Formerly part of her family’s a capella group, The Dunns, Hannah Sanders returned to music in 2013 having taken a sabbatical to travel America and to pursue a career as a cultural anthropologist during which she became a leading expert on contemporary witchcraft and popular culture. In February last year she released her solo debut, Charms Against Sorrow, described in Helen’s Folk Radio UK album review (read it here) as “finely-crafted and beautifully realised”.
Now, the Norwich-born Cambridge-based singer returns with a quick follow-up, this time sharing the credit as well as the vocals with Ben Savage, the dobro player, guitarist and singer from The Willows who was one of the backing musicians on her debut. Also returning are his fellow band members, Evan Carson, on percussion, and backing vocalist Jade Rhiannon, joined by contributions from Canadian guitarist and mandola player Kevin Breit, double bassist Jon Thorne and mandolinist and fiddler Katriona Gilmore, who also provides backing vocals alongside Jim Causley and Robin Gillan.
Recorded in Toronto with award-winning producer David Travers-Smith, as with the debut, the material embraces a mix of covers, traditional and self-penned numbers by the duo, again reflecting British and American influences, but the jazzy flavours are almost absent, the emphasis now much more on folk, traditional in particular.
The album opens with an original, The Fall (Hang), Sanders taking the lead on a simple acoustic guitar arrangement and the gentle, pastoral ambience of a quiet summer’s day. However, while initially offering deceptive images of children playing, breathing in the smell of leaves and of cuckoos calling and fruit ripening, the song proves incredibly dark as it reveals itself to be written from the perspective of a man being hung from a tree.
The mood’s sustained on the first of the traditional numbers, an equally spare arrangement of Come All Ye Fair & Tender Maids, a throwback to her family singing days, to which Sanders has appended a new schoolyard set round ending with a somewhat macabre punch line. There are four other traditional songs, the second being Lady Margaret, another typically upbeat trad tale of a dream of blood-drenched bed sheets and subsequent double suicide bolstered by Thorne’s rumbling bass. Death rules too on Unquiet Grave, electric guitar underscoring the lyric about how excess of grieving means the dead can’t rest in peace, although here the live life codicil has an atypically positive note.
American colours wash across the dobro-accompanied Clayton Boone which sees Savage taking lead and Sanders providing harmonies and closing refrain on this variation on the Child Ballad The Gypsy Laddie which recounts the possibly apocryphal story of the real-life New Mexico landowner’s pursuit off his unfaithful wife. Savage takes the lead with Sanders cross-singing verses and on harmonies on the last of the traditional tunes Deep Blue Sea, another downbeat take, albeit with very different lyrics to that found in the Roud ballads version popularised by the likes of Pete Seeger and The Weavers. This version is a deeper tale of lost love “stole my heart to get down into the deep blue sea” and grief “hear his voice in the wind at night, see his face in the pale moonlight”.
Death hovers over one of the album’s three covers, although, Ribbons and Bows, written by Richie Stearns (banjo player with The Horseflies), on which Savage takes lead vocal duties on the duet, is a frisky chugging rhythm upbeat number. A song about choosing the means of your demise, here “falling through the hot summer sky with ribbons and bows tied to my hands and feet“. There’s a sunny disposition too on the more sedate, heat-hazed Sun Is Gonna Rise, an optimism-themed number by Native American songwriter Bill Miller that features some fine, moody dobro from Savage.
The last of the covers comes with, a six-minute version of Bob Dylan’s Boots of Spanish Leather that sees the duo closing the album back on a traditional sounding note, Sanders’ voice particularly pure and airy as they trade verses while Travers-Smith colours the spaces with horns.
The remaining track is another original, the intricate fingerpicked What’s It Tonight My Love?, a dusk-set song about seeking direction (“we stop at the door confused, The world runs ahead of the mind”) in a town “where people only pretend” and, in Carson’s brushed shuffling percussion, the only number to hint at Sanders’ jazzy influences. It also includes the bizarre image of “half-baked toes of bread”, the origins of which are hinted at in the verse “a lake-lady for my answers to please”. A reference to the Celtic folklore tale, the Lady of the Lake, in which she finally takes Gwyn’s offering of half-baked bread and allows him to lead her to land after which they wed.
It’s a confident and impressive sophomore album that not only fully justifies past predictions regarding Sanders trajectory in the current folk field but also marks the arrival of a significant new duo force. Given the strength of the two self-penned tracks, hopefully, the next album will also see them furthering their songwriting talents too.
Before the Sun is released on 16th September 2016 via Sungazing Records
Pre-Order via: Amazon
Before the Sun Album Tour
Fri 2nd Sep – Bristol, The Folk House
Sat 3rd Sep – Llanwddyn Folk and Acoustic Weekend
Mon 5th Sep – London, Green Note – Album Launch
Sun 11th Sep – Cambridge, Black Fen Folk Club
Sun 18th Sep – Norwich, Bicycle Shop
Mon 19th Sep – Clare (Suffolk), The Cock
Thu 22nd Sep – York, The Black Swan
Fri 23rd Sep – Durham, Old Cinema Launderette
Sat 24th Sep – Sheffield, Greystones
Thu 29th Sep – Scotland, Clydesdale Folk Club
Fri 30th Sep – Southport, The Atkinson
Mon 3rd Oct – Stafford, Gatehouse Theatre
Fri 7th Oct – Isle of Skye, Red Roof Cafe
Sun 9th Oct – Settle, Victoria Hall
Fri 14th Oct – Bury, The Met
Tue 18th Oct – Far Cotton, Northants, Old White Hart
Sun 23rd Oct – Maidenhead, Norden Farm Arts
Thu 10th Nov – Cambridge, The Junction
Fri 11th Nov – Rhyl, Tynewydd Community Centre
Sun 13th Nov – Torrington, Plough Arts Centre
Fri 18th Nov – Coventry, Big Comfy Bookshop
Fri 2nd Dec – Bury St Edmunds, The Constitutional Club
Find out more here: www.hannahbenmusic.com