Rowan Rheingans is a fiddle player, banjoist, singer and songwriter widely regarded as one of the foremost innovators in folk music today. Best known for her work with acclaimed bands Lady Maisery, The Rheingans Sisters and Songs of Separation, Rowan has won two BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards (‘Best Original Track’ in 2016 & ‘Best Album’ in 2017) and is a five-time nominee. On August 23rd 2019, Rowan will release her much-anticipated solo album The Lines We Draw Together: a heartfelt, unflinching and genre-melding debut.
In what will surely prove to be a career-shifting year, Rowan premiered her ambitious and deeply personal one-woman show Dispatches On The Red Dress, inspired by her own grandmother’s youth in 1940’s Germany, with a ten date national tour in June. A two-week run at the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August (15th-26th) coincides with the hotly anticipated release of solo album The Lines We Draw Together, which features songs from the live show as well as previously unheard material.
Not one to simply repeat but choosing instead to constantly innovate, The Lines We Draw Together is best understood as an artistic piece in its own right rather than as an attempt to capture the inimitable musical essay on the power of small acts of resistance that is Dispatches On The Red Dress. Rowan explains how “they are different but very connected pieces; the album is a deeply intertwined and yet wholly different artistic journey through some of the same themes as my one-woman show. In the live show, the songs provide the emotional landscape to a very big story. On the album, these songs fully express their own, complex individual stories and I am inviting different meanings and different interpretations to them here.”
The Lines We Draw Together comprises ten original songs by Rowan, whose song ‘Mackerel’ scooped the esteemed ‘Best Original Track’ award at the 2016 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. Already widely celebrated as a songwriter by music critics, The Lines We Draw Together is Rowan’s most self-assured work yet. This is adventurous and necessary new writing that asks fundamental and troubling questions with Rowan’s characteristically deep emotional charge, razor-sharp sense of purpose, audacious musicality and disarming warmth.
While fans of her many other projects have celebrated one or two new Rheingans songs with each new record, here come ten brilliantly poetic meditations on history, war, family, birdsong, dance, trauma recovery, sorrow and hope. The songs ‘Lines’ and ‘Traces’ draw on deep ancestral journeying while the contemporary spaciousness of ‘Walls’ (featuring Rowan on electric guitar) tugs on the universal experience of dance as a way to know human connection.
At the records centre (the achingly bare song ‘Sky’, a song about imprisonment and impending death, sung to the eerie accompaniment of the sounds of children playing in a park) are the glowing words of Etty Hillesum, the Dutch diarist who found great beauty in the world and the people around her while she was experiencing the persecution and oppression that would lead to her death, aged 29, in Auschwitz in 1943. Hillesum’s radical humanism and attitudes towards hatred and evil, love and human possibilities have been constant companions in the process of writing The Lines We Draw Together. But the result is not only a set of truly pertinent and timeless anti-war songs (the stand-out banjo blues track ‘Sorrow’ in particular is dedicated to Etty). More than this, Rowan reaches deep into the complexity of our own complicity in injustice and horror. Songs ‘Fire’ and ‘Brave’ shine light on the uncomfortable truth that we all have in us a capacity for both beauty and horror; for fighting injustice and for obeying orders. In this way, as well as being Rowan’s most personal writing (the album is dedicated to her grandmothers), The Lines We Draw Together is also Rowan’s most courageously political work; it is a brave provocation for our current political climate while also a triumphant celebration of human capabilities of transformation, resilience and hope.
Characteristically pushing the boundaries of genre and form, Rowan approaches her songwriting more in the tradition of the poets and prose writers whom she thanks in the credits as “her truest collaborators” than of other songwriters. The late art critic and philosopher John Berger is a huge influence on Rowan’s understanding of the importance of nuance, heart, political clarity and the power of good storytelling. Equally evident is the influence of the direct and deep empathy with the world of late American poet Mary Oliver.
While the imprint of old folk songs and melodies remain firmly threaded throughout her new compositions, Rowan also reaches out beyond the folk soundscape and chooses cathartic collaborations for this album with indie, jazz, classical and electronic musicians, including bassist Michele Stodart (The Magic Numbers) and clarinetist Jack McNeill (Propellor), experimental percussionist Laurence Hunt (The Wayward Band) and electronic musician Robert Bentall, once again cementing her reputation as a relentless creative.
Jack McNeill’s soaring clarinets are a central force on the record, with much of the clarinet and strings recorded live, Rowan and Jack achieving a palpable instrumental empathy and connection that continues the humanist thread of this record. The closing moments of the final track ‘Keep Breathing’, a composition for viola and bass clarinet, leaves listeners as if standing suddenly alone on an oceans edge and witnessing the vastness of the task before us. ‘I trust us’ are the only additional notes Rowan gives and she does – her trust is implicit throughout this record. Just as she trusts her own musical journey enough to push at the edges of genre and form, she also trusts her listeners to be part of that journey and trusts her own artistic motivations enough to know that all of this is part of an ongoing conversation about what it is to be human together.
On 5th September 2019 Rowan will perform a special launch concert for The Lines We Draw Together at London’s Kings Place. For one night only, she will be joined by four exceptional musicians from the record in a completely unique live experience where the intimacy of a folk gig will meet the ancient traditions of storytelling and the wide and fierce soundscapes of genre-melding new music and on stage improvisations.
Created with funding from PRS Women Make Music and Arts Council England, The Lines We Draw Together is produced by Andy Bell (Jon Boden, Karine Polwart) and released on Red Dress Records on Friday August 23rd 2019.
Rowan is touring Dispatches On The Red Dress in June, August (Scottish Storytelling Centre each day 15th – 19th & 21st – 26th August, 18:00pm) October & November (UK tour dates below).
Artist’s website: www.rowanrheingans.co.uk