Named for her father’s blue Triumph Toledo she travelled round in as a child, collecting mum for her nursing shifts, singing the songs of James Taylor, Ralph McTell and The Spinners, fresh for a start turn at the Purbeck Valley Folk Festival The Toledo Sessions is the Southampton born and now Oxfordshire-based singer-songwriter’s debut.
Produced by and featuring Lukas Drinkwater, it’s a mix of traditional and original material, opening with of ‘The Ellan Vannin Tragedy’, the story of the iron paddle steamer lost in a storm in Liverpool Bay in 1909, as recorded in the song written back in the 60s by Hughie Jones of The Spinners, her given a new arrangement (with added bridge) featuring tinkling piano, shruti, Drinkwater’s pulsing double bass and Odette Michell on backing vocals (which she provides throughout).
Feet tapping with Harris on accordion, ‘Bedlam Boys’ is a lively rendition of the traditional satirical love poem about the inmates of the Bedlam asylum. Then it’s back to a fine fingerpicked cover with Reg Meuross duetting on his ‘Counting My Footsteps To You’ off England Green & England Grey, Alex Duncalf adding cello and Harris on piano. The first of the self-penned numbers comes with the lovely ‘Ghosts Of Lulworth’, Harris on piano and whistles, a song part rooted in her frequent goodbyes to her Dorset home in Lulworth Cove and part in local legends about the ghosts of dancing girls on the beach.
Drinkwater on droning bass, the second of her own songs is also rooted in Devon history, the traditional flavoured piano ballad ‘Haul Away Hallsands’, the story of how the titular fishing village, once home to 157 people, was ruined by dredging that destabilised the beach, a storm in 1917 pretty much wiping it off the map, leaving only one house habitable. It’s worth mention that Harbottle & Jonas, themselves Meuross collaborators, recorded their own account with a setting of John Masefield’s 1903 poem ‘Hall Sands’.
It’s back to the canon for her own accordion swaying take on the 19th century shanty ‘Rio Grande’, a tongue-in-cheek rework from a female perspective she’s dubbed as a she shanty. It stays on maritime matters for her own ‘Come One, Come All’, a 45 second unaccompanied take on the old Navy recruiting song ‘Heart Of Oak’, leading to a fresh vocally yearning visitation of Stephen Foster’s much covered ‘Hard Times’ with Drinkwater on acoustic guitar and Harris on piano, Michell providing harmonies. The last of the traditional numbers brings Meuross back into the fold along with Phil Beer on fiddle. Michell on bouzouki and Jon Fletcher on mandolin, all adding lead vocals for the shanty ‘Leave Her Johnny’, opening with the voices in unaccompanied harmonies, her slipping in a reference to the Titanic, which set off on its doomed maiden voyage from Southampton.
Written inspired by her time living in Scotland, it ends with the mournful ‘Betsy McLeod’s Lament’, another original rooted in history, this time the injustices of the Highland Clearances that began in the mid-18th century, a double-tracked Harris accompanied by just Duncalf’s cello as she recounts the titular narrator’s tragic story.
Already hailed as a rising star on the contemporary folk scene, this impressive and confident debut should easily see her shine ever more brightly.
Artist’s website: www.katiegraceharris.com
‘Leave Her Johnny’ – official live video: