First Impression : Kitty Macfarlane
The Somerset Levels are fragile edgelands extending into the heart of an ancient rural county. Finally drained by Dutch engineers in the seventeenth century, a vast expanse of flat farmland is now maintained, much of it otherwise lying below the reach of a spring high tide, by pumps, ditches and slow-motion rivers - a place haunted by past and future floods.
Raised in Milverton, Kitty Macfarlane is a folksinger with a strong attachment to the Levels, fully reflected in her songwriting. This, combined with a notable poetic gift, gives her work a rare depth.
She has so far released an EP and an album. Both are remarkable. The first, Tide & Time (released in 2016), is a concise set of five songs - opening with two beautifully phrased a cappella verses of Wrecking Days, and closing with a sublime cover of Tim Buckley’s Song to The Siren.
Macfarlane’s 2018 debut album, Namer of Clouds, further defines her serenity and grace.
Empathetically produced by Sam Kelly and Jacob Stoney, the album holds eleven tracks, nine self-penned; each is used by the singer songwriter to emotively sketch deeply felt stories and connections.
Such is the maturity of her writing it would be easy to mistakenly assume that a song she has composed is derived from a hard-worn traditional canon, or is a lost musical artifact from the pen of a famous seventies folk icon.
As if to underline this impression, Namer of Clouds has an especially strong opening compositional trio.
First there is Starling Song, an atmospheric, lyrical tone-poem about a murmuration of birds, as witnessed on Avalon Marsh at the Somerset Level’s heart. The title track then offers instruments dancing lightly around the singer's voice, as if animated by her soulfulness. The third song, Seventeen, with its touching theme of innocence slipping away, is intoxicating as it creates sympathetic affect in the listener.
There are plenty of other standout moments.
Sea Silk is perhaps the keystone of the album - starting with the voice of Chiara Vigo, the last silk seamstress on a small island off Sardinia, the song finds inspiration in her craft and its heritage. Macfarlane read about Vigo, and travelled (successfully) to find her on impulse, with Sam Kelly and his field recorder in tow. The track the pair then composed from the trip is a fitting celebration of a dedicated life.
An eery, minimal arrangement of Morgan’s Pantry is a high impact piece, before Glass Eel evocatively maps out the mystery of the migration of the European eel 4,000 miles from the Saragossa Sea to Western Europe. The subject matter of this song is well chosen - both to make a point and to reinforce a sense of place; if you want to see a hint of the frailty, hidden magic and complexity of ecosystems, the European eel's life cycle offers it, whilst Somerset has its own long history of elver fishing, on late winter and spring nights along the banks of the Parrett and the Tone.
Wrecking Days, now underpinned by electric guitar, re-appears in a harder-edged form than first heard on Tide & Time, and a setting of the rhythmic Gerard Manley Hopkins poem Inversnaid, that draws out the piece’s pastoral heart, closes the set.
Heard in one sitting, with its overlapping moods and preoccupations, Namer of Clouds is utterly absorbing and cinematic.
In a still image used to promote the album Macfarlane stands alone in front of a Levels landscape - a farm track stretching out in front of her, ditches, and the partly flooded fields beyond them, flanking it. She looks back to the camera over her shoulder, and seems to be tempting you to step with her into a wilder, older world. For once, this is not a shallow marketing conceit, but a genuine invitation.
Kitty Macfarlane is one of the purest, most arresting voices to emerge in the last decade, made even more compelling by what she has to say, however softly, about the worlds she knows or chooses to explore.