In all sorts of ways Laura Victoria stands out from the crowd. A striking flame haired young woman, with a confident powerful voice, Laura has made her mark on the folk club and festival scene accompanying herself on cello, winning some fulsome praise for her adventurous and unique style. A graduate of The North East’s hothouse of folk music excellence, she’s drifted south and channelling the tradition has created her own hybrid songs that also call on bluegrass and blues. The resulting debut full length album, Head Above Water, is at once unique and compelling, rootsy and otherworldly, packed with songs that are passionate, forthright, wistful and dreamy by turn. In her hands the cello proves its versatile worth and she’s also recruited some talented friends to help make the album special.
Originally hailing from Northumberland village life Laura made her musical start with FolkESTRA North, the youth folk ensemble based at the Sage in Gateshead, founded by Folkworks with Kathryn Tickell as musical director. Typically the young combo, whose ages ranged from 14-19 explored the tradition, but with an open mind for adventurous arrangements. Laura featured on their eponymous, debut recording released on Fellside.
She stayed in the North East to study Folk And Traditional Music at Newcastle University. It’s one of the most successful and highly regarded courses of its sort with an incredible roll call of some of the best musicians on the circuits today having passed through its door, many of whom are naturally enough regularly featured here. But it was also in Northumberland that Laura truly started to forge her own musical identity, writing and recording the six songs, which along with her arrangement of My True Love Once He Courted Me, would form her first CD release that came out through London’s Cherry Red Records.
She also started gigging on the folk club circuit, playing solo with cello in 2006, but having readied her EP moved to the Capital city in 2009. There she immersed herself in the London scene making new friends along the way, some of who appear on Head Above Water. Somewhere in the mix, Laura also entered a New Roots competition at St. Albans Folk Club, winning the chance to appear at Sidmouth Folk Week and also the praises of judge John Kirkpatrick. The legendary box man singled out Laura as, “fearlessly adventurous.” Naturally enough it proved a stepping stone and while she’s continued around the folk club circuit, Laura has gone on to play at Cambridge and Edinburgh Fringe, while nailing prestigious support slots with the likes of Jackie Oates, O’Hooley & Tidow, Simone Felice and others.
The album was recorded in Brixton by Mark Wallis, a man with an impressive and varied CV as engineer, mixer and producer. In London, Laura is also a regular at the all-comers session in Stockwell, run by Johnny B with his No Frills Band. Johnny contributes here, adding his voice and octave mandola to one of the songs. He’s also responsible for introducing Laura to the one non-original composition to be included, but more of that later. The most significant guest on the album, however, is Jo Cooper, who Laura has known since university days. The pair have regularly gigged together over the last 10 years and Laura is the first to acknowledge the importance of her contribution here.
It may be the way that the album artwork is laid out, with the 10 tracks listed in two blocks of five, but on initial listenings, Head Above Water, feels like a record of two halves or sides, to revert to my predilection for vinyl. I mentioned at the top that her songs could sound both rooted and otherworldly or ethereal, and what, for the sake of argument I’m calling side one, leans towards the rooted side of her songwriting. It also has a strong Americana feel, which again is enhanced by that one non-original.
Interestingly Laura has said, “I haven’t written many entirely happy love songs but then if everything is perfect, I just don’t feel the need to write about it.” She makes light of this by suggesting that she can still write a pretty and upbeat tune, which she certainly can and we start with one that borrows from a gospel-bluegrass sort of feel. It’s a straightforward appeal to the heavens, “Please don’t leave me without his love,” with the old-timey feel enhanced by the use of what I take to be the cello as string bass, alternatively plucked and bowed, and the banjo of Laura’s good friend Jo.
The following track is the non-original, a cover of Utah Phillips’ Rock Salt And Nails, which naturally enough retains the same feel, although also adds a little chamber orchestration. This time it’s obviously the double bass of Robin Allison that carries the songs bottom end, but Laura’s cello and Jo’s fiddle swoop and soar across the Ohio activist’s tale of forsaken and deceitful love. Laura brings clear sense of menace to the line, “I’d fill up my shotgun with rock salt and nails.”
Half Hearted Love is the rather lovely spoiler for my two sides theory, being more jazzy and spacious, with the piano used to create big floating chords that the cello can hook into and pull around. It’s the cavernous reverb that adds that otherworldly feel to this song, yet given a different arrangement you could hear this translated into blues or soul diva material, with a chorus that comes straight from classic 60’s pop. Laura pleads with a lover, “Take me all or pass be by,” as the unfortunate object of her affections is torn in two directions. It’s perhaps the song that justifies the Nina Simone comparisons that have been made, as Laura uses the range and phrasing of her voice to telling effect.
If that track is an anomaly in my theory, then Sleeping Is Not On My Mind and I’m At The Crossroads put us back on track. The former sees us return to the banjo and cello, with an almost salacious tone, albeit one frustrated by distance as Laura wonders, “Where are you now? What’re you thinking about? Can you hear me somehow?” Later in the bridge of the song she sings “If you’ve never been down, how’re you gonna rise up” sounding just like something from a classic Band song. The start of second is taken as an a cappella, with the instrumentation building simply through the song, and is the duet with Johnny B. It seems that typically harsh lessons are to be learnt if the right road is to be taken, as the duo trade verses and harmonise together.
The simplicity of that arrangement make If Hell Freezes Over all the more dramatic. The dramatic bass intro, dissonant scrapes and multi-tracked voice add a slightly deranged feel to the message that a spurned lover is welcome no more. Laura concludes, “I’d say I’m sorry, But I’m anything but.” The door is well and truly bolted.
The Kind Of Love again uses the piano to soften and expand the atmospherics and here the multi-tracked voices are far more harmonious, even if the sentiment is more forlorn and heartbroken. Again the piano leads out Across A Crowded Room, but this time the cello swirls around in a heady rush of emotions as Laura is consumed by the realisation of, “I don’t want anyone if I can’t have you.”
The dramatic opening, “As I went out this morning I heard nothing,” hooks you in, while the repetition of the stepping out phrase gives the title track its Anglicana feel. Laura asks, “How do you keep your head above water? How do you stop your spirit washing away?” The track ramps up the tension and unease only for the breakdown to resolve, “As I went out this morning the sun broke through the clouds and I thanked the stars above.”
While I’ll Never Look Back returns us to the instrumental sound-bed of banjo and cello, this time the effect is more minimalist, with a repeated figure that slowly blooms as the cello takes off, with fiddle overlaid as things spiral upwards towards a final release and Laura sings of letting things go and moving on without fear.
Laura has a unique sound that certainly benefits from the chemistry she shares with her friend and accompanist Jo, but has she also has a magical ability to the shift musical shapes to cover the broad range of her emotive songs. For all of the underlying themes of loves travails, the hurts, heartaches, rejections and stand offs, there is a resilient spirit that shines through Head Above Water. For Laura is undoubtedly better to have loved and lost and when she turns those sentiments into songs like these, then we are all winners.
Review by: Simon Holland
Album out 8th June. Pre-release copies available HERE
03 Jun: Album Launch: The Slaughtered Lamb, London (Tickets)
13 Jun: Blaydon Races Gig, The Finborough Arms, Earls Court
28 Jun: Crawley Folk Festival
30 Jul: Cambridge Folk Festival, The People’s Front Room Stage
11 Aug: Edinburgh Fringe, Lost Horizons Folk Club