Born in New Hampshire, until the age of seven Kyle Carey lived in the Alaskan Bush where she learned the Yup’ik language and its songs before being awarded a scholarship in Cape Breton to study traditional Gaelic and Cape Breton fiddle styles. From there, she travelled to the Isle of Skye, studying under Scottish singer Christine Primrose to learn the pronunciation and tone of traditional Gaelic song, as well as tracing the roots of Appalachian music.
All of which informs her own music, a mix of Gaelic and Applachian she terms Gaelic Americana. Her debut album, Monongah, was released in 2011, the title relating to West Virginian Louise McNeill’s poem about the 1907 mining disaster on West Virginia’s Monongahela River while other literary inspirations included Cape Breton author Alistair MacLeod, and poet Nikki Giovanni, the album also taking in fiddle scraped female perspective on the traditional song John Hardy. It revealed the soft-but-sandy-voiced Carey to be as impressive a storyteller as she is a musician and singer, something confirmed by North Star, her full-length follow-up.
Where the debut was recorded in Ireland, this was mostly laid down in Glasgow (along with Ireland, New England, and Louisiana), produced by Seamus Egan, a founding member of Solas, and featuring contributions from Josienne Clarke and Lumiere’s Pauline Scanlon on backing vocals, Ben Walker on guitar, cellist Natalie Haas and Craig Werth on Appalachian mountain dulcimer. All but three of the numbers are self-penned, this time introducing some love songs into the mix, one of which, June Day, kicks the album off, its title reflecting the light and breezy nature of the tune and lyrical sentiment which, while written in Australia, draws on images of a New England spring. The same setting but a different season (autumn) inspired the fiddle and guitar arranged Winter Fever where, personifying the season, she imagines waiting for a lover’s return.
If these are fancies, the third of the love-themed numbers, the suitably shimmering Northern Lights with its acoustic guitar tracery draws on deep personal experience as she sings about its impermanence and the impossibility of recapturing it once it is lost.
Turning to her storytelling, themes of longing loom large, introduced by the banjo-dappled Casey Jones Whistle Blows, a song which, part inspired by the life of Loretta Lynn, tells of a young Tennessee wife who, as the seasons pass, longs for a better life as she waits to hear the whistle blow telling her her lover’s on his way home.
Then comes the dulcimer-coloured Nora O’Kane, another song inspired by and titled after a McNeill poem, the Appalachian-toned playful narrative about the fiery passion of a wandering heart (and marriage) breaker offset by very specific references to West Kerry in Ireland.
While there’s an engagingly sunny note to several of the lyrics, Carey’s arguably at her best in the darker corners, such as those that inform three of the album’s most striking narrative highlights. Like Casey Jones Whistle Blows, a yearning for something better is also found in Stone Creek with its melancholic fiddle and, inspired by travelling through some of the poorest areas of North Carolina, lines about “the toll of scraping by” and how “the bible’s left us dry” while the spooked Wind Through Caspar, a song written in West Kerry, draws upon how, during the famine many young Irishmen emigrated to Caspar, Wyoming in search of a better life only to find a different kind of despair.
Also rooted in Ireland, is the album title, North Star, a simple, banjo and acoustic-guitar backed number that twins the legend of the selkie, the seal woman trapped into marriage by a fisherman, with the theme of imprisonment and escape that informs Tinkerman’s Daughter by Irish singer-songwriter Mickey MacConnell.
Let Them All Be Reprise is a revisiting of the Gaelic-coloured rework of a gospel ballad that appeared on her debut, the only difference being that here it’s accompanied by a simple acoustic guitar whereas the original was double tracked a capella. I’m not quite sure why, but it’s such a lovely piece, there’s certainly no complaints.
Of the three non-originals, two are sung in Gaelic, the tinkling, mandolin-backed Cairistiona, a Scottish waulking song with an Appalachian tint, and Sios Dhan an Abhainn, an inspired, mesmerising translation of Alison Krauss’s Down To The River To Pray, set to pipe drone and mountain dulcimer, on which she’s joined by Gillebride Mac IlleMhaoil on harmony. Finally, the set plays out with a Celtic-shaded, fiddle-backed cover of Kate Wolf’s Across The Great Divide, a title that could well summarise Carey’s approach to the two musical traditions on which her work is founded. As astronomers will know, the North Star is the closest to the north celestial pole, a point by which travellers can chart their course. Musical voyagers should set their compass to Carey’s.
Review by: Mike Davies
North Star is out now, order it on Kyle’s website: www.kyleannecarey.com