Almost a year ago we promised on Folk Radio UK that Emily Smith‘s popular Christmas shows would enjoy some studio arrangements and a CD release. We’re glad to say that the wait is almost over as Emily prepares to release her latest album Songs For Christmas on 2nd December.
Since her childhood in Thornhill, in the beautiful Dumfries and Galloway area of Scotland, Emily Smith has been involved in traditional Scots music. Her early introduction to music was through her mother’s Highland Dance school and as Emily grew she learned a variety of instruments, eventually becoming National Mod champion on the accordion at the age of 18. By 1999 she was discovering just how accomplished her singing was and took an Honours degree in Scottish Music at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, with Scottish song her principal subject.
Now one of the best-known voices in UK folk music; Emily and her band, which includes fiddler, guitarist and husband Jamie McClennan, undertake a short annual tour of her home region. Following last year’s announcement of a new album, Emily and Jamie returned to the splendid setting of Drumlanrig Castle (a favourite concert venue of the band) along with Matheu Watson (guitars, viola) and Ross Hamilton (bass, drums, vocals) to record some of the most popular songs from those tours.
Songs For Christmas opens with one of Emily’s own songs, Find Hope. It’s an uplifting opening that sets the scene for the combination of Emily’s voice, Matheu Watson’s guitar and Jamie’s fiddle that will charm throughout this album. The song also sets a clear opening message – that among all the usual Christmas trappings, hope is what we need most of all.
Since 2005 Emily has released six albums that combine her own song writing talent with both traditional and contemporary songs. Although firmly rooted in Scottish tradition, her music spans the globe in its outlook and has earned her wide praise in the music press, a host of Television appearances and a string of awards. Back in 2002 Emily earned the BBC Radio Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician of the Year Award. Since then she’s won the 2005 USA Songwriting Competition, Scots Singer of the Year at the Scots Trad Music Awards in 2008 and again in 2014, and received two nominations in the 2012 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.
It’s a traditional song that holds sway, of course, on Emily’s Christmas tour and two songs highlight that approach more than any other. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen combines soft layers of Emily’s voice with Matheu’s equally gentle guitar and the beautifully matched vocal harmonies from Jamie that are a stand-out feature of the album. It’s in the exultant vocal arrangement for Silent Night, though, that Emily’s vocal range shines brightest; but there’s more. There are times on this album when the quality of the conversation between guitar and voice shines clearly. The guitar accepts, affirms and is even inspired by the exceptional clarity of Emily’s vocal, as both take Silent Night, almost imperceptibly, towards a charming waltz.
You’d be hard pushed to find a happier song than Little Road To Bethlehem. Sixty years ago composer Michael Head arranged music for Margaret Rose’s poem. Here Emily rekindles the simple joy of Head’s music with an utterly charming vocal and a combination of guitar and fiddle that’s a heart-warming joy.
Emily’s Christmas isn’t one of iced-over ponds and fur-wrapped sleigh rides; it’s one of hope, reflection and a deep, spiritual joy. This comes across perhaps strongest of all in two traditional songs with arrangements inspired by the work of New England Yuletide pageant, Nowell Sing We Clear. Heard From Heaven enjoys a simple arrangement on the surface but there’s fine detail in this light spiritual, with a Scandinavian flavour in Jamie’s fiddle and the deep harmonies from Matheu’s viola. The trio performed this song on BBC’s Songs Of Praise, in the 2015 Christmas Eve edition, recorded at Aberdeen Cathedral. From the same New England tradition comes The Blessings Of Mary. With its gently cantering pace and lilting vocal, the song comes across as a true Christmas celebration, in terms of Christian joy. This is no surprise, as Emily’s made a number of Songs Of Praise appearances and her approach to this album partly reflects her work on the New Scottish Hymns project.
Christ Has My Hairt, Ay is a well-chosen Scots language celebration of faith. This 17th Century song with music by Alan Reid (Battlefield Band) expands to embrace more contemporary influences and an intense, joyful final chorus.
“Wi sangis sweet unto thy glore
The knees o’ my hairt shall I bow
And I shall praise thee evermore
Christ has my hairt ay
Christ has my hairt ay”
The celebration extends to winter itself in another of Emily’s own compositions, Winter Song. First featured on her 2008 Album, Too Far Away, a truly beautiful song that finds all the comfort to be had during the cold dark season; and just like the ancient festivities, looks forward to the assured return of the light and warmth of spring. An apt companion to Winter Song is another big favourite of Emily’s, and her audience, The Parting Glass. It’s the perfect song on which to close a party or a live set, and Emily’s is the perfect voice to lead it, as she has on many memorable occasions. The simplest of arrangements with a smidgen of guitar picking out the highlights of the flawless vocal, and perfectly placed fiddle harmonies.
There is, of course, room on this fine album for the lighter joys of Christmas. John Doyle‘s Merry Christmas To All And Goodnight offers another gentle sing along to end an evening and the American alt-country influence is clear in Santa Will Find You, from New York singer-songwriter Mindy Smith. A soulful assurance that no matter who or where you are, the spirit of Christmas will find you. There’s a gentle flavour of swing jazz in among the jaunty guitar and brushed snares, all delivered with just a hint of melancholy.
Emily’s love of trans-Atlantic sounds takes on a gentle Nashville influence to close the album with Sarah Siskind‘s A Life That’s Good. With Jamie’s harmonies, a lovely pairing of guitars, and picked guitar harmonies that add a twinkle of starlight, the song’s taken beyond its origins, while retaining the core message about the enduring comfort of love, faith and family.
The forthcoming tour features Jamie McClennan and Anna Massie in the band and includes a return to Drumlanrig Castle on Sunday, 18th December (full details below). It’s sure to be a highly successful outing for this beautiful album. Emily Smith’s Songs For Christmas finds its strength not only in the flawless vocal performances and the engaging arrangements, but in the messages it conveys, and the delight that’s discovered in them.
Songs for Christmas Tour
Dec 02 – REETH – Reeth Memorial Hall
Dec 03 – BIDDULPH – St Lawrence’s Church
Dec 04 – BEESWING – Loch Arthur Farm Shop
Dec 09 – EDINBURGH – The Queen’s Hall
Dec 10 – FOCHABERS – Inchberry Hall
Dec 11 – BANCHORY – Woodend Barn
Dec 15 – DUMFRIES – Theatre Royal
Dec 16 – NEWTON STEWART – McMillan Hall
Dec 18 – THORNHILL – Drumlanrig Castle
Songs for Christmas is released December 2nd via White Fall Records
Pre-Order it via Amazon
Photo Credit: Archie MacFarlane