Norfolk-based singer/songwriter Holly Lerski’s new album The Wooden House is a true DIY affair: written, performed and recorded on a minimum of equipment by Holly at her home studio, or ‘shed’, to give it its technical term (with a little help from friends James ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson on bass and producer/mixer Stu Hanna (Megson), this self-released collection of ten songs is possessed of a lightness of touch and an airy, spacious sound which make for an appealing and enjoyable listen. The songs are well-structured and supported, not overwhelmed, by either their arrangements or the production – but the real star of the show is Holly’s voice: she has a clear, rounded range which is perfectly suited to her indie-folk material.
The ukelele-driven Inkblot gets things off to a good start: lyrically, it’s a sad song for a lost love, bolstered by a sense of putting a brave face on things even though your heart is breaking. The “carry on regardless” subtext is reinforced by a quiet, almost bittersweet musical arrangement, through which Holly’s multi-tracked harmony vocals shine as bright as uncried tears.
The album’s title track Wooden House has a sweet, wistful feel and a hint of an Americana influence. James ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson adds some well-placed yet unobtrusive bass to counterpoint Holly’s banjo. It’s a highlight of the album, not least for its chorus, which is an insidiously hooky thing that you’ll find yourself humming for hours. All in all this is a song with massive potential for – if you’ll excuse my lapse into DJ Smashy and Nicey territory – heavy rotation in nationwide drivetime radio slots.
Holly’s knack for catchy hooks again comes to the fore in Building You The Ark, particularly with the perfectly-placed multi-tracked call-and-response harmonies in the song’s closing section. A syncopated acoustic guitar and quietly pattering rhythm section keep the song moving while its lyric of reassurance is tantalisingly ambiguous: “I’m building you the ark, you’ll be all right”, she sings – but to herself or to another?
Lead single Come Sit Down has an accompanying video shot in a tiny, ancient stone church, presumably somewhere in the idyllic countryside of Norfolk. Lyrically, it’s a love song, about the paradox of trying to find the words to ask someone to stay when you can’t find the words to just say what you’re really feeling. However, any existential angst is washed away with the exquisite – I want to say ‘angelic’ but, given the video’s location I don’t want to risk an accidental blasphemy! – harmonies which drift in and out behind Holly’s intricate fingerstyle guitar and sweet-as-chocolate lead vocal. I have to add, though, that for me, there’s a secondary video which is the real star and another highlight. Shot in the same location, it features Holly playing the song live, just one woman and her guitar in the fading light of the church and it’s – again, forgive my choice of words – a bewitching performance.
Oh Atoms, Oh Molecules lifts the tempo somewhat, propelled by an infectiously rhythmic, handclapping percussion and an upbeat, bluegrass fiddle: again, I sense an Americana influence at play. Set against a slightly mischievous lyric about the happiness brought by the first flush of new love, it has a suitably bright-eyed and bushy tailed feel that’s hard to resist.
The Magpie is, in my opinion, a much-maligned bird. Often believed to be a harbinger of doom and a thief, nevertheless its reputation does provide a useful metaphor for Holly’s song of the same name. Over a soundtrack of chattering guitars and fluttery percussion, her lyric considers the effects of living a life ruled by superstitions and groundless fears, only to replace these constructs with another: the desire for shiny things. Faced with such a stark choice, would you opt for superstition or for superficiality?
Built around one of this record’s musical hallmarks – delicately interwoven guitars over a quietly strummed rhythm – the introspective Happy Sad contemplates the breakup of a relationship. The heartfelt lyric “There are no guarantees” adds poignancy but I was most struck by Holly’s vocal delivery which, at times, calls to mind the fluid precision of Tracey Thorn on the early Everything But The Girl albums. Given my love for EBTG’s Eden in particular, this is actually quite a compliment, but if that wasn’t enough, then Holly’s gorgeous multitracked harmony vocals certainly make it another of the record’s highlights.
Show And Tell continues the lyrical examination of the complexities of relationships, particularly the way that impulsive, some might say foolish, words and actions can unintentionally and irredeemably sour the first flush of love. A slow, sparse musical arrangement combines well with some heartachingly sweet harmony vocals and Hutch’s admirably restrained bass.
The syncopated rhythms of Pudding Pie help to lift the mood for the penultimate track, an uptempo aural feast of strummed guitars, banjo and uke backdrop a lyrical metaphor of life as a banquet, albeit with the proviso that living it to the full requires one to have a taste for new things. There’s an inspired percussion section towards the end which, I suspect really does make use of the proverbial ‘kitchen sink approach’ to making music: the PR notes mention that coffee cups and spoons were among Holly’s instrumental armoury and, assuming that’s what I’m hearing here, they make an important contribution to an unexpectedly jaunty and cheery coda.
The gently swaying waltz that is Homespun draws the record to a seemly conclusion, its softly chiming guitars like a cool hand on a fevered brow. Lyrically, it’s about wanting a place to call home, to put down roots and feel a sense of belonging, although I feel there’s a deeper level to be found: the idea of a relationship as home. One of life’s great unanswerables, I think – but that doesn’t mean the question should always go unasked.
The more I listen to this record, the more it becomes clear that The Wooden House places Holly Lerski’s songwriting at the centre and it’s this focus which is the album’s real strength. Yes, there’s skilled musicianship in abundance, along with engaging arrangements that sound fresh (and retain that freshness) as well as impeccable production values, a keen ear for a catchy hook and Holly’s own honey-sweet voice – but none of this would mean anything were it not for the songs themselves. Holly has obviously put a lot of thought into both the song structures and the lyrics – and it shows. To be able to look beyond the surfaces of everyday concerns and find new insights may seem a small thing, but it’s a rare skill which should get a big thumbs-up from anyone with a penchant for a finely-turned phrase, something which Holly Lerski has in abundance and, it’s to be hoped, will find recognition for in The Wooden House.
Review by: Helen Gregory
03 July – London FolkFest, The Bedford, 77 Bedford Hill
12 July – Cornbury Music Festival, The Great Tew Park, Oxfordshire
20 July – Holt Festival, Holt, Norfolk