There’s a rich seam of talent among the Scottish arts community; we have an abundance of playwrights, poets, authors, composers, performers, musicians and singers covering endless musical, theatrical and literary genres. Gerda Stevenson’s first solo album Night Touches Day takes a pinch of all these disciplines, pays homage to a variety of genres and presents us with a box of delights that’s about as complete as any package could possibly be.
To say Gerda Stevenson is multi-talented would be an understatement; something along the lines of renaissance woman would be more appropriate. As part of a family of well-known musicians (her father the composer/pianist Ronald, sister composer/harper Savourna) a career in music would seem inevitable, but Gerda has several more strings to her bow. As a writer of drama, poetry, prose, and children’s stories she’s enjoyed success and critical acclaim. Her 2010 play Federer versus Murray was short-listed for the London Fringe Theatre Writing Awards; her 2013 poetry collection If This Were Real received glowing reviews and she has written extensively for BBC Radio, including her own original drama, and dramatisations of Scottish classic novels.
Gerda’s probably best known for her acting work, and since training at R.A.D.A., London, she’s worked on stage, television, radio and in film. In addition to a role in Braveheart, a Scottish BAFTA award for her performance in Blue Black Permanent, several TV roles in the UK and the US; it’s through Gerda’s theatre performances that her talent has found its most rewarding outlet (from the audience’s point of view, at least). Recently her performance in Grit – The Martyn Bennett Story , where she played several roles including, most memorably, Margaret Bennett and Sheila Stewart, was a major factor in the success the project enjoyed. The play itself received the Event Of The Year Award at the recent MG ALBA Scots Trad Music Awards, and on the same night, Gerda was a nominee in the Scots Singer of the Year award.
In Night Touches Day, however, Gerda doesn’t restrict herself to singing in Scots; and listening to the album’s opening track, We Can Imagine, you’d be hard pushed to detect ‘trad’ preferences. A Mediterranean guitar points to cloud-laden Glasgow skies before imagination takes flight to Paris. With Inge Thomson’s accordion providing a Gallic flavour, this is a delightful flight of fancy that blows the clouds away in a burst of cabaret sunshine. With songs designed to entertain, humour is never far away. Papa’s Leaving wags a finger at the man in white for leaving his flock, and If My Car Was Automatic charts a fantasy journey of a different kind. Machu Picchu comes straight from a smoky night club. Kyrre Slind’s impeccable swing guitar smiles as much as Gerda’s playful lyrics, offering Scotland’s mountain regions as a viable alternative for Peru. In another excursion to the land of swing, The Other Side presents a hint of The Roches’ song-writing genius to show us how opposites can attract…
Extremes can meet in cold or heat,
Night touches day at sunrise.
It’s now or never
If we’re going to ever
Bridge that old divide.
The travel theme continues in the melancholy Astronaut’s Waltz, where Seylan Baxter’s Cello accompanies Gerda’s incredibly versatile voice on a journey to escape earth’s gravity, and a broken heart. And it’s in these more wistful compositions that Gerda’s strength as a poet really shines through. There’s a beautiful piano accompaniment from James Ross, and pathos-laden saxophone from Konrad Wiszniewski in Breathe In, Breathe Out. Gerda’s tale of a cyclic struggle with depression may not be a ballad in the normal broadsheet sense, but the style comes straight from the tradition of Scottish musical theatre. Hard To Say It pays homage to the same influences, both musically and lyrically. Alongside James Ross on piano, genuine depth is created by Rob MacNeacail’s bass, while Gerda delivers a heart-rending vocal that highlights the necessity of taking, as well as giving, in a relationship.
Love has to be fair
To grow, to thrive,
Can’t work cause we don’t
Take all of each other;
You can’t be a lover alone.
I Come to You is another love song that harks from the same Scottish musical tradition, but with a distinctly poetic voice that pays tribute to modern Gaelic poets as much as the likes of Burns and Hogg. It’s a truly beautiful song that presents the cycle of the seasons as a metaphor for never ending love. An intoxicating mix of vocal, piano and saxophone that finds parallels in the constancy of nature, the constancy of the seasons and the constancy of love.
I come to you
When the berries shine,
Rowan, hip and haw,
Blood red like wine.
I come where snowdrops throng
On every brae
And when hawthorn wears
Her white skirts of May.
And that uniquely Scottish voice does shine through on this album. All The Prayer, for all its lilting vocal, comes across as an ancient enchantment. Backed up by strings, drones and layered vocals the song implores us to live for the moment and the real glories of nature, not the imagined glories of hereafter. Auld Wummin’s Song is Gerda at her theatrical best with a marching mandolin and cello in celebration of the freedom of old age, following a life of toil. Two songs on the album show, perhaps more than any other, Gerda’s suitability for Scots song. The support afforded by the combination of piano and cello infuse It’s Ower with an abundance of charm and power and, in closing the album, Aye The Gean is given a Jacobean flavour by Kyrre Slind’s lute.
My first listen to this album was on a train journey to Inverness. Pulling through the stunning Cairngorm scenery, thick with snow; the themes of travel, life, fun all served as a perfect accompaniment to the journey. There’s the warmth, drama and humour of Gerda’s perfectly enunciated vocal performance (I swear, at times, you can hear her smile); a lyrical style that shows no strain switching between modern and ancient balladry and musical arrangements from a selection of guest musicians that must surely have been as carefully selected as every word in I Come To You.
Gerda could easily have played it safe and released an album of tradition-based songs. With her own compositions and the extensive trad repertoire, in Gaelic and English, to work with it’s sure to have been a success. Or she could just as easily have relied on her Thespian background, replicated a cabaret event in the studio and relied on her song-writing wit to produce an undoubted crowd-pleaser. But that isn’t how renaissance woman works.
In adding recording artist to her string of accomplishments, Gerda Stevenson has created a work that appeals to a wide variety of audiences. With Night Touches Day Gerda succeeds in pushing all the buttons – she charms and delights; she tells stories and asks questions and she tugs at the heart-strings whilst tapping the funny bone. Each of Gerda’s songs stands proudly on its own merits and each contributes to the album’s irresistible eclecticism.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
Gerda is performing at Celtic Connections on 28th January 2015 at National Piping Centre with Bonnie Dobson Ticket link.