With a natural story tellers gift, a gorgeous voice and a growing confidence in her songcraft The Lament Of The Black Sheep puts Ange Hardy at the forefront of the British folk scene.
It was with her last album Bare Foot Folk that Ange Hardy really started to carve out her niche in the current folk scene. Released in May last year, the album immediately drew critical acclaim across press and radio and importantly for Ange, enjoyed the support of Mike Harding, who returned to it again and again, regularly featuring tracks on his show. This and more, has fed into the making of the follow up The Lament Of The Black Sheep, which builds nicely on the promise of its predecessor delivering an exceptionally finely crafted set of songs that posses an elegant, amaranthine quality.
Ange generously credits many of those who have given their supporting the sleeve notes, making a special mention of Mike Harding, who injected a much needed confidence boost with his obvious support. Given her story it’s perhaps easy to see why Ange treats that as so significant. She makes no bones of her past as a teenage runaway, who spent some time living rough in Dublin and Galway. It was here that someone first gave her a guitar so that she could try busking rather than begging. The seeds were planted and with time on her hands, she taught herself to play the instrument. It was abandoned again, however, when she returned across the Irish Sea, to Exeter where she continued to live out her wild side.
At 18 Ange found herself pregnant and started a major recalibration of her life, embracing motherhood with the same zest as she had for her previous hedonistic pursuits. Once more Ange found she had time on her hands and picked up the guitar again and began the process of finding a songwriting voice. Some tentative tryouts at open mic sessions proved surprisingly rewarding, but it wasn’t until she met her husband Rob that things really took shape. It was with his encouragement that she started to tell her story and write a first batch of songs that charted her experiences. It led to her first tour, billed as Story In Song, as she explored her own life story, with the cathartic release that writing about it gave. Ultimately the songs solidified into her debut album, Windmills And Wishes, but the arrival of a second child necessitated another pause in the building of Ange’s musical career.
Again using her spare time wisely, Ange worked on her songcraft and started to broaden the scope of her writing. She describes her second album Bare Foot Folk as laying down the roots, while the new album The Lament Of The Black Sheep is about exploring the soil around them. She follows the tendrils of narrative and imagination and in doing so draws on to the story telling and ballad traditions of folksong with a natural honesty that both nourishes and feeds off the traditions. It reveals a growing confidence in her own abilities and it’s for this that Ange’s gratitude for those who have been supportive is so clearly and truly felt. Mike, and many others for justified praise, but especially Rob, who played a major role in focusing her abundant creativity and who plays a significant role in the new record too.
While she is determinedly looking outside her own experience with the new record, there is still something very personal about it. The cover makes use of a picture of her grandfather on a farm near where Ange spent her early years. The booklet then blends old and new pictures from on or around that land, with images spanning around 100 years. Perhaps the analogy of the roots and surrounding soil can also be extended to Ange settling down and establishing her own home back in Somerset after many years of seemingly rootless wandering. Many of the songs and stories of The Lament Of The Black Sheep have a strong sense of place and belonging to them, although some are also about leaving, with one specifically about Ange’s journey to Ireland.
It’s not just the superb quality of the songs, however, that make this such a strong record. Ange’s guitar technique and especially her voice are also major factors in the spectacular success of The Lament Of The Black Sheep. For a while Ange has used loops as part of her live performance, to create layers of vocal harmony and the studio allows free rein to develop this stunning effect. Ange is also supported by a notable cast of guests, with James Findlay on fiddle, Lukas Drinkwater on double bass, flute and whistle from Jon Dyer, the accordion of Alex Cumming and Jo May adding percussion and spoons. James, Lukas and Alex also add their voices, which add to the layers of Ange’s sweet harmonies providing valuable counterpoint and earthing the heavenly melodies.
The song and style combine perfectly on the opener, The Bow To The Sailor, which sounds for all the world like a traditional arrangement, as the ensemble sing the repeated motif of, “Oh for the winds they, they blow, Oh for the winds they blow. The bow to the sailor it does call, Oh for the winds they blow.” The verses drop away to just Ange’s voice, but as described above, layered in gorgeous harmony. It’s one of two songs directly about sailors and looks at the call of the sea for honest toil or duty and the pretty girls and more left behind. The other is The Sailor’s Farewell, a moving story that Ange picked up from an audience member, about a mother’s ritual of alternating two pictures in the same place each time her husband set sail. One was a sailor’s farewell and the other represented return, but tragedy intervened and that second picture remained unhung.
Naturally enough, however, most of these songs are about the land, although in some cases it’s the struggle to hang on to your little bit of it. As she points out in The Gamblers Lot, generations can farm the same acreage, but if the stakes are high enough, all it takes is foolhardy risk or speculation to put the continuity and the life that goes with it at risk. Such is the avarice of The Wanting Wife, who sends her husband out poaching and thieving. It’s a sprightly tune taken a cappella and the verses also feature James Findlay, but here the song at least offers a chance of redemption and a happy outcome. It’s denied to The Foolish Heir, an unfortunate lassie duped and drowned by a false lover and destined to roam her father’s land as a ghost, while Ange’s guitar suggests the babbling stream that is her final resting place.
Then there are ghosts in The Young Librarian, although this song is about how people live on through their writing and how the stories gathered here have made Ange’s mark on the passage of time. Her journey features in The Daring Lassie and is the first time Ange has tackled that aspect of her own life and the actual journey that took her to Ireland. It’s sung as a duet with James this time taking the male part and finds a nice blend of romance and hardship. The Lost Soul marks the end of her journey and turns that hardship and feeling of being cast adrift into a sense of hope. The Raising And The Letting Go adds a poignant note to the story, with a mother’s recognition that her own children will one day fly the nest.
The animals of the land also feature and The Cull brings the farm life up to date with the complexities of bovine TB. The Tilling Bird refers to a chicken following a plough searching for treats that are turned up, but in doing so, also helping to turn the soil, but it is also a metaphor for love. Given the title there are of course sheep and The Woolgatherer is a wry tale that points out the perils of daydreaming and not having your mind on the job, especially when that job is muck spreading. Then there’s the title track, a gorgeous rewrite of the nursery rhyme, which examines the wisdom of surrendering all that you own.
Finally there is the closing The Lullaby, which is a simple enough appeal to a young child to sleep. It offers a beautifully tender and lovingly enveloping tune, again taken a cappella, which as any parent will recognise is also laced with the frustration that restless children can bring. As Ange’s own son, Luke, was two and half while this record was being made, it makes you wonder whether this tune was tried out in situ, but if music has the power to soothe then surely this delightful vignette does.
The arrangements through the record are deceptively simple, with voices very much to the fore, but with little embellishments as required. Ange’s capacity to find a harmony or counterpoint and the skilful layering of vocal lines, however, is something really special. The songs meanwhile weave a tapestry of place, time, journey and belonging, common threads that bind us all, with our hopes, needs and desires shared whatever route we take in life. Even if her own journey has been the road less commonly travelled, Ange has found her place at the forefront of the story telling folksong tradition. Welcome home.
Review by: Simon Holland
Released September 13th 2014 via Story Records
Also available now as a Limited edition case with a 20 page lyric booklet direct from: http://www.angehardy.com/shop
The Bow to The Sailor
13 Sep – The Regal Theatre Minehead, Somerset (Album Launch)
21 Sep – The Priston Festival, Somerset
22 Sep – The Tree House Bookshop, Warwickshire
06 Oct – The Green Note, London
Ange Hardy & Steve Pledger: Just Passing Through
15 Oct – Chedzoy Village Hall (TA7 8RE)
20 Oct – Donyatt Village Hall (TA19 0RJ)
22 Oct – Chumleigh Town Hall (EX18 7BR)
27 Oct – Awliscombe Village Hall (EX14 3PJ)
29 Oct – Curry Rivel Village Hall (TA10 0HD)
10 Nov – Clayhidon Village Hall (EX15 3PL)
12 Nov – Broomfield Village Hall (TA5 2EN)
17 Nov – Nynehead Memorial Hall (TA21 0BS)
19 Nov – Upton Villahe Hall (TA4 2DB)
24 Nov – Blake Hall South Petherton (TA13 5BT)