In 2014 Kaela Rowan released her first solo album, Menagerie, a dreamy, imaginative and compelling exploration of traditional and contemporary themes, showcasing the unique vocals that Kaela has previously provided for Mouth Music, The Bevvy Sisters and, more recently, on Shooglenifty‘s The Untied Knot (read our review here).
In her second solo album, The Fruited Thorn, Kaela charts an unexpected course by turning to the traditional songs that inspired her as a young singer in Lochaber. Developing arrangements and co-producing the album with her partner James MacKintosh (Percussion, Guitars, Keyboard, Programming, Vocals) and with core collaborator Ewan MacPherson (Guitars, Mandolin, Jaw Harp), both of Shooglenifty, Kaela has gathered an impressive band of contributors for a collection of eleven songs that not only pay homage to those centuries of influence, but also confirm Kaela’s reputation for craft and originality.
Recording traditional material is by no means playing it safe, and it’s a brave soul that takes on Robert Burns’ Now Westlin’ Winds since Dick Gaughan made it his own. Braver still to open an album with it. With a light as air guitar and fiddle opening, and amid Dave Milligan‘s beautifully understated piano, Kaela’s trembling vocal breathes its way through Burns’ exquisite poetry towards a moment of sheer magic…
Come let us stray our gladsome way,
And view the charms of Nature;
The rustling corn, the fruited thorn,
And ev’ry happy creature….
…and John McCusker‘s fiddle fills the air with birdsong.
There’s a gentle power to be found in Kaela’s vocal that’s difficult to explain, but it’s abundantly clear in Lord Gregory. Perhaps it’s the fact that this version is inspired by the singing of Cathal McConnell, perhaps the gentle splendour of Jarlath Henderson‘s uilleann pipes, or any other of the many influences Kaela’s happy to embrace on the album. As I Roved Out and Mary And The Gallant Soldier, for instance, make a perfect contrasting Irish pair. In terms of pace and vocal, both show the clear influence from the likes of Andy Irvine and Paul Brady. In As I Roved Out, though, that spirit is enhanced by a return appearance from Jarlath Henderson with not only the soothing influences of his pipes and whistles, but with a vocal that matches Kaela’s perfectly and results in a memorable duet.
Gaelic song is also well represented, of course. I first heard Kaela sing Eileen Fhianain (The Green Isle) two years ago when she and James MacKintosh presented a Rajasthani-inspired arrangement along with Mr McFall’s Chamber at the annual Distil showcase (read the live review here). That eastern influence holds full sway as the Marwari vocal of Dayam Khan Manganiyar blends with Ewen Vernal‘s bass and Patsy Reid‘s haunting cello; to compliment the combination of Kaela’s vocal and Patsy’s fiddle. Although the subject of Nighean Nan Geug (O Girl Of The Branches) is haunting in a more literal sense, Kaela’s voice and James’ percussion gently skip their way through this ghostly tale from Barra, from where a sense of the supernatural persists in Bratach Bana, with Patsy’s fiddle painting clouds hugging the curve of the hills like a blanket of snow.
Singing in the Scots tongue, though, Kaela’s voice seems just as at home as it does with Gaelic. In the bittersweet If I Was a Blackbird, the guitar is the perfect accompaniment to that voice, while The Bonnie Woods O’ Hatton opens with a pair of guitars that soon take to the sleepy rhythm of the vocal. With hints of Rajasthan in John McCusker’s fiddle, handclaps and a quiet thrill of smallpipes from Griogair Labhruidh, the song has a beautifully lazy swing to it. Blackbird (What A Voice), as sung by Lizzie Higgins has a special place in the heart of Martyn Bennett fans. Kaela’s firmly among that number and she sings the song with all the pain, heartache, and hopelessness of the story teller.
I wish I wish that my babe was born
And smiling on some nurse’s knee
And for me, I was dead and gone
And the long green grass growing over me
With its soft guitar, delicately and imaginatively layered vocal, and heartbeat percussion; I thought (while wiping away the inevitable tear) that this would be the high point of what is an outstanding album – until I reached the final track.
Grioghal Cridhe is a much loved Gaelic lament of great antiquity. The song was written for Griogair Ruadh MacGregor of Glen Strae by his wife, Marion, following his execution. Electric guitar, Griogair Labhruidh’s mournful whistles and Patsy Reid’s strings, lead the album to an enthralling, majestic close with Kaela’s voice intertwined with Dayam’s…
“Great treasure of the world’s people, they spilled your blood yesterday, they put your head on an oaken stob … I have no apples, everyone else has apples … but when the young women of the village are sleeping tonight, I will be at your grave beating my palms.” (Gaelic) “My love, while you are away do not believe that I am at peace. My days are of suffering, like those of a fish without water.” (Marwari).
The Fruited Thorn is a moving and incredibly impressive celebration of traditional song. It succeeds in combining Kaela’s love of experimentation with her love of traditional song, and when her unique vocal talent is applied to those songs, the effect is mesmerising.
The Fruited Thorn is Out Now
Order it via Bandcamp here: kaelarowan.bandcamp.com