Graham Reid | | 2 min read
Variously described as "new folk", "alt.folk, "a troubadour" and likened to both Nick Cave and Nick Drake, Rob St John -- born in Lancashire, longtime musician in Edinburgh and latterly of Oxford -- is also a noted writer on ecological and environmental matters.
But it is his dark folk, especially that on his debut album Weald released a year ago -- which evokes landscapes and states of mind in relation to the geography of northern Britain -- that bridges the worlds of mind, heart and soul.
Although crafted in a solitary manner -- one man, one guitar -- in locations in Cambridge (a kitchen), Oxford (St Michael's Church) and Edinburgh (a house), Weald steps past the limitations of that aesthetic in songs and music which are wide-screen, full of flourish and utterly engaging. It comes with colourings from musical saw, harmonium, other singers and fiddle.
The piece Sargasso Sea rides an unusual guitar tuning and a disconcerting ambient backdrop which suits the tone and theme of that strange location in the Atlantic; Stainsforth Force (a real place, a waterfall) evokes an unnerving Great Outdoors through sonic effects and what seem to be found sound; Domino (which invites those Nick Cave/Bad Seeds references) is shaped by distortion and samples from field recordings; Emma's Dance is finger-picking Anglofolk (cue Nick Drake/Bert Jansch et al comparisons); the mysterious final track Empty House floats weightlessly before being grounded by ghostly voices and what sounds like a small secret door closing at the end . . .
The result is an album which creaks with life, like conversations held in cold rooms or outside the barn door. It feels real -- and about real people and places -- and Joe Skrebels of the online magazine This is Fake DIY commented, "It’s tempting to class Weald as a folk album -- St. John himself admits to a fascination with rural British physical and cultural landscapes, the figurative realm of so much traditional music -– but to do so would be to miss so much of what makes this such a captivating listen".
What makes the album so captivating is how St John inhabits the songs, brings a sense of location and identification with people and places, and how it sidesteps expectation of what the label "singer-songwriter" has come to mean.
This isn't bedroom mope or self-centred ruminations but something which reaches more widely, and is sometimes closer to Leonard Cohen's refined poetics than much else in Anglofolk.
"I grew up in a tiny, bleak valley between the hills and the half-derelict factories of East Lancashire," says St John.
"I’m fascinated by the shifting communities here, the stories of witch trials, the half-neglected anti-pastoral countryside, driven past on a motorway to somewhere else: the ‘darkened rooms and deserted villages’.
"Weald is a fascinating word, emerging out of Teutonic language to form a whole host of words meaning ‘wild’, ‘wooded’ and ‘dangerous’.
"Ironically, perhaps, it’s now morphed into a description of the most manicured and middle-Englander parts of our country, which made it a pretty apt word to sum up the LP’s themes".
And yes, while you can download Weald (here) and it has just been re-released on CD, it also came as a gatefold sleeve vinyl LP (since sold out). Of course it would.
You might also imagine it on 78rpm also, playing its strange and spectral music across generations and through time.