West Somerset-based singer and songwriter Ange Hardy has been featuring prominently on my personal radar ever since I became enchanted by her second CD, Bare Foot Folk, which appeared just over two years ago; the album (deservedly) quickly garnered plenty of critical praise – and, crucially, the support of Mike Harding – and Ange has never looked back since. I backtracked as soon as I could, keen to learn more about Ange and her earlier back-story as a wild-child who eventually made good through meeting her husband Rob and finding her songwriting voice, this initially leading to the cathartic experience of writing and performing the sequence of largely autobiographical songs that formed her debut release, the pop-folk-flavoured Windmills And Wishes. The immeasurable boost in confidence Ange experienced from the reception accorded to Bare Foot Folk enabled her to develop her songcraft in leaps and bounds, leading uncommonly swiftly to album number three, The Lament Of The Black Sheep, which gave a brilliant sense of artistic development and promise being rapidly fulfilled. This magnificent album was a featured Album of the Month on Folk Radio UK and also received a BBC Radio 2 Folk Award nomination.
Not one to let the grass grow under her feet, Ange quickly launched into her next project, which stretched her newly-acquired songwriting comfort-zone even further, away from the direct personal experiences that had hitherto formed the basis of her writing, albeit viewed through, and informed by, the often unforgiving lens of folk tradition. Buoyed by the support of public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England, Ange was empowered to research and write a suite of 14 songs for what she describes as “a project album based on the life and work of romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge”, a writer whose work she had (incredibly) not previously encountered. Ange has also received grant funding to present the music at 14 rural venues (following the route of the Coleridge Way in Somerset and Devon) during the first half of October this year.
The CD that represents the fruit of this project, Esteesee (Ange’s fourth studio album), can thus be counted a concept album. Its unusual title stems from its being a phonetic version of the initials STC by which Coleridge himself signed his name, and the album track bearing that name is a setting of the prayer Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (also known as The Black Paternoster, or Roud 1704) which Coleridge used to intone nightly. It builds compellingly from a simple, childlike harp-accompanied opening verse to a fully-fledged orchestral-style string section with drumbeat. This catechism had a life-long impact on Coleridge, and its mantra is here bound into the album, capturing the “half-awake and half-asleep vision of a fevered imagination”. In this respect, perhaps Esteessee might have had even more impact if it had been placed as the album’s opening track; but instead the album kicks off with a charming song based on what turns out to have been the first piece of Coleridge’s writing that Ange read: a fragment from the play Osorio that was published in the collection Lyrical Ballads. Seductive vocal harmonies beckon the listener to the storyteller’s fireside for Ange’s lovely rendition of The Foster-Mother’s Tale, with flowing instrumental accompaniment from Patsy Reid, Lukas Drinkwater and Archie Churchill-Moss and Steve Knightley on supporting vocal. This sets the bar for the rest of the project, where these and other excellent musician-collaborators (Jonny Dyer, Steve Pledger, Jo May, Andrew Pearce and Kate Rouse) help to create a uniquely elegant and atmospheric backdrop for Ange’s creative distillation of the essence of Coleridge and his writings.
Following the opening tale, we embark on a short sequence based around aspects of Coleridge’s most well-known work The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner. Ange readily admits that she could have written an entire album based on that epic (and everyone from David Bedford to Iron Maiden has!), but instead chose to highlight two very contrasted sections. The breezy start to the voyage, in which “the ship was cheered”, forms the gangplank from which the jolly dance of My Captain is sprung, while the terrifying predicament of the sailors is conveyed through The Curse Of A Dead Man’s Eye, which is prefaced by eight lines of the original poem given a suitably sepulchral reading by David Milton (Watchet’s Town Crier). After this dose of horror, Ange guides us through a portrait-gallery of Coleridge’s acquaintances, beginning with William Frend, a tutor at Coleridge’s Cambridge college who was put on trial for publishing a leaflet condemning much of the liturgy of the Church (Coleridge shared some of William’s beliefs for a time, and Ange allocates his “song” a catchy and accessible melody). Coleridge’s relationship with fellow-poet William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy is the focus of the gaily-tripping, jig-rhythmed Friends Of Three, during whose closing reel-postlude Ange also invokes the landscape of the Quantock Hills where the three friends used to wander (she was inspired to write the song standing on Beacon Hill, in fact). Letters between Coleridge and his friends and family form the basis of George, a song concerning Coleridge’s older brother whom he considered almost a father-figure. The fancifully-titled Pantisocracy (“equal or level government for all”) concerns an intentionally utopian arrangement entered into – but never consummated – between Coleridge and his friends Robert Southey and Robert Lovell, to marry three sisters and form a close community. Sandwiched in amidst these portraits we find a curiosity: Ange’s vision of Kubla Khan, given in the form of a reading of the poem by artist Tamsin Rosewell, backed by “the music of the damsel with the dulcimer”, hammered dulcimer, guitar and whistle together conveying the slightly exotic and other-worldly medievalism of the immeasurable setting.
Ange then reverts to direct poem-setting for Epitaph On An Infant, a curious mixture of optimism and prescience that Coleridge himself apparently never rated among his own words but to whose sentiments Ange herself has clearly responded. This brief homily is followed by Might Is In The Mind, a cautionary tale inspired by a specimen of Coleridge’s table-talk and retold with relish by a harmonised Ange to Patsy’s cheeky viola syncopations. In a masterstroke of casting, Steve Knightley takes the lead vocal (in the role of Coleridge himself) on Mother You Will Rue Me, a re-imagining of Coleridge’s own gloomy satisfaction at the misery he caused his mother, in a chilling reminiscence of an episode where, at the age of eight, he argued with his brother Frank and fled from home (this memory clearly had strong resonances for Ange herself, who had undergone a similar experience during her runaway childhood). There’s some speculation that it was this night Coleridge had spent out in the cold field that led to pneumonia, which in turn led to him being given laudanum for the first time – an addiction to which (and to opium) was to plague his later life. On the album’s final pair of songs, Ange pays tribute to the memory of Coleridge. Firstly, the delightful Along The Coleridge Way is Ange’s “small way of saying thank-you to Coleridge” by using her own words in homage and tribute as she walks the path. And finally, Ange celebrates Coleridge’s legacy in the form of a triumphant Elegy For Coleridge, an upbeat little piece based on the epitaph which he himself wrote.
With Esteesee, to an extent, Ange can be seen to be continuing the thesis she began on The Young Librarian (from Lament Of The Black Sheep), in that creative souls like Coleridge live on through their writing. Ange is able to both serve and draw on the storytelling and ballad traditions of folksong; thus, rather than attempting to pictorially or programmatically depict scenes or strands of narrative from Coleridge’s poetry, Ange is able to present an altogether more rounded portrait of the writer than might be gained from delivering a mere digest of the poet’s “greatest hits”, which, though such an approach might seem superficially beneficial since it’s both more selective and more detailed, is likely to fall short of gaining us a true appreciation of the man’s measure. This project couldn’t fail to include something of the poet’s acknowledged masterworks (Kubla Khan and The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner), but Ange avoids hanging those veritable albatrosses around her neck in hackneyed posturing; instead, by coming fresh to the poems, she provides her own distillation of their essence as informed by the life and concerns of the man who composed the texts. And this then applies across the span of Coleridge’s œuvre.
Ange’s musicality is exquisite; knowing and yet unassuming; her settings without exception finely crafted; over the years she has developed a really special gift for finding and voicing vocal harmonies that suit the melody lines, often almost imperceptibly but always ideally. She also has a gift for deploying the most sympathetic of musicians to help her realise her artistic vision, and they do so more than willingly.
Esteesee conforms to the exceptionally high standard of presentation of Ange’s previous albums; having already, long ago and from the start, set herself such a benchmark, she simply cannot depart from it. The disc is impeccably packaged, with a copiously illustrated inlay booklet, beautifully photographed, with full lyrics and descriptive notes on all the tracks, and full performer credits and all credit given where due. And beyond the packaging, into the disc itself, Esteesee will doubtless also prove every bit as addictive as the opium and laudanum on which Coleridge himself dosed. (For a further fix, I’d refer you to Ange’s continuing guest blog on Folk Radio UK giving insights into the creation and gestation of specific album tracks.)
Review by: David Kidman
Mother You Will Rue Me (featuring Steve Knightley)
Esteesee is released on 24th September 2015 via Story Records (Order it here via Ange’s Store)
‘Esteeesee’ Album Tour & Launch
Along The Coleridge Way
3rd: Nether Stowey
4th: Halsway Manor – ALBUM LAUNCH!
6th: Holford & District
8th: East Quantoxhead
9th: Sampford Brett
11th: Wheddon Cross
17th: Brendon & Countisbury
18th: Lynmouth Pavilion Project
For details of all of Ange Hardy’s upcoming gig dates please click here.