Glasgow based singer/songwriter Claire Hastings has a voice that’s made for Scots song; and on her début solo album, Between River And Railway, she offers a range of traditional and contemporary songs that combine her extensive knowledge of the art with a natural aptitude for engaging arrangements.
Having been involved in Scots music and poetry since her childhood in Dumfries, Claire, winner of the 2015 BBC Radio Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician of the Year, continues to view not only performance, but education as an important aspect of keeping traditional song alive, and progressing, in the community. In one of her many teaching projects, she teaches Scottish music, singing and ukulele in primary schools around Dumfries and Galloway through Feis Rois’ Youth Music Initiative. Since graduating with a first class honours degree in Scottish Music from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in 2011, with master of Scots song Rod Paterson as one of her tutors, Claire has teamed up with fellow Young Traditional Musician Robyn Stapeleton in a successful duet, and also plays as part of the four-part ensemble, Top Floor Taivers.
It’s those early years in the Dumfries area that provide the album’s opening, with one of Claire’s own songs, The House at Rosehill. The family home for four generations is the inspiration for a song that exudes all the charm of the area. From its gentle opening, Claire’s voice is sweet and clear, and as the pace increases with accordion from Andrew White and Laura Wilkie’s fiddle a host of childhood memories unfolds. Along with guitar from Jenn Butterworth, that box and fiddle combination is the perfect accompaniment to Claire’s lilting vocal, further enhanced by Jenn’s harmonies.
The door always open for neighbours and friends
who’d arrive at midday but stay long after ten
I remember it still, the house at Rosehill
Three other songs on the album are Claire’s own compositions, and their wide ranging approaches make impressive listening. Son of No One is a plaintive recollection of an Irish story about an unwanted child. Amidst gentle guitar and a brief, haunting fiddle, the clarity of Claire’s voice enhances the solitary sorrow of the subject. Her performance of the song at the Scots Trad Music Awards in December was one of the highlights of the evening. In an immediate and delightful contrast, the whimsical I Missed the Boat sees Claire accompany a light, engaging vocal with her ukulele. You can almost see her sitting at the pier – ukulele in hand, happily singing, and whistling, her resignation. The album is peppered with endearing moments like this, where Claire does more than simply sing a song, she takes you to the story and sits you comfortably right beside the singer.
The fourth of Claire’s own songs is Gretna Girls, a tribute to the wartime workforce of the UK’s largest munitions factory during the Great War. With the cleverly paced, uplifting rhythm section of Duncan Lyall on bass and Martin O’Neill’s percussion, and a hint of country from producer Ali Hutton’s guitar, it’s a more contemporary song that highlights the hardship as well as the camaraderie of the times.
That contemporary feel can also extend to Claire’s love of traditional song, though, and what could represent the tradition better than The Bothy Lads? It’s a jaunty pace for a song that’s usually delivered in a more mournful tone, and the result of that stirring box and fiddle combination among the layers of dreamy, lilting vocal is nothing short of enchanting. A clever, subtle reinterpretation sees the young mother’s voice echo and present a warning to the new generation.
Any singer of traditional song from Dumfries who doesn’t provide at least a nod to Robert Burns is denying their heritage, but Claire manages far more than a nod with The Posie. It’s one Burns’ less well known songs, harking back to a time when flowers were chosen to convey a specific meaning and were far more than a shop-bought token gesture. Over Keir Long’s gentle keyboards; Claire’s natural, effortless Scots voice is the star, with the long, lingering notes highlighting her soft vibrato.
Another local, William Doulgas, preceded Burns by a few decades but left his best known legacy in the song Annie Laurie. It’s a well known love song that’s been performed countless times, but when Claire sings a love song there’s no insipid delivery of flowery poetry; the song is upbeat, it celebrates love and there’s a reverential tone in her voice that makes it all so genuine.
An album that values traditional song so highly, though, would be incomplete without a worthwhile ballad, and Roddy McMillan’s Let Ramensky Go is a perfect, contemporary choice. The story of Scotland’s WW2 criminal turned war hero, Johnny Ramensky, is fascinating and worth exploring. In this briskly-paced rendition the story’s the star, of course, but the accompaniment from the band is imaginative, exhilarating and one of the highlights of the album. Claire’s rendition of the song with the BBC SSO has been widely acclaimed, but even a full orchestra couldn’t convey the drama as memorably as on this album.
The much loved singer/songwriter from Moffat, Lionel McClellend, left an extensive musical legacy and Claire’s chosen to close the album with his beautiful song of friendship and loss, Come Spend a While Wi’ Me. Claire brought her award winning set at the Young Trads to a close with the song, and it clearly has a very special place in her heart. She sings it with heart-lifting sincerity. It is, of course, a sing-along favourite live – it’s ultimately about community.
Come spend a while wi’ me
For your ay’ guid company
Aye an’ wha kens when we’ll meet again
An’ wha kens whaur we’ll be
We’ll lift oor hearts an’ sing
While the pipes an’ fiddles ring
And we’ll lift oor heels tae the jigs an’ reels
Come spend a while wi’ me
It’s the perfect conclusion to a fine album; and apt, as the album’s first song, The House at Rosehill, opened the same award-winning set.
It isn’t only the remarkable purity of Claire’s voice that makes this album so special. Her choice of songs is distinctive, and perhaps even challenging for some audiences, but it’s a truly wonderful selection. In recent years Ali Hutton has stretched his wings beyond The Treacherous Orchestra and found a comfortable place in the producer’s chair, for this album he’s assembled a small group of artists who do credit to both the choice of songs and Claire’s voice.
Claire can cite a personal connection to each song on the album – a reminder of home, Granny’s favourite, or the final, beautiful song to come from the pen of a dear friend; those connections, above anything else, make this album so enjoyable. It’s those ties, that make Between River and Railway an album that touches the soul, and lifts the heart.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
Between River And Railway is released 29 April via Luckenbooth Records
Available via Bandcamp: clairehastings.bandcamp.com
04 May – DUMFRIES, Theatre Royal
06 May – SKYE, Red Roof Café (with Jenn Butterworth only)
08 May – GLASGOW, Cottiers Theatre
12 May – ULLAPOOL, The Ceilidh Place
27 May – BANCHORY, Woodend Barn
03 Jun – ARRAN, Arran Folk Festival
17 Jun – NEW GALLOWAY, The Catstrand
18 Jun – KILLIN, Killin Music festival