NANCY KERR - INSTAR
LCM ALBUM OF THE WEEK
Release Date: 16th September, 2016
Location: Sheffield, UK
Band: Nancy Kerr (Vocals, Violin, Viola, Acoustic & Electric Guitar), Tom Wright (Drums, Percussion, Acoustic & Electric Guitars, Organ, Wurlitzer, Piano, Vocals), James Fagan (Bouzouki, Mandolin, Acoustic & Electric Guitars, Vocals), Rowan Rheingans (Banjo, Bansitar, Violin, Viola, Vocals), Tim Yates (Double Bass, Vocals), Greg Russell (Electric Guitar, Vocals) and Chris J Hillman (12 string Electric Guitar & Pedal Steel)
Record Label: Little Dish Records
Over the past few weeks we have been reviewing some of the very strong contenders for BBC Radio 2 Folk Album of the Year and our next album 'Instar' by Nancy Kerr and her 'all-star' Sweet Visitor Band is another great choice. The word 'Instar' carries the meaning of development, changes in form, shape and likeness. It's often used to describe insects as they metamorphosize from one form to another through their life cycle, for example a caterpillar into a butterfly. The overall theme of the album deal with transitions, transformations and rebirth. The songs have been largely inspired by Rob Cowans book 'Common Ground' and the recent 'Sweet Liberties project'.
Nancy Kerr was born in London, she now lives in Sheffield. She is the daughter of London-born singer-songwriter Sandra Kerr and Northumbrian piper Ron Elliott. Nancy came to prominence in the early 1990s via a musical partnership with fellow fiddle player Eliza Carthy. Since 1995 Nancy has mostly worked in a duo with Australian bouzouki player and singer James Fagan, whom she married in 2007. The duo won the Horizon Award at the inaugural BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2000, and Best Duo at the same awards in both 2003 and 2011. Between 1997 and 2008 they released six albums on the Fellside label. Nancy has also been part of a series of successful projects and other groups including The Melrose Quartet, The Full English, The Elizabethan Sessions, Sweet Liberties and Simpson Cutting Kerr.
The album's opener and title track is the beautifully written 'Instar'. A song about transience and rebirth inspired by Rob Cowan's book 'Common Ground', based in a space that was neither urban nor rural. The song was originally written in Nancy's garden and it certainly does have a feeling of nature and openness. There are some wonderful metaphors here which paint a marvellous picture of transformation and change, of passing through various stages of life which are only temporary . "That this incarnation, this divine creation....your perfection, is nothing but an instar". 'Farewell Stony Ground' deals with the subject of hard times and austerity. It also interweaves an urban myth concerning a fraudulent car park fee collector in Bristol.
'Oh England What Seeds' discuss the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, a group of 19th century Dorset agricultural labourers who were arrested for and convicted of swearing a secret oath as members of the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers. At the time, friendly societies had strong elements of what are now considered to be the predominant role of trade unions. The Tolpuddle Martyrs were subsequently sentenced to penal transportation to Australia. They were incarcerated at Port Arthur in Tasmania. In England they became popular heroes and 800,000 signatures were collected for their release. Their supporters organised a political march, one of the first successful marches in the UK and all were pardoned, on condition of good conduct, in March 1836, with the support of Lord John Russell, who had recently become Home Secretary.
Another firm favourite is the beautifully composed 'Written On My Skin' by Nancy, which also appears on the 'Sweet Liberties' album. The song is written in the memory of several women who were forced to invoke the Human Rights Act, in order to have there sexual assault cases justly tried. Most acts of parliament are written on scrolls of vellum (originally made from the skin of a calf). The 'Reynardine' reference is based on a traditional old English ballad (Roud 397). Reynardine is a werefox who attracts beautiful women to him, so that he can take them away to his castle to seduce them.
One of the most interesting songs on the album is 'Fragile Water'. It deals with the subject of gender fluidity, transition and transformation, explored using the framework of the traditional Orkney folk song 'The Grey Selkie of Sule Skerry'. Selkies are said to live as seals in the sea but shed their skin to become human on land. There are two voices in the song, the first is a motherly narrative of unconditional love and openness in the chorus and the second is a darker aspect in the verses which provides the tension. A lovely metaphor here is 'though after winter spring seems somehow colder' which gives the feeling of the constantly changing states of the seasons.
Another song which was first included on the 'Sweet Liberties' album is 'Kingdom', themed around the original intent of the Magna Carta agreed by King John. First drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury to make peace between the unpopular King and a group of rebel barons, it promised the protection of church rights, protection for the barons from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice, and limitations on feudal payments to the Crown. Unfortunately neither side stood behind their commitments and it quickly evolved into the ownership, management and destruction of land for profit. Watch out too for the sounds of Rowan's unique Bansitar. Another firm favourite on the album is the wonderfully written 'Gingerbread'. The song carries the idea of austerity, sadness and then hope. Nancy found a medieval recipe for gingerbread which due to its scarcity used pepper instead of ginger. "These are our crude thanks, charity and food banks. For our harvest splendour....pepper for our bread".
'Light Rolls Home' is a love song for the 'bad' end of town. Another 'Sweet Liberties' song 'Seven Notes (Adieu My Love)' focuses on The Race Relations Act and multicultural Britain. It is a song which carries the idea of love and the migration of musical notes. When we migrate, we take our musical patterns (scales and rhythms) with us. The migrating cuckoo is a metaphor for our colonial history and our desire to reinvent it as a love story. The idea for this song came from the Race Relations Act banner, in which scrolls of coloured fabrics represent the vibrancy of Britain's mixed cultures. It examines migration and colonialism, love and the universality of musical language, and was greatly influenced by the poem 'If My Homeland is Coloured' by Angolan-Portuguese poet Mauricio De Almeida Gomes.
'Crow's Wing' was inspired by Nancy witnessing a Peregrine Falcon catching a pigeon in the middle of Sheffield city centre. It carries the idea of rewilding. Rewilding is large-scale conservation aimed at restoring and protecting natural processes and core wilderness areas, providing connectivity between such areas and protecting or reintroducing apex predators and keystone species. 'I thought the sky was bound to fall. I never dreamed I'd see a falcon above the mills and factories'. Continuing the bird theme 'See Her Fly Home' was inspired by Nancy seeing a picture of a teenage eagle huntress in Mongolia. Written on World Hijab Day 'Sisterhood' using the interesting fact that in Arabic the hood that is used in Falconry is called 'burque' or hood. I really liked the pedal steel section from Chris Hillman, which perfectly underpins the song. The album ends with 'Silver Sage' discussing the legends of transformation and redemption framed in nature and dedicated to "Common Ground".