When your press release quotes Steve Tilston as saying “I’m going to have connect jump leads to your fingers,” and has a further endorsement from Terry Reid, then it’s a sure thing that the record is going to be something special. So it is with Sunjay and his self titled new release, an album that catches his fleet fingers crafting an intricate web around a thoughtful selection of songs from a great clutch of writers and including two of his own. It’s an album that displays a relaxed maturity that belies the singer / guitarists tender years. His supple finger style is matched with a natural vocal delivery that is at once understated and utterly compelling, while some top notch guests add to the mix, creating an organic balance to the fluid precision of the guitar.
It seems Sunjay has just turned 20, although this is already his third album, with his debut Seems So Real released in 2011. There’s also a live album, recorded at the Woodman Folk Club, featuring 16 tracks from his two sets on the night and appropriately titled One Night only. It’s a sign of self confidence in his performance, especially his guitar technique that has been built up with a steady diary of gigs, with over 100 shows during 2013 alone. On some of those he supported a couple of guitar greats, Martin Simpson and Terry Reid, hence the latter’s endorsement I guess.
It seems that Sunjay picked up his instrument of choice at the tender age of four and hasn’t put it down since. The old maxim of practice making perfect is obviously a part of the story. But there are plenty of bedroom guitarists and doubtless some prodigiously talented ones at that, who lack the skills to translate into anything anywhere near as engaging as this record. To some extent it’s a matter of taste, but it’s also one of realising that the guitar is a tool to serve the song and not the other way round. It’s an important distinction and the reason why this set impresses so much.
His style has that natural drift between folk and blues and both camps have recognised his obvious flair. There have been a clutch of award nominations, including winning the Wath Festival Young Performers Award. He also made the final selection for the BBC’s Young Folk Award in 2012 and also has three nominations in the Exposure Music Awards and is also recognised in this year’s UK Blues Awards running list.
Favourable comparisons have been made to a young Ralph McTell and given the stylistic mix and also some of the songs Sunjay has chosen, which refer back to the 70s, it’s a pretty decent shout to give you an easy frame of reference.
The album is produced by Eddy Morton who has enjoyed a succesful career at the leader of the The New Bushbury Mountain Daredevils, later shortened to just the Bushburys and also as a solo artist. It’s also released on Eddy’s New Mountain Music label. Eddy also plays on the album, contributing his multi-instrumental skills, while other guest include Dan Walsh (banjo) and Katriona Gilmore (fiddle), with the veterean rhythm section of Buzby Bywater on bass and ex Steeleye drummer Liam Genocky amongst the roll call.
The album also starts with one of Eddy Morton’s songs, London Road (listen below), which perhaps cements the Ralph McTell comparison, both by being about homelessness and living rough but also for the quality of Sunjay’s playing. His guitar and Dan’s banjo are the principal accompaniment, but also mandolin and harmonica in the mix with a simple enough beat keeping time and the acoustic bass solidifying the rhythmic gait of the song. Sunjay, his voice warm, smooth and natural, sings about the homeless and the down and outs, who still fill the streets of the capital almost 50 years after McTell had painted his conscience pricking portrait of the capital’s underbelly.
The second song is a traditional blues interpretation called Drop Down Mama, a lively blues-rag which has a classic jug band revival feel to it. Hand claps and stomps drive the rhythm with a repetitive descending bass pattern and mandolin again adding to the guitar accents. There’s some tasty harmonica in the middle of the track, which could be down to Eddy, although both Dan Owen and Lee Southall also play the mouth harp on the record. The song warns againt dallying with a certain type of lady, who offers nothing more than, “A handful of gimme and a mouthful of much obliged.”
Going Down The Road maintains the folk blues feel putting the name of Mary McCaslin into the spotlight. She was a cultish but important figure in the American folk scene and a renowned guitarist and banjo player, who used a variety of open tunings and regularly mixed musical style, giving a folksong makeover to the like of Pinball Wizard and songs by The Beatles and even The Supremes. The song gives Sunjay a chance to add subtle melodic flourishes to his rhythmic guitar style and once more the banjo picks its way around the tune. For the second verse, the sound fills out with injections of mandolin and fiddle adding a graceful counterpoint.
It’s possible that McCaslin provides the roll model here as the sequence of songs that follows have that roots-pop crossover. The first is Mark Knopfler’s Sailing To Philadephia, the title of his second solo album. It’s a tour de force of Sunjay’s finger style guitar and his easy vocal style, as he injects life into this tale of the Geordie lad Jeremiah Dixon and the star gazing Charlie Mason, whose names combine to define the division between the northern and southern USA. There’s subtle cello from Sarah Smout, giving an extra emotive tug, but really this is about Sunjay’s natural fluid guitar style.
John Hiatt’s Memphis In The Meantime provides another change of pace and style and is a really well worked version, which brings out the wry humour of the original and features some wonderful flurries of guitar. You can have too much of a country-music-good-thing it seems as the song suggests, “Cause one more heartfelt steel guitar chord, Girl, it’s gonna do me in.” It’s going to take a shot of rhythm to erase the country blues, with a change of footwear from cowboy boots to some chic Italian leather and a pork hat are all that’s needed to complete the makeover.
Keeping the changes coming is a most welcome version of the Tom Rush classic, No Regrets, which of course became a massive hit to mark the second coming of the Walker Brothers. The strategic use of a kettle drum and the thoughtful use of the strings gives a hint of the grand version that they delivered, but it’s another example of Sunjay’s exceptional playing. There’s also a version of You Can Close Your Eyes, Jame Taylor’s bittersweet song, which seems laced with a pervasive sadness and again is beautifully realised here.
The meat in this sweetly sombre sandwich, however, is another sprightly delight and a version of Jim Croce’s You Don’t Mess Around With Jim, which once more finds the song’s inner funny bone as, “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, You don’t spit into the wind, You don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger, And you don’t mess around with Jim.”
The mood swings again through Sunjay’s arrangement of Sittin’ On Top Of The World, which has a defiant tone in the face of romantic fallout and a lovely, wistful expansive sound, with the fiddle adding a suitably mournful wail. A Folk Singer Earns Every Dime is another amusing song taken a cappella over a stomp and clap rhythm bed, documenting the iniquities of the erstwhile singers lot in a doll litany of minor quibbles and irritations.
Sunjay makes the most of these chosen songs, with some superb musicianship and finely judged performances, which marry a surging rhythmical style and a delicate touch. The result is a very enjoyable and highly entertaining record, which makes good on the considerable interest he has already generated. It looks like he’s keeping busy too with a round of folk club dates starting tonight and continuing on through this month and next. Youth is very much on his side and you have to believe that, as good as he is already, the more he plays, the better he is going to get and that really is some prospect.
Review by: Simon Holland
05 – Waveney Folk Club
06 – Rotherham Show
13 – Faldingworth Live
14 – Bromyard Folk Festival
15 – Glenfarg Folk Club
17 – Irvine Folk Club
19 – Woodman Folk Club
21 – Saltaire Festival
25 – Stourbridge Folk Club (Supporting Phil Beer)
26 – Tamworth Folk Club
27 – Cornucopia Festival
30 – The Hoy at Anchor Folk Club
02 – Robin 2 supporting John Illsley
03 – Bingham Folk Club 05 – Derby Folk Festival
09 – Black Swan Folk Club
10 – Chesterfield Folk Club
11 – Newhampton Folk Club
12 – Reading Folk Club
14 – Green Man Folk Club
15 – Lamb Folk Club
16 – Uxbridge Folk Club
17 – Cambridge Folk Club
18 – Dunton Folk Club
22 – Faversham Folk Club
23 – Common Folk Club
24 – Brewtown Folk Club
28 – Cramlington Folk Club
30 – Darlington Folk Club
01 – Wychwood Folk Club
08 – Fo’c’sle Folk Club
15 – Lothersdale Live, (Supporting Bernard Wrigley)
20 – Ritz Acoustic Club
27 – Stourbridge Folk Club, supporting Dan Owen
13 – Sale Folk Club
Photo Credit: Charlie Barker Photography