Brona McVittie – We Are The Wildlife
Company of Corkbots/Autolycus Records – 18 January 2018
In the last year or two, Brona McVittie’s name has been cropping up more and more frequently in the more expansive and experimental subsets of the folk music world. Previously, the harpist and singer has purveyed traditional Irish tunes as one-sixth of The London Lasses and in the a capella group Rún, but her recent work with chamber-folk modernists littlebow has taken that group – and her own music – in entirely new and exciting directions.
It might be somewhat surprising to find that someone so prolific in her collaborations has never released a solo album before now, but McVittie’s debut is worth the wait. She has taken the more experimental urges she began exploring with littlebow and has developed them into something entirely her own. We Are The Wildlife is an album of duality and dichotomy: there is the appreciation of the city (in this case London) that shapes and is shaped by human patterns of behaviour, and there is the natural sonic patterning McVittie finds in the Mountains of Mourne in rural County Down. There are hearty traditional songs, full of truths passed down orally through the ages, and there are melodically complex original compositions, richly textured and enigmatic. And then there is the implicit understanding that one side of the coin can’t exist without the other. McVittie is an heir to an Irish musical heritage steeped in these rich complexities and apparent contradictions, where the need to travel to large cities and to be amongst large groups of people is often keenly offset by a deep longing for home, for solitude and wilderness.
In one sense, then, this album is an ambitious and open-ended psychogeographical concept. But when you actually sit down and listen to the songs, the concept becomes secondary. This is not an album governed by its themes; the themes grow up out of the songs and fit together as if by happenstance. Opener When The Angels Wake You begins with gently plucked harp and field recordings of birdsong, but the bass notes hint at a darker heart, and the song begins to explore the ambivalent relationship that the ancient Celts had with death. The Flower Of Magherelly, a traditional song from County Down, tells a simpler, brighter story, but McVittie provides a softly jazzy take on it, full of muted cymbal splashes and bucolic flute flourishes (the flutes on the album come courtesy of Anne Garner and McVittie’s littlebow bandmate Keiron Phelan).
With any solo album by a female singer with a harp, there are always those pesky Joanna Newsom comparisons to negotiate. In truth, though, McVittie’s style is nothing like Newsom’s. Her regional accent is distinctive and her vocal delivery pleasantly laid-back, while her technical idiosyncrasies are unique. Instead of writing songs on the harp, she composes them first on an acoustic guitar before transcribing them. This results in arrangements that are simultaneously off-kilter and approachable. The album’s title track is a case in point. Musically, it rests on a feather bed of harp, but on repeated listens certain structural strands emerge, bringing with them moments of almost-familiarity. Lyrically, it is a reflection of McVittie’s relationship with the River Lea, and a deeper reflection on the interconnectedness of things natural and manmade.
And The Glamour Fell On Her, swirling and plinking, its title a reference to being bewitched by fairies, resembles Colleen’s quietly atmospheric compositions. It is gone in a whisper, but leaves a lasting, almost uncanny effect. Broken Like The Morning mixes mournful strings (Richard Curran) with simple flute and a sparkle of harp. At the song’s close, the instruments drop out and leave McVittie’s voice high and isolated for a few moments as she sings the song’s final refrain. It is a sad and quietly powerful moment that seems crucial to the overarching narrative of the entire piece. It is surely no coincidence that it occurs almost exactly half-way through the album. It is followed by Under The Pines, the first single from the album. The intro plays subtle electric blips off against the twinkling embroidery of the harp’s backcloth. In an unhurried and deceptively simple way, it neatly encapsulates McVittie’s message: that in a sense all music is the result of a dialectical resolution of the argument between human technology and natural patterns.
The second half is weighted in favour of traditional songs. Newry Mountain, like The Flower Of Magherelly, is an old Ulster love song, and McVittie sings it with a stream-like clarity. Molly Brannigan is perhaps the most modern sounding thing on the album, with surprising touches of electronic, glitchy pop: perhaps a nod to Portishead, who McVittie lists among her broad and surprising array of influences. It is a testament to the range and breadth of McVittie’s vision and her light and air settings – that it feels in no way out of place.
McVittie cites W.B. Yeats as one of the guiding spirits of We Are The Wildlife. The Vast And Vague Extravagance That Lies At The Bottom Of The Celtic Heart (she does a great line in song titles, and that is one of the best) is the album’s only instrumental, an original composition that is inspired by Yeats’s conception of the unknowable romantic essence of the Celtic soul. The album concludes with another traditional Irish song, The Jug Of Punch, that unfolds slowly over a steady drum beat. It is a song that has been recorded several times, by A.L. Lloyd, Louis Killen and Martin Carthy among others, but this version is stately and unique, with a melody that emerges out of a shimmer.
We Are The Wildlife is an album that wears its Celtic heart firmly on its sleeve, but for all that, it is an outward-looking piece of work, characterised by a deep understanding of natural processes, of travel and of a shared heritage – musical, cultural and geographic – that merits preservation but also explores change. It is a profoundly powerful and quietly ambitious statement and one of the most distinctive debuts you are likely to hear all year.
You can order a limited edition CD of We Are The Wildlife with artwork by Gladys Mulligan via Bandcamp (CD/Digital)
LONDON: The Tea House Theatre
FRI 19TH JAN, 2018 8:00pm
Other UK Dates
Celtic Connections, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall – Sunday 21st January 17.00 solo / free event
The Union Chapel / Daylight Music, Compton Terrace, Islington, London, N1 2UN – Saturday 17th March 12.00-14.00 Tickets (pay-what-you-can) / Suggested donation £5
More details and international dates here: http://bronamcvittie.corkbots.com/