Emily Mae Winters – Siren Serenade
Self Released – 28 April 2017
It’s rare for a debut E.P. to make the kind of impact that leads to a string of live performances; regional, national and international radio play; and rapturous press reviews. Last year, though, when Emily Mae Winters released her Foreign Waters EP, that’s exactly what happened. Since then, as well as making some highly praised live appearances, Emily has been busy refining more songs, making new musical connections and recording her debut full-length album – Siren Serenade. The big question is, given the promise so tantalisingly and beautifully delivered in Foreign Waters, can Emily live up to the inevitably high expectations? The answer is a resounding yes.
As we explained in the Folk Radio UK review of Foreign Waters (read it here), Emily’s background in the arts goes well beyond that of most singer-songwriters. After moving from her home in Ireland to London, to study history, the musical background of her upbringing was never far from her thoughts. Emily whole-heartedly embraced the London arts scene and was soon studying music and drama at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (RCSSD). After graduating, she also indulged her love of poetry by working at the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden, and at Keats House Museum, Hampstead Heath.
The gentle opening of Siren Serenade, Blackberry Lane, will come as no surprise to those of us who were enthralled by Foreign Waters. Gently picked guitar, Ben Savage‘s dobro, and Emily’s captivating voice deliver a city love song full of late summer imagery that seeks a more pastoral idyll. The song also serves as an excellent introduction for newcomers to Emily’s music, as the structure and poetry of English traditional song meet the transatlantic roots that are such an important, and appealing aspect of Emily’s music. Ben’s dobro was a notable part of the Foreign Waters EP, and those American influences perhaps come across strongest in one of two tracks from last year’s E.P. that have made it onto the album, Miles To Go. Listening to the vocal and dobro combination on this gently lulling song, it’s easy to understand why Emily was chosen to join the English Folk Song and Dance Society delegation at the annual Folk Alliance in Kansas, USA.
Despite Ben’s dobro and the soft, country twang in Emily’s voice there’s no denying the quintessential Englishness that’s the beating heart of Emily’s music and, especially, song. That national musical identity shines through in her fascination with the great romantic poets and an affinity with maritime themes. The beating heart itself finds a voice in the systolic bass rhythm of Anchor, the standout track from last year’s EP. There’s a soft mandolin to send a gentle shiver down the spine, and a soaring fiddle above the white crests of the waves. Which brings us to another important progression Emily’s succeeded in achieving for Siren Serenade – the sheer weight of numbers.
Emily’s joined on the album by a host of talent that, in the wrong hands, could easily overpower the sound. Thanks to the sterling work of co-producers Ben Walker (who also produced Foreign Waters) and Lauren Deakin-Davies, responsible for some excellent work with Larua Marling, Maz O’Connor and Lukas Drinkwater, the sound is beautifully balanced throughout. Carl Turner (Guitar); Lukas Drinkwater (Double Bass); Evan Carson, Jack Pout (Percussion/Bodhran); Maya McCourt (Cello) Dan Camalich, Matthew Atkins and James McNamara (Fiddle) Robin Fairey, Jenny Lee Ridley (Flute, whistle); and vocalists Hannah Sanders, Lauren Bush and Lauren Parker provide support that is rich and colourful, soft and melodic, light as air as required.
The result is a sound that, when it needs to be expansive, ticks all the boxes. As If You Read My Mind, lead by piano, guitar and voice, evolves into a lofty pop ballad full of gloriously rich strings and percussion. The catchy, upbeat Hook, Line and Sinker adopts a more electric sound that still makes room for banjo and Emily’s visions of life at sea. Anchor, a track from the EP that won Emily the folk category in the Guardian Song Writing Competition, takes the same rich structure and applies a tangible building of power through strings, keyboards and the enthralling drama of Emily’s voice.
It would, however, be a mistake to think Emily depends on rich orchestration to make an impact. The a capella title track, Siren Serenade, is a rootsy spiritual with layers of spine-tingling harmony that builds throughout.
Americana and even pop lend their influences to the album, but there’s no denying the solid foundation that traditional music has provided for Emily’s music. The maturity and regal tone of Emily’s voice in Fiddlers Green should satisfy the most ardent followers of traditional song. Grimsby singer-songwriter John Connoly wrote this trawler men’s Rock Candy Mountain in 1966, but it’s easy to see why it’s often mistaken for a traditional song, especially with the utterly delightful fiddle/whistle led hornpipe to close. Similarly, The Ghost of the Pirate Queen could result in a fruitless search of Broadside ballad resources. The galloping pace of bass, fiddle and guitar lead off one of Emily’s own songs that enjoy a convincing authenticity, a damn fine story, and no shortage of drama in a vocal that’s enhanced by some enchanting whistle harmonies.
Emily’s fondness for, and strong affinity with, great poets provides another link to tradition, with W.B. Yeats’ Down by the Salley Gardens. There’s an immediate, atmospheric drone before strings add pathos to Emily’s vocal for this short, beautiful, perfect song. Inspired by the themes of constancy and solitude in John Keats’ Bright Star, there’s an air of celestial mystery to Emily’s The Star. Guided by a star on a voyage of discovery that might even mirror Emily’s own voyage towards this album, piano gently rolls as cello plunges through its waves and the power and drama of Emily’s vocal shine through. The album closes with an affirmation of just how much Emily treasures vocal performance. For Reprise, she’s joined by a full, rich choral backing and performs a hypnotic vocal duet with Hannah Sanders.
In addition to proving herself a versatile and accomplished songwriter; in Siren Serenade Emily Mae Winters also confirms her ability, and willingness, to revisit traditional sources. As a collaborator and musician, she seems capable of realising a musical vision that’s inspired by music and song from the rich Irish, English and American folk traditions as well as contemporary sources. As a vocalist, she combines a simply beautiful voice with a natural gift for drama to deliver songs that are as enchanting as they are satisfying. Siren Serenade is enthralling evidence of the breadth of talent Emily Mae Winters has to offer.
Siren Serenade is out on 28 April 2017
Emily Mae Winters Siren Serenade Tour
More here: http://www.emilymaewinters.com/