Jesse Thom, a member of folk trio Dirty Grace, originally conceived and intended his latest album release Ayrdri: snowdragons as a solo project under the moniker Ayrdri, a take on Airdrie, in deference to Jesse Thom’s Scottish ancestry, which dates back to at least the early 5th century. A 24-minute ‘ghost pop’ EP of bewitching melodies and personal ruminations, Ayrdri: snowdragons opens with one of the more heartrending songs I have heard in recent years. As a three-time cancer survivor I am bound to directly relate to, and be moved by, a theme such as that of Marrow, a moving tribute to Thom’s late brother, Alex, who passed at just eight years-old from bone marrow cancer. Marrow was issued as a single on February 3rd, which had he survived would have been Alex’s 40th birthday. Yet, as the accompanying wintry video shows, rather than wallow in grief the song looks back in poignant celebration of happy childhood memories. I am particularly intrigued by the lyrical reference to balsam leaves, widely considered an invasive species, so perhaps used in Marrow as a metaphor for cancer. Thom’s pop singer sister Rachel adds haunting backing vocals, and the track concludes with snippets of interviews with children that Thom conducted in 2003: “When they die, they lay in the grave and I think that they come out as spirits and ghosts,” mulls one innocent youngster.
Ayrdri: snowdragons could hardly begin in a more powerful way lyrically, but musically the song – like much that follows – is straight from the Sufjan Stevens school of Arcadian acoustic charm. Stevens’ Seven Swans or Carrie & Lowell-style material represents the perfect touchstone for Thom’s gentle, melodious compositions, which in my book can never be a bad thing.
Continuing in the same vein, following Marrow is Sling & the Stone, which I perceive to be intentionally thematically linked to the opener. Considering that Thom described it to me as
“an allegorical ghost story about the spirit of a small boy wandering the streets with his slingshot, breaking holes in windows (and even the sky) to let in the air and light, to wake up the townsfolk to the beauty of life,”
it is a notion that would seem to hold water. I wonder, is this is the deeply spiritual Thom’s idealized vision of his brother’s mission in the afterlife? If so, it is a beautiful idea for a concept and lyric.
Grain Elevator boasts another achingly pretty melody, and lyrics concerned with taking that leap of faith, leaving behind all that is comfortable and familiar to step into the unknown. It is another affecting song, but for what is an introductory release bearing only seven tracks I am intrigued as to why, as lovely as they are, Thom has opted to follow it by revisiting two previously issued Dirty Grace songs. Albeit resurrected in somewhat stripped back and modified form, Ten Little Fingers appeared as Hinton on Coals & Crows, and Snow Into Fire’s title track from 2012 is also re-examined. They do slot in perfectly, but although a curious move I suspect the reason for their reappearance is because as an artist there are recondite thematic dots Thom felt compelled to join.
However, the motivation for Snow Into Fire and its correlation to this new EP’s instrumental (with vocalization) title track is worth a mention, Thom explaining it thus:
It was written on a 30-day silent meditation retreat in Colorado, and is inspired by a particular practice of laying on the earth, feeling the earth beneath, breathing up from the earth into the body, and allowing all body tension to trickle down into the earth. This is actually where ‘snowdragons’ comes from. Snowdragons are the held places of tension in our bodies. This tension dissolves under the warmth of our breath and within the presence of our love, and this – to me – is precisely the process of waking up and relaxing into who we essentially are.
From the profundity of this commentary alone it is clear that Thom is no ‘ordinary’ songwriter, and indeed his influences and interdisciplinary work are wide-ranging and fascinating. Beyond creating music Thom is inspired by shamanism; he teaches meditation, is a puppeteer, clown, videographer, writer and craftsman. In his own delightful words, as a human being he aims to
“bridge the silly and the sacred; the playful and the profound; the giddy and the grounded, offering pathways into ease, warmth and wonder.”
Ayrdri: snowdragons concludes with Edmonton, both an ode to the city and, as Thom explains, about “what’s underneath the pavement in our lives,” stemming from a “deep longing to connect with the earth one-on-one, as an aware and sentient ‘other.’” Like all that precedes it, Edmonton is quite lovely.
Thus far I have thoroughly enjoyed each one of the clutch of releases that has emerged from the Dirty Grace stable, proving to be a quality ‘brand’ to follow with interest. I hope that next up something may appear from Thom and Marley Daemon’s bandmate, the sassy Betty Supple, and for all I know she could be crafting a special release as I type. That would be good, but if not I know that more magic will certainly transpire whenever she and her friends reconvene, commencing in May with UK dates alongside their ‘sister band,’ Red Haven (see below).
Ayrdri: snowdragons is out now and available via Bandcamp: https://jessethom.bandcamp.com/
More on Jesse Thom here:
Jesse Thom will be in the UK in May as part of Red Haven: Vocals, Sax, Accordion / Jen Davidson | Vocals, Bass / Nathan Turner | Vocals, Guitar / Brendan Steele | Drums / Jesse Thom
Details can be found here: www.redhavenmusic.com
Press image photo credit – Franziska Wernsing