Life-long friends on their native Orkney Islands, the three fiddles and piano of Fara (Kristan Harvey, Jeana Leslie, Catriona Price and Jennifer Austin) have all made their individual mark on the Scottish and UK trad music scenes, winning a host of awards with a range of fascinating projects. It was after spending time as a backing group to their mentor Douglas Montgomery’s band The Chair, however, that the quartet were persuaded to play a few tune sets on their own, and Fara was born. Following a successful E.P. release last year, their first full-length album, Cross The Line, is released this month.
Cross The Line opens with a stirring tune set, The Dragon. For some reason, the opening melody in this set of three, The Grower, is so named because it took Kirsten Harvey some time to convince the rest of the band of its merits. In 2011 Kirstan won the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year award and is also kept busy as a member of the spell-binding fiddle collective, Blazin’ Fiddles. In The Dragon this Orcadian collective weave some potent magic of their own; a fiery feast of fiddle that seems the perfect introduction to the album, and closes with the merriest of dances. This is not, however, solely an album of fiddle music. Fara also have some enthralling vocal arrangements to share, the first of which is Three Fishers.
Three Fishers was written by Victorian poet and novelist Charles Kingsley, who inspired Jennifer Austin (who also performs with Fiona MacAskill and Sarah Hayes in Wildings) to write a fascinating piece, The Taintless Tide, for Hands Up For Trad’s annual Distil recital in 2014 (read our live review here). In 1963 Joan Baez recorded Three Fishers in a version that, had it been accompanied by piano rather than guitar, wouldn’t have been out of place in a period parlour-music recital.
The same song gives us the first taste here of the vocal complexity Fara can add to their music. With four fine voices to utilise, including Jeana Leslie’s soft, sweet lead, there’s a wide scope for vocal arrangements. Add to this the eerie atmospheres wrought from the strings, the growing menace in Jeana’s piano and we have a song that moves far from the restrictive ‘parlour-music’ setting of earlier versions. The depth of sound is no doubt aided by the presence of Mike Vass as producer. Mike’s production credits this year include his own project with Charlotte Hathaway and Mairi Campbell, The Dead Stations; and Gillian Frame’s very well-received solo album, Pendulum.
The quality of Jeana’s voice is in evidence again for Robert Burns’ My Heart’s in the Highlands, and the vocal attractions soon grow to a duet, before glorious a capella harmonies for the final chorus. Jeana has for many years performed as a duet with Siobhan Miller and won the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award in 2008.
Those energetic Fara tune sets can also carry a song, though. Driven purposefully along by fiddle and piano, Whisky You’re the Devil relies on Bella Hardy’s extra lyrics for the trad song in a precise and accomplished version with beautifully constructed layers of fiddle that also leave room for range and confidence in the vocal. In contrast, the light piano introduction for Changing Plans dances like sunlight on a summer sea, and it’s a joy to become lost among the hypnotic swell of fiddle harmonies as they lead to a delightful round, and a return to the softness of the opening air.
The music is full of influences from the Northern Isles. The polka Shapinsay, for instance, is a popular one in the area, and Fara seem to inject a gentle Appalachian flavour before leading on to a delightful hornpipe learned from Shetland band Tyunes, that retains those soft American flavours. I’m unsure if Bright Grey is one of the famous fifty shades, but it certainly has a passionate potency. The strident opening march for this set comes from former band member Louise Bichan and is paired with Bright Grey from Catriona Price – a tumbling, cooling cascade of Northern Isles fiddle. A Song of the Day on Folk Radio UK in May last year (more here).
Cheeky Vimto is a typically rousing fiddle set, with a closing melody from Catriona that celebrates the band’s favourite alcopop-based post-gig libation. It’s full of the sense of fun that Fara instil in their music, just as Catriona does when she joins harpist Esther Swift as the successful duo Twelfth Day. As if to underline the extent of their versatility, there’s a definite swing in the step of the opening of Billy’s Short Leg, a set of three tunes that moves from soft, lively, jazz undertones to Grey Larsen’s fiery, elemental jig Thunderhead and closes with the fast-flowing reel from Deirdre Moynihan, Across The Rooftops.
Returning to Fara’s winning way with a song, there’s an enriching community feel about Joe South’s Games People Play. Opening with nothing more than a lone voice and pizzicato fiddle, an extended chorus of fine voices soon joins for the famous refrain and a corresponding injection of spirit in Jeana’s lead.
Those trans-Atlantic influences hinted at in Cross The Line‘s opening set return full force for the album’s closing song, I’ve Endured. Making full use of those fine voices for the splendid a capella arrangement of Ola Belle Reed’s song. Fara have dropped the clawhammer banjo and the pace of the original, but the passion is still there in abundance.
Cross The Line is a wonderfully impressive début album from Fara, one of the most exciting new bands to come from Scotland in the last few years. A mix of high-energy fiddle-driven along by expressive and imaginative piano; compelling songs with perfectly executed, intricate vocals and a level of musicianship that, while it seems surprising in a début album, is an affirmation of the collective skill these four highly accomplished musicians bring to the studio.
Across the Line is out now via Fara Music
Order direct from Fara here: faramusic.bigcartel.com/product/cross-the-line