Having recently toured with Joan Baez and won the Dallas Songwriting Competition last year, Lucia Comnes returns to her American roots for her excellent new album Love, Hope & Tyranny. It’s a record that has been three years in the making for which Lucia called on the help of old friend and mentor Jeffrey Wood. As well producing three of the tracks Jeffrey’s also the director of the legendary Fantasy studios in California, where the majority of this record was recorded. In addition to Woods, Lucia also turned to a more recently made friend, the multi-instrumentalist and producer Gawain Mathews, who oversaw the majority of the sessions and even helped her with a couple of the songs. Together they’ve taken Lucia’s passionate, assured song craft and cooked up a superb sounding Americana record, which none the less has subtle hints of the globe-trotting musical adventure that Lucia has been on, ever since picking up the fiddle as a five year old.
Born in San Fransico, with both her mother and father having recent émigré forebears and mixed European bloodlines, Lucia Comnes grew up in Marin County, only about 30 minutes out of the city, but wild enough to be surrounded by nature. Following a trip south she took to the fiddle at an early age, absorbed her parents records and broadened her musical knowledge at every opportunity. She also grabbed every chance to travel and in doing so had what she describes as her first epiphany in realising the universal language of music. Her travels eventually found her settling in Italy, where she now lives, but still responds to the call of home, returning periodically to America to record and perform. She’s studied far and wide, but there’s also the real sense on this record of a new dawn as she taps into the musical heritage of her original homeland, as if reconnecting with her birthright.
While Lucia has most definitely tapped into the wellspring of American folk music for Love, Hope & Tyranny, she has always cast her musical nets much wider. That she is a 2006 graduate of Long Island University’s Global Studies program with a self-designed interdisciplinary degree called Music, Culture and Nature offers a clue. Lucia is widely travelled and has taken in the music of Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria and Ireland, with the latter finding her studying in Cork and learning the Gaelic language and sean-nos style of singing. Lucia has also developed her powerful fiddle style through studying with many of the instrument masters including Martin Hayes, Kevin Burke and Oisín MacDiarmada in the U.S. and Ireland.
It’s unsurprising therefore to learn that Lucia actually made her musical debut in 2002 as a vocalist with Kitka – the Oakland-based women’s a cappella vocal ensemble specializing in Balkan / Eastern European folk music. She also has her Rockin’ Irish Band on the go, but overall has played and studied in over 20 different countries and her three previous albums reflect this massive diversity, with interpretations of songs and the musical language of many different cultures.
Lucia has always fought off labels, but as the sleeve notes make clear, this time the record falls squarely under the banner of Americana, even quoting from the AMA definition of the genre. That said, there are little hints of that diversity bubble through a snatch of melody here, a slip of rhythm and meter there, while throughout her songs the natural world creates the backdrop, occasionally taking centre stage as Lucia’s environmental concerns come to the fore.
In Other ways, Love, Hope & Tyranny is also a departure, as Lucia says herself, “This is the first album I’ve put music together as a songwriter.” For that she located herself at Fantasy studios in Berkley, a venue that has played host to a massive list of artists that was originally built on the profits of CCR, to work with producer and multi instrumentalist Gawain Mathews and a number of fine musicians brought in to put the flesh on the bones of her songs. Whilst Lucia plays violins and fiddle and Gawain plays most other instruments, the guest list includes the close harmony trio, The T Sisters. Gawain also contributes to the writing, sharing a credit on two songs with Larry Potts co-authoring another with Lucia.
You can sense the passion that Lucia brings to her music as she says, “Songwriting is an ongoing process, one of listening, selection and refinement. We swim in the ocean of possibility, of ideas of mystery, until we choose a direction – a story, an emotion, a desire – commit to it fully and let go of the rest. Only then can we create something unique and worth sharing. The songs on this album are my own stories, the stories of my ancestors, the stories of our time, the stories of the land the sky and the sea. They are stories of love, hope and tyranny.”
That of itself is a powerful statement, but when you play the album the songs themselves trump it time and again. There’s something almost Gretchen Peters-noir about the opener No Hiding Place, although whether the fires lit here are kerosene fuelled or emotional, possibly both, is yours to decide. Either way it’s a potent mix of fiddle and a Bo Diddley like beat with a guitar snaking its course through the heart of the simple, naggingly effective and instantly hummable tune. There is a sense of dread for the fate of two young lovers at the hands of the girl’s mother and father, while she wishes she could fly on sparrow’s wings to escape her doom.
If the Bo Diddley vibe suggests sonic adventure then Burning Eden builds on that promise, with a swirling groove that has a strong and almost swampy undertow, above which Lucia vocals soar and swoop. There’s an almost tribal, Native American, breakdown, as the percussion takes hold and Lucia considers the feverish stake of mother nature and the need for action singing, “Down, down, turn it down, we’re gonna turn the fire down.” Lie With Me Tonight by contrast just floats on a bed of soft beats, following the vespers of lap steel as Lucia tries to guide a lover under the starlight of Orion suggesting, “My Body’s made of stained glass, Light a candle, you’ll see my past.”
There’s a real beauty here and an almost otherworldy feel envelops you, but despite the gentle reverie, there are troubles in the misty chimera and Through The Dark suggests there’s a way to go before the light shines through. Again a fiery motif crops up as Lucia questions, “Who will answer for what went wrong? The forest is burning but we carry on.” Give In To Grace, keeps the tempo slow, but here there’s the leisurely elegance that the title suggests, with another journey, this time with a more certain outcome of two hearts united.
The two sides of love present themselves in the urgent There Must Be A Reason and the bluesy If You Knew How Much I loved You. The former benefits from some tasty Dobro, while Lucia’s fiddle and swirls of organ add to the groove. Lucia agonises over love, with no guarantee of finding a soul mate, but admitting, “I’d rather be alone than with the wrong one.” In the latter she seems willing to throw everything into her pursuit of the one her heart desires, yet there’s no less hurt in the lines, “So I carry the burden of all that could have been, And I burn the delusion that you’ll gather me in.”
There are contrasts too in the next two songs. How The Moon Made Me finds Lucia wrestling with her Muse, trying to channel the heavens and the forces of nature into her creative energy. End Of The Line, however, with it’s dramatic, stabbing three beat riff and snaking fiddle finds her contemplating that final journey as she sings, “This is the last station, ain’t no one to catch you when you fall.” There’s death too in the next song although as the title makes clear, The Day Love Dies, finds affection rather than life itself at an end. There are regrets and betrayals, as Lucia sings, “If Water were forgiveness, And Sunlight, Shame, I’m standing in a desert, Dreaming of rain.”
Environmental concerns hit the foreground again, with a child of Chernobyl setting out the pleading of Look Again, as Lucia asks us not to turn our heads and also to find new ways to address the damage that is being done. A clear message that it is the children that will suffer from the legacy we are leaving. Because They Never Do, looks at the effects of famine and also highlights Lucia’s connection to Ireland. Her fiddle plays a mournful air, as the tale of those forced to leave their homes, often leaving loved ones behind, unfolds. While their hearts remain, the émigrés will never return.
Finally there’s the delightful, straight-ahead bluegrass chase of Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone. By Lucia’s own admission this is one of her favourite tracks to perform live, while the songs itself is a co-write with Gawain and comes out of her research into the bad girls of the old west, the outlaw belles such as Rose Dunn and Pearl de Vere. Her fiddle comes to the fore and the dobro pulls at the melody over the steady pulse of acoustic bass, while the T Sisters join the fun beefing up the choruses with their trademark harmonies.
Given that it’s been three years in the making, it’s to everyone’s credit that Love, Hope & Tyranny hangs together so well. It’s a varied mix alright, but with Lucia’s beguiling voice prominent atop Gawain’s inventive soundscapes, there’s a satisfying and holistic feel to the album.
With the songwriting competition win and an endorsement from Joan Baez there’s a real sense of upward momentum and just as Lucia is getting set to make her debut in the UK too. But more than that there’s the real sense of a passionate and articulate artist, channelling all of her wide ranging, globe trotting experience into a wonderful record that balances a real sophistication, with an authentic rootsy vibe that proves simply irresistible.
Review by: Simon Holland
Love, Hope & Tyranny is released June 1st 2015 (UK release)
Wednesday, June 10, 2015 at 8:30pm (UK debut and CD Release Concert)
THE GREEN NOTE, LONDON, NW1 7AN
Thursday, June 11, 2015 at 9:00 pm
THE CALEDONIA, LIVERPOOL