Are you ready? Take a deep breath – Here We Go, 1, 2 ,3 … and so, after a three-year hiatus, Heidi Talbot steps back into the light with her fifth solo album. It’s an album that sees Heidi re-kindle familiar musical friendships, forge new productive collaborations and develop her own serene and assured songwriting.
Heidi Talbot, originally from County Kildare, now lives in the Scottish Borders with her husband and musical partner, John McCusker. Her remarkably smooth and sweet singing voice was first nurtured in the church choir run by her mother and later refined at Dublin’s Bel Canto singing school. Two years after moving to New York in 2000, Heidi was invited to join Cherish The Ladies as a vocalist and embarked on a five-year partnership, during which she also released her eponymous solo debut, and 2004 follow up Distant Future. Following 2008’s widely acclaimed In Love + Light, Heidi left Cherish The Ladies to concentrate on her solo and collaborative work. Since then two more well-received albums and nominations at the Irish Music Awards and BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards have confirmed her place as one of the most gifted artists on the UK’s folk / acoustic music scene.
The opening title track, Here We Go, 1, 2 ,3 steps gently out into the air with a tinkle of percussion and soft harmonium, the lone accompaniment to Heidi’s voice, before fiddle, mandolin, and guitar connect with the soft, upbeat rhythm. The title’s an apt one for a bold step into a relatively uncharted artistic territory, with Heidi writing, or co-writing, eight of the album’s ten songs. As well as the idea of a step into the unknown, in Here We Go, 1, 2 ,3 Heidi approaches the constant loop of time, and life’s cycles, from a very personal level. Having become a mother for the second time, and suffered the loss of her mother since her 2013 release, Heidi seems to have gained a heightened awareness of those forces, informing her song-craft to the extent that on this album she shares more of her writing than she ever has before.
The forward-looking opening contrasts with the nostalgia of In The Year That I Was Born. Co-written with Admiral Fallow‘s Louis Abbott, childhood hardship and joy are remembered and celebrated in equal measure. In the song, a rediscovered photo revives fading memories – their insubstantiality mirrored in the light as air guitar from Innes White and soft harmonies from John McCusker. Those lasting ties are further underlined by the wistful melancholy of Natalie Merchant’s Motherland. Heidi’s arrangement is elegantly paced, with darkness and light in turn supplied by Toby Shippey‘s trumpet and harmonies from Toby Shaer‘s whistle.
The album’s additional theme of family is also a fitting one, as the increase in Heidi’s creative output has coincided with the completion of the bothy studio FRUK first mentioned in the review of John McCusker’s Hello, Goodbye. When that studio hosts a gathering of her extended musical family, some memorable sessions are sure to be the result. In addition to the familiar faces of Michael McGoldrick, Donald Shaw, and James Mackintosh, though, Heidi has also succeeded in enrolling Innes White (guitar, mandolin), James Lindsay (double bass), Megan Henderson (piano, harmonium), Toby Shippey (trumpet), Andy Seward (banjo), Toby Shaer (whistle), Louis Abbott (vocals, electric guitar), Su-a Lee (Cello), Sorren Maclean (backing vocals, electric guitar) and , Adam Holmes (vocals). Following the success of Adam Holmes and the Embers’ second album, Brighter Still, Adam’s been much in demand as a collaborator. He’s joined Heidi to write and provide harmonies for the beautiful, upbeat lullaby Time to Rest. The song has a touch of soft frost as it opens, with the light mandolin and percussion – a gently ticking clock. Adam’s baritone harmonies add a richness before the pipes, fiddle and whistles add pace and depth to the instrumental bridge. On the surface a lullaby, but dig deeper. Time to Rest is also a gentle, heart-wrenching farewell
Come my darling rest your head
lay your weary form in bed
I am here so don’t you weep
fight no longer, time to sleep
As if to underline the sentiment, the honesty that’s been part of Heidi’s songwriting for the album comes out full force in A Song For Rose (Will You Remember Me). Emotionally charged but gently uplifting, it’s a song that anyone who’s suffered the loss of a parent through illness would relate to. In the chorus, Heidi’s voice is at its very sweetest and the short guitar and cello duet that follows is spine tingling. A family vocal trio of Heidi, John, and their eldest daughter closes the song.
I hear a song that she sang just for me
I see the moon, the moon sees me
A flickering candle, The Lord is with thee
You know I’ll do anything, you know I’ll do anything
Although reflective, these songs are never morose. Indeed, they seem to embody the healing and comfort that can be found in music, with a vocal performance that charms and instrumental sections that fascinate. Like the beautifully structured voyage of self-discovery, Stranger To Me, with Sorren Maclean‘s electric guitar and backing vocal; or the airy opening to Tell Me Do You Ever Think of Me? where the lightest percussion from James Mackintosh, soft guitar, and even a hint of birdsong, provide the canvas for Heidi’s plaintive voice to paint her picture of unrequited love. A similarly light backing, with the added colour of James Lindsay‘s exquisite double bass, graces Chelsea Piers. Heidi co-wrote the song with Belfast’s Duke Special, carefully crafted to enable the story holds sway over the melody, just like the Shane MacGowan songs that provided the main influences.
There’s a soft sense of an American spiritual about The Wedding Day, and perhaps the most beguiling example of Heidi’s songwriting ability.
Let us meet in the dawn at the chapel
I will wait with alms laid in my hands
and without gold, and without land
Despite the wide breadth of genre influences in the music, a Heidi Talbot album without a nod to traditional balladry would seem incomplete. Although that distinctive voice seems made for songs of love, sorrow and loss, it also bears a depth of expression that’s perfectly suited to storytelling. And what better story than the outlandish knight? In the form of The Willow Tree, voice and strings present the dramatic tale. As the song builds around a beautifully detailed whistle; brass, reeds, and strings come together in a glorious, but understated, crescendo to cap Sally’s act of sisterly retribution. Although much in evidence throughout the album, it’s here that John McCusker‘s peerless ability to arrange traditional music shines through.
Working from the home studio has clearly helped Heidi achieve the kind of setting her unique voice has deserved all along. There’s a new-found confidence where she’s free to explore her own ideas and express them in a way that, while unhurried, is never short of momentum. In terms of arrangements, there’s a wealth of detail unmentioned above – the richness of Su-a Lee‘s Cello, Megan Henderson‘s deft touches on piano; all laid down with such skill there’s no sense of crowding. Heidi Talbot has always been a consummate performer, blessed with a voice that’s as sweet as Irish whiskey and just as intoxicating. That expertise has, over four albums, increasingly informed her ability and confidence as a songwriter – Here We Go, 1, 2 ,3 is the result.
Heidi is looking forward to her album tour, and presenting her songs to a live audience. Joining her on tour will be multi-instrumentalist Toby Shaer, the brilliant Andy Cutting on accordion, guitarist Sorren Maclean and, of course, John McCusker. After hearing this album, I’m certain those audiences will be every bit as eager to hear these songs live, as Heidi is to perform them.
Here We Go, 1, 2, 3… is released today via Navigator Records
Pre-Order it via:
Heidi Talbot Tour Dates 2016
Sept 29 Paisley, Paisley Arts Centre
Sept 30th Edinburgh, Queens Hall
Oct 2nd Derby, Folk Festival
Oct 6th Liverpool, Music Room
Oct 7th Barnard Castle, The Witham
Oct 8th Bromsgrove, Artrix
Oct 9th Stroud, The Convent
Oct 11th Cambridge, The Junction
Oct 12th Bristol, St George’s
Oct 13th London, Cecil Sharp House
Oct 14th Newbury, Arlington Arts Centre
Oct 15th Colchester, Arts Centre
Nov 5th Barnsley, The Civic
Nov 6th Bury, The Met
Nov 10th Peebles, Eastgate Arts Centre
Nov 11th Stirling, The Tolbooth
Photo Credit: Elly Lucas