“Jaycock’s delicate arrangements light Waterson’s tales with an enchanted pastoral glow, lifting them to somewhere truly beautiful, strange and unique.” ****MOJO
Marry Waterson doesn’t play any instruments. Neither does she sit at a computer screen, using state-of-the-art technology to recreate the music that appears in her head. Rather, words appear, phrased in a way that suggests music. With melody comes rhythm. Only then does she pick up her tape machine or iPhone and sing them so that her fellow musicians can hear what she hears. And perhaps something more. This was how Two Wolves, her acclaimed first album with guitarist David A. Jaycock (Big Eyes Family Players), emerged – a collaborative process within which some songs began as plucked guitar pieces and others as simple a cappella melodies. It’s a working method that can only bear fruit if there’s something in those a cappella renditions that will spark the imaginations of everyone who hears them.
“I sing my tunes into existence.”
And where Marry Waterson is concerned, there is so much to hear. Two years on from its predecessor, Death Had Quicker Wings Than Love reaffirms the almost telepathic chemistry generated whenever Marry and David work together. As with her mother, the late Lal Waterson, Marry’s interior playground is a place where real life is refracted through the myths, legends and proverbs that shape what (referring to his own music) Van Morrison once termed the “folk memory”. Inscriptions on headstones; Aesop’s Fables; Japanese superstitions – all of these had a part to play in shaping the record. No less crucial to its realisation were the contributions from an extended family of kindred spirits, among them Romeo Stodart (The Magic Numbers) and long-time friend Kathryn Williams.
Indeed, it was at a writing retreat hosted by Kathryn that the album started to take flight. Also present at these open-ended sessions was Adrian Utley (Portishead, Patti Smith) – although, as Marry recalls, “Adrian and I didn’t get to work together during that week, so I sent him some of the songs that Dave [Jaycock] and I had been writing and asked him if he would consider producing the album.” Utley’s enthusiastic response set a tempo for the sessions that yielded a succession of inspired results. “His instincts were to not throw everything at the songs,” recalls Marry, “to keep the essence of what Dave and I had together. Adrian was really interested in letting the voice and guitar occupy its own space, adding subtle atmospheric instrumentation, though every nook and cranny in his studio has some amazing, weird or beautiful instrument calling to be played. He spent a lot of time choosing the right microphones, trying out different recording spaces, the studio, a hallway, even outside on the rooftop. His passion and dedication was humbling to say the least.”
That same dedication also created a safe space in which Marry and David could realise the vision they had for these songs. Inspired by a copy of Aesop’s Fables that had been in Marry’s possession since she was eight (“This Book Bilongs to Me, Address 160 Hull”), The Vain Jackdaw boasts one of Marry’s most mesmerising performances, its hair-raising intimacy accentuated by the absence of any instrumentation after the intro. “Feeling lost is a common thread throughout the record,” explains Marry. It’s a feeling addressed most directly in Lost (adjective), a pensive study in the disorientation that remains when two souls are wrenched apart.
But it’s also prevalent in Forgive Me. With David Jaycock’s beautiful filigree fretwork interweaving Marry’s meditation upon the sadness of seeing your children leave home, the song sounds like a poignant postscript to Bath Time – Lal’s own lament for the quicksilver brevity of the mothering years. “The album started to take shape for me when I began writing the guitar parts looking over Looe River”, says David. “It was a beautiful spring day and I was looking at the second tide.”
Hymning David’s similarly outstanding contribution to Gunshot Lips, Marry recalls her belated discovery of the early solo albums recorded by him prior to their first meeting. “I told him, ‘I said I can’t believe you never played me this, please let’s do some of this wonderful classical guitar on this album.’” Here and elsewhere, inspired interventions and serendipitous synergies stewarded the songs to sublime destinations, be it Adrian Utley’s intuitive electric guitar work on the latter song or Kathryn Williams and Emma Smith’s beautiful vocal and violin ornamentations on Death Had Quicker Wings Than Love – a song inspired by one of the last few remaining maidens’ crowns housed in St Stephen’s Old Church in Robin Hood’s Bay, built in 1822. “That was another one which just presented itself to me,” recalls Marry, “I actually sang from there when I appeared on Mark Radcliffe’s show in 2016, and as I explained the custom to Mark, I realised that I had to write a song about it.”
Also present at the aforementioned writing retreat was The Magic Numbers’ Romeo Stodart, who was inspired to create the plangent guitar accompaniment for Out Of Their Hearts once he heard Marry’s unaccompanied vocal. “Once we had that,” she recalls, “David dampened down the guitar strings with crocodile clips which creates a fantastic atmosphere and then added a bass that wandered through the song like footsteps.”
Of course, no-one needs to explain to Marry Waterson of the magic that happens when you keep the front door open. Bright Phoebus, the game-changing 1972 album, recorded by Lal and Mike Waterson, was recorded in just such a fashion. Consciously or otherwise, it seems that Marry and David ring-fenced something of that process and applied it to Death Had Quicker Wings Than Love. “We saw everyone as potential contributors. I remember on one of the final days we were recording Small Ways and Slowly – John Parish (PJ Harvey) popped in to borrow something and ended up laying down some percussion which totally lifted the song. It was such a kick to be able to hand over these songs and work with people who understood where they were coming from to such a degree, often on first hearing.”
Marry’s surprise is genuine, yet what you can hear time and time again isn’t the result of dumb luck. It’s a testament to a specific power that lies deep in the Waterson DNA. She opens her mouth to sing and you immediately pick out the details in the picture.
It’s not just her tunes she sings into existence. It’s a whole world.
“Her finest album to date.” ****THE GUARDIAN
“’Two Wolves’ is more than two fine English folk dynasties meeting. This is proper song brainfood.” *****fROOTS
“A more ambiguous trajectory than before, bringing ‘Two Wolves’ into line with the psych-folk lineage of the late 1960s. Most attractive.” ****INDEPENDENT on SUNDAY
“Perfectly balances traditional & contemporary [folk]…echoes of Nick Drake, Vashti Bunyan and Sandy Denny while Woolgathering Girl is more reminiscent of latter-day Kate Bush.” ****METRO
“A quiet treat for folk fans.” THE ARTS DESK
“A gorgeously simple and direct record…holds up a light to the blackest of winter nights.” ****Q MAGAZINE