When her brother, Oliver Knight, decided to take a break from music, Marry Waterson found herself with something of a quandary. Not playing any instruments herself, while she might have the words, setting them to music was a bit of a problem. However, an unexpected, and frankly unlikely, new ‘musical foil’ presented itself in the form of Jaycock. Described by mutual friend James Yorkston as a “Cornish hermit and underground psychedelic freak-ball”, he’d been impressed when he saw her performing in 2009 and, out of the blue, got back in contact to see if she’d be interested in working together.
Although this mostly took place by e-mail and phone, the pair clearly developed a fruitful rapport, he retaining his experimental approach but tempering this with a more traditional structure, and she finding ways to wrap her words round the melodies. With guitarist Neill MacColl and multi-instrumentalist Kate St. John handling production duties, contributions from the likes of Simon Edwards, Alison Cotton and Kami Thompson and instrumentation that includes piano, oboe, viola, cello, accordion and Weissenborn, the album began to take shape, the songs roaming across a wide range of subjects.
Setting the tone, it opens with the watery guitar and dreamlike pastoral cor anglais and oboe-shaded sound of ‘Sing Me Your Tune’ (a instrumental reprise providing the album’s play out), the line “You were the strange melody that came fully formed to me, the picture you painted filled the space vacated” almost a summation of the working relationship. Musically, it summons up a sort of Arthur Rackham world, a landscape of ferns, dew-hung spider webs and dragonflies hovering over standing waters, an atmosphere that permeates the following ‘Hoping To Be Saved’, a visit to the beach littered with piano arpeggios about Britain’s disappearing village communities, and, indeed, much of the album.
The seaside also finds its way into the acoustic guitar and piano dream world of ‘The Honey And The Seaweed’, the lyrics shaped from the words of her late mother, Lal, found in the same 60s notebook from whence came many of the early songs for the ‘Bright Phoebus’ project. There’s another nod to the family legacy on ‘Velvet Yeller’ which interweaves samples of her late uncle Mike’s recording of the traditional ‘Tam Lin’ between Waterson’s own verses.
With a melody line at times reminiscent of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Stranger Song’, the title track explores the duality of human nature, a fight between ego and empathy, sorrow and serenity, etched with circling acoustic guitar and a wailing Jen-1000 synth that’s mirrored by Waterson’s mournful howl. If that conjures thoughts of late 60s progressive folk, so too do ‘Caught On Coattails’ and the accompanying a capella ‘Ginger Brown & Apple Green’, both of which are redolent of Pink Floyd, the former circa Piper At The Gates Of Dawn while the birdsong on the latter can’t help but recalls ‘Grantchester Meadows’ off Ummagumma. That same air of pastoral psychedelia also hangs over ‘Brighter Thinking’.
Featuring MacColl on marxophone, the dreamily lilting ‘Woolgathering Girl’ is a particular highlight, lyrically underscoring such Waterson influences as Dylan Thomas and Billie Holiday, the ghost of the latter also haunting the jazzy blues ambience of ‘Emotional Vampire,’ while the final stretch also offers the breathy, banjo-dappled intoxication of Mockingbird with its talk of “everyday déjà-vus” and the childhood nostalgia of the music hall coloured ‘Circa ’73’ with its playful Lewis Carroll-like imagery about Wendy houses, telephones made from paper cups. “stilts made from empty tins of powdered milk” and “quick brown frogs jumping over the dogs”.
Ethereal and melancholic, like its shadow play cover illustration, it conjures and transports you to a timeless world that exists just behind the veil of our perceptions, at once mysterious and unsettling, but also alluring and comforting.
Artists’ website: http://marrywaterson.com/
‘The Honey And The Seaweed’ – official video: