A singer/songwriter and clarsach (Gaelic harp) player from Ayrshire, The World’s A Gift, her third album, produced by and featuring James Grant, explores the theme of legacy, sparked by the loss of both parents within a year of each other and having to go through the stuff left behind. That inspired the notion of legacy in terms of idea, culture and principles as opposed to material possessions and what we will pass on to the next generation.
It begins with the melodically tumbling title track, a song inspired by walking through the Kuranda forest in Queensland and being struck by the immensity and beauty of the wildlife. “The forest breathing, deep inside its core/The ocean lapping, lapping on the shore/The storm that rages, passing into calm/They speak to me, remind me who I am”), unfolding into a song about offering support (“If I had strength, I’d keep the wolves at bay/If I had songs, I’d sing to you all day/If I had fire, I’d keep you warm at night/And if I could, I’d keep you in my sight”).
‘The Weaver’s Song’ draws on Paisley history and tells the story of the weaver poet Robert Tannahill, a contemporary of Burns (“There was a bard who went before, a genius of our time/I read his work and hope his gift will rub off on mine”), who, when his second book of poems was rejected by the publisher (“They seem to like my funny verse, well all folks like to laugh/But when they read my masterpiece, they only mock and scoff”), drowned himself in Candren Burn.
Written as part of a songwriting project set up by James Grant with Rig Arts in Greenock, ‘Merino Mill Girl’ is another song with a historical basis, unfolding the tale of mill workers, (“Mothers and daughters, fathers and sons/Following tradition and/Following the threads”) weaving the wool of the Merino sheep, of the girls gossiping arriving to start a new week (“I love Monday morning, off tae the mill/See all the girls – Maggie, Lucy and Jill/Hear about their weddings, or fights with their man”) before the final verse laments the passing of the industry in the wake of progress (“Walking the streets now, the old mill is gone/The mill clock is silent, the chatter is gone/Streets of new houses, a new care home too/Filled with the memories and/Following the threads”).
On a more personal note, sung in unapologetic brogue that rhymes eye with me and which brought Judy Small to mind, ‘Bonnie Fechter’ is dedicated to her father, who, brought up in the Socialist Sunday School tradition, was a conscientious objector in World War II, the song sung in the voice of his staunchly supportive mother (“Yer ma bonny fechter, ‘cos ye aye know wrang from right… I brought ye up to aye believe that people are the same/No matter where they come fae, or what like is their hame…Our fight is no’ wi’ common folk, we don’t want them tae die/Yer stand is mighty brave son – ye don’t want tae live a lie”). On a connected moral note, a sprightly, uptempo number with an almost tropical spiritual feel to its chorus, ‘We Go High’ is based on a quote from Michelle Obama – “They go low, we go high”, and, as you’d imagine is about not stooping to others levels (“Do we want to be remembered for letting standards fall/Or facing hate with dignity – so we can stand tall?”).
Featuring her harp playing, setting words to an old accordion tune ‘Millie’s Waltz’ spins a memory of a brief wartime romance as, now old, she revisits the faded dance hall (“She stepped through the door of the old village hall/The chairs they were shrouded, no lights on the wall/The chandeliers dusty, the cobwebs like lace…her footsteps they falter, her sight it is dim/Her legs feel so stiff when they once were so trim/She remembers the dance steps, how could she forget/But nobody asks her to dance” and remembers how “She saw him across the room, shocked with the spark/His uniform gleaming, his hair it was dark/He gently approached her and bowed from the waist/‘Mam’selle, would you like to dance?’”, one night of terpsichorean bliss before he “left the next day, back to duty and war/The address that she’d given slipped through to the floor” and while other men came over the years, they all “mis-timed their steps”. Of course, this being a romance, you can pretty much guess what happens as she sitting outside a café and a figure approaches.
Returning to the antipodes, ‘Tui Bird’ is simply about her taking a trip to New Zealand and hearing the cry of the titular indigenous bird, though noting that “when you meet an enemy you grow so tall/Flap your wings and shout until they flee”, it clearly also comes with a message (“we all should be like you/Lots of people small and powerless too/But with courage and your cheeky spirit/We can make the whole world share our view”).
A timely number in the wake of Emily, Francis O’Connor’s Emily Bronte biopic, ‘Becoming Genius’ was inspired by the love of literature inherited from her mother and with its fascination with the Bronte sisters, the song counterpointing their inner and outer lives (“From the outside, they were pitied/From the outside, they were lonely/From the outside no-one saw what took place within”), again drawing a lesson that “you can’t keep a caged bird in/No bars can hold that soaring spirit within/Nothing can prevent her being what she’s meant to be”.
It’s a known fact that music can have therapeutic healing properties, especially in mental health issues and times of depression, and, the words written by English language teacher Rakesh Bhanot, ‘I Sing Because’, revisited from her previous album, is a glorious celebration of this as, joined by her daughter Niamh McElhill, she declares, “I do not sing/To woo your heart/Nor do I sing/To win your trust/I simply sing because I must…I do not sing/To gather wealth/I simply sing/For better health”.
Another song inspired by an author introduced to her by her mother, ‘Headin’ Down the Road’ takes its cue from Anne Tyler’s ‘Ladder of Years’, which tells of how, one day, a grandmother just walks away from her family and keeps walking, as, capturing the thought of those invisible women who, wives, mothers, daughters, are just taken for granted, feeling like a “net just closing in”, pushing the to the brink as she ponders “What if I just headed down the road/What if I just kept on going…Leave my whole life behind/And let them do without” wondering “Would they really notice/If she wasn’t there/Would anybody give a damn…She passes through their lives/She leaves no mark upon the sand/Just trying to survive”.
Having spoken of those women who leave no footprints in the sand, she returns to the Brontes as a fount of inspiration for ‘Footprints In The Snow’, a tribute to how they broke the mould into which women were supposed to fit and paved the way for future generations: “Like torchlight in the darkness/Like footprints in the snow/Like a path cut through the forest/Someone has to show/The rest of us which way to go”.
The World’s A Gift, an album that quietly touches on female empowerment, not letting anyone stop our light from shining and staying true to yourself, it’s a gift that keeps on giving.
Artist’s website: www.paulinevallance.co.uk
‘Bonnie Fechter’ – live:
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