With reinvention can come reinvigoration, and so it seems with the Montreal-based ‘art-folk’ artist, Emily Millard. Perhaps more familiar to readers as Miss Emily Brown down the last decade, Millard has reverted to her birth name, bringing with it new, richer sonic textures and even deeper soul and mysticism to what under her former moniker was already beautiful music. Yet while Millard has hardly torn up the rule book of her previous compositional approach, in terms of the gorgeously fleshed-out arrangements and overall instrumentation she is now inhabiting a different world altogether.
Following the standalone single, Paradise – the first offering under her ‘new’ name – By Heron & By Season arrives as Millard’s latest full-length release, yet in respect of this fresh chapter and shift in sound, it is perhaps pertinent to view it as a debut. In that regard it will act as a powerful introduction for newcomers to Millard’s haunting material, but as everything recorded as Miss Emily Brown is lovely I would still urge the curious to investigate all that came before.
The first seeds of what became this new collection of ethereal, jazz-flecked folk music were planted four years ago when Millard was holed up in the sparsely populated, remote community of Bold Point, on scenic Quadra Island, British Columbia, where she eventually lived for five years. Concerted, lengthy writing sessions and a transformative poetry workshop on Cortes Island (like Quadra, in the Discovery Islands archipelago) produced poems and, ultimately, the songs that form this new opus.
I first heard much of the material herein live at a festival back in June, and even though for over half of her wonderful set Millard was backed by the inventive powerhouse ‘prog-trad’ folk quintet, Aerialists (as they have been touring together for several months), even that intoxicating collaboration did not prepare me for the amazing recorded versions. By Heron & By Season is one of those very special collections of songs the magical atmosphere of which, on several occasions, causes the listener to inhale and hold it, lest exhaling disturbs the waves of blissful sound. This is particularly true of the exquisite, elegant Eisblumen, as delicate and fragile as the filigree frost tracery the title roughly translates as from German. Millard’s crystalline voice wafts over Mike Smith’s heavenly string arrangement for 3:18 of chamber-folk serenity, but as I say it is one of many such rewarding auditory experiences available here.
Strings happen to feature heavily on By Heron & By Season, and are wielded by some of Canada’s finest: Jesse Zubot (Dan Mangan/Tanya Tagaq) and Peggy Lee (Mary Margaret O’Hara/Waxwing) contribute violin/viola and cello respectively, while the Armadillo String Quartet’s Henry Lee also plays viola. Other instrumentation includes vibraphone, bass flute, bass clarinet, soprano sax, drums and, reminiscent of Jaco Pastorius’ work on Joni Mitchell’s Hejira, the rubbery bass of Colin Nealis (Andy Shauf/Aidan Knight). Producer Sandro Perri chips in with synths, harpsichord, clavinet, guitar, and percussion, while Millard adds piano, guitars, and percussion. Interestingly, however, there is no sign of the autoharp with which she is so readily associated, and always has on stage – something of a surprise considering its presence on her previous records – but then, as we see, this is an Emily Millard recording, not one by Miss Emily Brown!
‘Art-folk’ is certainly an apt handle for Millard’s work, as this is a greatly artistic recording, carefully crafted like the considered brushstrokes of a painting. It is dramatic, melancholy, dark and breezy by turns, but invariably high on atmosphere and occupying a space that puts me in mind of such artists as Keren Ann and Judee Sill. It has sexy and playful moments, too, like the slinky, hypnotic Snake Charmer, and clap-along ditty, As a Cloud.
Building a following over the course of ten years, then changing her name, could potentially confuse or even inadvertently leave behind some Miss Emily Brown fans, but to relaunch as Emily Millard with an album as wondrous as By Heron & By Season should serve her very well and pull in considerably more listeners. It is a good bet I am way off the mark in my interpretation, but what Millard has done with this creative rebirth appears to be mirrored in the lyrics of the second track, Chainbreaker:
the whole design
Order it via Bandcamp: emilymillard.bandcamp.com/album/by-heron-by-season
Photo Credit: Susan Moss