Edgelarks (Phillip Henry & Hannah Martin) – Edgelarks
Dragonfly Roots – 6 October 2017
Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin have released three critically acclaimed studio albums as a duo. For their fourth album, they have decided on a name change: they are now Edgelarks (which is also the name of the album). While the primary reasons behind this change are mostly of a practical nature – they wanted something less cumbersome, more original, easier to remember – the upshot is that the new name has given them a new sense of artistic freedom, while providing them with a loose concept which acts as a jumping-off point for new musical ideas.
More on the concept later; first some background. Martin and Henry are in some ways an archetypal ‘festival band’: they began playing together in a caravan in rural Devon and honed their trade on the live circuit in the south-west, and both were members of the Roots Union for a while. Their hard-working, peripatetic approach paid dividends when they were spotted by indie-folk impresario Steve Knightley busking on the seafront during the Sidmouth Folk Festival (where the best acts are often those on the ‘fringe’). From that point on their rise has been a rapid one. Support slots with Seth Lakeman and Show Of Hands earned them national exposure, and in 2014 they won the BBC Folk Award for Best Duo. They are equally at home in the interpretation of traditional material and composition of new songs and have already had a hand in one of 2017’s best folk albums, backing Steeleye Span’s Peter Knight as part of the Gigspanner Big Band (reviewed here).
But what about the music? From the opening notes of first track Landlocked it’s obvious we’re dealing with a confident pair of artists able to conjure up slickly atmospheric sound-worlds without the raw rootsiness of their playing. The song is a celebration of Nancy Perriam, who was one of the few women to see action in the Royal Navy in the last years of the eighteenth century, and who ended her days selling fish on the streets of Exmouth, having seen two husbands killed at sea. Landlocked uses Perriam’s experience to explore the universal human urge to travel, to transcend personal and physical boundaries, and this is where the concept of Edgelarks first begins to emerge. Perriam is a character from the periphery of history. Her very existence – as a woman, as a sailor in a time of war – was liminal, not to mention extremely difficult. ‘To be a woman is to be born swimming with your hands tied’, sings Martin, and it is a neat encapsulation of the struggle for personal freedom that Perriam must have experienced.
Musically, Edgelarks avoids the more predictable folk tropes. Henry fills the songs with distinctive Weissenborn guitar, dobro and lap steel, or draws on the time spent studying the chatturangui in India. The resulting sound is unique, mixing oriental and American traditions into the British folk hotpot. No Victory progresses on a bedrock of drone provided by Henry’s shruti box before the singular sound of his beatbox harmonica gives the song its element of surprise.
The pair are content to let their songs unfold and give them space to breathe. Many tracks here clock in at around the five-minute mark, but they never feel long. Signposts is a case in point; Martin is given time to let her rich, distinctive voice sink into a beautiful and evocative song, written in Tasmania, about homesickness and the power of music to console, and to bring people together. It also showcases Martin’s deft, melancholy fiddle playing. Undelivered stretches itself out over seven-minutes, a story inspired by a cache of seventeenth-century letters discovered in the Netherlands played out over gently plucked strings (Henry’s aforementioned Weissenborn). It is a telling example of music’s ability to humanise history.
Yarl’s Wood, though by no means brisk, has a more urgent sound, befitting its subject matter – the treatment of women at the frighteningly named Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. Co-producer John Elliott (who shares production duties with Henry) adds recorded sounds of protesters to what is already an unflinchingly honest account of our times. The tone changes on Caravans, which on one level acts as a kind of creation myth for the band, and on another offers a manifesto for living well alongside the natural world.
Estren offers even more of a departure and is sung entirely in the Cornish language. Its story, though, is a typical one in the world of folk song and tells of a travelling stranger with something of a reputation as a ladies’ man. But despite its age-old themes, it carries great relevance to the modern world where intolerance and fear of the foreigner still hold sway.
There are more personal, ambiguous moments too, and Iceberg is one such moment. Subtle hand drums and Henry’s beatbox harmonica underpin a finely wrought dissection of human coldness. Song Of The Jay is a clever extended metaphor for inclusivity (the bird in question – the Californian bush jay – appears to mourn the death of other birds, regardless of species), and features chaturangui and tabla. The overall sound is sweetly elegiac.
The album’s guiding theme comes across most strongly in Borders. The true story of an Afghan family who walked the breadth of Europe to find asylum. These ‘Children of the shadows, of the borderlands’, become a touching symbol for the wider problems of society, but the lightness of touch at work in the songwriting ensures that the track retains its heartbreakingly personal side.
Edgelarks signs off with two thematically linked but otherwise very different songs. What’s The Life Of A Man? is a traditional piece that reminds the listener of the insignificance of man in the grander scheme of nature. In spite of its subject matter, it has a very positive feel: it seems to say that we should find acceptance and comfort in our fate. The onrush of fiddle and percussion that ends the song is particularly uplifting. The Good Earth comes to the same philosophical conclusion via a different route. Musically, it is much simpler. The duo channel early Joni Mitchell and Anne Briggs with a deceptively unassuming guitar refrain backed up once more by the chaturangui. It makes for an uplifting end to an album that is full of muted, autumnal beauty. Edgelarks may signify a new venture for Hannah Martin and Phillip Henry, but the quality of their songwriting and performing only continues to improve – their best yet.
THE EDGELARKS TOUR
*with very special guest The Little Unsaid
**with very special guest Tobias ben Jacob
05/10 Marlborough Folk Roots*
Marlborough Town Hall, 5 High Street, Marlborough, SN8 1AA
www.marlboroughfolk-roots.co.uk / 01672 512465
06/10 Album Launch: Dartington Hall, Totnes, Devon TQ9 6ED*
www.dartingtonhall.com / 01803 847070
07/10 St Mary’s Hall, Appledore, N. Devon*
Churchfields Rd, Appledore, Bideford EX39 1RL
10/10 National Centre for Early Music, York*
St Margarets Church, Walmgate, York YO1 9TL
www.ncem.co.uk / 01904 658338
11/10 The Trades Club, Hebden Bridge*
Holme St, Hebden Bridge HX7 8EE
www.thetradesclub.com / 01422 845265
12/10 Garstang Unplugged, Lancashire*
The Kenlis Arms, Ray Lane, Barnacre, Garstang, PR3 1GD
www.garstangunplugged.com / 01995 602795
13/10 Forum Studio Theatre, Chester*
Hamilton Place, Chester CH1 2BH
www.tiptopproductions.co.uk / 01244 341296
14/10 L2F Festival, Lichfield
Lichfield Guildhall, Bore Street, Lichfield WS13 6NU
www.lichfieldarts.org.uk / 01543 262223
18/10 Brewhouse Theatre & Arts Centre, Taunton*
Coal Orchard, Taunton, Somerset, TA1 1JL
www.thebrewhouse.net / 01823 283244
19/10 Komedia, Bath*
22-23 Westgate Street, Bath BA1 1EP
www.komedia.co.uk/bath / 01225 489070
21/10 Manchester Folk Festival (supporting Tom Robinson)
HOME, Tony Wilson Place, First Street, off Whitworth St. West, M15 4FN
www.manchesterfolkfestival.org.uk / 0161 200 1500
27/10 Jubilee Hall, Market Harborough*
Bowden Lane, Market Harborough, Leicestershire, LE16 7JD
www.amgigs.co.uk / 01858 525 179
28/10 The Ropewalk, Barton Upon Humber*
Maltkiln Road, Barton Upon Humber, N.Lincs, DN18 5JT
www.roperyhall.co.uk / 01652 660380
01/11 The Stables, Milton Keynes*
Stockwell Lane, Wavendon, Milton Keynes, Bucks., MK17 8LU
www.thestables.org.uk / 01908 280800
02/11 Album Launch: The Sound Lounge, London*
210-212 Upper Tooting Road, London SW17 7EW
www.thesoundlounge.org.uk / 0208 543 9555
03/11 Wokingham Concerts*
All Saints Church, Wokingham, RG40 1UE
04/11 Bubble Club at The Marlowe, Canterbury*
The Marlowe Studio, The Friars, Canterbury, CT1 2AS
07/11 Ropetackle Arts Centre, Shoreham**
Little High Street, Shoreham by Sea, W.Sussex, BN43 5EG
www.ropetacklecentre.co.uk / 01273 464440
08/11 Applegarth Farm, Headley Road, Grayshott, Hampshire, GU26 6JL
01428 725276 / email@example.com
Tickets are £32, which includes a three-course meal.
09/11 Anteros Arts Foundation, Norwich**
7 Fye Bridge Street, Norwich, Norfolk, NR3 1LJ
www.anterosfoundation.com / 01603 456 731
10/11 The Painswick Centre, Stroud**
Bisley Street, Painswick, Stroud, Gloucs. GL6 6QQ
www.painswickcentre.com / 07596 823 881
11/11 Somborne Sessions, Hampshire**
King’s Somborne Village Hall, off Romsey Road, Kings Somborne, Hants. SO20 6PP
www.sombornesessions.co.uk / 01794 388743
Edgelarks is released on 6th October via Dragonfly Roots / Proper Music Distribution and supported by an extensive UK Tour. For full details visit: www.philliphenryandhannahmartin.co.uk