Ear to the Ground – 2017
If T.S. Eliot was right and April is the cruellest month, then you might say that May is the kindest. May delivers on all the promises that April made and shirked. The sun comes out properly, the swifts arrive. Hedgerows throng with life, and so do pub gardens. It is May that the year finally turns its back on winter and all the hardship that the cold weather has brought. May, perhaps more than any other month, is celebrated in the traditional music of the British Isles, in songs that often have their roots in the pre-Christian rites that took place in the meadows, village greens and town squares across the country.
Lisa Knapp has collected some of these songs to create Till April Is Dead: A Garland Of May, essentially a concept album about the merry month. Knapp seems to have a fascination with May: in 2012 she released Hunt The Hare: A Branch Of May, a tantalising five-track ‘May celebration’ with a guest slot from Alasdair Roberts. On the liner notes to that release she noted that these songs and the rituals that inspired them are both celebratory and sombre, heralding ‘a relief that winter is subdued’ and ‘reminding us that time is of the essence’.
Accordingly, Till April Is Dead is made up of equal parts darkness and light. It looks to the past as well as to the future. The songs are often sexy or coquettish but flirt constantly with danger. An appreciation of natural processes and the passing of the seasons is tempered by superstition. In short, this is a concept rich with variation and contradiction. It is clear from the first sounds of opener The Night Before May Day that this is not your average folk album: a recorded voice, the sped-up ticking of a clock, a tawny owl’s hoot. The voice, explaining the importance of the evening’s preparations and the morning’s celebrations, is looped and repeated throughout a simple and beautiful song extolling the need for togetherness. As the song ends, the owl hoots for the final time, the clock ceases its ticking and explodes into a cacophonous alarm, and May begins. It is an assured and audacious way to start and album. The use of modern recording techniques and found sounds colours the ancient fabric of the song, creating something beyond a historical document, something that sounds beautiful for its own sake.
The second track, Till April Is Dead, experiments even further: various aphorisms and proverbs concerning the season are layered and looped over and around each other. Sayings from French, German, Spanish, Gaelic and English folklore become entwined (in both sound and meaning) over simple plucked strings before Knapp sings a lighter than air rendition of Hal-An-Tow, a song made famous by the Watersons and the Albion Band. The song’s inherent strangeness – the coupling of nonsense words with quasi-religious and mythological imagery – is only thrown into sharper focus by its new setting.
Knapp’s stature these days means that she can call on some heavyweight collaborators, including Graham Coxon, who provides vocals on Searching For Lambs, an old Somerset song once sung by Shirley Collins. Coxon provides an earthy counterpoint to Knapp’s crystalline, melancholy melody in a song that touches on the darker elements of the season: although the lyrics are ostensibly happy there is a yearning to the song that makes it seem like an unfulfilled wish.
Staines Morris delves further into the darker and stranger traditions of May Day celebration. It begins with Knapp’s witchy wail and a galloping drum beat before another collaborator – Current 93’s David Tibet – adds a further layer of weirdness. His incantatory vocal section sounds like the Incredible String Band at a pagan rave. The song was first printed in 1656 but has lost none of its elemental power.
Although only brief and to all intents slight, May Garland might be the album’s centrepiece. Knapp’s vocals, always notable for their clarity, are here given free rein. The ambiguities of the song – in this instance a cheeky mixture of sexual and religious imagery – are perfectly expressed by the subtleties of her voice and Gerry Diver’s production. Sounds recorded from nature, including a hum of bees, serve two purposes: the sounds themselves refer to the song’s original setting in a rural past, but their presence – as electronically recorded things – anchors the song in the contemporary world. A cuckoo’s call, bold and immediately recognisable, further signifies the fecundity and sexual openness associated with the season, while a music box adds an eerie note to proceedings.
Lily White Hand, a song from the Romany tradition, is a sumptuous ballad, beginning with just Knapp’s vocals and plucked strings. It shows the flipside of the season, where gaiety becomes tragedy, romance becomes sexual predation, and carefree youth gives way to depression and materialism of enforced adulthood. The song ends on a note of murder and deceit, as a quietly discordant piano amplifies the sense of queasiness.
The barely distinguishable background noises that begin The Lark In The Morning form the backing to an a capella first verse, then squeaks and hums of strings and pattering percussion (played on wooden spoons) arrive as Knapp intones ‘wood, meadow, sky’ – the names of the larks native to Britain. It is another excellent example of how Knapp and Diver can take an old song and imbue it with freshness and originality, without significantly altering its meaning.
Bedfordshire May Day Carol takes a more traditional approach. It features the singing of Mary Hampton, some finespun banjo courtesy of Diver and Dan East’s evocative concertina, while the half-minute snippet Where’s Troy uses samples of mechanical instruments and revisits the theme of the quick passage of time with more alarm clock sounds. Don’t You Go A Rushing Maids In May is perhaps the album’s simplest and prettiest song, but also its most suggestive, full of the insinuation and innuendo that is characteristic of folk song in general and songs about May in particular. Pleasant Month Of May, a song from the Copper family of Sussex, takes a similar tack, its raunchy meaning scarcely hidden even before the percussive, ecstatic conclusion.
The recordings of birdsong and themes of unity that begin the album’s final song, Padstow May Song, neatly bring the album full circle, with the suggestion that time is cyclical and has no beginning or end. It is also one of the album’s most sonically exploratory pieces, with multiple linked parts of its own and some intriguing vocal samples. But amongst all the experimentation, Knapp’s unique voice still shines through.
Knapp is now regarded as one of our finest singers and interpreters of song. 2007’s Wild And Undaunted was one of the most exciting debuts of the last decade, and its long-awaited follow-up, Hidden Seam (2013), rightly won awards and acclaim all over the place. Till April Is Dead: A Garland Of May builds on the success of both of those albums, but it is an entirely different beast, not only because of the unity of its concept but because it seeks to understand old songs and traditions in modern and often highly original ways. It is a real step forward from a genuinely groundbreaking artist.
Till April is Dead
Till April is Dead: A Garland of May is Out Now: https://lisaknapp.lnk.to/TillAprilIsDead
Lisa’s Pledge Campaign runs until May 6th, please help support its launch by ordering it here: http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/lisaknapp
Lisa Knapp Dates
6th May – Lisa Knapp & Band: London Album launch, Sound Lounge, London SW17 (Tickets)