Difficult questions

Josienne Clarke has a vocal style. Some of its appurtenances, such as its precise diction, its half-rounded vowels, its purity of tone, and its inevitable but particular phrasing, signal an allegiance to British folk music traditions, but there is a large and important difference between working ‘in’ a style, and ‘having’ a style. Nobody sings quite like Clarke. Nobody should want to—although, should she get her desserts in terms of exposure, I’m sure that many will imitate her. This way of singing, however, is as specific to her as a fingerprint, and it is vanishingly rare for any musician (or other artist) to develop such a unique voice. The water is slightly muddied by her long-standing membership in a duo more explicitly associated with folk music (the recipient of a BBC Radio 2 Folk Award), but on In All Weather, there is no allegiance to any particular accompanimental genre. You might call it an indie record, if you were looking for a term that says so little it can cover more or less anything. All other concerns are secondary to its status as a collection of songs.

The album was released in 2019, and Clarke fans aware of recent developments in her professional life (as played out in a fairly low-key way on social media) might be quick to ascribe autobiographical import to its lyrical texts. I’m not about to discuss Clarke’s life, about which I’m almost entirely ignorant, and which is her business, not her listeners’, but I will say this: of course it’s bloody autobiographical. Nobody ever wrote a song or a story worth the name without building it from their own experience, but at the same time, even when explicitly writing memoir or biography, no writer produces anything but fiction. These songs, these stories, need to be encountered on their own ground, in the worlds that they each build—as particular and as personal as Clarke’s vocal delivery.

Clarke has a gift for fruitful ambiguity. Her songs are filled with phrases that can be parsed in several ways, turning on a word’s double meaning or on the branching meanders afforded by English grammar. This is quite a different matter from the witty wordplay of the American songbook, but there is a comparable collision of the literary with the pop. Clarke’s voice as a writer is clearly one that is situated in the present, in the social, in a shared cultural milieu. Although her songs are first-person affairs, these snippets of subjectivity are all highly relatable. More often than not I had the uncomfortable sensation that I might be closer to the songs’ interlocutors than their narrators, but there’s a lot to be said for art that asks difficult questions of its audience—and even more to be valued when it has such creative generosity that they don’t mind. I credit the fiction of Gene Wolfe with greatly stiffening my moral resolve, and In All Weather does something similar, in quite a different way.

Of course it’s not all as serious or gloomy as I may be making it out to be—although Clarke is someone who delights in the creative possibilities of the glum. There’s a good deal of wry, observational humour in the way these songs present experience, and as with all good art there is a great deal of playfulness in their construction. The arrangements draw largely on a rock vocabulary—over sixty-plus years of existence rock music has accumulated quite a lexicon, so I’m aware that such an observation doesn’t say a great deal, but one of the good things about this album is that it isn’t easy to summarise stylistically—without being outlandish in any way. It’s pretty rootsy on the whole, but it has some lovely, off-kilter details, like the weird synth tinkles that decorate a caesura in ‘Season & Time’. In many ways this is a simpler record than the technically nuanced and sometimes excruciatingly tasteful albums Clarke recorded in a duo setting, but its creative sophistication is bang on the money. Sometimes, when writing about the records I really like, I get so caught up in a futile attempt to do justice to their specificities that I forget to praise them explicitly, so let me just get that out—this is a brilliant album. Clarke has another one out shortly, but that’s the speed I move at.

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