Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman – Personae
I Scream Music UK – 9 March 2018
Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman have long been gaining awards (winners of ‘ Best Duo’ BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards 2016 & 2013) and gathering followers from within and beyond folk circles. Part of their appeal is their optics, presenting themselves as a contemporary cool couple playing folky acoustic music. You can see it on the album cover, the evergreen Kathryn and Sean nattily clad in stark black-and-red in front of a tempestuous sky.
And it’s clear from the title of the album that the pair have an understanding of the difference between what you present on the outside to what’s really happening under the surface… And Personae, their fifth full album together, is their most outwardly appealing yet. But doesn’t neglect to offer something deeper too.
The upbeat opening track, the traditional The Knight’s Ghost positively shimmers with Kathryn’s captivating vocals, Sean’s strident guitar and assured backing vocals from Sam Kelly. Lakeman also produces the album, giving it gloss and vigour. Still this dark tale of death and spectral encounters – in a sparkling arrangement by the duo – is reminiscent of early Steeleye.
The mood switches on the second track, Independence – a touching song about a child’s growing maturity and tentative steps of separation from her mother. You can clearly hear in this soaring performance why Robert’s voice is oft, and favourably, compared to Kate Bush.
Tribute of Hands has a vibe more like the opener, but this time it’s a Lakeman/Roberts original – a story song about the founding of Antwerp. As well as being a fascinating tale, the whistle/guitar interlude pleasingly reminded me of Clannad’s score for the classic 80s adventure TV show, Robin of Sherwood. Nothing’s forgotten. It’s about as accessible as contemporary folk can get while keeping its heart, so let’s hope this song’s destined for the Radio 2 playlist… it won’t frighten the horses, and may bring a few more folks into the fold.
I first saw Kathryn sing Sandy Denny’s towering song Solo in June 2015 when she was part of the re-assembled Fotheringay. It was a stunning gig at Under the Bridge in London, and Robert’s piano-led performance was one of the many highlights, despite it not being part of the original band’s repertoire. I’m glad that although she’s left the group, Kathryn’s kept a bit of Denny with her. Covering Sandy’s songs is always a minefield because her legacy is so lauded. But the pair pull it off magnificently. And you’ll have to pay for the album to hear it, as it’s mysteriously missing from the streaming Spotify version.
The Poison Club is a jaunty track and while expertly played and sung doesn’t have the same appeal as the other offerings on the album. Things pick up considerably with Seasons. Another showcase for Robert’s astonishing vocals, equal kudos should be shared with Lakeman’s precise and quietly-virtuosic picking, his guitar work throughout is bang-on.
The Street of the Cats Who Dance is another song about a continental European city, this time St Malo, France. A piano and guitar-led track, with Kathryn’s multi-tracked harmony vocals providing a poppy/contemporary sheen. Then it’s back to trad with a genteel bump for Boney’s Defeat, another stunning vocal from a multi-tracked Roberts. Where Lakeman shines here is in the production, expertly capturing his partner’s every breath and sigh.
Old, Old, Old follows, another original composition on a quirky subject. Still, on St Helena where we washed up on the last track, this one’s about Jonathan, a giant tortoise believed to be the world’s oldest living land animal. Belying its South Atlantic Ocean setting, it has a country vibe which Sean’s brother Seth enhances with a bit of hoedown fiddle.
Goddess Made Flesh is a lament for a lost artist who died far too young. Whoever they had in mind while writing the lyrics, there is an unmistakable ghost of Sandy Denny in the tune, arrangement and delivery. For me, it brings to mind Denny’s own song, Next Time Around, Sandy’s tribute to her former boyfriend Jackson C Frank.
Through their last two albums, Hidden People and Tomorrow Will Follow Today, Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman have steadily grown in reputation and admiration. And they have reached a peak with Personae, a fine and accessible album on the surface but built on firm foundations of skilful songwriting, world-class arrangements and performances underneath. A rare pairing of style and substance, much like the duo themselves.
Personae is out now. Order via Proper Music (Ltd Autographed Edition)
Kathryn and Sean are on tour now, visit their website here for full details: