Rachel Newton’s second solo album was originally premiered at Celtic Connections back at the start of the year, drawing praise from The Scotsman, who called the music, “Hauntingly poignant,” awarding four stars into the bargain. The work was originally commissioned under the New Voices strand of the festival. Now thanks in large part to Creative Scotland, Changeling has been recorded by Mattie Foulds at his Mobile With A Home studio and the results are absolutely stunning. So much so in fact, that two songs have made our Song Of The Day selection here and any of the others would happily fit that billing, this is a beautiful record from start to finish.
Rachel is very busy and much in demand both as a player, with several different projects on the go and as a teacher. She is a founding member of The Shee who featured as our first Artist Of The Month last year around the release of the excellent Murmurations. Rachel is also part of Emily Portman’s trio, which has fed directly into The Furrow Collective, with the trio joined by Alisdair Roberts. The Collective’s recent set at Purbeck was rated as one of the highlights of the festival by our editor in chief. She also has a new project on the go called Boreas, which we’ll bring you news of in good time and works in duet with fellow Shee member Lillias Kinsman-Blake as part of the work she does writing for theatre. Add to that film soundtracks and the teaching and you start to wonder whether Rachel ever gets a moment’s rest.
The changeling concept with its narrative of elves, faeries or other mystical creatures taking a baby and leaving one of their own in its place is widespread and found in many different cultures. It’s interesting that despite the faerie element these stories are regarded as folklore or legend rather than faerie stories, the distinction being that the latter are poetic allegory and fanciful, whereas the changeling was regarded as real. There was never any doubt that faeries and their like existed and that changelings were real.
The idea was used to explain the fate of children who were born with physical or mental disabilities, or had other behavioural problems. The legends became quite involved and finely nuanced. In some cases even new mothers could be taken to provide faerie offspring with a wet nurse, which was perhaps a way of explaining things like post natal depression. Along with these ideas there were naturally a number of rituals charms and other defences. Eventually baptism also came into the picture, offering protection to a young infant form trolls and so forth, adding further incentive to the Christian doctrine and dedication to god.
It’s a short step from folklore to folksong and the epic Tam Lin is probably one of the best known ballads on this subject, but Rachel has delved a little deeper. Her own passion for folk tales and songs comes from an early immersion in the Gaelic culture at school in Edinburgh. While that provides the starting point she has drawn inspiration here from both Scottish Gaelic and English language sources, adding her own considerable musical flair for composition and arrangement. In the sleeve notes she explains her fascination with peoples ingenuity in explaining the inexplicable and suggests that music is very much part of that process.
Listening to these songs and tunes underlies that point emphatically, it’s all so beautifully written, arranged, played and recorded. It manages that elegant trick of appearing graceful simple and richly complex at the same time. It probably helps that Rachel has retained the same musicians from the Celtic Connections premiere. Rachel herself plays the harp, electro harp, viola and Rhodes piano, while Corrina Hewat in this case just adds backing vocals as Rachel can naturally overdub the harp parts that were needed for the live performance, Adam Holmes also adds his voice, Lauren McColl plays fiddle, Su-a Lee is on cello and saw, with Mattie Foulds playing percussion, also handling the recording. The one extra is the horn of Alec Frank-Gemmili, which is very nice addition indeed. It’s also worth noting that as with everything Mattie records, the sound here is fabulous although all of the musicians are credited for their creative input.
It starts delicately with Mo Chubhrachan, also known in English as The Fairy Lullaby, with just Rachel’s voice and the resonance of the Rhodes. It’s one of two tracks clocking in at around six minutes and it builds gloriously adding layers, starting with harp, then fiddle, cello and Mattie’s softly pattering percussion, with the electro harp, giving a gentle pulsing bass line, with the horn introduced for the instrumental breakdown. I’ve talked before about the versatility of the harp when in the hands of a skilled player and Rachel is certainly that. The arpeggios caress the edges of the melody, setting up little ripples and eddies of musical ecstasy, while the different instrumental voices create that perfect blend of staccato and legato. The song itself is a mother’s lament for a baby she has put down, while picking berries, only to return and find it stolen away, which strikes me as a curious storyline to send a child to sleep with, albeit with a gorgeous tune.
The Changing Reel follows, which is as lively as that title suggests, contrasting nicely with The Changeling Air that finishes the album. If anything serves to demonstrate the subtlety of the harp and Rachel’s mastery of it, then these two tracks make a case. Of course they are not sequenced to be played back to back, so it’s probably not fair to compare them as such. The reel also benefits for some excellent cello and fiddle work, with the latter leading the sparkling harp through a merry dance, while the former creates a seesawing counterpoint. Mattie’s insistent drumming injects an urgency and there is also a little tension mixed into the natural vigour and excitement of the tempo.
The sequenced contrast is provided by the intro of Queen of Elfan’s Nourice, (one of our Song Of The Day choices), which drops suddenly to a single drum beat to the harp’s six, while Rachel sings the words to Child Ballad #40. In this case it’s the mother who is taken to nurse the faerie child and retains a slightly ominous tension, but as the beats open out to a skittering rhythm, there’s a shift of subtle syncopation. The fiddle starts to cut across as the harp offers a release, only for the cello’s tug to launch a vocal refrain, multi-tracked to give an otherworldly effect. The track steadily ramps up the tension as Rachel’s fingers create a flurry around the harp’s high strings with dramatic effect.
When I’m Gone is a minimalist strum and the repeated refrain of, “When I’m gone, why don’t you know me,” with Corrina adding harmony and Lauren’s fiddle adding a little highlight. It gives way to Three Days, building from the sonorous tone of the viola, with a gentle drone and a lighter fiddle line layering on top as the cello slowly gathers a melody around the bottom end. The tune, inspired by the idea that people would spend a vigil of three days with a new mother and baby in order to ward off the faeries, has a serious tone, with perhaps the sense of duty in its trilogy of strings.
Another contrast comes with The Fairy Man with Adam Holmes rich baritone voice leading over a repeated electroharp figure. A tom-tom triplet introduces the beat and the horn adds a velvety texture and emotional swell. The song uses the poem of Sidney Goodsir Smith and was the other Song Of The Day. Rachel explained then, that strictly this didn’t fit the changeling theme, although the idea that the faerie man was actually part of the psyche and a visitor from within rather than another world resonates with the overarching point. It also features a suitably spooky bowed saw from Su-a Lee.
A Phiùthrag’s A Phiuthar is a gorgeous song, which Rachel sings in Gaelic with just harp and fiddle through the main section, only for the horn to once more make a telling contribution towards the end of the song. Out of the somewhat mournful tones of that finish, the harp and fiddle launch the sprightlier Up The Lum, (the lum being a chimney). Midway through the tune is suddenly transformed as the rest of the ensemble join the push towards the climax. The tune is inspired by the trickery required to smoke out the changeling, with the consequence being to send it packing, quite literally up the chimney.
I talked about the contrasting Changeling Air before and in this case the harp takes on an improvisatory role which has the character of a jazz pianist, all space, lightness, air, grace and tumbling cascades around a central melodic motif. It’s a truly beautiful piece and the sort of thing I could happily sit and listen to for hours before the faerie man would ultimately come to call. I’d happily take his hand and let him lead me where he will, as after all, the physical world will take us so far, but at some point the fantastical and mystical takes over. Changeling offers such a gateway.
Review by: Simon Holland
The Fairy Man
Queen of Elfan’s Nourice
30 – ALBUM LAUNCH TOUR @ Summer Isles Festival, ACHILTIBUIE
01 – Changeling LAUNCH!! Performing live @ Coda Music, EDINBURGH (5pm)
13 – ALBUM LAUNCH TOUR @ The Old Cinema Launderette, DURHAM
14 – ALBUM LAUNCH TOUR @ The Old Bridge Inn, AVIEMORE
16 – ALBUM LAUNCH TOUR @ The Glad Cafe, GLASGOW
17 – ALBUM LAUNCH TOUR @ The Castle, MANCHESTER
25 – ALBUM LAUNCH TOUR @ The Musician, LEICESTER
26 – ALBUM LAUNCH TOUR @ The Stables, WAVENDON
27 – ALBUM LAUNCH TOUR @ Cecil Sharp House, LONDON
For all of Rachel’s appearances including The Shee, The Furrow Collective, Emily Portman Trio visit her website here where you can also sign-up to her mailing list: