In Kelly Oliver the British folk music scene is witnessing the emergence of a bright new star. What a coup it is for the new independent label Folkstock Records to have her debut EP as its first release. In turn the Folkstock label, known predominantly for its support of emerging singer-songwriters, is the perfect home for Kelly in the early stages of what Far From Home indicates will be a long and sparkling career.
Kelly’s mature voice belies her young age. The natural melancholy in it is well suited to the title track, a song about a seemingly doomed love affair but which leaves the door slightly ajar for fans of a happy ending. “He was always far from home, but he knew he’d always come home”. Her singing bears favourable comparison with Joan Baez, rising to land on higher notes with ease and unerring accuracy. When she holds long notes the effect is as fresh and vibrant as a warm summer breeze.
Far From Home leads into Keilan Are You Coming, an upbeat track dipping a toe into folk-rock territory. The subject of the song is a boy in a shanty town. The singer of the tale is invited into the boy’s mother’s threadbare home to eat. What happened before and what happen after are left to the listener’s imagination. This is artistry at it’s best – like a good play or film it makes you think. That’s often everything an artist hopes to achieve. Mission accomplished.
The EP’s closing track, Brazil Song, has much in common with Keilan Are You Coming in that it’s likely a postcard from time spent travelling. This one (well timed in World Cup year) records the writer’s experience of the first and developing worlds meeting and the contrast is startling: “You know great, I’ll show you small. You know wealth, I’ll show you poor.”
Grandpa Was A Stoker sounds like in time it will come to be seen as the EP’s highlight. It does one of the things that folk songs that stand the test of time often do – it tells a story that can be passed on to future generations – a story that might be lost forever were it not recorded in this way. As such it can be a valuable source of material for social historians. This song vividly describes the travails of a ship’s stoker who endures back breaking, mind bending toil to provide for his loved ones, and so as the ship can sail. It showcases Kelly’s guitar playing, harmonica and vocal skills. Her voice is softly and enigmatically accented into a smooth blend that sounds neither entirely British, Irish or American – more all three at once – like Judy Collins for instance. As she sings she picks out a counter melody on the guitar which adds an extra layer of depth to an otherwise stripped back sound. The song progresses into a Donovan’s Catch The Wind style strummed rhythm and takes in some tidy harmonica too. All the elements are tied together and balanced beautifully by the other youthful individual involved in this recording, producer-engineer Lauren Deakin Davies (also of the folk-pop group Delora).
Folk music needs artists like Kelly Oliver. She’s one of a new breed of young singer-songwriters who take their influences from the folk greats of old, like Bob Dylan and Luke Kelly. Most importantly, she’s injecting new material into a genre which, perhaps more than any other, needs constant renewal and development to survive.
I fully expect Kelly to be receiving nominations and picking up gongs for Best Newcomer, if not Best Vocalist and Best Song/EP outright, when the awards season returns at the end of the year.
Far From Home is available to hear and buy now: http://folkstockrecords.bandcamp.com/album/far-from-home
It will also be released on iTunes and Amazon on 14th February 2014.