Released 14 October 2016 via Rough Trade Records
These two young artists have frequently been accused of folk, and indeed have been taken into the bosom of that community, winning 2015’s best duo category in the BBC Folk Awards. But art of this quality cannot be contained by labels. And whilst their music is steeped in history, it draws as often on renaissance sources as it does on folk.
What sets them apart is the vocal delivery of Josienne Clarke. In guitarist and co-producer Ben Walker she has found the ideal foil, his subtle arrangements in perfect sync with her voice. These are art songs of the highest quality, albeit with folk stylings, accompanied by the cream of jazz, folk and classical players.
Weep You No More Sad Fountains (a 16th century lute ballad written by John Dowland) is typical. Opening with Walker’s acoustic guitar line, an understated snare implodes into the mix as John Parker’s bass sketches a subtle counter-melody that is eloquent, elegant and economical. Then, the piano of Mercury nominee Kit Downes emerges from the mix, like sun through fog.
The enigmatic Dawn of The Dark opens with a gentle trance grove – Portishead meets Gryphon – under a double-tracked vocal, as recorders, by Clarke herself, weave gentle baroque spells.
Early 20th century poet Ivor Gurney (referencing Nashe, Shakespeare and Fletcher) provide the words for Sleep, Clarke’s operetta styled vocals float over Walker’s simple guitar, brass underpinning some glorious modal shifts and Clarke’s voice soaring to its upper register. She claims not to have finished her classical education. Maybe she took as much as she could from her course, then followed her muse away from academia. Her control and support speak of training and endless hours of exercise.
Sometimes they try too hard to encompass too many influences. The Waning Crescent starts well but then slips into jazz-lite, Walker’s voice is always a joy, but the juxtaposition feels incongruous and they can stray too close to AOR. But these are minor foibles.
The wistful chamber folk of Sweet the Sorrow is framed by the cello of Jo Silverstone and viola of Anna Jenkins. Clarke is a subtle and effective lyricist with an eye for dramatic truth and delivers her plea to a departing lover without mawkish sentimentality. The ending is left hanging. Tell us Josienne! Did he come back to the light or is he lost in the dark?
Her skills are only ever used in the service of narrative, never for burnishing her ego. That gift of honest storytelling is what defines Clarke as an outstanding creative artist. She sets out her philosophy simply and without false modesty or bombast in the closing Light of Day.
“When I take to tell the tale
To turn the trick that tripped my tongue
It will be the sweetest sound the saddest soul has ever sung.”
The pair has recently completed a North American tour and start a series of U.K. dates in October, culminating in Shoreditch Town Hall on 26 October with a host of special guests. Their shows are highly recommended as, for all her wry self-deprecation, the passion and intensity of Clarke’s approach to her craft really has to be seen live.
Artist: Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker
Label: Rough Trade
Art-music of the highest quality, albeit with folk stylings, accompanied by the cream of jazz, folk and classical players. Clarke could sing the Argos catalogue in Klingon and make it sound beautiful.