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Zoe Mulford: Small Brown Birds (Azalea City Recordings) Out now




4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)




Highly recommended roots and folk album from American singer songwriter Zoe Mulford, now based in the North of England. Apt for these trying global times; the themes of this batch of songs on her fifth album, is seeking joy in the midst of hard times.

The songs touch on wintry themes with compassion, honesty and sometimes wit; tracing a journey from sadness to hope and from winter to spring. The dozen cuts, including two covers, showcase Zoe’s crystal clear vocal delivery, her talents on claw-hammer banjo and resonant guitar.

Zoe has been compared to Joan Baez as regards her story telling focused songwriting and nonlaboured vocal style. For my ears; here Zoe Mulford does Zoe Mulford. She covers The Red Clay Ramblers’ sea shanty, “The Queen Of Skye” penned by Jack Herrick, in fine style. She ably tackles the trad’ American tune “Frosty Morning”.

One of my favourite Beatles’ songs, “Blackbird,” which always gives me a lump in my throat and misty eyes for some reason – and more tears if played badly by a guitarist or singer – is a gem here with Zoe’s sensitive rendition, where the banjo adds unique value.

10 of the 12 are Zoe’s originals. Perhaps the one that made the most impact with me, as a piece of fine song writing craft and for the tight fit for Zoe the artist, is “The President Sang Amazing Grace”, which tells the horrific true story of the 2015 AME church shooting in Charleston, and President Obama’s eulogy for those who lost their lives.

An emotionally charged lyric and performance, of a song which Joan Baez has covered. Zoe got a message from Joan’s manager to tell her that Joan heard the song on the radio, and loved it, and chose to record it for her latest album.

Joan has been performing it live for a while and won a standing ovation with it at one charity concert. Zoe is clearly thrilled, and as Joan is one of her musical inspirations and was in her head when she began to learn guitar and sing at a young age, it was doubly delightful news. No surprise to me; it is a wonderfully crafted song and deserves global attention. I doubt that will be the only time it gets covered by another artist.

The new record, recorded in Yorkshire and a handful of studios in the US, centres on her collaboration with mega-talented English fiddler and mandolin player Tom Kitching. A high energy player in the style of the late Dave Swarbrick, and a ‘star’ in his own right from this outing. But the two blend well together and create a winning team.

The core band here features percussionist Sam McEvoy and Philadelphia’s Ken Pendergast on upright bass. Guests include Pat Wictor on harmony vocals,  Bob Beach on harmonica and Michael G. Ronstadt on cello. There’s also players who provide piano, tin whistle and ukulele. The eight piece “Back Porch Choir” chip in on the rousing closing track, “Won’t You Come On In?” Zoe plays spoons on the song “February Thunder”, recorder on “Snow On The Junkyard” and piano on “The President Sang Amazing Grace”.

Raised near Philadelphia, Zoe took up the guitar and fell in love with the banjo during a twelve-year stint in Durham, North Carolina. Four years in Washington, DC introduced her to the community of contemporary songwriters, including her label-mates at the Azalea City Recordings cooperative. She released her first album in 2003, and then 2006, 2009 and 2013.

In 2006, she moved to the north of England. She now divides her time between Philadelphia, PA and Manchester, UK and tours on both sides of the Atlantic. She was out on tour here in January and is due back on the road in April and May. Her songs have been covered by an array of artists including Rhiannon Giddens (with Gaelwynd).

Zoe and this lovely album are well worth discovering if you have yet to make her acquaintance. Her music does not confine itself to the folk label entirely; think “very fine singer songwriter who writes beautiful songs and has a golden voice”, “and forget labels for a minute. Put down your iPhone, your tablet and all your other gadgets, turn off the wide screen TV, sit down, chill out and let the sweet music wash over you. Musical detox, if you like…

I can tell you, dear readers, that in addition to music, Zoe likes farmer’s markets, children’s books, martial arts movies, and cooking with lots of garlic. So with the latter revelation in mind; she may not have too many people wanting to get up close and personal with her after a gig, but if you spin her new record, I promise you cannot smell it!


By Simon Redley




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