Lucia Comnes – Held In The Arms
Delfina Records – 1 March 2018
On March 1st, Californian fiddle player/singer/songwriter Lucia Comnes releases her second album of self-written songs, Held In the Arms. Following on from 2015’s Love, Hope & Tyranny (reviewed here), Held In The Arms merges American folk, pop and country styles with hints of more wide-ranging influences in a warm, engaging collection of songs that celebrate the nurturing force of friends, family and nature. With the help of long-term collaborator Gawain Matthews on mandolin and dobro, Lucia’s fiddle and beautifully clear voice open the album with Winter In The Mountains. It’s an upbeat, cheerful song about home – the place, the people; everything it delivers to your senses and your soul. With its celebratory air and an enchanting fiddle bridge, the album’s opening indeed comes across as something that’s very good for the soul.
It’s winter in the mountains they’re white from the first snow
On a cold and clear morning you can see the trees below
The nights are long, the days are bright and all that you can hear
Is the sound of bells ringing, ‘cause it’s that time of year
A native of San Francisco, in 2002 Lucia Comnes started her musical career as a singer with Kitka – an a cappella vocal ensemble specialising in Balkan/Eastern European folk music. Drawing on her own family’s European origins Lucia’s back-catalogue shows a healthy sense of musical adventure. Following a 2007 collection of a cappella Eastern European folk songs, along with fellow Kitka member Lily Storm, Lucia’s debut solo album, On The Way (2008) continued the multi-lingual theme. She also expanded it by exploring the musical traditions of West Africa, Ireland and the Indian sub-continent; perhaps most memorably with her bansuri flute and shruti box accompanied Aililiú na gamhna (Calling Home The Calves). It was in 2009 that Lucia first teamed-up with up with multi-instrumentalist and producer Gawain Mathews. Together they recorded Across The Wide Ocean, with Lucia’s fiddle taking the lead for a beautifully uncomplicated album of Irish melodies. This change in direction was informed in part by the time Lucia spent studying Irish fiddle with Martin Hayes (recently interviewed here), Kevin Burke and Oisín MacDiarmada, as well as attending the Traditional Irish Music Program at University College, Cork, to study spoken Gaelic and sean-nos singing.
Those Eastern European influences are never far away though, and on Held In The Arms, they come to the fore in the inscrutable Lady Tamarind. Gypsy jazz fiddle, layers of guitar and a bar-room piano provide the backing for a fascinating portrait. Lucia’s ability to paint vivid pictures with her lyrics is one of the many captivating aspects of this album, and the warm memories of Matilde are every bit as bright as Lady Tamarind is enigmatic. From its gentle guitar and vocal opening this song of someone who lives from, and for, the land is a breath of spring air on a meadow – ready to burst with life. Strings, drums and a faint Hammond Organ provide the poppy backing for Mirabelle. One of three songs co-written with Gawain, there’s a dynamism in the guitar and drums as Lucia remembers a childhood spent exploring nature. As well as friends, family also feature strongly. The Hunter pays tribute to Lucia’s uncle amid snatches of delightful fiddle/accordion duet, while the softer Side By Side reaches out to a lost sibling.
I still remember holding you close
A babe wrapped in white blankets, the day mom brought you home
Yeah I paved the way for you, but you made it bright
I’m counting on the day we’ll be walking side by side
It’s another song written with Gawain, though, that perhaps most efficiently illustrates Lucia’s ability to write a poignant lyric while maintaining an upbeat approach, as the gentle melody of Song for Mama is driven along by a beautifully-paced guitar. All the ups and downs of a family coming together are remembered in Grace, a delightful vignette of a family gathered for Thanksgiving dinner that benefits from co-writer Richard Mitchell‘s expressive guitar. The value of constant friendship is stressed alongside a hint of Spanish guitar in I’m With You, and the sound returns to the mountains for Morning Star, a love song filled with poetic natural observations…
On the necklace of the dawn, a single pearl is shining
From her eastern door Venus is rising
Lucia’s sense of nurture comes not only from family and friends but from the land itself. The two come together as On The Farm pays tribute to a friend’s organic vegetable farm in Bolinas, California, and the album finds its title among strong Appalachian flavours of strings, Gawain’s accordion and Rob Hooper’s drums “Well the work never ends but she’s held in the arms / Of all that really matters on the farm”. The lively pace of fiddle, dobro and mandolin adopt a similar style for Good Hands, where Lucia’s love of horses shines through. That passionate love of the land comes across most ardently in the gentle lull of the album’s closing track, The Sleeping Lady’s Daughter. Written in praise of Lucia’s mountain home, the Sleeping Lady of the title is Mount Tamalpais in Mill Valley, California (much admired by Jack Kerouac).
I come from this land, oh I come from this water
People call me the Sleeping Lady’s Daughter
Held in the bosom of all that is wild
I’ll always belong here like mother and child
In a decade of recording, Lucia Comnes has drawn on an impressive array of resources to explore the art of song around the world. From the Eastern European folk of her forebears to West Africa, India and Ireland, she has adopted, and in some cases merged, worldwide music and song with a singular passion. For the last two years, Lucia has been living in Italy, and it’s from there she has cast her gaze back to her Californian homeland. It’s clearly a loving gaze; these songs are borne of a deep love for the land and the people that nurtured Lucia throughout her early life. It’s a love that’s reflected in the fact that Lucia has pledged 10% of album proceeds toward relief of fire victims in the Sonoma/Napa/North Bay area of California.
Many of the excellent songs Lucia Comnes wrote for Love, Hope & Tyranny explored dark themes, all were borne from a deep understanding of how folk music works. That same understanding comes across in Held In The Arms, but the album takes Lucia’s songwriting in a new direction – one that celebrates. Although there are songs here that have emerged from shadow, it’s still a journey into the light – and that light is a warm, welcoming glow. Lucia Comnes opens Held In The Arms with a hearty welcome, closes it with a warm embrace and all the way through delivers assured, beautifully crafted, American folk.
Watch Lucia performing ‘Grace’ live in San Francisco, CA, for NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest 2017 below:
Upcoming Live Dates
March 17, 2018 / 9:00 pm
LUCIA COMNES ANNUAL ST. PATRICK’S DAY CONCERT IN SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA
@ The Great American Music Hall
April 27, 2018 / 8:30 pm
HELD IN THE ARMS CD RELEASE IN PUGLIA
@ Pecora Nera
May 18, 2018 / 8:30 pm
LUCIA COMNES DEBUT & CD RELEASE IN STEENDAM, THE NETHERLANDS
@ Podium Café ‘Peter en Leni’
May 19, 2018 / 8:00 pm
LUCIA COMNES DEBUT & CD RELEASE IN LÜBECK GERMANY
Order Held In The Arms via Lucia’s PledgeMusic page here: https://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/luciacomnes-heldinthearms
Find out more here: http://www.luciacomnes.com/
Photo by Alessandro Illuzzi