Australian born but presently based in Bristol, Katy Hooper first caught the ears of Folk Radio UK at Cropredy a few years ago when Alex heard her singing whilst walking across the festival site one night. He caught up with her again last year at Purbeck Folk Festival and persuaded her to perform one of her songs live, recorded by our good friend John Gray, a Producer/Director at BaylisGray (you can read our review and see the video here).
We’re delighted that she’s now released her six-song debut EP, Pelican, which opens with the same song, ‘Travelling Beauty’. Re-recorded in the studio with lap steel guitar and backing vocals by Leo James, it’s taken at a slightly faster tempo than the Purbeck session but, if anything, sounds better for it. Lyrically it’s a song of unrequited love to a travelling companion, but Katy’s sensitive writing is a match for her intricate strummed fingerstyle playing and the new arrangement does a great job of capturing the sense of transience of life on the road, of the bittersweetness of good times past and hopefully better days to come. Katy’s vocal range and her phrasing is well-suited to the style she’s developed, combining elements of Americana with a laidback folk-pop sensibility.
Finding a balance between wanting a lasting emotional bond with a sense of wanderlust, a desire to see what’s out there in the world, is a thread that runs through the songs on Pelican and ‘Most Of All’ finds Katy mulling over what it might take to find that perfect combination. Joined by Leo on Dobro and backing vocals, it’s a thoughtful ballad infused with a downhome country-blues feel which sits well in the flow of the record.
Drawing on her globetrotting travels and name-checking Cagliari on the mountainous island of Sardinia, ‘Red Canyon’ is an audio postcard with a twist in its lyrics and their obliquely chilling references to gunshots and firing squads. It’s a timely reminder that travelling isn’t always picturesque sunsets and friendly locals and Katy’s minor key arrangement paints a vivid sound picture of a side to life usually omitted from travel guides. It’s a highlight of the record, not least for Katy’s multi-tracked harmonies, as high as the canyon walls that surrounded her and as cool as the wind that “sweeps down the gorge”.
‘Frozen Ground’ reflects on the uncertainties of relationships, of partners who maybe don’t match our hopes. Arranged as a slow waltz, its major/minor key modulations add a musical tension that matches Katy’s heartfelt lyrics. Vocally there are moments when her singing reminds me of Buffy Sainte-Marie; her (Katy’s) ability to find an understated emotive power which is capable of raising the hairs on the back of your neck is a rare gift and bodes well for her future as a singer and songwriter.
As its title suggests, ‘Woman Of The Road’, looks at life on the road from the specific point of view of a woman, with regard to the friendships made along the way and the sense of rootlessness that comes from being in motion for extended lenths of time. Its accompanying video was made by the film-maker Jemma Cholawo on her own travels along the west coast of North America, through many of the same places Katy had previously visited. Aaron Catlow’s fiddle adds a sense of yearning to the vulnerability of the song while Katy’s own fingerstyle guitar is sparse yet entirely sufficient; it’s a fine example of her ability to know how much (or indeed how little) adornment an arrangement needs and a particular highlight.
The record’s title track and closing song ‘Pelican’ allows Katy to demonstrate her skills as a storyteller as well as a songwriter. The lyric tells of a woman coming across a pelican, clearly mourning its own loss and is a powerfully dramatic reminder of how we are all interconnected in ways we often never even realise, despite (or maybe because of) our differences. The song itself is a slow, loping and distinctly bluesy groove featuring some atmospheric slide guitar by Leo and underpinned by Sid Goldsmith’s restrained double bass, over which Katy’s clear and pure voice soars with a quiet confidence.
Katy Hooper covers a lot of ground on Pelican and does so in an unfussy and self-assured way which suggests she has all the ingredients necessary to secure a long and successful career and I, for one, hope she’s able to follow up this fine debut with a full-length album before too long.
Review by: Helen Gregory
Pelican is out now
Order it via katyhooper.co.uk/music/pelican/
Photo Credit: Benjamin Robert Muir