Album/EP Reviews Dark Folk Folk Music Nature Folk

Jenny Sturgeon’s “From the Skein” Album Review

A good debut album that effectively conveys Sturgeon’s love of history. A balance exists as wide myth collides with shared Scots history; brilliance flickers in some of the darker tracks which hint at even better things to come.

I have been taking some time to have a listen to Jenny Sturgeon’s debut album, “From the skein”, it is indeed an interesting beast.

Produced by Simon Gall who Jenny worked with on a disc nominated in 2015 for the MG Alba Scots Trad Music Award/Folk Radio Album of the year (Clype’s album “Clype”), the album design recognises Jenny’s voice and creates some interesting space in which she works within. It dabbles in some surprising but not heavy-handed different world influences which like the salt and lime with tequila make something else out of something that could be much more standard fare. Co-arrangers and multi-intrumentalists Davy Cattanach (from Catford), Jonny Hardie (from Old Blind Dogs), Grant Anderson (from Brothers Reid) and special guests Brian McApline (accordian), Aongus Mac Amhlaigh (cello), Fraser Fifield (whistle and sax), Ana Maia MacLellan (gaelic singer), and  Rahul K Ravindran (Indian Carnatic singer) add texture across the album in a great blend of traditions and choices.


The first thing that both strikes you from it’s looks is the hints at the contents from within the album cover artwork by Jenny (and Will Miles). It is aiming for both a historical and natural feel with the front reference to wild geese in formation with it’s slightly faded wash and appearance of being a “discovered” illustration  from antiquity. It seems to work when viewed through this lens as you can imagine the scene in something like Cadfael where a camera pans from a clergy man to a side manuscript with the eponymous geese being sketched and studied no end. The artwork is lovely and shows the attachment of the artist to her Aberdeen dwellings, the choice of geese is more an implicit connection of the themes in the album. Rather than it feeling like an album about travel, migration or nature, it is more concerned with human history, religion, and political events; nature and the world spins around these here. What of the feel of the album?

Jenny Sturgeon is an artist who brings the sensibilities of traditional tracks which are punctuated with a conglomerate of instrumental artists. The folk music here is liberally sprinkled with myth but not exclusively so. Some tracks are like the roots of myth and take direct story influence (e.g. Maiden Stone) where others are like the shoots and seem more contemporary (e.g. Running Free) and both are quite welcoming and engaging in different ways. Sturgeon’s work tackles some darker elements but chooses not to constrain itself solely to a particular sound. Rightly (or wrongly I suppose based on viewpoint) “From the Skein” is a broader showcase of talent than a set of music which is concerned with furrowing a deep trail of one type, I somewhat prefer the darker stuff and when it gets fairly heavy it is very much like a brewing, nebulous demitasse but it would not have been a wise move to stick to this alone. I then had a think about some of the tracks within.


“Maiden Stone” at the beginning has a powerful hum which emanates from the central core of the song like a space monolith among a red-dune planet. Of course the track itself is more down to earth as  a direct reference to the Maiden Stone near Inverurie in Scotland. The song is based on  the myth of a wager that the main character makes with a man when she tries to get out of a marriage following an unfortunate discovery, “was then she spied the fork in his tail, she was to be Beezlebub’s bride.” It is one of those stories veenered in history. The urgent and sharp guitars progress the song on and the woodwind wraps across the track like a mysterious shawl, there is a hint of jazz as it blusters with mild chaos and the inevitability draws near. The story sets a relatively grim, but darkly comforting track at the beginning of the album which probably plays on the safer side, but is executed well with a recognisable traditional voice as it navigates lyrical content deep into the witching hour.


“Raven” is a gutsy shanty which I don’t want to do it a disservice, but it is almost like a folk rap. Probably the best track on the album, Sturgeon’s voice rises and falls not unlike the waves of the sea. The whole arrangement is shiveringly fleshed out with powerful rasping drums and percussion in accompaniment, pickling vinegar strings and the repetition of “the voice of wind through broken stone, “the wind seeps in, the wind seeps in.” It does indeed, and you feel like the track could be your swansong as the ill-natured sea reclaims the land which you cling to. While wordily traditional and briny, the drumming is more 90s pop rock or ballad-like. Stunningly despairing in tone, yet uptempo in pace it surprises and leaves you wanting more. Like a boat, there are points where the track lurches as the drums and cymbals change, you are not sure where it is going but that is part of the excitement.

Sturgeon’s “Selkie” returns to the subject matter of legends and historical superstitions set up early on the album, except taking the broad concept of the “selkie” (a sea seal that sheds it’s skin on land and becomes a beautiful human male or female) and telling a story around this Shetland/Nordic creature of old. Starting as a lo-fi number like a creature alone in the sea it then like a briny Talisker malt opens up; the still waters splash on the shores and it takes a number of world influences and adds a more Eastern sound. Minor harmonies arise, the male singing accompaniment brings a timeless, hidden aspect to the song while Sturgeon herself adopts a clear, distinctive and longing voice through the course of proceedings. The transition of the arrangement is well executed, the track truly speaks, it all plays together well and holds nicely. It becomes an epic world tune in no time before your ears and an engulfing number the expanse of Rahul L Ravindran’s voice and the instruments hint at a horizon and ageless plain of sound. 


“Harbour Masters” unlike the other tracks mentioned so far is a lighter number but an incredibly sensory one that goes some way to building on a picture of contentment yet active energy at the edge of land and sea. It leaps into your mind as the purposeful bustle of your surroundings combine with a spirit of freedom and fun. The harbour master is a philosophical woman looking out to see the space between imagination and sees the wonder rolling out through the shoreline, “for miles it seems that I can see in the dimming of the night.” An accessible track that appeals like warmer lapping brooks in contrast to the cold wall of history and dark mysticism. As it appears, it brings more balance to the album and shows a mid-set track which reminds that we are away from the everyday and where nature meets people there can be simple pleasures to be had in it’s observation. It pairs quite well with the other evocative night track on the album that focuses on the moment, “Nowhere else I’d rather be.”

“The Honours” is another historical story. This one is led quite strongly with whistle and fiddle describing the hiding of the Scottish crown jewels by Rev. James Grainger after they were moved from Edinburgh Castle, and then Dunnottar Castle to a church in Kinneff to save them from a fate of anti-establishment destruction by Oliver Cromwell. A traditional, drum heavy number it is a rhythmic reminder of the past that tells a simple yet significant story of Scottish history. Alongside some of the tracks already mentioned it does show quite a good eye for songwriting from historical sources, Sturgeon clearly has a warm spot for the whole part of this land; be it the more popular, widely-held myths from the mainland, the more obscure village yarns or the quiet murmors of apprehensive sailors there are ties to history and theme which moves the work away from an overly emotive piece concerned with feeling alone.


Overall, a good debut. It intrigues a little, it celebrates Scotland a lot, and it tries hard to immerse you into the world it is painting and for the vast majority it succeeds very well at this. It appeals in part to fans of traditional folk though balances this with more modern timings on certain tracks. The world influence is strong here and a crossover between world and folk, it gets the balance right in my opinion and the braver choices of arrangement and instrumentation pay off well. If you have a space on your folk shelf, I certainly recommend “From the Skein.”

If you wish to purchase the album, the best place to go is Jenny’s bandcamp page, where you can hear samples of the tracks before purchasing!


Track list

  1. Maiden Stone
  2. Raven
  3. Running Free
  4. Selkie
  5. Nowhere Else I’d Rather Be
  6. Honest Man
  7. Cùlan
  8. Linton
  9. Harbour Masters
  10. Judgement
  11. The Honours
  12. Fair Drawin’ In

If you are still uncertain, check out a clip of “Selkie” from the Isle of May Foghorn Sessions.



Album/EP Reviews British Dark Folk European Folk Music Uncategorised

KARA – Some Other Shore – “a deep thematic album of tragedy and triumph” – review

Released June 2016

KARA return with another excellent album called “Some Other Shore” (their debut was also nautical sounding, “Waters So Deep”). The particularities that make the sound and ideas appealing can be boiled down into the three-part approach taken to their writing and recording of folk music. The first part is that their music is heavily thematic in that the lyrics are often worked and adapted from literature and tragic tales from England, Russia and beyond (in a similar vein to wonderful Emily Portman). The second part is that there is a spirited arrangement that uses instruments such as the dulcimer and melodeon that you might not always expect or hear when picking up some acoustic folk which makes it slightly unusual and dfferent. The heavy theme and instrumentation combine together to explain their third angle; a juxtaposition of dark emotion, fantasy and myth that give them an idiosyncratic but incredibly rich and dream-like sound.

On the album we have Daria Kulesh on lead vocals, Ben Honey (guitar), Phil Underwood (melodeon), and Kate Rouse (dulcimer, vocals). Produced and recorded by Jason Emberton (with some additional support from Phil Underwood and Lauren Deakin Davis) it has guest appearances from Lukas Drinkwater and James Delarre within the album which KARA have been promoting on their tour (there are still a couple of venues left, and more the be announced here). 

How is the album? Daria Kulesh’s voice is as expressive as ever as it pirouettes on a delicate higher register, the songs vary enormously in rhythm, optimism and tradition and the reach of the vision and image is very far indeed. It manages to be haunting, insightful, and fine balance between modern and old. As Daria Kulesh and KARA like themes, let us consider some of the songs next with some loose themes they could sit next to:

The Dancing Numbers

“Lovers’ Task/Black Tea Waltz” is both a reinterpretation and a dance. “Lovers” is a gracious, sensual and capable version of Scarborough Fair as collected by Cecil Sharpe though the band has cast a Russian spell upon it. Like seeing a creature of habit wearing a brand new coat, this telling of one the most well-known popular songs in folk consciousness is trying something different as it lists the slightly different, “setherwood, sale, rosemary, and thyme” as the trademark herbs. It works remarkably. It could be Kulesh’s precise, alpine and lingering lyrics; it could be Kate Rouse’s arrangement or (one of the keystones of KARA) the use of the hammered dulcimer, or it could be the fact that it never hold up. Like a young child dancing in spring it moves and jumps in exhibition without a care. In transition the track moves to the Black Tea Waltz where it becomes like an endless, yawing revolution of joy and light. It is constructed like a book, it opens and unfolds and sings to you throughout and is a great track for it.

Likewise Phil Underwood’s “Hollingbourne/Broadhurst Gardens” is a candidate for a new favourite tune to dance to. The melodeon jigs stirringly and the tracks are imbibed with the both the rural and urban elements of folk music. It seems to speak first of a story of mystery and pursuit (like clue searching in a Parisian hedge maze) before skipping to the amber lights of taverns in town serving a sea of foaming beer. A great original number and a track that should gain a following in the dancing communities.

Tragedy and Triumph

There is as always in KARA’s works a sense of characters and their experiences. Daria’s particular strengths as main vocalist are in her contrasting portrayals of women which are then bravely all added to a single album. Tragic or triumphant she has the range to bring the gloom or fury in equal measure. “Goodbye and Forgive Me” is an example of tragedy as a song of a woman in an unpleasant marriage who seeks the freedom of another man (which does not bode well), “Now this crime it was discovered, swift accusal and arrest, and in exile my false lover, took another to his breast.” The song is based on Nikola Leskov’s 19th Century book, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk district” that inspired Daria during the recent successful “Company of Players” event celebrating Shakespeare. Interesting and sad in it’s deliberation it is a tremendous contrast to track 9. 

“Stormteller” is the fury to the previous song’s gloom. A pacy, onomatopoeic number it shows Daria Kulesh echoing the rhythm of the weather in song while she gallops through a speedy, relentless race. Throughout there is a sense of the storm and by the end of the track Daria has pretty much gone full shaman on us. Like Nostrodamus’ secret muse the song is as evocative as ever as it starts from a few quiet drops to a full blown melodic tempest as it builds. The guitar strums are not unlike a mariachi band as Daria applies her voice like the Western Mexico sun as she calls down the the elements, “I am of the black skies, I am of the hail, I am of the thunder, I am of the gale, I am a storyteller, it is them I control.” It’s sense of power is not unlike Sandy Denny’s “John the Gun” but more like Ange Hardy’s earthy Goddess tones of Bare Foot Folk’s “Mother Willow Tree”. A good track for nature lovers.

Traditional and Jazzy

KARAs’ folk music that is undeniable, especially as they do a fair share of recording of traditional numbers too. “Seaview” is one of the songs on the album that brings the shoreline of the title into view (and a delightfully fanciful album cover it is too) and speaks of that familiar, welcoming maybe imaginary place we go to. It is a light and chirpy song that flickers with a nostalgia for old times with family as children, the seaside and the briny air. Peaceful and thoughtful it can be considered along with the folk dance numbers as a familiar but good example of a lightly traditional number. In contrast “Devilry Dance”, the penultimate track is going to different seas and cities for it’s inspiration.

A folk album with surprises is a bright thing indeed, and when there is a swing number as part of that surprise, it positively shines. Don’t get me wrong, KARA are not the first band to experiment and include multiple genres on a disc and won’t be the last, but this is a good lyrical showcase amongst many on the others as it describes the ghastly dance in it’s commanding tones, “it has no rhythm in the normal sense, the steps are as long as they are wide.” It has New York cellar bars all over it proving that KARA rebelliously puts its feet in different countries and times and is not content with being the already well established English/Russian lovechild that it is.


“Some other shore” is quite ruminating. It will appeal to trad-folk fans that is for certain, but it’s appeal goes beyond the nods of the heads it gives to the Waltzs and the knowing looks to songs about salty sailors and the trades of old. It is a prime example of expert synthesis of literary and emotional experience which is confidently playing with some alternative instrumentation that holds you in a magical gaze. More confident than the debut, and deeply magical to the ear; it is an accomplished work. 

Check it out, it won’t disappoint!

Album Title: Some Other Shore

Producer: Jason Emberton

Recorders and Engineers: Jason Emberton, Phil Underwood, Lauren Deakin Davies

Mastered at: The Green Room

Track 1: Tamara’s Wedding

Track 2: Seaview

Track 3: Lovers’ Tasks/Black Tea Waltz

Track 4: Goodbye and Forgive Me

Track 5: Adrienne

Track 6: Hollingbourne/Broadhurst Gardens

Track 7: Misery and Vodka

Track 8: Carousel Waltz

Track 9: Stormteller

Track 10: Leigh Fishermen

Track 11: Devilry Dance

Track 12: Ataman

The album is available from KARA’s website directly here for £10.