Although for most musicians, making an album generally means time spent in a commercial facility, or a home studio, or perhaps recording a live performance, for his new record, Atlantic Drifter, Jonathan Day chose to combine elements of all three. Recorded on the road in Europe, the US and Asia, mostly with a valve desk onto 2-inch tape, in an attempt to capture the genius loci, the ‘spirit of a place’. This highly idiosyncratic approach makes perfect sense in the context of Jonathan’s nomadic life; as observed in our 2013 interview with Jonathan.
“He’s a very keen traveller and always seems to be off on some journey, so much so that I find it impossible to seperate his travels from his music as they feed each other”
Jonathan’s seamless, continuous and integrated process of writing and travelling is illustrated by his inspiration for the making of Atlantic Drifter, which came following the publication of his book Postcards from the Road; a collection of stories and photographs from the American leg of his tour in support of his previous album, Carved In Bone, inspired by one of photography’s greatest works, Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’, and a meditation of sorts on the relationships that exist between music, writing and images.
The album’s nine songs were made in a variety of locations around the world, from America to China, from Scandinavia to Shrewsbury. This diversity is reflected in the finished compositions at an almost subliminal level which is, I feel, most keenly experienced when the listener allows herself to become immersed in the music. The ‘sense of place’ is always present, but never in an intrusive way; each of the songs stands in its own right and the whole has a cohesive musical unity which allows one to take it at face value – but there are hidden depths which are repaid by a deeper listening.
Recorded at a venue situated on The Crooked Road (Virginia’s Heritage Musical Trail) in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the opening track ‘Cafe in the Valley of the Fire Church’ is a lyrical travelogue which finds Jonathan simultaneously looking back over past destinations on his endless journey while contemplating the road ahead. Jonathan’s love of language is clear from his lyrics; there are whole worlds of words unspoken in a quartet of lines like “the road is a wonderful place, a dark smile just behind the horizon, but it can’t compare to a face in the evening light beside the ocean”. The recording itself is wonderfully crisp and clear, bringing out all the nuances of his intricate fingerstyle acoustic guitar playing over Simon Smith’s restless string bass.
‘Sea Full of Birds’ came about as Jonathan was on his way to a music festival in North Carolina and was recorded on Ocracoke Island which, according to the PR notes, was “Blackbeard’s chosen hiding and party place, protected by the shifting sands and shoals”. Despite this, neither the song or its accompanying video exude any overt sense of piratical raucousness; it’s a gentle, major key composition which includes Jonathan’s own overdubs of soft percussion and a mellow whistle. The lyric tells of oystercatchers, chance encounters on the road, friends new and old; while the video (see below) has a singular beauty, fiery red skies and slow-motion bird flights, cloudscapes and panoramas. A real highlight of the record and a worthy recipient of a recent FRUK Song of the Day feature.
Recorded across two locations, one in Tønder (in southern Denmark) and the other in Minsk (Belarus), the slow, dreamy ‘A Book of Hours’ grows like an acorn into a mighty oak thanks in no small part to some well-placed samples of Minsk’s St Sofia Cathedral Choir. The result is a breathakingly beautiful juxtaposition of the everyday and the ethereal, of human frailty and otherworldly calm. It leaves me struggling for words although the goosebumps it raises on my arms tell me that this is something special, possibly the highpoint of the album. Lovely. Just… lovely.
The Sangre de Christo Mountains in New Mexico provided the venue for ‘Ton Tusso Salas’, an abbreviated Gaelic phrase (the full title is ‘Ton Tussa Ta Tu Cosuil Leis An Solas’) which translates approximately as “you are like the light”. A relaxed midtempo composition which calls to mind the best of the UK’s folk revival of the late 1960s/early 1970s, with Simon’s double bass looping around the percussive strum of Jonathan’s acoustic guitar and a lyric at once oblique yet entirely comprehensible, this is perhaps one of the most well-observed love songs I’ve ever heard. If it was in any way possible, I would love to hear Joni Mitchell cover this.
‘Sita’s Last Dance’, recorded somewhere in Scandinavia, emerges slowly with Jonathan’s guitar blazing like the sun through the morning mists in a song about the heartache of leaving behind a loved one – surely one of the hardest aspects of a life on the road. Gavin Monaghan’s tremelo guitar solo at the bridge is the sound of watching a loved one depart for who knows where, drawing its shawl of intricately woven reverb tighter around its shoulders before turning away, back to a now-empty cottage where the ashes of last night’s fire still smoulder on the hearth.
Considering it was recorded on a tenement roof in Hong Kong, ‘An Onnagata Komi Infest my Forest’ is infused with an ambience more akin to a remote Buddhist temple than one of the world’s most densely populated cities. There’s an oblique reference to kabuki theatre in its title which informs the song’s strikingly dramatic musical arrangement. I’m not sure of the exact instrument Jonathan plays – possibly a Chinese lute (pipa)? – but, combined with a ghostly selection of hand percussion (bells and a singing bowl) it creates a particular space, a soundscape, over which Jonathan’s world-weary voice floats like an ancestral spirit.
Taking its inspiration from the traditional sea shanty ‘Sally Brown’ – itself believed to be a variation of ‘Hilo Johnny Brown’ (Roud 8229) – ‘Shallow Ground’ was recorded, appropriately enough, at Appalachicola in the Gulf of Mexico. Musically, Jonathan’s version is taken at a very slow pace, with only his own minimalist acoustic guitar accompanying his rewritten lyrics which reflect on many of his own life experiences interspersed with memories of his grandfather who died in the Caribbean during the Second World War.
Written by Robert Lake and Paul Wassail and with a full band backing from Kristi and the Links, ‘Innocence Again’ has a distinctly indie/rock arrangement, but is given a certain poignancy when its wider context is made clear. Robert was a singer and a friend of Jonathan’s who became severely disabled and tragically died very young. The song has received more attention with the increased public awareness of the lack of governmental accountability for the number of disabled people whose deaths have been hastened by the introduction of what many see as unjustifiably strict criteria for eligibility to receive essential state-funded support (Work Capability Assessments and Work-Related Activity Groups) and the concurrent dismantling of welfare benefits such as the Employment and Support Allowance and the Independent Living Fund.
‘The Darkling Sky’ was recorded in Jonathan’s Shropshire home and so closes the album both literally and figuratively. Accompanied by Simon Smith’s rich double bass, Jonathan’s lyric mulls over the mix of emotions experienced on coming home; as he says elsewhere, “I am always, and inevitably, changed by the journey, so that the stars have a little strangeness in their sparkle, like the face of a lover, lost and found again, both reassuringly familiar and excitingly altered”.
There’s a distinct tranquility about Atlantic Drifter which is as unexpected as it is welcoming. Given that it’s the product of a journey that makes Ferdinand Magellan seem like a gap-year student with a Eurorail ticket, it has an air of quiet self-assurance which negates the need for any superfluous bells and whistles. The music exists in and of itself yet remains both approachable and absorbing; placeless but grounded, timeless and yet somehow outside time.
Review by: Helen Gregory
Atlantic Drifter is released 11 September 2015 via Niimiika
Click here to order direct via Jonathan’s website
10/10 – Carlybury Festival, Hereford
17-22/10 – China
24/10 – Lickey Poetry Festival, Rednal
25/10 – Live session, BBC Sunday Folk
16/11 – Live session, The Quiet Revolution
4/2/16 Shrewsbury Poetry, Milk Street
8-9/3/16 – More Than Folk festival, Hong Kong Folk Club
1/4/16 – Helsinki, Finland
22-24/4/16 – Wenlock Poetry Festival, The Edge, Much Wenlock
Photo Credit: Niimi Day Gough