The idea of a band or a singer songwriter ‘getting it together in the country’ used to be a popular bit of rock ‘n’ roll mythology. Arguably started by Traffic, who took up residence in the Berkshire countryside to record their debut album for Island Records, which included the track Berkshire Poppies as evidence, it gained further traction with Led Zeppelin heading for Wales and so on through the early 70s, all the way through to Bon Iver’s snowbound isolation. In Ruu Campbell’s case the move to the South West seems to have had just as profound an effect, if not more so, in shaping the sound of the appropriately titled Heartsong. It’s an album, which even if not all sunny side up, is filled with bucolic, organic, folkish delights built on naturalism, transforming the birdsong, dappled sunlight, trees gentling rustling in the zephyrs that fill the lungs with fresh, scented air into song. And for fans of the aforementioned Island Records golden era and perhaps Bon Iver to boot, Heartsong is heaven sent.
Although his biographical detail is light, one thing that has surfaced is that his life in London reached its limits a while ago. The catalyst was a break in at his home, which added a watermark to his love hate relationship with the city. He was simply thankful that the intruders hadn’t taken his guitars, but at the same time decided to up sticks and head west and you get a strong sense of that escape from the songs on his debut solo album.
Perhaps he has always had a wanderer’s soul. As a child he made various naïve attempts to run away, only to be found and returned to his parents by the police. Even when the first flush of a musical career seemed to be lining up, he took time out to go travelling the world. But then music had always had a strong calling. As a child, he’d also been part of a choir that got to perform White Christmas at Buckingham Palace. Most importantly Ruu has described the sense of liberation that he found in playing the piano, which despite parental discouragement he persisted with.
His musical talents where clearly recognised at an early age leading to a serious publishing deal at the tender age of 15. Having travelled extensively and put some of his wanderlust behind him, Ruu returned to the UK and was signed to Dreamworks, which at the time was overseen by Geoff Travis. This was still the era of big money advances, but with that came a pressure on the artist to recoup that often involved compromise, which in the end served neither party well, and so it was with Ruu.
Still he emerged from the deal wiser and then spent a couple of years singing for the groundbreaking electronica outfit Leftfield. It was a time that he relished, which then led into working with the equally adventurous Younger Brother, who took their the electronic experimentalism a leap onwards, using real instruments to create a much more organic sound, something which Ruu refers to as his English pedigree, making allusions to a vision of the idyllic green hills, an idea he had been trying to hold onto since his start with Dreamworks.
Well it seems now that everything has fallen into place and another allusion was made in the run up to the release of Heartstong to a sound palette that is, “Essentially woody and acoustic.” It’s not just Ruu and his beloved guitars and that description certainly encompasses the cello of Harry Escott, Chris Borud’s double bass and the violin of the enigmatically named Max. Nikolaj Bjerre adds drums and the even more enigmatic Big G plays percussion. Of course, despite the modern variants being generally made of metal, in some cases precious metal at that, the flute is also categorised as a woodwind instrument. Gill Sandell, whose own excellent album has featured here, and the veteran Raja Ram, once of Quintessence, but known to Ruu through the Younger Brother connection, both add their skills to the mix.
If there is a misty melancholy that pervades the opener, Caravan, perhaps enhanced by the sonorous tones of what sounds deep enough to be bowed bass and the intimate nature of the performance, there’s also a wonder and a surrender. It’s somewhere between these that the balance of impossible beauty and sadness lies. There’s a further tug from the other strings, although the enveloping quality of Ruu’s voice almost wraps you into a world where the other instrumentation hovers on the fringes. The close proximity of the microphones highlight the string scrapes, as his fingers slide up and down the guitars fret board, combining them into the atmospheric vortex that pulls you ever closer into the song.
Soul And Solace sounds very like Nick Drake as once again there is almost a confessional intimacy to Ruu’s voice, with the cello adding to the welcome illusion. This time it’s pushed along by the double bass and gently pattering percussion. The finger picked guitar hits an odd chord that walks the cliff edge of the melody and works brilliantly. It seems to be about simple pleasures, perhaps a little existential appeal to open our eyes to what surrounds us and trust our own hearts and ideas as Ruu Sings, “Lets leave all the poets, all the thinkers out. Let’s dream a while my friends – what’s it all about?”
There is some of the careful yet spookily ethereal layering of Bon Iver about Invisible Man, a sound which captures both the grand and insular in a moment. Ruu is holding a light to guide us to him as he is, “…lost alone invisible…” There is a sense of life in the balance, of coming to terms with things, learning to let go and to want to be found that also echoes in Believe In Me. If the title sounds bold, the song is given a mystical feel with the bongos and assorted, exotic percussion creating a bed for Ruus’s multi tracked voice. He confides, “When I was a child I was taught that life was something to be afraid of,” before the songs opens up and the possibility of healing and opportunity to be grasped, however shakily, comes through.
At the heart is also a spiritual quest, it manifests in the urgent Crossroads with the imagery of preachers but also more obliquely through lines like, “I come from somewhere, I’ll know when I get there,” as the song grows in intensity. In There Is A Place he seems to have accepted the finite nature of things singing, “Nothing’s for sure except the dying of the light.” He takes it further with, “We are born broken like this beautiful day, here so clear but tonight nothing will stay.” The guitar seems to slip a rhythmic gear through time signatures that add to the otherworldly impermanence.
The Call then returns more wholeheartedly to communing with Mother Nature, but like the preceding track, the double tracked voices add a chimerical haze with the high notes of the guitar chiming with a harmonic ring. That communion continues through Love Guide Me Home, with its pretty descending guitar figure and most obviously through the gentle lull of Magic Tree. Both songs focus on the seasons, the elements and things brought together in harmony.
They also lead gently towards the album’s climax with the penultimate song, the gorgeous swoop of Mathereal, and lastly, the aptly titled Crystalline, which positively spangles with a jazzy looseness and trills of flute. That final song goes back to Ruu’s Younger brother days and seeking out that version to compare and contrast is highly recommended and also gives the album its title with the lyric, “There’s no right or wrong, just my heartsong.” Both of these closing songs also have their mystery and a the feeling of a mind set free, grasping a secret knowledge and gaining strength.
If there is something of Scott Matthews, Jose Gonzales and the other singers and songwriters, name checked above, in the delivery of these songs, then the comparisons are offered only as a bench mark of quality and you may very well add your own. The easy familiarity of Heartsong is countered by a sound like no other. It’s almost like an immersion tank of a record, so enveloping and captivating is the sound. Yet at the same time its heightened sense of wonder and imagination is paradoxically librating and open. With this as your soundtrack just surrender to the beauty of where you are, relax into the moment and breathe.
Review by: Simon Holland
Heartsong is Out Now via Full Fill
Order via: Amazon