(5 / 5)
If some music gives you chills, apparently you may have a unique brain, so says a scientific study I just read about. Don’t know about my brain, or even if I have one, but I do know that this British singer-songwriter’s voice triggers those chills in me. Her new album is something very special indeed. Trust me.
I have had the pleasure of covering Megan’s music before. Her solo releases and her work with the great UK funk band Brother Strut. She is a formidable British talent. Her third solo album “River” is hailed as her “most mature work yet” in the press blurb with the advance CD promo’, and I shall not dispute that assertion. She seamlessly blends acoustic and electronic ingredients, on an album whose dozen self-penned songs depicts her lifelong relationship with the rivers and seas that flow into her creativity. Its alt-folk essence is illuminated with shades of sophisticated jazz and low-key electronica.
The album, produced by regular collaborator Tom Excell, a drum and bass DJ and producer, is the third in a bespoke series that began after Megan won the 2009 ‘BBC Young Folk Award’, aged just 20, with her saxophonist playing brother Joe. Her debut Glastonbury Festival appearance followed the next year. 2011’s star-studded “Making Waves” and the 2015 set “Head Heart Hands” were widely applauded for a songwriting and performing maturity beyond her years.
Megan Rosemary Henwood turns 30 at the end of October. She has been performing since she was nine. As a teenager she sang solo and with her own band on the local circuit in the Henley-on-Thames area. At 18, she busked in Venice, Thailand, India, Malaysia, and Nepal – returning to the latter twice to record and perform with some of the country’s musicians. Her main song writing influence is Elliott Smith. She’s a self-confessed lover of language who sings words and phrases you just don’t hear every day. And who can turn a phrase such as the one in ‘Apples,’ in which the character regretfully “wipes the tears from her sleeve, it’s where her heart used to be.”
The energy for the entire record comes from the water. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, since her Dad makes boats. Specifically, the water that flows through Oxford, where this often nomadic soul has almost surprised herself by making her home since 2010. In one song, ‘The Dolly,’ it’s even the star. A lot of this album is based around Oxford and Cornwall, places that Megan resonates with. She’s a regular river swimmer, and grew up by the river, swimming in it, boating in it, looking at the sea. She is attracted to the calming, rejuvenating feeling of being submerged in water, and calls that part of her own survival process.
A genuine troubadour, her travels had her recording in Kathmandu, driving across Europe and Asia and becoming a “full-blown gypsy” for a while, in her own 1972 vintage Airstream caravan. She went to about 15-20 festivals and then settled in a field just outside Reading. The river on one side and the canal on the other.
She cut several demo versions of each song she wrote for this album, and then whittled them down to the final songs that made it, and one version they would record proper. Her music is given various labels, from folk to alt. folk to contemporary English folk to….well, it doesn’t really matter; because one man’s meat is another man’s fish and chips, or whatever that saying is. If you like it, who cares what it should be filed under. It comes from a place where she comes from, the folk world, but it’s not really a folk album.
It is a collection of beautiful songs and an even more beautiful voice, presented like a gleaming, brand new sports car, all shiny and welcoming. It’d be more fitting for it to be thought of as “singer-songwriter” and not any one specific genre. In the same way as the great Judie Tzuke called upon her many influences, and could have been filed under “pop” and “rock” and “folk” and all sorts. But in the end, she was simply bloody good at being a singer and a songwriter with some really great songs. Megan sits in that same territory and that same class/quality for me. No one else sounds like her.
“Join The Dots” opens the record and is a standout cut. She is a wee bit like a less bonkers and less theatrical Kate Bush here; creating a serene scene with sparse production – her mesmerising and calming voice doesn’t need pots, pans and the kitchen sink.
I was singing the chorus to track two, “Fresh Water”, many hours after first hearing it: my favourite cut of the record. Should be a single and plugged at BBC Radio 2. Joni Mitchell and Sally Barker vibes, on a superb piece of song writing. Infectious hook, the rippling acoustic guitar and bubbling bass line creates the perfect ambience. One of the songs of the year, for me.
A surprise pops up in the shape of a trumpet solo, which is funnily enough, the sole solo of any instrument on the entire record. But you will not miss another solo of any other instrument, at all. Jonny Enser calls it just right on his horn, and it moves the song into territory Burt Bacarach would be happy with. A horn solo shouldn’t work on this album, but it does. Apparently, a few eyebrows were raised at the suggestion of a trumpet on the track. But Megan’s demos featured trumpet already; albeit her doing a makeshift impression of one with her mouth! So Jonny came in from her brother’s band to do the honours for real.
She sends a postcard from her favourite place and where she lives now, Oxford, on “The Dolly”. A message to say despite being a roving soul, she will stay put in the City of Dreaming Spires and Morse country. Danny Thompson style double bass flavours add value. I do not have any players’ credits with the promo CD or the press information, but whoever plays bass on the album deserves much praise. On the first single, “Seventh”, the bass and acoustic guitar lock together, and there’s a smattering of organ low in the mix on this one. I really appreciate the production values on this track and on the entire record. The voice is King, or should I say Queen, and there’s never anything that gets in its way, but everything has a place and is in the right place. I get echoes of a softer PJ Harvey on this cut.
A McCartney-esque feel to “Apples” with shades of “Let It Be” in the melody and “Blackbird” in the structure. Clever use of strings later in the track. Her emotion stripped bare on “House On The Hill”, when she sings, “When you love someone as much as I love you, there’s an awful lot to lose”. I can relate to that sentiment, after a painful separation and divorce, and lots of time to to reflect. That’s what Megan’s songs will do; connect emotionally and affect many people. That’s her job as a songwriter, a job she does to the very, very, very best of her ability.
Another ear worm in the hook on the pretty “Rainbows”. Her vocal phrasing is immaculate on every one of the dozen cuts, especially “Peace Be The Alien”, and shows a rare gift. That word “pretty” comes to mind again on, “Oh Brother”, where she sings about her own sibling and their adventures on and by the water. A gentle and serene moment. The strings are fabulous. A standout track. “Used To Be So Kind” will make you think. “The Craftsman” is a gorgeous example of the song writing craft, and I smiled when she rhymes “exists” with “chest”, seamlessly. She goes for some very effective high end of her register a la Judy Collins. There’s nowhere to hide vocally with this sparse production, but with a weapon like her voice, she is very safe being exposed like this, anytime. Three minutes and 28 seconds of loveliness.
The album closes with “L’Appel du Vie”, (literal transaltion meaning: ‘the appeal of the life’) which kicks off with 49 seconds a capella. It’s a fine end to what I feel is a world class record – as good as anything on major labels coming from any female singer-songwriter right now.
Nothing is over-egged; in the arrangements, the production or the performances. Her vocal approach is so innate, so relaxed and quite intimate. Like she is singing just for you. All of the material is strong and sits together perfectly. To know she wrote all 12 songs on her own, is even more reason to admire Megan’s achievements here.
For me, there has been three GREAT female voices in British folk music in my lifetime: Sandy Denny, Maddie Prior and Sally Barker. Do not get me wrong; there are many, many more who really were/are superb, and of those, Lisbee Stainton stands out from today’s younger artists. But Ms Denny, Ms Prior and Ms Barker deserve the tag “the legendary voice of……..” for me. I can now add Ms Megan Henwood to that illustrious list, after hearing this masterpiece of a song collection. Truly.
Five great big fat stars, without hesitation. Singer-songwriter album of the year for me. Never mind this being tipped as a dead cert for the next BBC Folk Awards; let’s think much bigger. If you agree with my praise when you hear it, and you happen to know any of the Mercury Prize judges, give ‘ em your copy and I am sure Megan will replace it!
By Simon Redley
(2 / 5) ‘OK Zone’
(3 / 5) ‘Decent Zone’
(4 / 5) ‘Super Zone’
(5 / 5) ‘Awesome Zone’