12th December 2020:
The music world celebrated Joan Baez’s 80th birthday a few days ago and the deluge of her songs that flooded the music media started me thinking about the huge influence that folk music had on my early years. With an avid folk fan as a big brother, I grew up with a healthy dose of Joan Baez, Buffy Sainte Marie, Donovan and early Simon & Garfunkel. It is therefore no wonder that I still get excited when finding a brilliant folk artist I haven’t heard before.
I came across Allysen Callery thanks to someone’s very interesting personal list of ‘top albums of 2020’ that popped up in my newsfeed and something told me to follow the link. I’m glad I did. Her style has been referred to as Ghost Folk and that is also the name of her 6th studio album that we will take a look at later. Today I am featuring a few tracks spanning her career and a bit of background to this mesmerising singer/songwriter.
Critic’s often comment that she has a voice similar to that of Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny and a writing style that resembles Nick Drake. A winning combination! Allysen was also dubbed the ‘Tim Burton of Folk’ by composer/songwriter John O’Hara for her dark lyrics and gentle style of playing.
The Rhode Island-born self-taught musician was influenced by her parent’s British folk-revival records of the 60s and 70s from which she developed her intricate finger-picking style. She released her first two albums independently; Hopey in 2007 and Hobgoblin’s Hat in 2010. They both reached an international audience thanks to the British station, Folk Radio UK and Australia’s Sideways through Sound.
Oliver di Place, the noted music journalist and blogger, poetically said of Allysen “It was said that a bard could cast a spell with just his harp playing and his voice, and the spell would transport the listeners to another world while the song played. Most, but not all, of the listeners would make it back when the song ended. Callery displays that kind of otherworldly ability”
I’m starting with the song from the Hobgoblin’s Hat album. The album is named in tribute to her favourite Finnish author Tove Jansson, creator of the children’s book and comic series, Moomins. The title track recalls childhood games, imagination, discoveries and changes, all wrapped up in sublime lyrics that paint an image of a dusky summer’s evening. Here’s ‘Hobgoblin’s Hat’.
When Allysen’s Winter Island EP was released in 2013 it sold out within the first month making it a valuable collector’s item. The critics were stunned, and Marissa Nadler stated in her review for the series We Listen for You, “Winter Island is a record that could proudly sit tall next to Sibylle Baier’s Colour Green and Leonard Cohen’s Songs from a Room. It is impossibly delicate, gorgeously written, and emanates a timeless quality.”
She followed this with her second EP, The Summer Place, which along with Winter Island, were released by Berlin-based Woodland Recordings. In addition to this, the vinyl-only record label, JellyFant, pressed the two EPs into a single album. The two separate releases work perfectly as a cohesive full album, yet again showing this songwriter’s talent.
In 2014 she played multiple showcases at the SXSW (South by Southwest) Festival and was ranked highly by The Washington Post. Out of 1500 acts she made into the Top 40 of NPR‘s Bob Boilen’s ‘Intriguing unknown artists’ list.
Her growing popularity saw her tour extensively around Europe, especially Germany and Switzerland where she has a huge fan base. Closer to home she is often seen playing the major clubs and venues coast-to-coast. March 2016 saw a new album, The Song the Songbird Sings, hit the shelves. Listen with your eyes closed and you are transported on a journey propelled by dancing fingers and a voice straight from Tolkien’s Lothlorian. Just magical.
For today’s second track I have chosen a mysterious love song with a slightly bluesy feel from this album. Here’s Bluest Bird.
Allysen likes to say that she writes ‘quiet music for a loud word’, which is the perfect description for the term Ghost Folk. Something about her compels music writers to lean toward the poetic. One of the best examples comes from Folk Radio UK that wrote; “Allysen’s music often seems familiar, from somewhere you can’t quite place, the ghost of a song you might know perhaps, and also in that she sings almost exclusively in a tender, hushed tone, if not exactly pianissimo. However, this doesn’t mean her music lacks expression, or that her writing lacks substance. Her music doesn’t need to shout or force an entry into your mind; it casts its oblique spell without overwhelming the sound picture”. I couldn’t put it better myself – so I didn’t!
Her latest album, Ghost Music, is a song cycle of sorts. Ardent fans suggest downloading her lyrics from her official website to better understand and appreciate her complexity as a wordsmith. The defining character of “Ghost Folk” is reflected in the elusive, not quite present feeling of the album. Allysen dedicated this new release to “The November Man, Nick Drake” (with whom she feels a loner kinship), “and to all the quiet ones”. Indeed, the spirit of Nick Drake can be felt throughout the whole record.
I’m closing today’s feature with a song that is vaguely reminiscent of another favourite folk artist of mine, Bert Jansch, Our Lady of the Highway.
In conclusion, I am returning to Folk Radio UK who said of this new album; “Ghost Folk casts a mesmerising spell, impossible to resist, and yet also conjures subtleties and substance that demand your closer investigation (you need to give it more than its purely linear time to make its mark). Since, for all the shape-shifting nature of the music, there’s a discrete, and consistent, quality to the sound-world Allysen inhabits”. Catch you soon.
The Loving the Music mini-features are written and compiled by me to support Loving the Music’s Facebook page and group. Join the community for regular themed three-part posts that do do more than just share a song.
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Words © Andrew Knapp 2021