HOLLIE HAINES – Letters To My Last Love (own label)

Letters To My Last LoveHollie Haines is a songwriter and singer from London who I’ve not come across before, so I had no idea what to expect from this first release although I assumed that with a title like Letters To My Last Love it wasn’t going to be an album of drinking songs.  There also isn’t a title track so what I found was a concept album, over seven songs, with a good story arc relating the breakup of a relationship and the establishment of a new one.  It follows the standard format of a change curve that anybody who has studied management theory would recognise.

Opening the album are three songs that very much represent the denial that comes with realising that things aren’t right.  ‘Except For You’ has the narrator in a relationship that appears to provide the only stability in her life and where everyone leaves her apart from the significant other but even here there’s a feeling something is going wrong.  This is the most downbeat song on the album, with an almost pleading sense of need to it.  The next track ‘Like I Used To’ is the end of the relationship when she finally realises she never knew the person at all and with ‘All You Did’ comes the  time to make a break and with it the recriminations.  It’s a song that’s both bitter and heartbreaking in equal measure.

Track 4, ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’, is not a cover but a rather lovely song about finding yourself on your own and the fear that comes with it.  There’s also that siren voice saying that perhaps things weren’t so bad after all, and certainly no worse than they are now.

After that comes the acceptance and the start of moving on.  In ‘I Got Through, Babe’ there’s the realisation that the worse is over, she got through the pain and is making a new start, even to the extent of sending the ex’s things back.  Finally there’s a glimmer of hope and the tone of the music changes to a more upbeat tempo and stronger voice.  Things get ‘Better’ on track six lifts and the pace lifts even more, this is almost a pop number.  Now happier on her own she’s even able to wish the ex well, hoping he’s also happy and moving on.

Finally there’s a new love in ‘Mine’, which is a very beautiful ballad.  With possibly a triumph of hope over experience there’s somebody new and all that excitement of love which this time will be the one.

In this album Hollie has made a very good job of showcasing her talent and range, with all the tracks self-written.  She’s got a very good voice, clear and with power when needed, delicacy and a real ability to sing emotions.  Hollie describes herself as alt-folk which is a very popular genre.  Basically it means, as folk always has, story songs where the lyrics are the most important element but without restricting influences from other genres.  The backing also varies well across the tracks, starting with lots of bass strings before progressing into lighter tones. The whole thing sound tight and well produced.  I would say that to get the full benefit of the story this is an album that should be listened to in one sitting rather than dipping in and out.  It’s made the drive to and from work quite a pleasure over the last couple of days.

As a début album it’s one to be applauded and I can say we have another good female singer-songwriter who will hopefully make an impression on the live circuit.  There are already a few live dates for early 2019 up on the website, mostly around the South-East, and the album is certainly good enough to have encouraged me to buy a ticket for one of them.  The album was released on  23rd November and is available to buy on iTunes and Amazon as a download.  I can’t see how to get hold of the physical album, except possibly at a live show.

Tony Birch

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist’s website: https://www.holliehaines.com/

‘Like I Used To’ – live session:

KATIE MELUA – Live at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster

Katie Melua and choirs
Photographs by Tony Birch

Westminster Central Hall is an impressive venue in an impressive building.  Built in 1912 the Great Central Hall has a capacity of 2,300 who sit beneath the largest self-supporting domed ceiling of its kind in Europe.  It’s a big venue that needs a big artist to fill it and Katie Melua did exactly that on December 8th  in a show that confirms she is one of the best popular singers around.  I had to check exactly how long she’s been in the public eye and was quite amazed to see that her début album Call Off The Search was released in late 2003 and there have been six more albums since.

Despite that, and the obvious loyal following she has, Katie remains a very down-to-earth performer.  There’s no big build up, no MC encouraging the audience.  Instead, as I’ve seen her do before, she quietly enters a darkened stage and starts on the first song with just her and a guitar. The audience were immediately captured, “their Katie” was back on home territory and they loved it.

Katie lets her music do the talking so there are no long stories or introductions, we didn’t get an “Hello” until after song three.  Instead we had twenty songs over two sets, and then the encores.  The show was beautifully paced with plenty of movement on the stage to break the evening up.  As well as her sole songs she had her band consisting of Tim Harries (bass),  Mark Edwards (keys), Nicky Hustinx (drums) and little brother Zurab Melua (guitar) being used in different combinations.  In addition we were also introduced to the Gori Women’s Choir from Katie’s home country of Georgia and who featured on her 2016 album In WinterThe choir consisted of fifteen members plus conductor Shalva Mosidze.  They made a wonderful contribution to the evening.

Katie MeluaWith that many people the staging had to provide a backdrop rather than completion and this was done through animations by Karni & Saul which were muted and restful.  It took me a while to get in to them but they did complement the music which was, of course, of the highest standard.  Although, as mentioned, the songs weren’t introduced most were familiar to the audience and several were greeted with applause including ‘Belfast’ from that very first album and ‘Nine Million Bicycles’.  Of course ‘Closest Thing To Crazy” made an appearance and I was half expecting a sing-a-long, but it wasn’t that kind of evening although it got a huge cheer at the end.  The audience were quite quiet, they’d come to listen, and even the one shout out was noted by Katie as being “very polite”!  Only ‘The Flood’ encouraged a slight clapping along, and that was rewarded with a smile.

In an evening of such lovely music there were some stand-outs away from the big hits.  ‘The Carol Of The Bells’ (Shchedryk) was beautifully presented with just Katie and the choir but I think it was ‘Diamonds Are Forever’; was the one that really caught me by surprise.  We’re all used to Shirley Bassey’s belting anthem to avarice but Katie turns it into a rather bittersweet song of somebody who has probably learnt the hard way that men are not to be trusted so only diamonds give the permanence she seeks.  The evening ended with a well deserved call for an encore and ‘What A Wonderful World’ was a suitable choice, greeted with a standing ovation.  It was a wonderful evening that left a very satisfied audience who will no doubt be back for more in the future.

Before finishing, there are several mentions to be made.  Support came from London based Keeva, who impressed me with her soulful voice and good presentation of her songs.  She’s somebody who is now on my watch list to see again.   Bryony October did an excellent job on sound balancing, at times, sixteen voices and five instruments none of which ever dominated.  Thanks are also due to Sue Harris at Republicmedia for her help and chasing down the photo pass, and to the staff at Central Hall who were unfailingly helpful throughout.

Tony Birch

 Artists’ websites: http://katiemelua.com/

Katie Melua and The Gori Womens Choir – ‘Carol Of The Bells’:

CAITLIN KING – Flower Crown (SoSlam)

Flower CrownMusicians, like policemen, are looking younger and there is a new young musician on the beat.  Southend-on-Sea based Caitlin King has only just turned 16 and has released a début EP Flower Crown which shows a lot of promise.

Caitlin has been writing since she was 12 and it’s encouraging to see that all five tracks on the EP are her own compositions.  That’s a brave choice as the temptation must be to put a couple of well known covers in, but it also means that the performer has a chance to establish their own identity and not bind themselves to a particular genre.

I would pitch this album in the folk realm, as the songs are very personal, but it certainly isn’t just a folk album.  It has to be mentioned that Caitlin may lack years but has experienced loss in her life, which influences two of the tracks in particular.

‘Metaphor’, the opening number, is about facing loss and having to deal with that the time leading towards it where hope begins to fade and praying for the best doesn’t work. This track is quite pop orientated and is the only one that has a drum accompaniment.

‘In The Wilderness’, which follows it, is musically a much simpler track with just voice and guitar and is very much a song of somebody whose life is starting to take on a new direction and with new distractions such as relationships.  It has more of a folk feel and is rather beautiful.

‘Heal your Heart’ is a song that also refers back to Caitlin’s loss but what this song has in common with ‘Metaphor’ is that it has a positive message that throughout everything love remains and that love becomes part of the healing process.

For ‘Flower Crown’ Caitlin accompanies herself on piano. There a blues feel in a song about basically about love and being there for people and has an impressive build before ending with a gentle outro.

‘Like You Once Did’ returns back to the folk idiom and can also be considered a love song although the love isn’t happy and fulfilling.  Interestingly this song also includes spoken words, which is something not often heard in songs and yet it works very well here.  Hearing Caitlin’s real voice, with even a few “you know’s” thrown in for good measure, does bring home how young she is.

Caitlin’s voice, as with the songs, can vary across the tracks.  She’s certainly capable of putting on an accent that would not be out of place in a jazz bar but she also has a simpler and, for me, more natural sound that is very pleasant.  As a début this EP does exactly what it should.  Caitlin has set out her stall and showcased her talents well.  There’s a good range of skills on display and she’s not afraid to experiment, but also manages to avoid the trap of attempting to over-complicate things for effect. It’s a very promising start, from somebody learning their trade the right way, and I think there is more to come.

The album was released at the end of 2017 and is now available to download or stream through various platforms including iTunes and Amazon.

Tony Birch

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist’s website: https://www.facebook.com/caitlinkingmusic/

‘Flower Crown’ – official video:

BRONA McVITTIE – Live at the Tea House Theatre, Vauxhall, London

Brona McVittie - live
Photograph by Tony Birch

London is a city divided by the Thames, so “heading south of The River” always adds a little something to an occasion.  In this case it was only just south, to the Tea House Theatre based in an old Victorian public house that opened in 1886 on the site of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens as immortalised as the ‘Vanity Fair’ in Thackeray’s novel.  The occasion was the album launch of Brona McVittie’s We Are The Wildlife.

This is Brona’s début album, although she has appeared before on albums as a member groups including the London Lasses and neo-impressionist outfit littlebow, and it is very good.  There was no supporting act for the show, but some excellent backing musicians were used as required on each song so we had almost a series of scenes and the stage was well laid out to allow easy access and exit meaning it ran very smoothly.

The evening opened with just Brona and her harp for ‘Newry Mountain’, a traditional Irish piece featured on the album that is a very gentle love song, and so eased us in to the evening.  I say it was just voice and instrument but here we have a traditionalist who lets tradition guide rather than dictate how the music sounds.  As is so often the case these days electronics were used on most tracks either for effects or to provide a backing.  When done well, as it was here, that isn’t something I have problems with as I’m sure Turlough O’Carolan would have been interested if such devices had been around in his time.  After all, some of his contemporaries considered him too modern.

The second song of the evening also nodded to tradition, with ‘When The Angels Wake You’ based on a Yeats poem and backed by Myles Cochran on lap slide and the opening track to the album.  Yeats is a poet whom Brona uses for inspiration and that wasn’t the last poem of his to make an appearance, although we had to wait until the end for ‘The Jug Of Punch’, a parting song with is heard less frequently than ‘The Parting Glass’ but is every bit as good.

Brona is fortunate to be able to call of some terrific backing musicians, in addition to Myles Cochran, and they made a huge contribution to the evening.  Flautists Anne Garner and Keiron Phelan swapped places, with Anne also providing backing vocals alongside Barbara Marion whilst  Hutch Demouilpied’s sensitive trumpet playing fitted in perfectly. As already mentioned this mixing of sounds and players kept the evening fresh as you never knew what was coming next.

Of course, every song featured Brona and her harp so there was a common theme.  Brona’s voice compliments her chosen instrument so well with its gentle lilt and gossamer application.  This also reflects back into the songs which often have a sense of not being quite of this world.  ‘Under The Pines’ is a good example of this.  The inspiration for the song was a walk in the woods, past some dog kennels where the dog’s barks echoed off the trees so the sound became a surround rather than have a distinct direction.  Reality and fantasy collided and there were occasions where we, as the audience, weren’t quite sure which realm we were inhabiting but it certainly wasn’t part of South London surrounded by flats.

Yeats even managed to inspire an instrumental piece on the album which deserves mention for its title of heroic proportions.  ‘The Vast And Vague Extravagance That Lies At The Bottom Of  The Celtic Heart’ drew on most of the band and this slow, lilting piece brought soft rain and gentle landscapes readily to mind.

Music can touch many emotions but this evening left a feeling of quiet relaxed satisfaction, as if leaving a dreamscape you long to return to and We Are The Wildlife is a perfect of example of traditional sounding Irish music that has found a new lease of life and vigour in recent years.  The album is now available through the artist’s website or other platforms including Amazon and Rough Trade, but if you get the chance I would strongly recommend buying it at a live show.

Finally, credit must go to the sound man for the evening, Mark Thompson, who did an excellent job balancing up instruments and voices with very different ranges, as well as joint promoters Graham Smallwood of FolkonMonday and Karen Ryan of Irish Music and Dance in London.

Tony Birch

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist’s website: http://bronamcvittie.corkbots.com/

‘Newry Mountain’:



CopenhagenBenjamin Folke Thomas was born on a small island off the coast of Sweden, mainly populated by evangelical Christians, but his third album takes it’s title from across the Øresund; Copenhagen.

Combining his upbringing with musical influences ranging from Leadbelly to Cohen and Jackson Browne means his work tends, perhaps not surprisingly,  to be introspective and personal. His style and voice are similar to Martyn Joseph and, like Joseph, he is a supreme storyteller.  His stories encompass large issues but at the individual, human level so this is not necessarily an album to be put on in the car whilst driving.  To get the most from it you need take the time to sit down and listen to every word and you will be well rewarded for your effort.

The title track, ‘Copenhagen 30/6’, is a good example of his work as a storyteller.  There are seven verses and no chorus, which is fairly typical.  It’s a song about needing somebody in order for life to make sense and have purpose and yet not until the very end of song are we given any hope there might be a happy ending.  There may also be an element of autobiography in it

“I missed you tonight when I was up on stage,
I couldn’t find my focus I was unable to engage,
The sound was bad not enough tickets sold,
I wish I was with you tonight.

‘Finn’ is another story set to music, rather than a song, and it is a terrific story about the passing of time; how things change but how they also stay the same.  It chiefly concerns two men who have come into Benjamin’s life and the song is so convincing I believe they are real people.  We are first introduced to Abbas, a Palestinian and doctor but trying to make ends meet working in a supermarket having left his wife and children behind.  Next we are introduced to Benjamin’s grandfather, the Finn of the title, who also ended up as a refugee from the Nazis and lost his brother to them.  Two men separated by time and yet neither are able to live the life they wanted because of forces they cannot control which separate them from loved ones.

If there is a theme to this album it is that search for love and stability yet worrying that finding what you want may not be the answer.  As he sings in ‘Safe and Secure’

They say that love is liberating
But I don’t understand
How can anyone in love ever feel
Safe and secure

Musically the influence is Blues with a bit of Rock but the strength is the words.  In a different persona Benjamin could be described as a poet, rather than singer, and he would be equally good.  Copenhagen is an incredibly good album of contemporary music from a performer who has a lot to give and is not afraid to give all.  It is highly recommended.

The album was released on the 3rd March and is available through the artist’s website as well as the usual platforms.

Tony Birch

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

‘Copenhagen’ – official video:

DARIA KULESH Live at Cecil Sharp House

Daria Kulesh live
Photograph by Tony Birch

February 23rd is a date that should be known in history.  On this day in 1944 the entire population of the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, those who weren’t away at war fighting for the Soviet Union, were told they were being deported for alleged collaboration with the enemy.  Many were children and resistance was met with death.

Move forward to 2017 and February 23rd was the date chosen by Daria Kulesh to launch her second album Long Lost Home at Cecil Sharp House in London. The location was appropriate because, as Daria said, CSH collects and stores folk memories so that they are available for future generations and Long Lost Home is more than just an album of songs as Daria through her Grandmother, Fatima Akhrieva, is Ingushetian. The evening was a celebration of her journey to find that link to her past.

February 23rd 2017 will also be remembered for Storm Doris, which provided a suitably tumultuous backdrop to the event but unfortunately disrupted travel and meant some audience members were unable to attend. They missed an evening of powerful, moving emotion that was also uplifting with its message of hope for the future.

The evening began with two well received pieces from Timur Dzeytov, People’s Artist of Ingushetia, including a song about the deportations followed by a traditional tune.  He played the dakhchan pandar, a form of the balalaika, and it was obvious even to me that this was not “Russian” music.  There were resonances of the near- and middle-east in the sound.  It was a suitably exotic opening.

Daria then took to the stage wearing a most beautiful dress that had been hand made and decorated in traditional style. She opened, as does the album, with ‘Tamara’ a dark song about sorcery and death.  The simple accompaniment from Timur and Evan Carson (percussion) emphasised the words well.  Evan came in as an emergency replacement but it certainly didn’t look that way, the sign of a very talented musician.

I’ve been fortunate to have seen some of these songs before, at least one on its debut, often with just Daria accompanying herself on guitar or shruti.  For the album launch we were treated to a full backing band which allowed the music to be fully expressed.  At various points during the evening we were also introduced to Jonny Dyer (piano and guitar), Kate Rouse (hammered dulcimer and piano), Vicki Swan (double bass, nyckelharpa and small pipes) and Phil Underwood (various accordions and guitar).

Daria Kulesh live
Photograph by Tony Birch

The evening followed the album so we were quckly enraptured with the ‘The Moon and The Pilot’, the story of Daria’s great-grandparents, Diba Posheva and Rashid Akhriev.  Diba was one of the deportees in 1944, two years after Rashid died a Hero of the Soviet Union in the battle for Leningrad.  It could not save his wife and their two young children, one of whom was Daria’s grandmother.  It was impossible not to be moved by Diba’s story of resilience and love for her children.

My personal favourite on the album came not long afterwards. ‘Amanat’ is the story of a relative even further back in time, Chakh Akhriev, who was born in 1850 and essentially fostered to Russian parents as a hostage.  It’s a story of a different time and place, yet of a man who never quite fitted in.  The song appeals to me, maybe for that reason, and it is also a fine example of Daria’s incredible vocal ability.  There’s so much power, range and control in her singing she entrances a room in the way very few other singers can.

This is not a review of the album so I will only mention one more song, ‘Heart’s Delight’.  This is Daria’s translation of the Ingush ‘Song of Mochkha’.  She also wrote the gloriously uplifting tune.  The first time I heard it I thought it was the Ingush National Anthem, and it possibly should be.

What is yours by right, May you always hold/May your heart’s delight become your fate.

To show how music can cross boundaries this was the tune where Vicki Swan played her small pipes, a suggestion which originally came from Timur Dzeytov.  It worked so very well; the drone of the pipes adding a frisson to the words that raised the hairs on the back of my neck.

For an encore we were treated to ‘Fata Morgana’, the opening track from debut album ‘Eternal Child’ and the start of Daria’s journey to her Long Lost Home in the Caucasus Mountains.  To complete the journey Timur Dzeytov returned to the stage to play a lezginka, a traditional dance from the Caucasus.  In the dance the man (on this occasion Anzor Aushev, who was one of Daria’s hosts in Ingushetia on her research trip for the album) is an eagle and the woman, whose name I don’t know, is a swan.  It was a beautiful insight to a different culture, the dance involved no contact between the partners but the courtship aspect was more than clear.  This is the dance which is also referred to in ‘Like A God’, the story of Daria’s great-great-uncle, and Diba’s brother, Aludin Poshev.  It was said he could dance like a god.

We also had a speech from Khairudin, the leader of the Vainakh (Ingush & Chechen) community in London  and I was left with the impression that Long Lost Home is a folk memory of Ingushetia that will become important to a country and people who are trying to reestablish their identity after many years of turbulence and suppression.

Tony Birch

Artist’s website: http://www.daria-kulesh.co.uk/

‘The Moon And The Pilot’ – official video: