Hannah James has covered a lot of ground in a career that now spans two decades as a singer, songwriter, step-dancer and an innovative accordion player. She has now added to her repertoire the sansula – essentially a kalimba on a drum – which you can hear to particularly good effect on ‘The Ragged Woman’. Toby Kuhn is less well known – a French cellist and composer – and Sleeping Spirals is their first album as a duo. The cover artwork gives the impression of darkness and mystery and there are such elements in the album with Toby’s often atmospheric cello underpinning the music but I don’t believe that Hannah can be dark and mysterious for very long and so it proves. The lightness of her voice frequently soars above any gloom.
The opening track, ‘In The Gloaming’ comes from a broadside and is, indeed, rather sad but this performance over pizzicato cello marks it out. The tune that it is paired with it takes a sad song and makes it better. ‘The Giant’ comes from a story told to Hannah by a friend and woven into a song – Hannah wrote all the words except for the two traditional pieces. It’s resolution reminds me of the advice that “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend”.
‘Three Ravens’, under whatever title you know it, is a song that’s never far away but seems to be enjoying another resurgence in popularity. This version comes from very near where I grew up in Derbyshire and makes me wonder about the journey that the story has undertaken. Hannah and Toby start off very quietly with a faint cello drone behind the first verse and builds up slowly to a solo after the second, before the anger in the third verse blazes out.
The first purely instrumental piece is ‘January’, a suitably melancholy tune and that’s followed by ‘Jealousy’, which I take to be a political allegory. ‘The Ragged Woman’ presents a rather nightmare vision and ‘Too Far For You To See’ is, I think, a simple love song made complex by Hannah’s imagery, some of which seems to carry over into the second instrumental, ‘Sheila’s Tune’. ‘Jezerka’ describes a female personification of winter – the title is the name of a river in the Balkans and I surmise that it was Toby’s suggestion although the duo spent some time in the region while working on the album, so I could be wrong.
‘The Vine Dance’ is a genuine happy tune, wordlessly sung by Hannah, borrowing something from the style of Lady Maisery which she carries into the very different ‘Under Sea’. Finally, ‘The Faint And Weary Traveller’ is about the pleasures of home, wherever that may be, and uses a traditional Bulgarian dance form as its basis.
Sleeping Spirals is an exciting venture that demands the listener’s full attention. One voice, two musicians and three instruments really have produced a kaleidoscope of sound that really will not go with doing the washing up. Actually though, it might make that chore rather more enjoyable.
Artists’ website: www.hannahtobymusic.org
‘The Vine Dance’ – official video: