Kirsty Merryn – She & I
Self-Released – 9 November 2017
Championed by Steve Knightley, following last year’s stripped back, home-produced taster EP, New Forest native Merryn finally unveils her much-anticipated debut album, which, produced by Gerry Diver, who also contributes his multi-instrumentalist skills, is a collection of eight piano-based songs inspired by and about a diverse range of women from history.
Having said that, the opening track, The Pit and the Pugilist, is actually about Tommy Mitchell, a Chesterfield miner and boxing champion in the early 1900s; however, Merryn also happens to be his great-great-granddaughter, so that seems fair enough.
By way of a striking musical shift, Bring Up The Bodies, one of the album highlights, is sparse percussive chant with a funeral procession rhythm that takes its inspiration from two sources. The first is Jessica Mitford, one of the English aristocratic family’s notorious daughters who went on to become a dedicated socialist and author, writing The American Way of Death, a critique of the practices of the American funeral industry. The second is Henrietta Lacks, an African-American tobacco farmer who, in the 40s, underwent treatment for cancer and, without her knowledge, had tissue samples taken that were then cultured into the research pioneering HeLa cell line, although the family only became aware of this in the 70s. The song itself, however, seems more to relate to the practice of grave robbing for medical research.
Switching style again, sung in a jaunty manner with tick-tocking percussion, The Fair Tea Maker of Edgware Road concerns the infamous ménage a trois between Emma Hamilton, her husband Lord Hamilton and her lover Admiral Nelson, although the title would seem to refer to an earlier time when she was kept as a mistress at such address by Warwick MP Charles Greville while the line about her dancing recalls how she entertained the friends of another lover by dancing nude on a table.
Knightley joins her to take the part of William Darling, duetting on Forfarshire (video premiered below), a slow, rumbling, violin-accompanied song recalling about how he and his late daughter Grace rowed out into the storm to rescue the survivors of the titular paddle steamer, as he stands on the shore haunted by her memory. It’s back to piano for An Evening At Home In Spiritual Séance, a wry sketch in song about Georgiana Houghton, a Victorian spiritualist and artist who believed that she was channeling the talents of famous men, the Angel Gabriel among them, in producing her ‘spirit drawings’, swirling sonic whooshes provided the suitably spooky notes.
Drawing on Cara Dillon influences, Queen of the Mists was inspired by Annie Edison Taylor who, at 63, became the first person to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, the song, driven by piano and Tom Grashion’s steady drums, more obviously about finding the courage to take chances on the unknown.
On the gradually gathering Delilah and Samson, which swells from resonant acoustic guitar to dark clouds of drums, strings and keyboards, she’s joined by Luke Jackson giving his blues folk best duetting on the dramatic Biblical tale of lust, betrayal, emasculation and haircuts. There’s no specific subject to the closing track, The Birds Are Drunk, Merryn initially accompanied by birdsong and drone before violin and icy piano notes join in for a traditional-styled murder ballad sung in the voice of the anonymous victim, a tribute perhaps to all women abused by male violence.
In her thematic approach, Merryn’s album is following in the path of Tori Amos and Carol Ann Duffy, who have, respectively, written songs or poems about or in the persona of famous women. She deserves to reap similar rewards.
Find out more here kirstymerryn.com