Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker – Seedlings All
Rough Trade Records – 23 March 2018
I first came across Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker with their 2014 album Nothing Can Bring Back the Hour. Having bought it, I listened to it in instalments, other things were happening at the time, and it wasn’t until I had heard most of the tracks separately that I sat down to listen to the thing as a whole. This is partly my usual modus operandi but also I wasn’t that sure about the album at the start. However, leaving it on slow cook it grew to be one of those albums that I will listen to out of choice, as opposed to things some random playlist may throw at me. Now they are about to bring out a new album (they have done other stuff in between) and I have listened to this very attentively.
Seedlings All represents a couple of changes. Well, not changes. Progression? No that implies ‘not as good last time’. New things? So loose it could fit anything. Developments? This is getting silly. What is happening with this new release is that all of the songs are original and that the musical styles continue to broaden.
Both of these things are important. If you have listened to any of their music you will know that it is not made for jumping around to and generally having a good time. When asked at a gig to sing something cheery, Josienne replied that what she does is melancholy, and that is what you are going to get. And yes, she does it very very well. Of course, melancholia is a very important part of British folk music and with this duo, we get it in buckets. But STOP. Don’t go away thinking that you will be miserable by listening to them because you won’t. You will marvel at the instrumentation, at the beauty and subtlety of the lyrics, and at Josienne’s voice.
I just love her voice. There is something very individual about it, yet at the same time, there are echoes of others who have passed this way before. Classically trained, her control is excellent and the ability to slide between notes can be breathtaking for the listener even though it is not for the singer.
As their recorded music has developed, so has the detail of production. Standards were set very high from the outset with both Josienne and Ben keeping all aspects – recording, editing, arranging – within their own milieu. This allows the artist to grow the various branches of their tree, to try things out and to look for ways and methods of expressing themselves that meet their creative needs and pleases the audience. Which eventually brings us back to the new album.
Seedlings All contains, as I have said, songs written by Josienne and here she lays herself open to the world saying that it exposes her “insecurities, fears of failure and inflated pride”. Part of this self-examination seems to be a response to the impact this chosen career has on aspects of her life and asking herself if it is all worth it. The opening track, Chicago brilliantly sets the scene, based on a real experience. Touring the US, and after a long drive, they turn up to do their gig in the Windy City, only to find there is no-one in the audience.
The other major development in this album is the distinctly jazzy feel to many of the numbers. This has an interesting effect on several of the songs, subtly changing the folky melancholia to something different. Tender Heart and Sad Day both have a very clear jazz vibe, a lot of it coming from the piano of Kit Downes. In the folk idiom, these may well take us back a few years in the duo’s history but they have developed. Things of No Use is the pinnacle of this movement. The drums and the backing vocals push the song into a bigger production, something that becomes more powerful.
And there I have it, what I was looking for at the start. The songs may be even more personal and reflective but Josienne and Ben demonstrate a great deal more emotional control and a great deal more fortitude through both the voice and musical arrangements. Their early work was full of frailty; now, on this album, there is a new maturity that is reflected in strength with, perhaps, more than a touch of grit. Josienne can now ask the question “Your tender heart pumping my blood round my body – and is that love?” without fearing the answer – whatever that may be. The melancholia is still there, the introspection and self-reflection survive, but the control has shifted.
UK Album Pre-Order: http://rtrecs.co/SeedlingsAll
Forthcoming Tour Dates:
Mar 14th – The Thornbury Theatre, Melbourne, Australia
Mar 16th – Mar 18th – Blue Mountains Music Festival, Katoomba, Australia
Mar 30th – Sage 2, Gateshead, UK
Mar 31st – Gullivers, Manchester, UK
Apr 4th – Cookie, Leicester, UK
Apr 5th – Portland Arms, Cambridge, UK
Apr 6th – Colston 2, Bristol, UK
Apr 7th – Clwb Ifor Bach, Cardiff, UK
Apr 8th – Boilerroom, Guildford, UK
Apr 10th – Arts Centre, Norwich, UK
Apr 11th – Komedia, Brighton, UK
May 2nd – Paper Dress Vintage, London, UK
photo credit: Jenna Foxton