For his third album, Awena, Wes Finch decided it was time to raise the stakes. His two previous releases had been recorded on a budget, calling on the help of friends and favours. Released by Silvery Records, they had none the less attracted press attention, radio sessions and more and Wes found himself living with an Americana tag. Whilst not a problem per se, the label was a little out of kilter with Wes’ natural English voice and also the shape that his new songs were taking. Determined to make a statement and fuelled by his love for recent works by Sam Lee and Lisa Knapp, Wes decided to seek the help of Gerry Diver in realigning his sound. Emails turned to conversations, followed by demos and ultimately, a Pledge Music campaign, gathering the burgeoning momentum into a viable reality. His objective was achieved as Awena is a remarkable and totally original record, a triumph that could well turn out to be career defining in announcing the arrival of Wes Finch as an exceptional song-smith. Awena is also Wes Finch’s mother’s Welsh name, which translates as ‘muse’ or ‘inspiration’ and perhaps appropriately enough, this record mines the creative motherlode.
I grabbed an opportunity to talk to Wes to fill out some of the story of how we’ve arrived at Awena and he filled me in with his biography, “I was born in Coventry, went to school and college there then went to Norwich for 7 years to study and work. I then took a year to do some travelling on my own, spending a lot of time in New Zealand. I came back to Coventry for a few years working some awful jobs and then worked in a music venue, playing with various bands but eventually escaped to Leamington Spa.” He continues, “I started learning guitar when I started secondary school; classical, flamenco, ragtime, etc. I played in my Dad’s church for a long time too, learning chords from a family friend.” That community bestowed a gift and Wes reveals, “The guitar I use most is a Yamaha F440 given to me by a friend from my parents church congregation, who I later found out was a dead ringer for Woody Guthrie!”
If there’s nothing outwardly remarkable in that story then there’s another side to Wes’ background that gets us closer to what makes him a special songwriter and that’s his love of stories, something which he is convinced comes from being read to as a child. His songs have a literate sensibility that betray his studies and avid consumption of the written word, or as he puts it, “Real books”. He enthuses, “At University, I studied fiction, but a lot of that was more American. More recently however, I’ve been getting into English nature writers. There are people like Richard Mabey and Roger Deakin, and more recently Robert Macfarlane, who combine natural history with philosophy, personal memoire, scientific study and human history. That last facet led me to Ronald Blythe whose Ackenfield inspired Red Coats on the album.” Alan Warner also gets a mention in the album notes for inspiring the carnage of Jackie’s Stone.
It’s no coincidence that this literary strand also chimes with his love of walking the English countryside. Although he has travelled, these days he’s content to roam his homeland telling me, “There are so many places to see, I love going up north to Cumbria, but even around Warwickshire and the Cotswolds.” It seems next to a good book there’s nothing better than the peace and quiet of a good yomp, although he also confesses he prefers his own company on such occasions, reckoning, “You take in so much more if you’re not distracted by talking to someone.”
As for working with Gerry, Wes explains, “Social media makes it so easy to reach people these days. He picked up on a message I left and I got him to listen to a couple of the demos I’d made. Straight away, he was really open, so I went down to London to meet him. From there it was just a case of working to make it all happen.” Once everything was in place, Wes reveals, “I played Gerry a whole bunch of demos and he picked two, which then dictated the direction we were heading in. So, I then sat down and started writing more songs that I thought would fit, which deliberately referenced English music, although not in any sort of self-conscious way.”
When it came to the recording, Wes admits, “I always thought of this as a collaboration. I’d heard what he’d done with Sam and Lisa and that’s what made me want to work with Gerry. Although I’ve written all of the songs, some of them have ended up being very different to how they started out, but it’s great to have someone you can put your trust in like that. It’s not something I’d ever done before.” As Wes wrote, Gerry continued to sift the demos. With each choice Wes would then lay down a simple two track take with just guitar and voice and as he reveals, “I think we kept just about all of those, although there are one or two where we dropped the guitar.” Whilst Gerry’s hand is obvious, Wes wasn’t simply a passive participant in the arranging and they worked together, although, in doing so, Wes does admit to some surprises, albeit very pleasant ones.
Wes has admitted that it all turned out rather dark, which wasn’t necessarily deliberate and Handfast, a kind of pagan wedding ceremony, certainly has a solemn tone. It feels as if the vows are not to be celebrated with bells and garlands, but instead with a deep, natural commune as if the powers of nature are being evoked in the huge swells of orchestration. There are ritualistic elements in lines like, “Burn the book or turn the page, jump the dying fire with me,” while a pale owl looks on from a fence post as the moon hangs like a fingernail in the sky. Even the date, the first of May is laden with significance.
Accordion leads out Red Coat, the song inspired by Ronald Blythe’s documents of village life. The tale concerns a soldier, who has escaped rural poverty by enlisting. He returns home boastful of his money, but as he leaves his outraged family to return to soldiering once more, there is the telling image of him disappearing down the lane in his bright red coat, which from a distance makes him look like a poppy in the hedgerow. Family fortunes are no better in Jackie’s Stone as Wes’ guitar ushers in a tale of two brothers, working the road. It’s all hard labour and even harder play that eventually goes over the top with fatal consequences as, “There were two of us and six of them, And there were things I saw the likes of which I never wish to see again.” The percussive thump, clank and rattle through the deteriorating situation seems to capture the lack of control and combine the fight and mechanical toil into a rampaging wildness that sets the inevitable rhythm of the road the brothers are on.
The Widow Thomas introduces the rambling theme and relates to two soldiers of WWI who used to walk the countryside together. Edward Thomas is killed in action and Ivor Gurney, severely affected by his experience is eventually consigned to a sanatorium, consumed by madness and tuberculosis. In a moving tribute to her late husband Thomas’ widow fulfils a promise to visit the dying man with maps of the areas where the two friends used to walk. It’s a highly moving song, which is inevitably stalked by discord as things periodically slip slightly out of kilter. There’s possible madness too in Smiling Stranger, or at least the spectre of depression’s black dog, as the rapid, repetitive three count guitar riff sets the vortex and Wes warns, “He’s not going to leave you alone, If you keep throwing scraps at him and putting flesh on his bones,” while the song swells towards an epic climax.
The Man Of Bones is the man we all want to leave us alone as death, separation and longing join the plotlines over the next three songs. Wes sings, “But there is my love, She waits at home, She does not know, And there is my boy, Who I’m to teach all that I know.” Corrine imagines someone sailing the seas in which their lover drowned and rattling around an empty life, still hanging on to little memories like, “Clear as a bell, I can still hear you tell, That filthy joke…” The separation in Maurice is not as permanent, but is no less heartfelt. It’s the unfulfilled, yet unconditional love dashed against a free spirit who fears containment, yet who would benefit more by surrendering.
That love spills into the next two songs and the last two tracks on the album, although not perhaps in the most positive way. The penultimate Love Me Tender somehow manages to make that title a threat, it’s more of a demand than a wish. It’s a thoroughly strange and disjointed duet sandwich of two different versions, with some kind of Lynch-ian apocalypse as the filling, as Elvis books into the Twin Peaks Motel. Riverbed, finally finds a man on the Clifton Suspension Bridge staring into the river below, knowing his wife’s wedding ring lies at the bottom of it, having been cast aside. As he wonders whether to follow it he concludes, “I’ll meet you boys on the other side, The grass must be greener there,” before the track concludes in a brain-warping Diamond Dogs romp.
Awena is a brilliant record that makes me think of Villagers and The Unthanks meeting in the Twilight Zone. Okay so that’s my fervid imagination running riot, but then Wes and Gerry have allowed theirs to and I’m just trying to keep up with the pace. It’s also a record of great story songs, the plotlines and characters of which linger like the ones you encounter in the books that you find impossible to put down. If a record could be a page turner then Awena is it.
Review by: Simon Holland
Released 8th June 2015 via Unity Root Productions
Order via Amazon
Jun 14 – The Hare & Hounds, Birmingham
Jun 19 – The Convent, Stroud
Jun 25 – The Big Comfy Bookshop w/ Matt Lakey, Coventry
Jul 17 – Festival 8 (Speakeasy Stage), Lincoln, NE
Aug 01 – Humber Street Sesh, Hull,
Aug 30 – Craft Fair, Alford,
Sep 06 – Sea Front, Mablethrope, Lincoln,
Sep 18 – Zeffirellis,Ambleside,
For more details and ticket links visit: