MARTHA TILSTON – The Sea (Squiggly SQRCD08)

The SeaOn the back cover of the album appear the words “Traditional folk songs about the sea, collected, sung and played with family & friends – kith & kin”. This pretty much tells you what to expect from Tilston’s ninth album. “I’ve always had it in mind to make a traditional album”, she says in the press release, not surprisingly given that this was the music that surrounded her as she grew ip, from both her father (Steve Tilston) and step-mother (Maggie Boyle), but also her Geordie stepfather, Frank Whately.

So, here are a collection of nautically themed tunes, delivered in her breathy husk, that range from the very familiar to the more obscure, performed by Tilston and her house band of Matt Tweed, Nick Marshall and Tom Cotterell. All tracks feature guest vocals for the aforementioned kith and kin, first up being Boyle on the first track they actually recorded, ‘Lovely On The Water’, who both sings and plays flute on Tilston’s rework of the chords and timings. Equally well known will be ‘The Lowlands of Holland’, a soft, gentle hybrid based on both Boyle’s and Martin Carthy’s versions with the former again on flute and a rather surprising guest vocal from her uncle, one Kevin Whately, aka Lewis from Inspector Morse, who, it transpires, is also a folk singer (and not a bad one either, to go by this) and actually suggested the song.

While it may sound it, ‘Shipwreckers’ isn’t a traditional number, but, featuring Beth Perry on cello, one penned by Tilston and Oscar winning film music writer Matt Kelly that draws on Cornish smuggling legends. Most of it was actually written some five years ago, but it only fell into place when Tweed suggested using the words to Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘Smuggler’s Song’ in the chorus, thereby justifying the traditional tag.

Returning to the family tree, deep-voiced brother Joe (from Random Hand) sings, plays guitar and co-arranged ‘Shallow Brown’, aka ‘30 Pound of Bone’, a West Indies shanty in its original incarnation, here, one of the album’s stand out numbers, given a slow, melancholic reading and recorded overlooking Falmouth estuary to add that extra tang of salt.

Dedicated to Bert Jansch, with whom it is most associated, ‘Blackwater Side’ is a simple, uncluttered treatment for just voice, guitar and piano and certainly does justice to Jansch’s memory. Dad Steve finally puts in an appearance (and contributes the tune) on ‘The Fisher Lad Of Whitby,’ a number he originally recorded on his own Ziggurat album, here recast trading contrasting and complementary male/female verses with chorus harmonies while Cotterell provides banjo and Tweed bouzouki.

Described as the underground John Martyn, Nathan Ball is the guest for ‘The House Carpenter’, a simple voice/guitar arrangement on a duet about the tug between love and duty, refocused by Tilston to emphasise the lyrical theme of consequence rather than judgement. The oldest of the clan, Frank Whately steps up to the mark for a simple, beguiling rendition of the wistful The Waters of Tyne and, while he may be a drama teacher, director and playwright (Jude Law just one to have passed through his tutelage) rather than a professional folk singer, he provides solid, seasoned harmony.

Officially the final track, ‘Mermaid of Zennor’ is another Tilston original, one inspired by the region of Cornwall where she spent part of her childhood. The well-known legend of a young man, Matthew Trewella, the best singer in the parish, supposedly lured to the sea by a mermaid, it’s been the subject of various poems, books, recordings (including one by Seth Lakeman) and even a film and an opera, here the lyrics are fleshed out by stories gathered from the locals one night down the pub while, at the start and end of the song, the distant voice of Steve James can be heard singing the old hymn, ‘This Is My Father’s World’, as the voice of Matty. As you might gather, there’s also a bonus hidden track, adding a final branch to the family tree with big sister Sophie on a brief reprise of ‘Whitby Bay’, a delightful coda to a marvellous family affair that ebbs and flows with the hypnotic nature of the tides.

Mike Davies

Artist website

Martha Tilston and Nathan Ball perform ‘House Carpenter’: