Amy Speace – the former Shakespearean-trained actor who is known for her literate, detailed songwriting and versatile, expressive vocals – has announced the September 6th release of Me And The Ghost Of Charlemagne, a collection of exquisite lyrical portraits in miniature that she says “is about life and death and the journey of all dreamers.”
Produced by longtime collaborator Neilson Hubbard and recorded during the final weeks of Speace’s pregnancy with her first son at age 50, ‘Me And The Ghost Of Charlemagne’ captures Speace at her most nakedly honest, with sparsely-decorated songs that double down on her larger-than-life voice and detail-rich songwriting. It’s an album about the colliding of dreams and reality, full of characters making sense of their lives when something is lost and then found. Really, it’s an album about the trials and triumphs of an artist’s journey – a journey that’s no longer focused upon the destination, but upon the actual trip itself.
Discovered and mentored by folk-pop icon Judy Collins, Speace left her career as a classically-trained Shakespearean actress and, instead, kicked off a string of acclaimed albums, including Songs For Bright Street, The Killer In Me, and How to Sleep In A Stormy Boat. Championed by The New York Times, NPR and more, she received further acclaim as a member of Applewood Road , a harmony-heavy trio whose self-titled album became a critical success in the UK, earning a five-star review from The Sunday Times .
Speace blends the best parts of American roots music — gospel, alt-country, folk, classic pop — into her own songs. Me And The Ghost Of Charlemagne follows in that diverse tradition, but it also shines its light on a new Amy Speace: a clear-eyed, re-energized songwriter who’s done with chasing things that don’t matter…but isn’t anywhere close to being done with her art.
Amy plays The Green Note on Wednesday September 4th and The Long Road Festival on Sunday September 8th
Founded by Darden Smith some five years ago, SongwritingWith: Soldiers is a charitable organisation that brings together musicians and often wounded (physically, spiritually and mentally) veterans, those still in active service and their families in a short retreat to write songs of an Americana persuasion together in an attempt to come to terms with and, hopefully, ease and heal their pain. Results have often been life-changing, even life-saving, and Amy Speace, Beth Nielsen Chapman and Radney Foster have all been involved while songs that have emerged from the process have been recorded by the likes of Willie Nelson, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood.
To that list you can now add Mary Gauthier, no stranger to either psychological and emotional troubles or finding salvation through confessional songwriting, these 11 numbers here are the result of a series of soul-baring sessions, all co-written with soldiers and the first she’s recorded not directly connected to her own life and experiences.
It begins with the deliberately ambiguously titled ‘Soldiering On’, written in collaboration with Jennifer Marino, a Marine veteran, and addresses the difficulty in fitting back into life at home after the experiences of combat where the attitudes and behaviours that kept you alive can be destructive in a civilian or domestic setting as, set to a simple acoustic strum that morphs to include electric guitar, strings and resonant drums as it builds to a climax, she sings “what saves you in the battle can kill you at home.”
Marino also co-penned ‘Morphine 1-2’, a simple country jog built on steady one-two drum beat from Neilson Hubbard and accompanied by Danny Mitchell’s piano and horns that, laden with poignancy, unfolds the story of the titular medical helicopter’s female pilot who, along with the six members of her crew, died during a “desert blood drop” mission on her last scheduled flight before returning home
The fraught nature of post-combat life is understandably a recurring theme, potently surfacing again on ‘The War After The War’, which, set to slow march rhythm shaded by Michele Gazich’s violin, was co-written with Chapman (who, along with Odessa Settles, provides the album’s background vocals) and the assorted wives of service members and concerns the pressures and pains of living with a wounded veteran, their husbands honoured while they and the problems they face in being strong are consigned to the shadows, invisible. “Who’s gonna care for the ones who care for the ones who went to war?” she asks as they daily have to deal with “landmines in the living room, eggshells on the floor”.
The same concern is seen from the soldier’s perspective on the slow waltzing ‘It’s Her Love’, co-written with another Marine, James Dooley, a haunting finger-picked number, gradually embellished by piano and violin, about how his wife’s love keeps him together even “when I am broken and push her away” and “the dead and the dying are all I can see”.
PTSD and the inability to shake the memories of what was seen and done is a prime cause for the estimated 7,400 suicides of current and former members of the armed services in America every year, and it’s the foundation of the sparse slow waltz acoustic title track which, written with Joe Costello and underscored by mournful harmonica, violin and piano, tells of the memories of “bombed out schools and homes” return to haunt and not recognising the man you see in the mirror, “a stranger with blood on his hands”, turning to Vicodin, morphine and prayer in an attempt to escape the living nightmares.
The album also looks at the bonds forged on the battlefield in two songs written with young army veterans Megan Counighan and Britney Pfad. Built on a tribal drum beat ‘Got Your Six’ is about watching your fellow soldier’s back, at home as much as under fire, while the more uptempo ‘Brothers’ is about both a naïve new recruit, a young mother, trying to “prove that I’m a brother too” and, in the final verse, the way the women who served are forgotten when the flags are raised in salute.
It’s a gender-related theme that also extends to ‘Iraq’, a slow sway written by former army mechanic Brandy Davidson about the sexual harrassment and patronising attitudes she encountered (“a salute and a wink, a little pat on the back”) as, accompanying herself on harmonica, Gauthier sings “it was so hard to see ‘til it attacked but my enemy wasn’t Iraq”.
The three remaining numbers are all about the aftermath, the loss and the ambivalence. Again featuring harmonica, co-written with Josh Geartz, ‘Still On The Ride’ is from the perspective of a wounded veteran (“got holes in my eardrums, bruised and clots, double vision..I wake up feeling like I’m 90 years old”) that touches on survivor guilt (“I shouldn’t be here you shouldn’t be gone”) but also how the spirit of his dead comrade is the guardian angel that keeps him going.
It’s pointedly followed by the stunning ‘Bullet Holes In The Sky’, a haunting piano-backed ballad written with Desert Storm Navy veteran Jamie Trent and set against a Nashville Veterans Day backdrop and the mixed emotions of pride and sorrow it evokes (“They thank me for my service and wave their little flags. They genuflect on Sundays and yes, they’d send us back”), pivoting around the striking chorus imagery of “I believe in God and country and in the angels up on high and in heaven shining down on us through bullet holes in the sky”.
It ends with a return to the women left behind as loved ones go to war or return psychologically scarred with ‘Stronger Together’, on a gentle drum rhythm-led collaboration with a group of army wives married to Explosive Ordnance Disposal soldiers about their solidarity in dealing with the prospect of loss (“EOD wives don’t sit by the phone. No news is good news back at home”) and caring for their broken husbands (“we’re there when they fall apart”) as, with soulful harmonies from Civil Rights music gospel Settle (the daughter of former Fairfield Four member Walter), Gauthier yearningly hymns the chorus refrain of “sisters forever”.
In the condemnation of war, it’s often easy to blur the line between the fighters and the fight, the former often as much a casualty as any. While directed at Americans, and with a timely resonance in the light of the NFL national anthem protests, the album’s humanistic themes and sentiments embrace the experiences of the military and their families on a global scale, up there with Gauthier’s finest work and not just one of the best album’s you’ll hear in 2018, but one of the most important.
The Penny Collector is Austin, Texas-based singer-songwriter Carrie Elkin’s long-awaited new solo album. After touring extensively as a featured vocalist with the Sam Baker Trio and as a duo performer with her husband Danny Schmidt, this is Elkin’s highly anticipated return to her solo work.
Written in a year that was bookended by the birth of Elkin’s first child and the process of caretaking her father through the dying process, The Penny Collector is a poet’s momentous stroll full circle around the human lifecycle in one single year. It’s a journey that is beautifully told, fragile and heartbreaking at times, joyous and raucous in others.
And Elkin once again delivers the powerhouse vocal performance that people have come to expect, with delicate waves of intimacy that build to astonishing crests and crashes of intensity.
It’s hard to pigeonhole The Penny Collector, stylistically. It lives in a similar musical realm as Patty Griffin and Brandi Carlile, straddling the Americana/Roots, Folk, and Indie Rock worlds where meaningful songs meet the fierce-yet-fragile voices of powerful women. Producer Neilson Hubbard (Garrison Starr, Glen Phillips, Ben Glover, Ryan Culwell) beautifully captured that power without losing the delicacy and nuance, draping Elkin’s vocal performances in swathes of expressionistic electric guitars, velvety strings, and primal percussive heart beats, always leaving the focus on the story and the story teller.
The Penny Collector is about ushering in new life and honouring old life. It’s about standing in that sacred space where the celebration of life meets at both ends. In June of 2015, Elkin learned of her father’s terminal condition with pancreatic cancer, cancelled her tour schedule, and went to Atlanta to be with him through the last month of his life. Caring for someone that close with you, holding their hand through the exposure of that final phase of life, was an incredibly powerful experience, heart wrenching, but also precious and beautiful in its connection. And it was magnified all the more by the fact that Elkin was simultaneously going through the fertility process, and preparing the emotional fields for planting new seeds.
“I can hear the heartbeat in everything around me”. The song ‘New Mexico’ opens the album and speaks to the heightened perception we have in times of grief, for all the tiny givings of life that more usually go unnoticed and unappreciated. ‘And Then The Birds Came’ wishes her father a final goodbye and a prayer to the world that it might more completely understand what a gift it had been given with that life. “The birds they wanted him. They knew he’d help them fly.”
The title, The Penny Collector, was chosen in honour of Richard Elkin (1942-2015). As Elkin says in the liner notes:
“My dad was a lifelong penny collector. Not just the ‘collectible’ pennies, but rather every penny he could get his hands on. In the process of cleaning out his basement we discovered that, in his lifetime, he had collected approximately 600,000 special little pennies, neatly rolled and lovingly kept. My dad had a way of finding value and delight in the tiny things that other people might walk right past.”
The Penny Collector is Elkin’s sixth solo album, and the first she’s released independently since her two critically acclaimed Red House Records releases. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Elkin’s career has taken her near and far, from sharing the court with Michael Jordan for the national anthem, to sharing the Ryman Auditorium stage with Emmylou Harris, to sharing two tours with the hit podcast Welcome To Night Vale as their special musical guest. Now Elkin is settled down in Austin, TX with her husband, fellow songwriter Danny Schmidt, and their beautiful newborn daughter, Maizy Rae Schmidt.
Ben Glover comes originally from County Antrim but it was clear from his first album that his heart dwelt several thousand miles to the west. Since then he has moved to Nashville and become The Emigrant of the title. You might assume that the subject of the album would be the Irish diaspora but it goes deeper than that. Yes, there are songs of people who are a long way from home with all the emotions that brings but there are also the stories of people who have no real home and live on the edges of society.
The album opens with a robust version of ‘The Parting Glass’, which I always tend to think of as a mournful song, forgetting that the final words are “Goodnight and joy be with you all”. In the context of this album, I suppose it represents the optimism of the emigrant at the beginning of his adventure. The title track is possibly the most autobiographical of these songs, albeit a co-write with Gretchen Peters, but I found it a bit heavy-handed on first hearing, especially in comparison with Ralph McTell’s ‘From Clare To Here’. Then again, very few writers have Ralph’s ability to paint a picture with so few words. It’s growing on me, though.
Three characters who live on the fringes, for whatever reason, are the ‘Moonshiner’ who does what he does from choice, in part at least; the prisoner in ‘The Auld Triangle’ who has no choice and the veteran whose choice was denied him in Eric Bogle’s epic ‘And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’. Each one of them is in search of a place to be.
Musically, Ben blends his Irish heritage with his love of the sounds of Nashville. Eamon McLoughlin’s strings and Skip Cleavinger’s uilleann pipes and whistles add the traditional notes while producer Neilson Hubbard provides the bass and percussion and is one of three pianists employed on various tracks. I confess that I find Ben’s vocal style rather intense and when he tries to wind it back sometimes it becomes a gravelly growl although he does capture the weariness of ‘From Clare To Here’ without sentimentality.
The Emigrant is an album that takes its time with you and it took time for me to appreciate its musically subtleties. Ben Glover’s fans will have no such problems.
Recorded in the heart of Nashville, the album was produced by Neilson Hubbard (Kim Richey, Glen Phillips, Garrison Starr) and features a track (Rampart Street) co written by seasoned folk songstress Mary Gauthier (who we featured very recently on folking.com).
“I intended to record just five songs for an EP, but after three days in the studio we all felt that there was a momentum happening that we couldn’t ignore. So we decided to go full steam ahead and cut ten songs and make an album,” says Glover. “It all happened very quickly and organically, but I’ve learned that sometimes the creative process takes on a life of its own and when it does it’s best to follow it’s direction.”
Glover has garnered rave album and concert reviews from across the globe and has toured extensively both as an opening act as well as a headliner. In the past calendar year his touring schedule included dates in Belfast, London, Glasgow, Edinburgh,Dublin, New York, Brussels as well as dates at the famed Hotel Café in Los Angeles and sold out shows in the Nashville’s legendary Bluebird Café.
He hails from Glenarm, Co Antrim, a small coastal village 30 miles from Belfast, N. Ireland and splits him time between there and Nashville, Tennessee. This singer/songwriter traded in a degree in law to peruse music and from all accounts it was a move that has paid off.
‘I was always drawn to and continue to be attracted to artists of a poetic nature, or great storytellers—obvious names like Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison, and Paul Simon. And I’ve always had a great affection for country music, the Americana imagery always fascinated me. So people like Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson are important sources to me, as well. I suppose I am drawn to artists who had a very strong identity—maybe not the best singers in the world—but said important and meaningful things in their songs. Essentially, music has to come out of life, and if there’s no life there is no music.’
Glover has toured and/or performed with Vince Gill, Buddy Miller, Jim Lauderdale, Mary Gauthier, Jason Mraz and Tift Merritt. His songs have been used in feature films such as “Finding Joy,” hit webisode series “Adults Only,” and as the theme song for BBC N.Ireland sports programme “The Championship.”