There are occasions, when things seem to pop up almost on demand, although in reality, I suppose it happens infrequently enough for the occurrence to stand out and not so often as to have me thinking the maps of life are already drawn. The musical world is after all a big and unpredictable place, but every now and then it falls right into place before my eyes and ears. For example, I was only just in the process of thinking that it’s been a while since I’ve had the pleasure of a female voice possessing that magical mix of haunting, celestial beauty and icy clarity, when Breda Mayock’s eponymous album landed in the CD player and a familiar shiver of pleasure resulted. In this case I have Robbie Harris, Irish percussionist extraordinaire, who I have just written up as part of the brilliant Bully’s Acre, to thank. He plays on the album and has urged Breda to send it in for review, so thanks Robbie, because this is a thing of real beauty.
Breda Mayock is her third album under her own name, but you’ll have to trawl back a few years to find Pot Of Gold and the following mini-album, Numbers. Prior to that she was allied to the French world music scene, singing on both Lights In The Dark, an album made by French producer Hector Zazou, and in 2002 the massively successful O’Stravaganza with Hughes De Courson. The former took her to Real World Studios where she sang with Peter Gabriel, while the success of the latter’s adventurous fusion of the Irish tradition, classical music and more led to extensive touring in Europe. Somewhere in that mix Breda contributed to a documentary with Breton harpist Alan Stivell, based on his life’s work, which led to her featuring on his follow up album 1 Douar.
Breda is a multi instrumentalist who grew up in County Mayo, where she studied fine art as well as developing her musical skills and contacts. As well as writing all but one of the songs here, she plays fiddle and harmonium and her fine art shows up in some line drawing within the CD, which have the same distinctive style of the cover of Numbers. She’s joined by the aforementioned Robbie Harris, who widens his percussive arsenal using a number of different tones and textures along with his trademark bodhrán. The line up is completed by the experienced multi-instrumentalist of Irish / Australian heritage Steve Cooney. He’s one of Ireland’s most respected guitarists and songwriters, with a notable spell in Stockton’s Wing and is also a much in demand producer, fulfilling that duty alongside Breda here.
I’ve also just learnt that these songs in the main were written by Breda in 2014 and it was towards the end of that year Breda, Steve and Robbie came together in Lough Lannagh, County Mayo to record the album. The album came together quickly and quite spontaneously with all three discussing the songs adding their input and in just a few days, Breda Mayock resulted. It’s an album that weaves delicate yet purposeful tendrils of (mostly) acoustic, stringed instruments and ripples of percussion together, creating a varied textural backdrop for Breda’s crystal clear voice. In the work she has done with others, much has been sung in Gaelic, but here Breda sings her own songs in English, albeit with a soft Irish brogue, which simply adds to the pleasure. Her voice for the large part is well placed in the mix allowing all of the subtleties of expression to ring out, with an intimacy to the delivery that at times borders on a gentle whisper.
The backdrop of the opener Pine is further enhanced, however, with Breda’s voice used more as an instrument to create carefully layered harmonies, which, as with the harmonium elsewhere add a blissful, hazy wash that envelops you like a dream. Starting with interlaced guitar arpeggios, crystalline, sharp and sweet, and as Breda sings, “Higher than the rooftop, The peak of the pine in the forest, in the forest, Mine from the window, Where pine touches sky, When I see you, That’s where I see you,” the spine tingles and hairs stand proud. As she goes around a second time, replacing the last line with, “That’s where I see you smile,” that, “Smile,” resolves the melody and I swear, hearts within a two mile radius have melted in the fallout, it’s so near to the ultimate pleasure of perfection.
The song isn’t done with you, however, as half way through a darker tone emerges, urgent and just a little desperate, as she asks, “Why have we come to this place, Will I never hold your face?” There are all sorts of little details that you pick up the more time you play the track, with the percussion so subtle yet atmospheric, the cascade of notes from the guitar and so on, as you are drawn deeper into the song and closer to Breda. In truth every track pulls off the same trick and the more you listen the greater the pleasure and the deeper the enchantment.
Love seems to be the overarching theme for the record, but there are myriad nuances and delightful poetry in the expression. One Thing I Know promises to keep the crows at bay, with the sound of bells ringing in Breda’s ears, before she concludes, “The warmest place to be it was harmony.” Count The Ways cautions, “When I am weary and the fire gets too hot, And I forget all the good things that we’ve got,” although it seems only a temporary flare up in an otherwise prelapsarian state of grace. In the last but one song, Give Me Your Hand, Breda lovingly offers, “I can pull you out, we’ve been caught in the grip of a long dark night.” The tune again floats on the most gentle eddies of guitar, rising towards the light and finally, “All that’s left is love.”
Two of the most striking and different sounding tracks however are slightly less sure of themselves and while Halfway There is lifted aloft on, “Air arms,” Breda still finds herself, “Suspended over all these days, I pace and work and rage and love and search and age, But I haven’t found a place. What’s left to be done before I hit the ground, And run.” Musically it has a deep bottom end and what sounds like a fretless electric bass, with hints of harmonium and cymbals amongst the gentle ebb of acoustic guitars. The closing Love Song, is much more mysterious than the title suggests and is even more striking, constructed out of layers of hums and ‘ahs’. Breda starts the song with “Over the road, Where the blackberries grow, I’ll be waiting for, waiting for you, And I know that you’ll soon stick your nose through the briars, Your mouth like a rose, It could only be only be you,” before getting thoroughly lost in the green groves, red wellies and all.
In fact mother nature is a presence throughout, almost as if when love has hold the world is better defined. So there are the pines, crows, rivers and in If Your Heart Breda sings, “If your heart belonged to me, I’d bring it to live by the sea, Where everyday there’d be sweet air to breathe, Great waves to see.” Even the universe seems to be at rights for the merrily dancing Iosaf as she sings, “You were starlight, Tipping toes across the sky, And dropping through time.” Meadows Deep seems to want to return us to terra firma, to the fields, the foxes, but also suggests a communion with a vastness beyond our ken. Most immersive in this rich naturalistic imagery, quite literally, is Waterboy, with its drones and eastern raga like exoticism and percussion. The task of carrying water from the well takes on a whole new meaning, as the well has run dry and the song turns into an endless river journey. “Relax and let your mind float downstream,” as The Beatles would have it, or “I used to toil ‘til I let the river take me,” as Breda sings here.
As I said at the top the musical world is big and unpredictable and at times the terrain can be a bit lumpy-bumpy, there are adventures to be had, not all of them welcome. But if you are looking for a quite corner of serene beauty then I urge you to pick up a copy of Breda Mayock’s self titled album and treasure it. A steady diet of repeat plays will lure you further and further into the lush world that it creates. Think of it a bit like the best value 40 minutes of therapy you can get, because a bit like the track Iosaf, this is a record that cuts through time itself and rearranges the world around you in blissful harmony, it’s absolutely entrancing from start to finish.
Review by: Simon Holland
Breda Mayock is out now. Order it here: