Ruth Notman & Sam Kelly : Changeable Heart15th March 2019 : Pure Records
Changeable Heart is an album of magnificent and bewitching contemporary folk.
It came about by chance, a spark of memory and connection through social media, a long decade after Ruth Notman had last released music under her own name - 2009's The Life Of Lilly (at the time convincingly noted as, "Further persuasive evidence of Ruth's stature, personality and presence" by fRoots). Her debut two years earlier, Threads, had caused quite a stir too - with Mojo, The Guardian and The Independent all bearing witness to her remarkable talent.
Over Notman's musically fallow ten years, in another part of the country, Sam Kelly was building an energised career with a set of stellar folk-rooted collaborations. An unlikely new duo then - but ask, and Ruth is happy to explain how Changeable Heart flowed from a simple digital act,
"At the time we connected I wasn't doing much - I was in the middle of my medical science degree (she is training to be a physician's associate). I never intended to set my music aside for so long, it just seemed to have petered out. I was tremendously busy!"
"I had heard Sam on the BBC Folk Awards when he won the Horizons Award (2016) and I just followed him out of interest on Twitter - I got a message back from him the next day... two months later he got in touch to see if I had time to sing a song with him, and that is how it all started."
As unexpected as the development was, it brought delight,
"I was ridiculously excited! That he contacted me and to have the chance to get back to folk music."
The creative relationship grew rapidly. A trip to Cecil Sharp House directly led to the discovery of a couple of the traditional songs that have made the album, a new approach for two musicians used to learning by rote, and a pair of covers were quickly identified as well, as Ruth explained,
"We spent a couple of evenings playing musical ping-pong - alternately batting songs at each other until we settled on the final two."
The album opens with a beguiling take on the English folk song Bold Fisherman, before the majesty of its title track, which the duo wrote together. Changeable Heart sways and dances from the moment Notman's vocal answers Sam Kelly's opening verse; it's definitely folk-pop - but with an echo of the irresistible magic and lilt Kirsty MacColl brought to the form; as the song soars to a celebratory close, it is hard not to soar with it.
Producer Damien O'Kane's banjo then drives the farcical narrative of The Cunning Cobbler, before Ruth's lead on Caw the Yowes offers the clear keystone of the set; a bucolic love song from a poem by Isabel Pagan, collected by Robert Burns, here with the verses rhapsodically swapped between Notman (the shepherdess) and Kelly (the shepherd) - the former's piano equally in sympathy with the latter's guitar.
Sam Kelly takes lead vocals on Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill and My Lagan Love, offering wistful then yearning arrangements of traditional love songs; My Lagan Love more spectacularly effective with each repeat listen.
Notman's self-penned As You Find Your Way Home matches their impact; written during the album's recording, it is a tender song of parting that demonstrates definitively the full maturity now found in her voice and in her writing, the fulfillment of youthful promise.
A sprightly Young Brian of the Sussex Wold presages the two covers that close the album, Ewan MacColl's School Days Over (a melancholy mediation on the start of miners' working lives, given all its rightful pathos by Notman's reading) and Paul Brady's anti-war song The Island, with vocal duties shared vividly between the duo.
In conversation there's a warmth to Ruth Notman, and that is reflected in the tone of the album; it's not just her though, Changeable Heart is the sound of three people (Damien O'Kane's chef de cuisine role is as vital as those of the front of house duo) spending time in a creative flow for the joy of it. Notman readily acknowledges the imprint O'Kane has left on the songs,
"It was hugely different to how I have recorded music in the past - he (O'Kane) is very inclusive, he takes on board everyone's input. Very collaborative - but at the same time he has his own identity and style which is wonderful to observe ... and is the thread that ties the album together."
Notman and Kelly's voices go together as bread goes with butter, as Morecambe needed Wise and as Led makes most sense with Zeppelin; but most of all, whatever role chance played in its conception, for Ruth Notman Changeable Heart is an exquisite return to folk music, where she forever belongs.
More : Website & Tour Dates