Femme Fatales of Folk – Folkstock Records
Review by @autumnrosewell
One of my personal bug-bears – no it is more than a bug-bear, it is a real anxiety – is about what the music industry encourages in female artists. I have lost count of the number of (particularly very young) women who send me tracks in which they show very little vocal confidence, and which are invariably accompanied by notes explaining that they sound ‘like a young Joni Mitchell/Odetta/Suzanne Vega’ (etc etc) and photographs of themselves performing at gigs wearing apparently as few clothes as possible, even mid-winter, as if exposing flesh distracts from the fact that they aspire to sound only like someone else. Why do so many women do this? I cannot think of one male singer who, when sending me their material, has felt the need to compare himself to another artist. Who is it that is telling these women that they need to look and sound a certain way to be their best and to be appreciated? I think this is a habit that we need to get out of in the world of acoustic song-writing and performing. I’d dearly love to have the majority of women artists sending me notes that say ‘Have a listen to this – I sound just like me and like no one else at all’. As Femme Fatales of Folk, Folkstock’s new compilation of work by female artists shows, it is not only perfectly possible to be female and original, but the sheer variety of what is possible, beautiful and thrilling means that comparisons are unnecessary and unhelpful. http://www.folkstockartsfoundation.com/folkstock-records/
The opening track, The Witch of Walkern, from Kelly Oliver is an original piece in a satisfyingly folkloric tradition, drawing on the events of the 18th century trial of Jane Wenham, the last woman to be tried formally for witchcraft in England. The true horror of the tale is powerfully conveyed and somehow made all the more chilling when spoken through Kelly Oliver’s light, bright and very feminine voice. As a piece of folk storytelling, it is animated and full of drama. Kelly Oliver’s variations of pace and volume add to the tale and show her to be more than a musician; she is a performer with links to a tradition that goes back to the great storytellers of our oldest European tales. http://www.kellyoliver.com
As if to prove and announce upfront that this album will be diverse and challenging, Kelly Oliver is followed by the rich, warm tones of Marina Florance who grabs us and pulls us down into the genuine tenderness and grief of loss through war with her track The Path He Chose. While her voice is certainly warm, it is also slightly sultry, and the result is something like a storm cloud in the heat of summer that hovers and in which lurks the threat of thunder. With hints of country, and the reassuringly constant guitar work that holds its nerve in the background, Marina Florance tells us a story that, with war still glaring at us through our newspapers and television screens, is and always will be, a mother’s greatest fear. http://www.marinaflorance.com
In response to Marina Florance’s storm cloud, Zoe Wren has a voice like the firmament: a beautiful voice that it is very clear and shivers with silver. Not much about her track sounds ‘country’ to me as her text describes; I think it is far more interesting than that. The first thing that leaped to my mind when I first heard 45 Fever from Zoe Wren was the treasures found at Hissarlik, the Jewels of Helen of Troy, that finely-woven filigree gold, embedded with lapis lazuli and balanced so finely together that they tremble slightly in their museum case as you walk past. It’s a wonderful voice and she wears it like the jewels of a queen. http://www.zoewren.com/
There are a handful of artists that I’ve met on my folk travels for whom I will always make space in a broadcast. I gave a little squeak of delight when I saw a track from Daria Kulesh listed on Femme Fatales of Folk. Her haunting eastern European and Russian influence, full of folklore and magic grips me every time. Fake Wonderland is like a deep forest of music and tangled fairy tales; the temptation to wander in and get lost is irresistible. I’d be prepared to create an entire show on a particular theme if it meant I would have an excuse to broadcast a new song from Daria Kulesh and her group, KARA http://www.daria-kulesh.co.uk
I am listening to these tracks in what I call my ‘music room’. That sounds very grand, but actually it is just a room with a nice acoustic quality where we keep my husband’s cherished baby Grand piano and my son’s drum kit. Daria Kulesh’s crimson rose of a voice is followed by Kaity Rae’s song, It Is. Kaity Rae’s voice has a different quality altogether, it sounds somehow like your own private thoughts; and I think that there must be a technical reason for that because a few moments in to the track, I realised that her voice was resonating perfectly with both the piano strings and the wires under the snare drum. The whole room seemed to be responding to her voice and asking to join in. Her guitar work, with its plucks and its slides is superb too, but she allows her voice to stand tall above it and to shimmer out and touch everything. https://www.facebook.com/KaityRaeOfficial?fref=ts
In Japanese music they have something that they refer to as ‘the concept of ‘ma’’ – which is the musical role played by little moments of silence between the notes or drum beats. Those little silences sparkle in Minnie Birch’s track, Wise Words. Her girly, comely voice is as bright and clipped as fresh spring rain but it is the technique with which she uses it that sets it free. To say it is disciplined would make it sound regimented, it is not that at all. Minnie Birch simply has the skills to use her voice well and let it flutter around the chords like the first butterflies of the year. http://www.minniebirch.co.uk/
Roxanne de Bastion is another favourite artist, whose work I’ve broadcast before. Her work is without fail, original and hugely intelligent. Broadcasting alone doesn’t really do her justice as she is a superb live performer (not something that comes naturally to all artists). Here’s Tom with the Weather is a cuttingly political song. Roxanne de Bastion weaves careful and subtle lyrics with her own sweet voice to make a commentary, based on the works of the late Bill Hicks, that is poignant and sharp witted. http://www.roxannedebastion.com
In some contrast to her work in the opening track of this album, Kelly Oliver’s cover of Dougie MacLean’s Caledonia is peaceful and dreamy. For me it embodies perfectly a quality that all these tracks have; an emotional honesty that shines through and is really attractive. This is the only track in the collection that is not an original piece, but it sits well. A well-covered traditional-style folk song snuggled in and comfortable only makes a collection more appealing.
I heard early work from Helen Chinn last year and she struck me then as an artist who had a great command of who she was and what she wanted to convey through her work. I decided immediately then to put a track of hers onto a CD compilation I was curating at the time, so I’m delighted to see more of her work on Femme Fatales of Folk. She blends a tone of quiet resentment and intensity with melodies and chords that are really lovely. Her voice has an agility that she uses well. Second Chance has a what I can only describe as a painterly quality; musical phrases and rich vocals tumble about like sumptuous pre-Raphaelite hair, painted against a perpetually moving background of rising and falling string work. The overall effect is very womanly and complicated; it curves and it sways but never does quite what you are expecting it to do. Like the minds of all women of all time, Helen Chinn’s work churns incessantly with questions, hopes and desires. I hope very much that we’ll hear more, much more, from this artist.
Of all the tracks on this album, the work of Fay Brotherhood was the one that leaped out at me and stared me down like a wild hare. This was the track that I kept going back to, that I kept thinking about and wanting to hear just one more time. She has the most supremely confident vocal ability. There is a depth of expression in her voice and a desire to be heard and to be different that stood high above, like a sentinel in this undulating landscape of songs. Blue Spiral Screams is a powerful invocation; a soaring, spiralling incantation designed to lure humans, animals and other more shadowy creatures to join her in a wild dance. There is anger here, but also some kind of devotion that cries out to gods more ancient and more powerful than that more timid deity that arrived on these shores with Saint Columbus. If Fay Brotherhood stood up to speak in one of our ancient gathering places, I think we could all expect Fire and Brimstone more deeply felt, more real and chilling than any Christian priest could manage to mumble about. https://www.facebook.com/faybrotherhoodmusic?fref=ts
What really makes this collection of songs shine is not so much the flair of each artist as the fact that ten very different pieces have been beautifully recorded and produced; they hang together in perfect balance, like a mobile. The skill in making very different vocalists and musical styles fit together, complement each other and still to allow so much personality to flood out, cannot be overlooked when considering how to review this album.
If there is something that all these artists have in common, it is a certain subtlety of musicianship that goes with personal confidence, a clarity of voice and a fearless honesty that is unashamedly emotional. So to all other female artists out there, take some confidence from the work of Folkstock Records; please aspire to sound more like yourself with each new song because that is the only person worth sounding like.