are carriers of souls, messengers to the gods, our familiars.  In ecology, they are our measure, our meter, they mark the seasons…

In 2017 Jenny Sturgeon (Salt House, Jenny Sturgeon Trio) and Inge Thomson (Karine Polwart Trio, Da Fishing Hands) wrote and created Northern Flyway – an audio-visual production exploring the ecology, folklore, symbolism and mythology of birds and birdsong. Northern Flyway premiered to a sold-out audience at The Barn (Banchory) in January 2018 and a CD of the songs was recorded at Mareel, Shetland, over four days in early February 2018.

The music draws on the extensive field recordings of birdsong expert Magnus Robb, Sturgeon’s background as a bird biologist and Thomson’s home turf of Fair Isle, Shetland. The songs combine vocal and instrumental composition, interviews, sonic experimentation and lush and varied bird song from the northern hemisphere. Themes of human and avian migration, the seasons’ cycle and humanity’s relationship with nature resonate through this multi-dimensional work. Alongside Jenny and Inge, Northern Flyway also features singer/multi-instrumentalist Sarah Hayes (Admiral Fallow, Rachel Newton Band) and vocal sculptor/beatboxer Jason Singh (Follow the Fleet, Tweet Music).

Jenny Sturgeon – vocals, harmonium, dulcimer
Inge Thomson – vocals, accordion, flute, thumb piano, kaoss pad, wave drum
Jason Singh – beatbox and sound design
Sarah Hayes – vocals, piano, keys, flutes, Hammond
Magnus Robb and The Sound Approach – bird samples
Featuring – Whooper swan, Rosefinch, Swift, Siskin, Gannet, Curlew, Snipe, Lapwing, Linnet, Crested Tit, Osprey, Gold Crest, Black Grouse, Dotterel, Golden Plover, Red Grouse, Snow Bunting, Ptarmigan, Golden Eagle, White Fronted Goose, Waxwing, Redwing, Ural Owl, Tawny Owl, Goldeneye, Raven.

This project was made possible through support from Creative Scotland, PRS Foundation, The Scottish Ornithologists Club, The Barn, Northlink Ferries and LoganAir.

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SALT HOUSE – Undersong (Make Believe MBR7CD)

UndersongThere have been changes in the Salt House with Jenny Sturgeon joining Ewan MacPherson and Lauren MacColl and having a big impact as songwriter and lead vocalist alongside Ewan. What hasn’t changed is their use of literature as well as traditional sources to inspire their music. Undersong is only their second album, five years on from their debut, but it has been worth the wait.

There are no guest musicians on Undersong and there really is no need for them with everyone playing at least instruments and my criticism of Lay Your Dark Low that some of the vocals weren’t strong enough has been dealt with. There is a lightness and openness in the music which makes this album very good listening. The opener, Jenny’s ‘Old Shoes’, is a perfect example. Starting with just voice and dancing guitar – I’m not sure if that’s Ewan or Jenny – it slowly builds up with Lauren’s strings and the addition of the other voices. ‘Turn Ye To Me’ comes from a 19th century collection with words by John Wilson but Jenny’s music makes it sound very modern and they repeat the technique with ‘The Sisters’ Revenge’ a gorgeous song which I was convinced was an original written in the traditional idiom. Half right: the words are traditional but the tune is Ewan’s.

‘Lay Your Dark Low’ wasn’t on the album with that title and I can’t say when Ewan wrote it but it is another stunning song. Jenny’s ‘Charmer’ presages Lauren’s setting of Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’ and we’re back to the tradition with ‘I Sowed Some Seeds’ albeit somewhat adapted by Ewan. The title track which closes the album was written by all three band members and lives up to its name having a double meaning.

Undersong is a very fine album and comes highly recommended.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website:

‘Old Shoes’ – official video:

Salt House announce their new album

Salt House

Five years on from their debut, which announced a major new force on the scene, Scottish band Salt House release their new album Undersong. Produced by folk heavyweight Andy Bell (Martin Simpson, Songs of Separation, Jon Boden, Furrow Collective), the album instills a special sense of place, recorded in a restored Telford Church on the island of Berneray, Outer Hebrides.

Whether it’s setting old words to new melodies, re-working ancient ballads or writing their own – Salt House marry all their musical strands with a deep understanding for the British song tradition and an empathy for a story. Recent recruit, singer-songwriter Jenny Sturgeon joins multi-instrumentalist and songsmith Ewan MacPherson and violist and fiddler Lauren MacColl to weave stories of landscape, place and time.

The Telford church used to record the music was featured in Channel 4’s Restoration Man and is a special, hugely creative space, in a location which marries perfectly with the band’s love of the islands, the outdoors and of nature. Salt House are based in the Highlands and Northern Isles and the music for Undersong was created over the past year between the Cairngorms and rural Aberdeenshire.

The ten songs on the album include new settings of poetry, a reworking of a Scandinavian ballad, and six new songs from Jenny and Ewan’s own writing. The band deliver and arrange their material with an honesty and respect to the story, the words, and their lineage, whilst continuing to forge their own sound.

Artists’ website:

‘Old Shoes’ from the album Undersong:

Jenny Sturgeon records an EP for St Kilda

Jenny Sturgeon

The Wren And The Salt Air is a collection of songs and tunes by acclaimed Scottish singer-songwriter Jenny Sturgeon. It was written to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Scottish archipelago of St Kilda becoming a World Heritage Site for its natural features.

The Wren And The Salt Air, commissioned by the National Trust for Scotland (NTS), comprises four new pieces of music inspired by the wildlife and human history of the archipelago. It is a spellbinding collection that effectively captures the unique atmosphere of St Kilda, Britain’s most remote island group.

In this EP Jenny explores the connections between birds and music, and woven into the tracks are her field recordings of the birds of St Kilda, as well as those of composer, author and ornithologist Magnus Robb (The Sound Approach).

Susan Bain, the St Kilda Site Manager for NTS, says of the project:

“The St Kildans drew inspiration from the landscape and wildlife around them in order to compose songs and melodies and I’m delighted that Jenny has continued this tradition. As a World Heritage Site St Kilda has value to all of humanity and music can connect and inspire peoples across the globe regardless of language or culture.”

The Wren And The Salt Air  features Jenny (vocals, shruti box, guitar), Jonny Hardie (fiddle, vocals), Pete MacCallum (guitar, vocals) and the distinctive calls of the St Kilda Wren, Leach’s Storm-Petrel and Black-Legged Kittiwake. This, the third studio recording from Jenny, was recorded over two days at Studio 1604 in Aberdeenshire.

St Kilda is an iconic group of islands with a wealth of human history and animal life, including a seabird population of around half a million birds, plus a unique sub-species of wren and mouse. St Kilda and its history have long captured the interest of people across the globe. It was as recently as 1930 that the last native St Kildans left the archipelago. Today, three organisations – NTS, Scottish Natural Heritage and the MoD – work in partnership to further a continuing programme of conservation and research on the islands.

Artist’s website:

Trailer video:

Jenny Sturgeon announces debut album

Jenny Sturgeon band

Inspired by her home region, the north east of Scotland, Jenny Sturgeon explores themes of nature, legend, myth and everyday human experience as she celebrates a community that is both local and global. The songs and the range of musical influences they incorporate weave a web of varied styles and feelings that ebb and flow through the album.

Jenny’s lyrics and the album arrangements fuse traditional Scottish folk styles with contemporary musical genres across a range of styles and places. The songs create a rich tapestry – from local history and folklore through key life moments – and as a biologist, nature creeps in to all of Jenny’s work which is reflected in the striking artwork.

With exceptional vocal clarity Jenny weaves melodies with her thoughtful and poignant lyrics. From energetic and spirited songs to delicate ballads and gritty laments, ‘From the skein’ captures the range, depth and imagery of Jenny’s songwriting. As pointed out by Charlie West, Director of Stonehaven Folk Festival, she is skilled at producing songs across a wide range of styles: “taking a simple melody and creating a haunting ballad, or writing compelling narrative songs which immediately engage with the audience“.

From The Skein features Jenny’s regular bandmates and the album co-arrangers – multi-instrumentalists Jonny Hardie (Old Blind Dogs), Davy Cattanach (Catford) and Grant Anderson (Brothers Reid). Special guests include Fraser Fifield on whistle and saxophone, Brian McAlpine on accordion and cello player Aongus Mac Amhlaigh. Guest vocalists include Indian Carnatic singer Rahul K Ravindran and Gaelic singer Ana Maia MacLellan. The album was produced by accomplished piano player and songwriter Simon Gall (Salsa Celtica) with whom Jenny worked on the critically-acclaimed 2015 Clype album.

The album opens with ‘Maiden Stone’, one of several songs on the album inspired by regional folklore. This track features the distinctive low whistle of Fraser Fifield, whose melody weaves around the vocals and the driving bass line, building tension and giving the song the timeless feel of an old ballad first sung hundreds of years ago.

The breadth of inspiration in the album is apparent in the songs ‘Running Free’ and ‘Honest Man’. ‘Running Free’ is a track borrowing from folk as well as drum and bass genres to create an uplifting and energising song, featuring Brian McAlpine on accordion and punchy rhythmic instrumentation on guitar and bass. The delicate and light ‘Honest Man’ has a dream like quality with lush vocal harmonies and a rolling tenor guitar melody.

Other tracks such as ‘Linton’ highlight Jenny’s interest in local history. This song tells the tale of the Cutty Sark and her designer Hercules Linton – who hailed from Aberdeenshire. The steady rhythm and Rahul Ravindran’s thrilling improvised melody create a light and fluid song which dances over the guitar and percussion as a boat over water.

The power and emotion of Jenny’s voice and lyrics are clear in the only unaccompanied track on the album – the politically driven song ‘Judgement’ – as well as in ‘Cùlan’ which tells a variation on the tale of the popular traditional song ‘the cruel sister’. With Gaelic translation and delicate harmonies from Ana Maia MacLellan this track is hauntingly beautiful.

From The Skein is testimony to Jenny’s songwriting and storytelling ability as well as to the creativity of the musicians. It was born out of a love of folk music and the joy of creating new compositions and has produced a varied, vibrant and inspiring album.

Artist’s website:

‘The Greenwood Side’ live, featuring Fraser Fifield: