Every now and then I’ve been fortunate enough to come across an album which, in that too-brief moment of listening, time seems to stand still. Julie Murphy’s Every bird that flies is one such album; a record of such quiet beauty it takes your breath away. Recorded over three days at Mwnci Studios in West Wales, pared down to a minimum of instruments and musicians – primarily Julie, who plays piano and sings, with contributions from Ceri Owen Jones (trombone) and Aidan Thorne (double bass) – it’s an album which centres artistic expression, creative freedom and social justice concerns.
At their best, traditional folk songs tell stories. Perhaps those tales are rooted in folklore or maybe they’re a way of imparting social codes and customs, but the songs that stick with me are those which capture the imagination. The opening ‘The mermaid’ is one such song; a version was included on Julie’s 2014 EP of the same title but this revisit sounds somehow fuller, more rounded, as if Julie has found a further depth to the song’s spirit. Julie learned the ballad from Ceri Owen and Elsa Davies who have added some new words here and there to the traditional ones. Julie’s arrangement is sparse and stately but never sombre. Sailing on a quiet sea of rippling piano, her vocal performance is spellbinding, breathing new life into the narrative and making you reconsider where your allegiance lies: with the ship’s crew, shackled by their superstitions – or with the free spirit ‘sitting on a rock with a comb and a glass in her hand’.
Including a song Julie learned from a young Palestinian singer when they met in Ramallah and a line from a Welsh lullaby she used to sing to her sons, Julie wrote ‘The fall’ originally in response to the 2004 Beslan school massacre in Russia but, as she says, it’s applicable to every slaughter of the innocents – and as such, it makes for heartbreaking listening. Julie’s voice rises and falls, swoops and shatters like crystal; a slowly arpeggiated piano modulates across minor and major keys, a whisper of reverb adding an ambience redolent of schooldays past, of overhearing a child’s music lesson from an adjacent room, while Aidan Thorne’s double bass paints a picture of an impending late summer storm. The emotional response to this album that I mentioned earlier is invoked at an almost visceral level and it’s virtually impossible to listen to ‘The fall’ without feeling at least a twinge of compassion, of empathy; to not be moved by the song’s sheer power. And despite, maybe because of, the maelstrom of emotions it produces, this is undoubtedly one of the album’s highlights. Cysga di fy mhlentyn tlws…
‘When Georgia paints’ applies a soothing balm to the aching, open heart vulnerability of ‘The fall’. Julie references half-a-dozen different names throughout her lyric: the Georgia of the song’s title is the American modernist painter Georgia O’Keeffe, there’s an extract from the poem ‘Pain has an element of blank’, written by Emily Dickinson. The German artist Joseph Beuys and the singers Amy Winehouse and Nina Simone are also name-checked. While each of their lives followed widely divergent parts, the one aspect which links them all is their creative spirit. In each case, this creative spirit enabled and empowered them to produce remarkable works of artistic expression which have touched many lives across the years and it is these legacies which ‘When Georgia paints’ celebrates. Moving back and forth across tempos, counterpointed by Ceri’s trombone, it’s the sound of paintbrush on canvas, the scratch of pen on paper and the infinite expression of the human voice through a rainbow of emotions.
The theme of the effect that other lives can have on our own is explored further in ‘To a little girl’, but from a more personal point of view. A lyrical meditation contrasting the experience of Julie’s Grandad, who “survived the trenches, played in silent movie houses and called me lass” with her own memories of childhood and the shared drive to create as a fundamental part of existence, irrespective of circumstance. The song’s stream of consciousness narrative and flowing arrangement combine in a poignant and positive exploration of the way we view the threads which connect us, as blood-relatives and as part of the wider family of humanity.
The second of three traditional tunes on the album is ‘May Colvin’ which Julie learned it from the singing of Jean Ritchie, who recorded a version of it for her 1960 album, British Traditional Ballads, Volume 1, on Folkways Records. Julie stays close to the familiar melody although her slow musical arrangement adds a dreamlike quality to the lyric, making its resolution all the more powerful. I think this may be my favourite track on the album; it’s certainly one of its highlights.
‘Tonderai Ndira’ is both a lament for, and celebration of, the life of the Zimbabwean human rights campaigner and political dissident, who was murdered in 2008. Julie adds mbira overdubs to her piano and Ceri’s trombone in a polyrhythmic arrangement which is alternately mournful yet joyous; her vocals expressing the range of emotions felt at hearing of the needless and violent death of an activist often described by his followers as “Zimbabwe’s Steve Biko”.
Recollections of childhood run through ‘This seaside town’ like the lettering through a stick of rock; faded photographs of the past like pressed flowers which, although fragile, reawaken vivid memories, evocative and nostalgic yet – like ‘To a little girl’ before – providing a connection to the past which has shaped the present and is felt keenly even now. Julie and Ceri’s performance evokes sunny rooms, curtains moving gently in the breeze through the open window, distant half-heard sounds: a treasure trove of dreams remembered across the years. This is a truly lovely song; it carries me away with every hearing, absorbed in empathic introspection.
Woven throughout Every bird that flies is an awareness of the complex, dynamic interrelationship that situates humanity as an intrinsic part of – not separated from – life on Earth. It’s a long-established idea but one which we, as a species, seem to have forgotten as we place profits before people and planet; and which was explored in some depth by the Indian activist and ecologist Satish Kumar in his 2012 TEDxExeter lecture, ‘Soil, soul, society’, from which Julie’s song takes its title and its inspiration. A hypnotic mantra, meditative and luminous, it’s a song which is lit from within and glows like a carpet page from the Book of Kells; timeless and timely.
‘Willie Taylor’ closes the album, Julie’s reinterpretation of the traditional ‘Bold William Taylor’ and quite unlike any of the many other versions that exist. Julie learned it from the singing of Johnny Toft via the duo Sild (Martin Leamon and Sille Ilves) and has added a last verse, musing on, as she says, “two crimes of passion in different centuries with very different punishments”. The song is as skeletal as a tree in winter, Julie’s clearwater voice and Aidan’s double bass like ghost ships passing in the morning mist. It’s an utterly captivating performance which draws its strength from its understated directness and makes a spellbinding end to an album which is never less than dazzling, shimmering and sparkling from start to finish.
Every bird that flies is an album that’s hard to describe in mere words, to encapsulate its heart and soul, its beauty and quiet power; the emotional response it creates. It exists in a liminal space, at the edges of music, art, social comment, beyond categories – but one thing is sure: when all’s said and done, you really should hear this record for yourself. Do yourself a favour and go and buy it.
Review by: Helen Gregory
Every bird that flies is out now.
Order it via Bandcamp here: https://juliemurphy.bandcamp.com/