Pat reviews Wexford-based multi-instrumentalist Jennifer Byrne’s new album Suitcase, and discovers a joyful album that goes far beyond the lazy description of “contemporary folk”.
Jennifer Byrne is a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who originally hails from Gorey in Co. Wexford, but who has lived most of her life in the environs of her beloved Curracloe Beach. Perhaps better known locally as a teacher of piano, flute and guitar, she also has a Degree in Ethnomusicology, and is expert at playing various indigenous African instruments, including the East African thumb piano, the mbira.
This range of talents and interests is self-evident in Jennifer’s work. Some years ago she and I discussed starting a vocal folk group together. What had me interested from the start was Jennifer’s desire to eschew folk norms; to cherry pick the very best of Irish and British folk, along with elements of other Celtic and World musics. Jennifer didn’t simply want to ape or please traditionalists, her desire was to showcase the best of each culture. And so, if she sung an English folk tune with an Irish accent, or neglected to put in the expected vocal lilts and tilts, that didn’t bother her. What did was the visceral portrayal of the best of what folk, wherever it came from, had to offer. So if that included singing Zimbabwean rebel songs, or Breton quasi-religious dirges in the same set, then so be it.
Suitcase shows a similar gentle disregard for the norms and conventions of traditional folk recordings. And I use the word “folk” in its broadest of meanings. This album could be casually cast into the lazy genre of “contemporary folk”, but it is much broader than that. The musicians on the album certainly consist of the very best of Irish and British folk musicians, but it still retains an overall “Irish” feel to it. But beyond that again, the occasional interspersing of other less traditional elements, like woodwind, organ and lazy jazz-type shuffle drumming, brings the album a broader appeal. This isn’t a folk album per se, it is a Jennifer Byrne album, and sod the rules.
And then there is Jennifer’s singing. Many years ago I needed a singer for a recording that I was working on. Someone mentioned that Jennifer had a great voice (which was a complete surprise) so I asked her to help. And she certainly did. Help out. And have a great voice.
I recently had the pleasure of recording Jennifer again, and was delighted to learn that her voice had actually improved over the years. She is one of those rare one take wonders, imbuing her recordings with genuine emotion while also maintaining an almost robot-like precision; we did just three takes, the second two being “just in case”-ers.
The story of Suitcase is a long one. Jennifer had been humming tunes for some time. Frequently she subjected her beloved dog Polo to hours of these fledgling ditties while she teased out the lyrics and melodies. Determined to develop her song-writing skills further she took part in some singer-songwriter workshops in the U.K. with Boo Hewerdine. Boo is better known on these shores for his long association with former Fairground Attraction front-woman, Eddi Reader. However, within the U.K., Boo is justifiably recognised as “one of Britain’s most consistently accomplished songwriters”.
The meeting between Jennifer and Boo was fortunate. With Boo’s help and encouragement Jennifer entered the studio in 2011 and began work on what was to become Suitcase. Jennifer brought some of her own tunes to the table, Boo some of his, and together they went on to write more.
During the recording process Boo contacted some of his musical chums to join the fray. However these were not “merely” friends and session musicians; there was Kris Drever, member of folk trio Lau, fiddler and former Kate Rusby wingman John McCusker, piano accordion player and fellow Irishman Alan Kelly and American guitarist and singer-songwriter Brook Williams, among many others. And the recordings took place from Glasgow to Cambridge to Berlin, all under the stewardship of engineer Mark Freegard, himself no stranger to working with class acts.
The album opens with Suitcase of Paper, written by Jennifer, and recounts the journey of a young émigré to pastures new. The song starts with a full, round strumming guitar and one of the rare appearances by Jennifer as an instrumentalist on the album, playing piano. This is an omission I sincerely hope that this talented musician will redress in the future.
The title of the song refers to the cheap cardboard suitcase many young travellers had to use on their travels abroad. Jennifer’s voice is assured and yet slightly vulnerable, matching perfectly the heart-rending story of a young man’s travails adjusting to his harsh new life. When the rest of the band join in, it becomes a full, joyful wee tune. There is nothing superfluous in this recording; it is exceptionally well-balanced on all levels, and a wonderful song with which to open any album.
The next track, Safe, is the highlight of the album – it is glorious. For a start, anyone with even a passing knowledge of drumming will appreciate Roy Dodds beautiful shuffle playing. This is an emotive love song, written by Jennifer and Boo, which also features some of my favourite lyrics of the album, and a gorgeous set of woodwind arrangements.
Proud Molly is the first proper “folkie” track of the album, and recounts the story of a rather arrogant young woman and her hapless gentleman suitor. Written by Jennifer, with a deftly played accordion part underpinning the track, it is a lively, toe-tapping number. It is more than obvious why this song is a firm live favourite.
The following track is Stock Still, (sighs). Oh, man! Jennifer, what a writer, what a song. Slow and mournful, both love-lorn and love-filled at a turn. This track tears at my heart something rotten. It is lovely. Look, feck the analysis, go listen to it.
Ellis Island Blues, written by Boo, adds another life story to the rich tapestry of characters that this album introduces us to, featuring another disenfranchised cardboard case carrier on his journey to the new world. Jennifer embraces a wee smidgen of Americana here, with some beautifully subtle lap steel guitar playing broadening the arrangement nicely.
The simple and effective Thou Ling’ring Star follows. The song builds gradually, from guitar, to harmonium, to accordion, and all tied together with an understated performance by Jennifer.
At The Foot At Young Mountain is another example of how Jennifer eschews any particular folk idiom. The is a traditional Southern American folk song delivered in a quintessentially “Jennifer” fashion, which why this addition to the eclectic mix of songs already on the album sits absolutely easily.
And on that note, Wild Wild Wind. Hmmm. It is so important to get the sequence of tracks right on any album. When I first received a demo of Suitcase from Jennifer I quickly realised that the track listing may not have been as effective as it could be. Then followed a number of paranoia filled days while I attempted to make good on an offer to rearrange the tracks more effectively.
Thankfully my suggestions, with one exception, were accepted. However the placing of Wild Wild Wind on the album presented a bit of a problem. Despite the musical diversity of Suitcase, this track strays a little far from the style of the rest of the songs. Why not leave it off then? Well, because it is a bloody marvellous track is why. I eventually stuck it in the uneasy niche of track 8, even though it thoroughly deserves a higher placing.
Written by Boo and Peter Winckles, I love everything about this gentle song, from the deceptively simple lyrics to the little percussive touches. One of four potential single tracks on this album.
We return to Ireland via an old Dubliners stalwart I Must Away Now. Perhaps the most “folk”-like track of the album. Moorlough Shore then follows. The simplicity of this track showcases Jennifer’s light, precise, soulful voice admirably and bears several listens, and then several more. Lovely stuff.
And then we come to the last track of the album, Strawberry Hills, a simple, yet beguiling song that is the only real production misstep of the entire album. You can’t help feeling there’s far more to gleaned from this engaging story of an old man mourning the passing of the love of his life. It deserves a looser arrangement I feel, perhaps with more dynamic range, but it is a fine, fine song nonetheless.
Throughout the album Jennifer’s singing is precise and evocative, drawing emotion from the material and the listener to the songs. This is all the more amazing considering the comparatively limited amount of time Jennifer had previously spent performing, in or out of the studio.
The album is a case study in good, solid sound engineering, having the absolutely correct level of raw, intentionally unpolished, acoustic feel and use of space. The vocals are prominent and clear and the instruments support and enhance the music.
There are flaws, but they are minor; there is notable hiss on the beginning of the opening track, and mastering of the album was not as effective as it could have been, with the music “disappearing” and sounding vaguely “muddy” at low playing levels on smaller speakers.
The decision to embrace a wider “folk” style on Suitcase was absolutely correct. In fact, parts of the album stray very much into the more mainstream. This is not a bad thing. I do feel that a wider audience is precisely what Jennifer deserves.
The movement between Irish and British and American folk styles is achieved with ease. This is less of a strict “folk” or “contemporary folk” album, and more about the sounds that Jennifer loves. Some purists may baulk at this, I really don’t know, but for this musician with only a passing interest in folk, it works, and works very well.
Overall Suitcase is a thoughtfully and sympathetically produced, exceptionally musical and engaging album. The musicianship is flawless, the arrangements support the music and the playing is sparse and effective. The songs are well written, and delivered with evident love and joy. I am going to stick my reputation (such as it is) on the line here and suggest that Suitcase is simply one of the best albums you are likely to hear by a new Irish artist this year. But don’t take my word for it, buy it. Buy it, buy it, buy it, buy it, buy it.
(This article first appeared in The Wexfordian in July 2013, and is reprinted with kind permission.)