A new name on the folk circuit, David Roberts makes his debut with the obliquely beautiful and poetic St Clears, an album inspired by a stay in the Carmarthenshire town of the same name. Recorded in rural Herefordshire, where David has grown up as a contemporary of Ellie Goulding, even playing and performing together, the album is full of references to nature, but cast in impressionistic lines that conjure a dreamy haze to wander through. The self-taught guitarist is a gifted player and has an obvious natural gift for melody and harmony, which spills over into string arrangements that add drama and scale. It’s all been carefully recorded and mixed too resulting in a quietly beautiful album, blessed with a classic sound that becomes more compelling with each listen.
“Most of the lyrics on this album are from moments and thoughts that I wanted to remember, and remind myself of. I’m singing to myself really.” David Roberts is talking about the set of songs that make up St Clears his debut album and written over the course of a few months before recording last year. You wonder if he hasn’t captured something in common with many songwriters in that albums serve as a small collection of memories, moods and moments that are considered worth preserving. Perhaps that’s a simplistic view, as there are so many different ways in which people work, quite possibly different for everyone, but there seems an element of simple truth in it too.
Returning to the writing process, David also reveals, “Guitar ideas normally come first to start writing a song, and then lyrics that come will shape how the parts develop. I try to think of how the songs can work as both a solo performance and a larger arrangement.” The latter sees the use of strings and flute, adding a luxuriant feel to the sound of St Clears.
To some extent that also comes from the way the album was recorded at Rockland House in Herefordshire, the studio owned by David’s friend Adam Huyton. David describes it as an idyllic setting on the side of hill overlooking a river, which engendered a kind of tranquillity into the whole process. The recording was deliberately kept simple, using a number of vintage microphones, Adam concentrated on getting the best possible sound from the instruments and it shows, being another obvious strength of St Clears. They even used a local church, playing back and re-recording some of the parts using the natural reverb. The whole thing was then mixed by Andy Seward and sympathetically mastered at Philosophers Barn by the hugely experienced Eric James.
David, who grew up with a musical family took to music naturally with a piano in the house, which gave him his own instrumental start. He soon switched to drums, however, eventually taking up the guitar around the age of 12 and has alternated between the two ever since, playing in bands, but mostly privately making his own music. Again that solid grounding probably comes across, both with David’s excellent finger-style guitar technique, but also in the natural rhythms of the carefully structured arrangements and album’s occasional percussive embellishments.
David admits to having help from Vaughan Jones of the appropriately named String Section to help me turn the arrangements into proper scores. Vaughan then played viola and violin with Julia Graham on cello, with producer Adam’s girlfriend Katharine Morris adding some lovely flute into the halcyon soundscapes. David, however, is quick to praise the contributions of bassist Seth Bennett and pianist Robert Pugh. He met the former after seeing him play as part of Mary Hampton’s band and was delighted when Seth agreed to be part of the sessions. Robert, however, is an old friend, but David trusted both to improvise around his arrangements and was rightly very pleased with the results.
David’s voice is soft, fragile even, tremulous and quavering, but somehow it enhances these gentle songs, which are rich in lyrical poetry. This record isn’t about stories but about placing you at the heart of an emotional landscape, offering glimpses of the pictures David creates with daubs and dabs. Little details come and go fleetingly through a misty haze.
David’s guitar is immediately impressive creating a tumbling cascade of notes at the start of Sweet Little Time, with the bass a sonorous partner, prompting the melodic flow and creating a gentle jazziness with the natural rhythms of the song. There’s an electric guitar in the mix too, adding an extra layer before finally giving a lift to the final verse of the song, while the piano also adds little highlights. David sings, “Don’t fool around do it all in your sweet little time,” as if urging us to relax into the sound but also tune in, “As the bird sings the world into play it’s the start of the day.”
So Long also has a natural jazziness to the opening descending guitar figure, with the bass and piano adding to the slippery syncopation. The cello leads the strings in during the second verse and they blossom through the chorus, as David repeats, “And oh, I wonder why you wait so long.” Time is again in focus, but this time more anxiously, although as with much of the album, the meaning of the words isn’t precise. Still, the gorgeous melody allows the lines to float enticingly, tempting you to divine your own ideas, while it sounds very much like a natural successor to Nick Drake’s chamber folk pastoralism.
That sound gets an exotic twist with the intriguing Indian Blues, which introduces percussion into the mix and also hints at eastern mysticism as the strings cut an almost psychedelic swathe across the song. David may have had help turning his ideas into charts, but there’s no denying the arrangements are clever adding real body with their layers, but as he has suggested the way the other parts mesh with them is the real delight. That’s particularly true of The Glowing where the piano plays against the busy circles of the guitars main riff, stretching the tracks timing and also adding to the harmonic depths and the bass does much the same at the root.
While natural imagery abounds, Storm Light and Won’t Know also suggest a sense of turmoil as if not all is right with the world. The first starts with, “When I was young I ordered the sea,” but David warns, “I’m starting a war, go tell everyone I master the trees, I master the sun.” Once again the song features percussion, with some delightful additional guitar and the piano giving an expansive feel. The second finds David wounded rather than the aggressor and is stripped back to just acoustic guitar and some telling punctuation from the cello, as David sings, “Your pale heart picks me apart at the seams.”
Those two are followed by Instrumental, which is exactly as its title suggests and put’s David’s finger style and harmonic sensibilities under the microscope. Played straight and simply, although simply is surely the wrong word, it’s an exquisite, brief interlude. It’s perhaps strategically placed too as arguably, the album saves it’s best for the final act.
The guitar at the start of Changelings sets up more of those cascading figures that seem to defy gravity, locked in with the beautifully woody timbre of the double bass and a gentle percussive push, with hand drums and shaker. Again it’s the harmonic structure that lifts this into the extraordinary, almost discordant, but delightfully so, with an extra kick of drama from the strings that swoop in from left-field. To The Day introduces the flute, which carries the melodic and harmonic adventure into blissful territory, albeit with a strange beauty.
The title track brings things to a close and returns us to the sound palate of the opener, with David’s guitar and voice and the bass and piano embellished only with an electric guitar, kept in check this time, just adding a few chords. It’s the longest track on the album. Again images of the natural world, cliffs, sky and sea, tumble forth in oblique strokes. It’s almost as if David is trying to find his place amongst it all as he sings, “Let me inside, let me start to try to get inside, to get inside my soul.”
The album even gets the sleeve it deserves, featuring a painting by David Eatwell, exchanged for a few guitar lessons, which is quite beautiful, but again in an abstract indefinite way. But then that abstraction allied to the wonderful melodic and harmonic gifts that David brings to these songs creates the real beauty of this record. St Clears is like a dappled musical dream that you won’t want to wake up from.
Review by: Simon Holland
St Clears is Out Now and available to order via Bandcamp.
13th March – ‘Remembering John Martyn’ The Muse, Brecon
7th March – Cardiff Central Library
1st April, Gwdihw, Cardiff
3rd April, Penarth Acoustic Club
15th April, Surya, London
17th May, The Gladstone, London
25th May, ‘How The Light Gets In’ Festival, Hay-on-Wye