Fay Hield (from the album Wrackline available on Topic Records) (by Chris Wheatley)
‘I have made, thought about and organised music to varying degrees my whole life’ says Fay Hield, on her official page at the University of Sheffield, where she holds the position of Senior Lecturer, Ethnomusicology. Hield, who earned her PhD with a thesis on ‘English Folk Singing and the Construction of Community’ is one of those rare souls who have been fortunate enough to turn their passion into a day job. Fortunate in terms of opportunity, of course, but talent is the defining element. Throughout her musical career, Fay Hield has gained plaudits from all corners. She spent two years touring and recording with folk 'super-group' The Full English (Seth Lakeman , Martin Simpson , Nancy Kerr , Sam Sweeney , Rob Harbron and Ben Nicholls), during which time Hield earned Folk Awards for Best Group, Best Album, and Folk Singer of the Year.
Fay Hield's new solo album Wrackline is a tantalizing release. This is her first foray into songwriting and features musicians from the top of the Folk tree, including the aforementioned Harbron (concertina); master-fiddler and former Bellowhead alumni, Sweeney; the brilliant, peripatetic Nicholls on double bass, and the much-lauded multi-instrumentalist Ewan MacPherson. Wrackline is a concept album; twelve original pieces exploring that most traditional of folk themes, the 'otherworld' of ghosts, fairies and animal-spirits. ‘Perhaps’ explains Fay Hield ‘in these strange times it’s particularly important to understand how stories can help us make sense of the world around us, both the world we can see and also those darker, less tangible things’.
The album opens with “Hare Spell,” an adaptation of a traditional number, which showcases some beautiful acoustic guitar. Instantly you can hear why Hield's vocals have garnered awards. She is possessed of the classic English folk-song voice; affecting, lilting and hypnotic, seeming to transcend time and repute all modern ills. As expected, the musicianship is sublime. Fiddle, soft drums, guitar and voices blend into an organic creation. 'If it doesn't sound old and it doesn't sound new, then it's folk music' goes the running joke. Wrackline fulfils that brief completely. The production is crisp and clear but not over-polished. The arrangements are a delight, moving easily from the sparse to wide-open vistas. Of particular note is Nicholl's bass, which is so much a part of the whole that on first listen it could be easy to miss. On repeated listens it becomes clear just have vital that bass is to producing the spellbinding results. It is fascinating to learn, from Hield's own notes, that “Hare Spell” is based on an actual witch trial of 1662.
Fay Hield injects a fair amount of variety into this collection. “Jenny Wren” bears traces of classic American Country with its strident guitar riff around which is woven a tapestry of strings. “Night Journey” is almost chamber-like; a melancholy refrain of bowed and plucked notes with splashes of Jazzy colour and well-utilized stereo attack. Lyrically, Wrackline also has a lot to offer. ‘He waits and wonders while he watches, are you the one he's waiting for?’ As with all the best art, the apparent simplicity is deceptive. There's plenty to unpack and it's a pleasure to do so.
The wonderful, scatter-shot of colour which is “Pig Song” defies its title to meander whimsically and mesmerizing, a balloon-ride adventure over a patchwork land through sunshine and shadow. “Wing Flash” which largely features just guitar and voice, reflects, explains Hield, ‘the loss of my mum in my teens. I am still unsure how much to cling onto and what to let go’. This is the power of art – to connect us to shared experiences, a universal healing process. “Wing Flash” is moving, both musically and lyrically. “When She Comes” provides a fitting end to this impressive record. Co-written with Sarah Hesketh, it is a slowly unwinding cloud of drawn-out notes and drones, through which Fay Hield's voice floats and flashes like the proverbial silver lining.
Wrackline is a beautifully crafted album which more than lives up to its promise. Fans of thoughtful, accessible music will find much here to savour. (by Chris Wheatley)
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