It’s probably unusual to open a record with a passionate modern madrigal to the physics of gases. You wouldn’t expect to find the work of NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory on the long-awaited new record by a BBC Folk Award winning guitarist. It’s unexpected, too, that a broadside ballad from the 1700s would work brilliantly as a trip hop track. But then, Ben Walker has always been quietly full of surprises. One of UK folk’s true time travellers, he is an acute observer of patterns – in language, in history, in people.
Reviewers of Ben’s first solo album Echo called it exceptional (Folk Radio UK); a profound statement connecting past and present (fRoots), ambitious, distinctive and brilliantly achieved (Songlines) and, quite simply, stunning (The Guardian). Ben’s second album Banish Air From Air hits no lower, exploring the relationship between mankind and nature. Exquisite instrumentals, traditional material and reimagined poems sit alongside Ben’s first forays into songwriting, featuring an enviable list of guest vocalists. These include Mercury Music Prize nominee Sam Lee and fellow BBC Folk Award winner Nancy Kerr alongside some newer voices – indie-folk songwriter Sophie Jamieson’s evocative vocals, Emily Mae Winters’ dramatic storytelling, Louis Brennan’s bleak growl, Lucy Alexander’s post-punk swagger, as well as Ben’s most recent tourmate, acclaimed singer-songwriter Kirsty Merryn.
Speaking about “Starlings, Walker commented: “This was the first thing I wrote for this album, inspired by the murmurations of starlings on the seafront where I live. Every time I see them, it never fails to make me stand and stare. We still don’t really know how they do it They don’t need words to communicate, so nor does this.”
Since the beginning of thought, we’ve seen starlings fly in ever-changing formation, storms wreak destruction out of nowhere, the planets move and the seasons change – and we’ve reached for explanations from myths to maths Ben Walker draws together folk tales, ghost stories, philosophy, alchemy and science with a characteristically eclectic musical palette.
Ben’s famed fingerstyle guitar weaves a path through found sounds and subtle electronica. Orchestral strings swoop from the sky to the forest, from the ocean to the edge of space. You won’t know what’s coming next, but it doesn’t matter; just close your eyes and let this record take you away with it. The first single (5 January), ‘Starlings’ starts the journey beautifully and gently with a deceptively simple sound painting of birds in flight. In the second, ‘Banish Air From Air’ (1 February) Sophie Jamieson’s vocals build an electric storm over Ben’s Reich-inspired arrangement of Emily Dickinson’s spare but unsparing poem. The third, ‘The Way Through the Woods’ (24 February) frames Kipling’s poem in cantering banjo underneath Nancy Kerr’s naturally accomplished vocal and marks the release of the album.
As Ben says: ‘It’s both humbling and strangely comforting to think just how small and temporary we really are, it puts all the everyday rubbish back in perspective. That being said, it’s a very human instinct to try to put a justifying narrative to the chaos. I’ve been a mathematician as long as I’ve been a musician. I’d usually default to music or science to describe the world but folk superstitions offer their own explanations of things we’re still figuring out. We’ve got hypotheses which go back centuries, from folk myths to religion, from alchemy to science. I love the satisfaction of peeling back the layers of a folk tale and finding that, in its own way, the story still makes sense. I started to play with developing a few of the folk stories I was reading into lyrics to work with musically and found that I rather liked a couple of them. With everything that’s been going on in the world, it’s taken me nearly three years to make this album, but I hope it’s better for the extra time spent thinking, testing, trying a few things.
“I’ve worked with some wonderful artists for this record. It’s a privilege to make music with such generous people, so incredibly good at what they do. I really enjoyed making it, so I hope it speaks to you too.”
Artist’s website: www.benwalkermusic.com