ROWAN RHEINGANS – The Lines We Draw Together (Red Dress Records CD01)

The Lines We Draw TogetherThe Lines We Draw Together, from banjoist, fiddle player, singer and innovative songwriter Rowan Rheingans is a bit of a juxtaposition with the music being relaxing and melancholy and some of the subject matter covering challenging topics. Listening to it is like having a gentle comforting hug.

It contains ten original songs from Rowan, which the PR notes describe as “ten brilliantly poetic meditations on history, war, family, birdsong, dance, trauma recovery, sorrow and hope” and there is certainly some wonderful story telling in the songs.

The album certainly pushes the envelope of folk and some of it reminded me of a Peter Gabriel album in terms of the originality and composition, especially the title track ‘Lines’. That said there is still the essence of folk songs and tunes in her writing.

There is some gentle banjo playing on ‘Fire’ and listen out for the percussion on ‘Brave’. ‘Sky’ is a short almost spoken song, with very little musical accompaniment. In contrast ‘Traces’ is nearly nine minutes long, starts with mournful strings goes into a repeated short verse and closes with clarinet.

The combination of clarinet from Jack McNeil (Propellor) and strings on many of the songs intertwine wonderfully. Much of it was recorded live, which can be felt by the listener as the interaction between the musicians is very apparent.

Other musicians involved include Michele Stoddart (The Magic Numbers), percussionist Laurence Hunt (The Wayward Band) and electronic musician Robert Bentall all help enforce the originality of the album and the lack of fear of moving away from her more recognized genre. The producer was Andy Bell who has also worked with Jon Boden and Karine Polwart.

I really enjoyed all the songs and if you’re feeling in a reflective mood stick this album on kick back, relax and enjoy the embrace of that hug.

Duncan Chappell

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The first single, ‘Fire’ – live:

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Rowan Rheingans announces her first solo album

Rowan Rheingans

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).

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THE RHEINGANS SISTERS – Bright Field (Rootbeat RBRCD39)

Bright FieldWhen I first heard the Rheingans Sisters I hoped that they might bring something new to the folk music of Derbyshire where they grew up. Instead, they have fixed their attention on composition and songwriting and the result is their third album, Bright Field.

The sisters are much travelled. Anna now lives in France and Rowan is a go-to violin-player for many distinguished musicians as well as being one third of Lady Maisery and one-sixth of Coven. This album was recorded in Wales under the supervision of Dylan Fowler who also adds bass guitar and tabwrth when required – and if you’re wondering what a tabwrth is, so was I – it’s a small drum or tabor.

There is a wildness, an exoticism about Bright Field. It opens with Anna’s tune, ‘Glattugla’, which was inspired by a winter spent in Trondheim and has an unmistakeable Scandinavian vibe about it, as does ‘Swinghorn’ which was also written in Norway. Snow and ice features quite a bit. The first song, Rowan’s long ‘This Forest’, is nothing less than a history of the planet in the form of a dream and she envisages the end of our world under a blanket of snow. It’s a superb song and probably the highlight of the album.

Anna’s French influences are present in the shape of two bourées and a song, ‘Appel’, which is about wanting to go south because the north wind is freezing her – and that’s as far as my French takes me. Finally in this Francophile segment comes ‘Lo Segoner’, a traditional branle. The title track is a long instrumental written by Rowan terminating in a poem by R S Thomas read by Dafydd Davies-Hughes. I particularly like ‘Edge Of The Field’ which I’m guessing is the final plea of an old horse for a dignified ending. It’s remarkably moving.

There’s a lot to listen to on this album and much to enjoy and the sisters’ current tour would make for an excellent night out.

Dai Jeffries

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‘Lo Segoner’ in session:

COVEN live at the West End Centre, Aldershot

Photograph by Dai Jeffries

Coven aren’t so much a group as a collective made up of three elements. On the one hand there is the musical delicacy of Lady Maisery and on the other the homespun Yorkshire charm that O’Hooley & Tidow exploit. In the middle is Grace Petrie, a thorn between two roses, and more of her anon.

They originally came together three years ago to celebrate International Women’s Day, which coincidentally was the date of this event, and their show still has that as its central theme.  Lady Maisery opened with ‘Sing For The Morning’ from their latest album followed by ‘Portland Town’, a remarkable arrangement featuring fiddle and feet before finishing with ‘The Crow On The Cradle’.

Next came Grace Petrie who I hadn’t heard before. She’s something of a fire-brand and the wit of her stage chat carries over into her writing. Her first song, ‘A Revolutionary In The Wrong Time’, describes her career: “not folky enough for Whitby; not cool enough for Cambridge” is her self-deprecating description. The second song, written for her niece Ivy, describes rushing away from Glastonbury to be home for her arrival. It is probably the most unsentimental sentimental song you’ll hear and Grace wrapped up her set with her contender for the new national anthem, ‘God Save The Hungry’. I really liked her and her crusade to prove that there are still protest singers around – and that there is still a need for them.

Belinda and Heidi chose three songs about inspiring women: ‘Beryl’ and ‘The Pixie’ from Shadows and ‘Too Old To Dream’ from their first album. Three songs about three very different women in very different circumstances.

Coven only sang six songs as a unit, the six that appear on their EP, ‘Unholy Choir’, and I found that a little disappointing. The first of these closed the first half: Rowan Rheingans’ new setting of ‘Bread And Roses’ which dispenses with the martial rhythm of the more usual version.

The second set followed a slightly different pattern. O’Hooley & Tidow opened with ‘Gentleman Jack’ and ‘The Needle & The Hand’ before bringing the whole group together for ‘Coil & Spring’. Lady Maisery did likewise with ‘Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood’ and ‘Order And Chaos’ before ‘This Woman’s Work’. Grace’s two solos led into ‘If There’s A Fire In Your Heart’ to close the show.

Well, of course, there were two encores; The Roches’ ‘Quittin’ Time’ and ‘Never Turning Back’ and Coven really gave us our money’s worth with a show that lasted well over two hours and never outstayed its welcome. There are five gigs left on this tour and that will be it until next year unless the rumours of summer festivals are true. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Dai Jeffries

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‘This Woman’s Work’:

COVEN – Unholy Choir (own label COVENCD01)

Unholy ChoirIn case you haven’t been paying attention, let me explain. Coven combines the prodigious talents of Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow, Lady Maisery (Hazel Askew, Hannah James and Rowan Rheingans) and Grace Petrie. They have worked together, when commitments permit, for about three years having got together for International Women’s Day but Unholy Choir is the first time they have recorded. A word of warning, though, this six-track EP will only be available at gigs on their tour starting on March 1st.

Much of the material is drawn from back catalogues but these are all new recordings that combine the power of six voices and their instrumental skills. The opening track is ‘Coil & Spring’, written by O’Hooley and Tidow with the assistance of Boff Whalley about the Pussy Riot protest. I must have chosen itself as it gives the EP its title. Next is ‘Bread & Roses’. Rowan has given the song a new tune which makes it less of a march with a much more English feel. An inspired move.

‘This Woman’s Work’ is an obvious choice and Kate Bush’s song gives the group something to get their musical teeth into but, being old and male, I prefer ‘Quitting Time’ by the late Maggie Roche. Its footloose feel is enhanced by Belinda’s rolling piano but softened by the sweetness of six voices in harmony. Grace wrote ‘If There’s A Fire In Your Heart’ and she sings it an appropriately confrontational style. The message is simple: get out there and do something, however small.

The final track was recorded live. It’s Pat Humphries’ anthemic ‘Never Turning Back’. It’s a song I didn’t know from a writer I hadn’t heard of but I wasn’t surprised to learn that Pat knew Pete Seeger. Coven sing it a capella (the way Pat does) using the natural acoustics of Cooper Hall where they made the record and it brings the set to a rousing, optimistic close.

You have twelve chances this year to hear Coven live and acquire a copy of Unholy Choir. Don’t miss out.

Dai Jeffries


‘This Woman’s Work’ live:

Belinda O’Hooley talks to Folking about Coven

Photograph by Elly Lucas

There’s a new gang in town and if their publicity photographs are any guide they mean business. Coven combines the talents of O’Hooley & Tidow, Lady Maisery (Hazel Askew, Hannah James and Rowan Rheingans) and singer Grace Petrie. Belinda O’Hooley explains how it all came about.

“We were introduced to Grace’s work by Huw Pudner at The Valley Folk Club in Pontardawe. He was raving about her, and around the same time, Jude Abbott from the No Masters Co-op was also singing her praises. We watched some of her stuff on YouTube and thought she was such a firebrand, standing up for what she believes in and doing great things for women. We spent a summer doing the same concerts at festivals as Lady Maisery and were blown away by their live show. We got to know them along the way. Heidi and Rowan chatted about doing something as a collective at some point, and here we all are!

“Coven was Heidi’s idea. She had previously set up a Women Make Music night in Huddersfield and had experience of this sort of thing. Both Lady Maisery and Grace Petrie were well up for forming a collective with us and celebrating International Women’s Day in a series of concerts. The first Coven tour was just three dates which all sold out. The second year, we played ten dates and this year, we’ve got twelve.”

The name could be something of a hostage to fortune. Whose idea was it?

“I can’t remember who thought the name up, it wasn’t me. I think it suits us; a gaggle of witches.”

I couldn’t possibly comment on that but the press photos seem to suggest that Belinda and Heidi are the dominant force. Either that or it’s a case of big’uns in the middle and little-uns on the ends.

Photograph by Elly Lucas

“Ha! I think it looks like me and Rowan have got married and the rest of Coven are our bridesmaids. Elly Lucas took the photo at Kellam Island in Sheffield. We love the way she utilises the background of a rusty metal fence with the sunlight, to create texture and atmosphere. She’s a bit good. Looking at that photo, I wouldn’t want to mess with any of us.”

Again, I couldn’t possibly comment but what can we expect from a Coven gig?

“The show consists of us performing separately in our bands and also collectively together on existing material and also songs that Coven members have brought to the group. Over the course of the last two tours, these songs have taken on a life of their own and it has been very rewarding and exciting to record them and make an EP.”

Having developed rather below the radar over the last couple of years, Coven are embarking on a fully-fledged tour in March. Can we take it that Coven will be an on-going project?

“I think all of us want Coven to be an ever developing project as we all have so much to give to it. We all seem to get on really well and there is room for creativity and expression both individually and as a collective. It helps that we all like vegan food too. Hannah James is the most wonderful vegan chef, and kept us all fed beautifully for the five days we spent at Cooper Hall, Frome recording the EP. Fay Goodridge invited us there, and through their bursary scheme, we were able to record in their extraordinary venue. This EP, recorded by me and Heidi and mixed and mastered by Neil Ferguson will be available initially exclusively on the tour”

And that’s something else to look forward to.

Dai Jeffries

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