Simon And The Astronauts is something of a wolf in sheep’s clothing or, more accurately, disguised as a cat video. The titular Simon is poet Simon Wells who co-wrote the songs and alongside him are Boo Hewerdine and Chris Pepper who drums and was responsible for most of the recording. Tucked away are Boo’s son Ben, Darden Smith, Findlay Napier and Karine Polwart – mostly on just one or two numbers.
The opening track, ‘Astronauts’, is reminiscent of early Pink Floyd which may not be not be a coincidence as the second song is ‘Grantchester Meadows’ but not the Roger Waters song although that would have fitted in perfectly. The first two cuts are quite pastoral and then the mood changes. ‘Zinc’ is our first chance to hear Simon, speaking his lyrics, and I couldn’t help thinking of Marc Bolan at this point. Yes, I am that old. The track is decorated by Svetlana Alexievich’s theremin following Boo’s piano.
‘Bridge’ and ‘Airmail’ are both love songs, each in their way, and by now the album is getting entertainingly quirky. Karine Polwart, assisted by Findlay Napier, adopts her broadest Scots accent for ‘Love Is’ which she co-wrote with Simon. Although it sounds jokey, it’s actually quite serious and a very clever song. ‘I’m Just A Cat’ features Simon on saxophone and may go some way to explaining the cover design Or not. By this time Simon And The Astronauts is getting under your skin.
‘Oscar (Looking At The Stars)’ is Darden Smith’s solo and he backs Simon on ‘Tightly Wrapped Jackets’. Ben Hewerdine takes ‘Trampoline’ as a solo and his dad does the same with ‘Box Of Tears’ and then we get Simon’s final appearance on ‘Patti’, in part a paean to Patti Smith, more prose than poetry, spoken over Boo’s throbbing guitar.
As the styles and instrumentation mix you begin to suspect that the participants had a heap of fun making this album. The lyric booklet is one big joke but Simon’s words are deadly earnest. You really should hear this record.
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Karine Polwart today announces her forthcoming new album Scottish Songbook, due for release on August 2, 2019 through Hegri Music. The follow-up to her acclaimed 2018 album Laws Of Motion – which drew standout reviews, including Mojo Folk Album Of The Year – the new project captures multi-award winning songwriter and musician, theatre maker and published writer Polwart reimagining a clutch of tracks which span over sixty years of Scottish pop. Spawned from Karine’s much-praised 2018 Edinburgh International Festival live show of the same name, Scottish Songbook draws together her interpretations of classic tracks by the likes of John Martyn, Chvrches, Strawberry Switchblade and Biffy Clyro. The album details arrive today alongside the latest single from the album, Polwart’s version of ‘Women Of The World’ by Ivor Cutler. Karine – a six-time winner at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, including 2018 Folk Singer of The Year – will launch the album alongside a performance at this year’s Cambridge Folk Festival on August 2, 2019, ahead of a UK headline tour including London’s Barbican on November 27, 2019 (on sale March 15).
Recorded at Chem 19 (where the likes of Franz Ferdinand, King Creosote and Teenage Fanclub have all cut albums), Polwart’s Scottish Songbook features regular band mates Steven Polwart and Inge Thomson, alongside Graeme Smillie (bass and keys), Calum McIntyre (kit and percussion) and Louis Abbott of Admiral Fallow (vocals, guitar & percussion). The sextet’s hymnal interpretation of cult Scottish singer Cutler’s ‘Women Of The World’ arrives alongside the first of a series of blogs Karine will be publishing via Medium throughout the month, inspired by trailblazing Scottish women. The first – published today just ahead of International Women’s Day (March 8, 2019) – is Polwart’s tribute to Mary Brooksbank. A much-revered political activist and songwriter, Brooksbank is the only woman to have her words inscribed alongside the likes of Robert Burns and Edwin Morgan – on the Writer’s Wall at the Scottish Parliament. Polwart first came across Brooksbank’s legacy in the late nineties when – seeking an outlet from the pressures of her work at Scottish Women’s Aid safeguarding the victims of domestic abuse – she attended an evening class called ‘Women and Folksong’.
Speaking about the interplay between Cutler’s simple, resonant lyrics to ‘Women Of The World’ and Brooksbank’s struggles for women’s rights, Polwart says;
“The social and health care jobs most of us inhabited were precisely those that Mary fought for, at a time when infant mortality in Scotland’s industrial towns and cities was close to 20%, and the NHS and the Welfare State were but a dream. The act of singing in community with others in that draughty old school was physically, emotionally and politically restorative for all of us. For me, it is still. Indeed, it’s why I sing.”
Karine has collaborated with Scottish visual artist Jen Frankwell to create a series of multi-layered artworks to accompany Scottish Songbook. Created using a miscellany of items including postcards, pin badges, statistical data and textile remnants, Frankwell’s thoughtful montages cut to the heart of the issues surrounding community, dignity, purpose, mental health and hope that Polwart’s body of work continues to shine a light on.
You can read Part 1 of Karine’s blog here and Part 2 here.
Pre-order ‘Scottish Songbook’ below.
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Simon And The Astronauts really is a fascinating project. Simon Wells is a writer who had attended several of Boo Hewerdine’s song-writing workshops. Over the course of a year together Simon and Boo have made this superb album. Enlisting such talents as Karine Polwart, Darden Smith, Findlay Napier, Ben Hewerdine and Chris Pepper they worked in a very unusual way. Simon would bring a lyrical concept to the studio and together with these musicians would spontaneously write and record each track. Simon himself is a fine performance poet and also leads three of the tracks. There is spontaneity to this album that means you hear new music at the moment of its creation. Stylistically it moves between dream-pop, indie-electronica, delicate acoustics and edgy poetry. It was a chance for these musicians to work outside their comfort zones. Simon’s vision makes it all hang together in a deeply cohesive way.
When looking at tracks on the album, the album opener ‘Astronauts’ was the first track Simon and Boo recorded, at the end of the day, playing back this track that was both eccentric and accessible, they knew they were onto something special. ‘Grantchester Meadows’ follows, co-written with Ben Hewerdine, Boo’s son, who is also a very talented songwriter who has had songs recorded by, among others, Eddi Reader and Dan Whitehouse. Ben took Simon’s lyrics and made this sweetly unsettling recording. ‘Zinc’, which talks about the war in Afghanistan, is augmented by archive recordings of Leon Therimin playing his new invention. The song ‘Bridge’ was also written on day one and is the true story of a bridge in Sheffield, sung by Boo, this was the last track to be finished. Airmail is another Boo song, where he and Simon were remembering those ultra-thin letters people used to send abroad, this recording using a high strung guitar. ‘Love Is’, features Karine Polwart, a joyous take on Simon’s words, recorded with Findlay Napier and other attendees at a workshop. A personal favourite for me, ‘I’m Just A Cat’ is a blissful song, sung by Boo, about, well, being a cat. “Without Simon I would never have a written a song like this” says Boo. Chris Pepper’s production work is just fantastic on this track. ‘Oscar’ is a track where Darden Smith took Simon’s lyric about Oscar Wilde and made this beautiful piano ballad. Tight Metal Jackets features fiery poetry by Simon set against Darden’s rootsy Americana. ‘Trampoline’ is Ben’s jerky indie take on Simon’s concept and ‘Box Of Tears’ which is basically where Simon’s wonderful lyric led Boo to write this tender ballad, the track recorded as soon as it was written. The album closes with ‘Patti’, a simple yet heartfelt tribute to Patti Smith.
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It’s ‘lucky seven’ time for East Anglia’s unique, fast-rising FolkEast – England’s most easterly folk music festival. Not only is it the seventh year the event has been held in the glorious grounds of Suffolk’s 16th century festival but this year it will offer diverse performances on no less than seven stages.
The 2019 festival will be staged between August 16-18 and has all the promise of being the best yet with an enviable line-up of artists from England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Poland, Canada and USA.
Keeping to the Seven theme, FolkEast is delighted to announce seven confirmed top level acts from its highly anticipated line-up as Early Bird tickets go on sale with a special festive season offer. https://folkeast.co.uk/tickets-3/
Leading the way will be formidable folk legend Richard Thompson – a revered singer songwriter and jaw dropping guitarist– who takes to the main Sunset stage as Sunday night headliner. A co-founder of trailblazing folk rockers Fairport Convention, Thompson has carved himself a high class career bringing iconic international status, with anthemic songs like ‘Persuasion,’ ‘Beeswing’ and ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ becoming classics. Named as one of Rolling Stone Magazine’s “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” he has been honoured with Lifetime Achievement Awards on both sides of the Atlantic – from the Americana Music Association in Nashville, and the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards – as well as garnering an OBE (personally bestowed upon him by the Queen at Buckingham Palace)
FolkEast will also field some of folk’s finest female artists – opening night headliner will be the brilliantly inspired Scottish singer songwriter and hot property Karine Polwart performing with her Trio (Stephen Polwart and Inge Thomson). Karine (2018 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards Folk Singer of the Year) is on a roll having released two hugely successful albums in quick succession – A Pocket Of Wind Resistance and Laws Of Motion and also migrated into the acting world including a role in Radio 4’s drama ‘A Faraway Back Of Beyond Place’, a two hander with Bill Paterson. A songwriter with heart and soul, Stirlingshire-born Karine is a wonderful wordsmith and captivating performer sure to get the festival off to a grand start.
Saturday night at FolkEast will see a very special headline event as the peerless Irish songstress Cara Dillon (“quite possibly the world’s most beautiful female voice” – Mojo) takes to the stage with ‘Cara Dillon and Friends’ celebrating the 10th anniversary of her landmark album Hill Of Thieves which won the coveted Album Of The Year at the 2008 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. Derry-born Cara will be joined by the class line-up of husband Sam Lakeman (piano, guitar), Jarlath Henderson (uillean pipes, whistle), Ed Boyd (guitar). James Fagan (bouzouki), Toby Shaer (fiddle, whistles) and Ben Nicholls (bass).
Also from Ireland, the mighty Sharon Shannon Band will be heading to Suffolk. Born in County Clare, Sharon is a show stopping accordionist whose career is soaked in the Irish tradition but takes so many more influences on board. Sharon has played for Presidents Clinton and Obama in The White House, received a Lifetime Achievement Meteor award in 2009, and was honoured for ‘outstanding contributions in music’ at the Irish Books, Arts and Music (IBAM) awards in Chicago to say nothing of her 1991 self-titled debut CD being the best-selling album ever of instrumental traditional Irish music.
Keeping up the Celtic connection, the line-up will be enhanced by Scots-Irish trio Ross Ainslie (Scottish bagpipes, whistles), Jarlath Henderson (uilleann pipes, whistles) and Perthshire’s Ali Hutton whose combined talents create a sound that pushes the boundaries of what Scottish and Irish instruments normally achieve. Dubbed “the new stars of Celtic music,” they’ve crafted music that bursts with fresh energy.
FolkEast is also thrilled to announce that the eloquent and exquisite English singer-songwriter/guitarist John Smith will join the 2019 line up. Born in Essex, raised by the Devon seaside, and kicking off in the bars and clubs of Liverpool, John has released six albums including his most recent Hummingbird, with over 10 million Spotify streams. His distinctive, gravelly voice has been heard by audiences all over the world in living rooms, festival tents and sold-out concert halls. Steeped in the lineage of British folk, taking his cue from Richard Thompson and John Martyn, Smith has evolved a transatlantic blend of fingerstyle and slide guitar techniques and a repertoire of up close, no hiding place songs of life and love. He has opened for folk greats including John Martyn, Davy Graham and John Renbourn, who called Smith “the future of folk music”.
Flying the flag for Wales will be the effervescent five-piece revivalist traditional band Calan, who sing in both Welsh and English. The band formed in early 2006 when its members ages ranged from just 13 to 22. In 2008, they created great excitement at the Inter Celtic Festival, becoming the only Welsh band to win the coveted international folk band award. They also won best group at the Festival Interceltique de Lorient, Brittany. Playing accordion, harp, guitar, fiddle and Welsh bagpipes, they also have their own champion step dancer.
One of the most singular events on the UK festival calendar, FolkEast was launched six years ago by husband and wife John and Becky Marshall-Potter.
Rekindling the ancient Eastfolk moots on the Glemham Hall estate where for three days a year the folk from the East would meet kith and kin at harvest time for “a bit of a do”, this gathering has Suffolk running through it like letters in a stick of rock – from its locally sourced fare to its suppliers, arts and crafts.
The festival, with its ever present mythical emblem The Jackalope, offers a refreshingly different line-up across its seven stages (including the ‘Sanctuary’ stage at St Andrew’s Church, the open air Sunset Stage and the hidden woodland solar-powered Soapbox Stage), with two authentic ‘village’ pubs serving competitively-priced ales (including Suffolk-based Green Jack Brewery’s festival ale Green Jackalope) plus possibly the smallest pub in the UK, the 6 x 4’ Halfway Inn.
Then there’s the FolkEast Art Arcade, packed dance programme, archery, donkey rides, children’s activities (including den building, storybook making and a mud kitchen linked together in a special new children’s trail) yoga, poetry, storytelling, the Eastfolk Chronicle Kinedrome (showing folk and local interest films) and tours of Glemham Hall by estate owner Major Philip Cobbold.
On board again this year as a media partner will be BBC Radio Suffolk.
The Early Bird Festive Ticket offer is now open until January 6, 2019.
Advance weekend tickets are available price £110 (adult), £99 (full time students, 65+ ) and £75 for Youth tickets (12-17 year old) which must be purchased with an adult ticket. Family weekend tickets for two adults and two 12-17 year olds are £340. A great offer sees free admission for children aged 11 and under; camping under canvas is £20 and camping on wheels £30. More information: firstname.lastname@example.org
As a seasonal bonus those buying tickets by December 16 will be entered into a Santa’s Folk Stocking competition with two goody-filled FolkEast stockings up for grabs.
Located close to the A12, the festival will also be running shuttle buses to the site from Wickham Market station.
Karine Polwart’s latest CD – Laws Of Motion, released on 19th October 2018 – is her seventh release. It is co-produced by Karine with Inge Thomson (who, along with Karine’s brother Steven Polwart, seems to have provided most of the additional instrumentation for the album) and Stuart Hamilton, and it’s one of the best albums I’ve heard this year.
The CD came as a promo copy without a lyric sheet and composer credits, but from the publicity sheet I received I gather that some of the songs were co-written with Lau’s Martin Green, while there’s one I know to be a cover version. I guess the others are Karine’s own. She says “I didn’t set out to write songs on a unified theme – they’ve just landed that way. Perhaps that’s no surprise, given the times we’re in.” And in fact the themes of migration and war seem to predominate here.
‘Ophelia’ is an atmospheric song with a setting far removed from Hamlet’s Denmark. Australia, I guess, with its references to desert wind and eucalyptus? Perhaps it’s just that other songs here reflect the fear of nuclear apocalypse, but for some reason it suddenly reminded me of Neville Shute’s On The Beach.
‘Laws of Motion’, co-written with Martin Green, movingly observes the plight of the migrant.
‘I Burn But I Am Not Consumed’ is an epic mixture of spoken and sung lyric that addresses the 45th President of the US with the voice of “the ancient rock beneath the Isle of Lewis, birthplace of Trump’s mother, Mary Ann Macleod.” My guess is that Mr T. will not appreciate its pitiless analysis and reminder of his immigrant roots, if he ever hears it. But I do, very much.
‘Suitcase’ further develops the theme of migration, being about the Kindertransport, the rescue initiative that brought so many (mostly Jewish) children to the UK between Kristallnacht and 1940. The shadow of the death camps lies heavy on this intense lyric.
‘Cornerstone’ instructs us to “Tread lightly as you pass on by, and listen” – and yes, I think you should.
Shinzaburo Matsuo sailed to Scotland after losing his family in Japan’s 1923 earthquake, and tended Isabella Christie’s celebrated Japanese garden until his death in 1937. The story is told in the beautiful ‘Matsuo’s Welcome To Muckhart’.
I’m not sure what story lies behind the landscapes of ‘Young Man On A Mountain’ but it doesn’t seem to matter: the evocative lyric is carried perfectly by the melody and arrangement.
‘Crow On The Cradle’ will be familiar to old folkies: it’s Sidney Carter’s anti-war song, and well worth revisiting. Especially when it’s as beautifully performed as this, with some twists of melody and lyric that would somehow make it uniquely Karine’s own, even without the startling harmonies of the final bars.
‘The Robin’ takes a deceptively gentle melodic approach to a thoughtful lyric.
The stunning ‘Cassiopeia’ takes much of its power from the contrast of spoken extracts from the 1979 leaflet Protect And Survive “issued by the Home Office during the Cold War with the fearful, unanswerable questions of a 9-year old“. One reviewer has dismissed the track as “perhaps fighting yesterday’s battles“, but I’m not sure we should be assuming now that “we are going to be survivors” any more than we should have done then. Strangely, the juxtaposition of speech and synth reminded me a little of Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds, but that doesn’t in any way reduce its impact.
Though Karine’s vocals and the instrumental work here are never less than perfect, this isn’t, perhaps, easy listening. Not, at any rate, if you pay attention to the words (as you should), though there are some fine melodies here. But Laws Of Motion is a CD that will repay close attention and repeated plays.
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Multi-award winning songwriter and musician, theatre maker and published writer Karine Polwart – six-time winner at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, including 2018 Folk Singer of The Year – will release a new album, Laws Of Motion, on October 19, 2018 via Hudson Records. Polwart’s seventh release, Laws Of Motion is the follow-up to 2017’s much-praised A Pocket Of Wind Resistance, which earned Karine & co-writer Pippa Murphy a New Music Scotland Award, alongside nominations for the 2018 Scottish Album Of The Year & Radio 2 Folk Album Of The Year. Laws Of Motion – recorded alongside long-term collaborators Inge Thomson (accordion, percussion, synths & vocals) and brother Steven Polwart (guitars & vocals) – will arrive amidst a 13 date UK tour, including London’s Cadogan Hall on October 17, 2018.
Karine is trailing the announcement with the first track to emerge from Laws Of Motion – delicate, finger-picked album opener ‘Ophelia’. Polwart wrote it having witnessed the portentous, far-reaching after-effects of 2017’s Hurricane Ophelia from her Midlothian home. Says Karine; “When the easternmost Atlantic hurricane ever hit The British Isles, it brought with it Saharan sand and an uncanny light. Meantime, deadly wildfires ravaged Galicia and Portugal, causing black ash to fall as far north as Tallinn in Estonia. Isn’t it time we started acting as if we’re actually sharing the same earth, the same air?”.
A Pocket Of Wind Resistance used the migratory habits of geese to crack open universally human societal & ecological issues. Across Laws of Motion Polwart continues to coalesce the familial and the familiar alongside the unsettling and the unknown, driven as ever by her gift for empathy and accessibility. Subject matter as disparate as Trump, WW2 & holocaust survivors are drawn together by the laws of the album’s title alongside the experiences of migrants and allegorical folk & children’s stories. Speaking about the broad focus of the album (which includes co-writes with Lau’s Martin Green), Polwart says; “I didn’t set out to write songs on a unified theme – they’ve just landed that way. Perhaps that’s no surprise, given the times we’re in.”
Laws Of Motion is the latest in an evolving series of collaborative projects across which Polwart has combined music & storytelling with politics & environmental-societal issues. Karine wrote A Pocket Of Wind Resistance (a Songlines & BBC Radio 3 Late Junction Album Of The Year) as a musical companion to her acclaimed theatre debut Wind Resistance, now published via Faber & Faber and selected by Robert McFarlane as a Guardian Book of 2017. The production, which debuted at the Edinburgh International Festival with a residency at The Royal Lyceum Theatre, was written, musically directed and performed by Polwart, winning her the Best Music and Sound Award at the 2017 CATS. Alongside three other nominations, it also placed Polwart on the shortlist for the Best Actor ‘Scottish Oscar’ in the Sunday Herald Culture Awards.
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