A Cornish poet now based in the Welsh valleys, Illsley makes his singer-songwriter debut with a thematic companion piece to last year’s award-winning collection of poems, A Brief History Of Trees. Recorded in his late mother’s living room in Trewellard, twelve months after, a former nurse, she died of pancreatic cancer, he set out to document and preserve the songs they shared in front of the roaring fire, a memento to his childhood home and testimony to the power of song to sustain memory and bring healing.
His voice an engaging gargle-warble with clipped phrasings, it opens with the gently tumbling chords of ‘The Rapeseed Yellow, The Poppies Red’, part reminiscence of growing up of and the last summer they spent together but also a musing on transition, be that traffic lights, the dimming of the day or blood soaking sand, that carries with it hints of Cat Stevens perhaps intermingled with a folksy David Byrne.
It’s the first of six tracks to feature backing vocals from friend and fellow Cornish folksinger Sarah McQuaid, her second appearance coming with the following number and the album’s emotional centrepiece, the fingerpicked ‘Ogres’, a song about the importance of friends’ support during a time of crisis. “Let the ogres come/They will drag you away from me/But I will fight them with my sword/I will catch them with my cavalry”, he sings; given the album’s backdrop, it’s almost impossible not to choke up as you listen.
Taken at a slightly jauntier pace with chugging electric guitar, Roger Luxton’s percussion and a calypso-like chorus, ‘Long Lost Rover’ is couched in another infectious melody and a lyric that, steeped in the land and the seasons, again draws on the image of things passing (“Here’s to the worth of a summer’s sun when the days are done and the nights go on, hungry now, I listen for the band”) and of the calling on of memory.
There’s a similar rhythm to ‘NY Lizards’ with its subtle percussion rumbles, a song that while, sung in deeper tones with just a slower fingerpicked arrangement, carries an urgency in its verses with their impressionistic snapshots (“I love the sound of rushing grain and passion in the skyscrapers”), the city streets that “like a photograph capture your life”.
If that’s somewhat enigmatic, ‘Solid Gold’ is more a simple love song, an ode to the muse that flames inspiration (“You are the idea that rides over my head”), of how, in the face of life’s “laughable demands…only love that’s simple is true”.
Written during the recording sessions, inspired by being back in the house (“Our house has original corner stones, a mantelpiece, the irons are hot in the fire/Our house has a view that the swallows seek, apple juice, and cabinets held up by wire”) and recorded the same day, ‘Diamonds’ is another flutter of cascading notes, the chorus with its hummed backing vocals tinged with African colours akin to Paul Simon’s ‘Gracelands’.
Not perhaps a title you’d expect to find on an album themed such as this, again speaking of diamonds and set to a shuffling drum beat and understated electric riffs, complete with a whistling solo, ‘Psycho Fighter’ is another with lyrics that, adopting a wider socio-political lens, resist easy interpretation as he sings of how “from some science priest comes a wave of new devotion” and how “this little island is all awash with old opinion”, concluding that it “Says a lot about the house that you call home”.
The penultimate track eases back for the poignantly moving ‘Sing Me A Love Song’, first sung in church to his mother at her funeral, before finally closing with the shimmering notes and tinkled bells of the bluesier toned and more fractured melody of ‘The River’. A hymn to surrendering yourself to the power of life and the natural world, he sings “I want to feel the path that the river follows/I want to hear the rapids rap on the water below…I want feel the waves of the new horizon/I want to feel the rays of each new burning sun”, and of being alive to the chords, minor or major, that “vibrate the air”.
Released with a booklet containing photographs of trees and a new poem, A Hospital Bbirch, Trewellard, that documents the two weeks spent recording the album and the emotions that accompanied it, its final line “You were supposed to play in your car” simply heartbreaking. Musically, it may not wander far from its basic template, but its simplicity is part of its soothing beauty and the warmth of the emotions it channels. Let it enfold you in its branches.
Artist’s website: www.lawrenceillsley.com
‘Ogres’ – live in the garden: