Friday 16 March 2012, 14:23
I don't know anything about folk music, not really. I know I'm not much inspired by the folk stereotype: someone lost in the past with a finger in their ear. But using stereotypes to judge music is asinine: you could consign all country and western into a bin marked Billy Ray Cyrus, and all dubstep into a skip with Skrillex's name daubed on the side in a very stupid haircut.
Julie Murphy is a folk musician, but that four-letter word - dragging hundreds of years of culture and social history behind it - doesn't cover half of Julie's scope. Given four times the space I have here, I'd be hard pushed to scratch at the surface of the rest. Every one of the songs she sings has a story to it, with roots in her life, and a whole network of roots stretching back into pasts almost forgotten. Importantly, all of those roots link to the song flowering in that moment, on that stage, in front of we, the fortunate audience.
So we become part of that song's story, too.
It's quite a naturalistic feat. Organically inclusive - and all the more powerful for it.
I come to Theatr Clwyd with my own dragnet of memories. I kissed my first love in the corridor next to this room. I played my second ever gig on that stage. We hosted a brilliant Radio Wales Music Day concert here last March. This venue has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. I'm on Proustian overload. If someone started baking a cake with a half-remembered scent, my long-term memory would explode in a cloud of luminous spores.
I'm here with my daughter Ava. She's nine. I'm not trying to impose music on her, but I do dearly want her to witness the magic of live, human performance, those distinct from dance routines, pyrotechnics and Auto Tune. I couldn't have brought her to see anyone better.
My mum and dad have come along, too. Ava and I got in on the guest list, I let my mum and dad pay; to assuage my freeloader guilt, probably.
My first experience of 'folk' music would have been my dad's early Bob Dylan albums. When I started listening to them in the late 70s/early 80s, they didn't sound like historical artefacts. They sounded scary, formidable, alive and prescient. Dylan's please-yourself voice had a mischievous truth to it. I pretended I didn't like it. I complained every time A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall or It's Alright Ma soundtracked Sunday tea (it was never ready in time for lunch). But I soaked it all up with silica gel ears.
This isn't much like my usual kind of gig. No one's outside smoking like their life depended on it. The bus passes in inside pockets aren't taking the audience to campuses. The moment Julie walks to the piano a pristine silence cloaks the room. There isn't a single jerk at the bar half spilling a pint of Guinness, while being boorish down a mobile phone. No one - not a single solitary person - watches the ensuing concert on an iPhone screen. Can you imagine that?
Julie begins by telling us about Essex Song. She's from Essex originally. Old maps showed her where the fields were, where the farriers and blacksmiths lived; the new maps are anonymous suburban sprawl. Things had been built on and forgotten. Folk music's philosophy is a lot about not forgetting stuff. Julie's art is in taking these things out from behind glass and breathing now and heart into them. The loss of geographical history in Essex Song is a metaphor for that ache of being that permeates every heart. It's sort of what makes us human.
Although I don't have proof, I don't think cows get maudlin looking at old maps.
It's a beautiful opening. Julie's much lauded voice is lauded for good reason. We hear so many people sing in accents and mannerisms like viruses, it's an awe-inspiring shock to hear someone sing so naturally, with so much truth. Julie Murphy could sing you the News Of The World and you'd believe every word. Murdoch missed a trick, there. Julie wouldn't have been for the buying, though. You could bet your firstborn on that.
My firstborn is faring well. She is entranced. Partly this is because Julie is accompanied by Ceri Jones. Ceri is a harpist and trombonist of Canadian and Ukrainian heritage. Ava has been learning the euphonium in school. Her best friend Mimi is learning the trombone.
"...But she doesn't sound like that."
I bet she doesn't.
Ceri's brass and harp are subtle and wonderful embellishments. They help alleviate some of the gravitas of the songs. An unaccompanied piano - regardless of who's playing it, Les Dawson excepted - playing minor chords can get lost in its own profundity. Not here, though.
Julie tells us how these songs grew out of a piano hitherto abandoned in a corner of her house. How the notes that became songs filled the gap left by her flown children. How hanging out in the kitchen with music making friends baked her a new album without her having to pay much attention to ingredients and instructions.
The next lyric repeats the line: "You are flown from me, but I'm always with you" - an unadorned, heartfelt and moving truth that exemplifies Julie's economic poetry. Quite what she'd make of my blather, I don't want to know...
We hear Two Sisters, a traditional song about one sister murdering another, but, Julie proclaims gleefully, "it has a happy ending..."
As far as I can tell, that happy ending involves the body of the dead sister being fashioned into a fiddle that then gets taken to the murderous sister's wedding, where it (the fiddle) tells the assembled guests what really happened, a plot that makes EastEnders look like In The Night Garden.
Julie finishes the first of her two sets with The Fountain (from her excellent new album A Quiet House). It's a wonderful song - a starkly beautiful Welsh cousin of Joni Mitchell's Carey, all rooted in fraying - but increasingly precious - memories of Padua. Imagine Laurel Canyon under occluded skies and you have it.
Better still, invest in a copy of the album. You'll be hard pressed to find anything more moving, plaintive or intuitive, from any era or genre.
Ava is way past her bedtime, so - with great reluctance - we drift home during the interval, our hearts filled with Julie's music and a hundred new stories.
Julie Murphy launches the new album with a webcast from www.juliemurphymusic.com on Monday 16 April at 8.30pm.