The night is black as a raven’s wing
And the cold seeps in, the cold seeps in.
Although by no means a moribund album, there’s no shortage of darkness in Jenny Sturgeon‘s second solo release, From The Skein.
The line above does come from one of the album’s more sombre songs, but it also helps illustrate the difference between a singer/songwriter and a singer/songwriter/story-teller. The story-teller has to know the power and the value of the gloom, has to be just as willing to coax a shudder as a smile. Jenny is quickly establishing a reputation as a master of both.
From the north-east of Scotland, Jenny Sturgeon is a singer-songwriter with a passion for traditional song and story from her home region, and a natural gift for combining those traditions with contemporary influences. Jenny’s work has been highlighted on Folk Radio UK before, as a guest on the debut album from Clype – pianist Simon Gall (Salsa Celtica) and fiddler Jonny Hardie, of Old Blind Dogs (read the review here). Both have joined Jenny, and other guests, on From The Skein; a collection of twelve self-written songs in which Jenny takes those dearly-held traditions and local history, merges them with observations on the human condition and references a deep love of nature.
Jenny’s 2014 EP, Source To Sea, was a beautifully light collection of songs – full of sea air and fresh winds. From The Skein presents a strong contrast and sees Jenny push her song-writing ability in new directions. Unafraid to approach the dark side, Jenny continues to take her inspiration from the natural history of her Aberdeenshire upbringing, but also from the dark history and folklore of the region, and of Scotland in general. Greenwood Side, on Source To Sea, was a fine re-working of the famous murder ballad, with an upbeat approach that typified the welcome influence of Johnny Hardie. In From The Skein, though, when Jenny sings a dark song, a dark song is what you get. The clearest indication of her ability comes as soon as the album opens in Maiden Stone. The combination of a sparsely structured lyric and strict vocal rhythm, provide very little in the way of ornamentation for this tale of the supernatural. The contrast comes from Jonny Hardie’s driving guitar and the low whistle of Jenny’s first guest, Fraser Fifield, punctuating the story with dramatic flurries and an ominous breeze.
The occult darkness of The Maiden Stone doesn’t set the tone for the album – but it succeeds as a powerful opening.
Jenny’s already proved herself more than capable of providing an enchanting vocal performance, and the lighter aspects of that ability also shine through on the album. Running Free builds from a poetic vocal chant, backed by Brian McAlpine on accordion. The gentle drum and bass influences, though, see this celebration of parental devotion build more complex layers of rhythm from percussionist Davy Cattanach (Pictones, Old Blind Dogs) and Grant Anderson, of Brothers Reid, on bass. The structure of the song hints at a great respect for the work of Karine Polwart, a flavour that comes across with increased strength in the gentle love story of Honest Man, where Jenny’s vocal attains a sweetness that’s perfectly matched by Johnny Hardie’s tenor guitar. In Nowhere Else I’d Rather Be, the pace is gentle and Jenny’s voice merges perfectly with the layers of vocal harmony and rich cello from Aongus Mac Amhlaigh.
Jenny’s voice is irresistible, but it’s equally impossible to ignore the dusky lure of those ancient stories; and few are darker than Cùlan. In this island version of The Twa Sisters, Cùlan is inspired by the story telling of Claire Mulholland. The intricately woven vocal performances themselves provide all the atmosphere, with a ghostly Gaelic refrain from co-writer Ana Maia MacLellan, backed by an elemental, sinister drone. Another legend from Scottish shores inspired the haunting lament – Selkie. The song ebbs and flows like a tide, with bass, electric guitar and a spine-tingling chant from Indian Carnatic singer Rahul K Ravindran.
Once my pelt was in your hand
And I a prisoner on the land
Until I stole my soul back from you
Now I have the ocean wide.
A recognition of nature’s supremacy and adaptability finds an uplifting outlet in Harbour Masters, with a stirring acoustic accompaniment that seems to take delight in an offshore wind. The more structured pace of The Raven, though, is the most powerful example of Jenny’s talent for combining concept and drama in a rich, contemporary sound. Fiddle builds on the atmosphere of the chilling refrain – the cold seeps in, for this bleak exquisitely painted portrait of deserted homesteads.
Now even ghosts are washed away
Their huddled songs are dying flames
The voice of wind through broken stone
Now the wild will claim your home
Stories can be positive too, though. Linton‘s upbeat, bright acoustic guitar opening and lilting vocal are lifted further by Fraser’s whistle and Rahul’s gently exalting chant. The song celebrates the work of ship builder Hercules Linton, from Inverbervie, who designed the famous tea clipper Cutty Sark – named after a character from Robert Burns’s Tam O’ Shanter.
Sails like clouds pick up the wind
‘Weel done, Cutty-Sark’ he called out
The story of the Scottish Honours (crown, sceptre and sword) being smuggled from Dunnottar Castle in the 1650’s was written, along with Linton, for the Stonehaven Folk Festival in 2015. Driven along by fiddle, bodhrán and whistle The Honours does far more than tell the tale of how two women outwitted Cromwell’s army, it highlights the importance of the little things, and how they can affect more significant events.
Closing the album, Fair Drawin’ In stands out as the clearest example of Jenny’s singer/songwriter craft. She joined Clype to perform this song on their eponymous debut, and it’s a song well worth revisiting for her solo album. An entirely new, buoyant arrangement with the light Latin jazz of acoustic guitar, soft percussion and Grant Anderson’s perfect harmonies. The song could easily have come from the pen of Burns or Hogg, but the autobiographical notes are there.
A young lass walks along the shore
Free from any shackles
She plants her feet firm in the sand
Like roots along the tideline
It’s a fitting metaphor for Jenny’s life. Firmly rooted in her Aberdeenshire upbringing, exalting in human and natural history; while making the most of her innate bardic gifts. Those three elements are reflected on From The Skein, in vocal performances that thrill with a grim melancholy or delight with a lilting joy; accompaniment wrought from the cold northern air, or from a skilled weave of traditional and contemporary influences; and stories that reference myth and history, places and environments.
In From The Skein, Jenny Strurgeon has clearly decided to challenge herself. That challenge has been well worthwhile and sees Jenny push her music far beyond the realms of singer/songwriter, to a wider sphere where words, music and creativity combine in an inspired and thoroughly engaging work.
From the Skein is released June 10, 2016 via Tamarach Records
Pre-Order via Bandcamp (CD / Digital and Artwork)
Jenny Sturgeon Tour Dates 2016
14th May – Ballater Victoria Hall – ceilidh collective (workshop)
14th June – Penicuik Folk Club
17th June – Deeside Inn, Ballater
18th June – Eyemouth Hippodrome
25th June – Glenbuchat Hall – ceilidh collective (workshop)
26th June – Portsoy Boat Festival
9th/10th July – Stonehaven Folk Festival (workshop)
22nd July – An Tobar, Mull
23rd July – Knoydart
26th/27th July – Isle of May
30th July – Tullynessle Hall – ceilidh collective (workshop)
31st July – house concert, Aboyne and Deeside Festival
1st September – Applecross Hall
2nd September – Red Roof Cafe, Skye
3rd September – The Ceilidh House, Arnisdale
18th September – Wee Folk Club, Edinburgh
23rd September – Tarland MacRobert Hall
24th September – Tarland Hall – ceilidh collective (workshop)
25th September – Scottish Ornithologists Club conference
12th October – Dunfermline Folk Club
29th October – Woodend Barn, Banchory
19th November – Lonach Hall – ceilidh collective (workshop)
More details here:
Photo Credit: Fiona Stephen
Album Artwork: Will T Miles