Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Francesca Blanchard - The Fire, Philadelphia, 4/11/2016, Plus Two Immensely Enjoyable Albums From This New Bilingual Recording Artist

Photo: Lindsey Mitchell

She has been compared with early Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. Her many influences include Eva Cassidy, Norah Jones, Carla Bruni, and Francoise Hardy. That's a heady brew for any artist. But, I found myself thinking, a couple of songs into her set at The Fire, that there will come a day when we will look back at when we were able to see Francesca Blanchard at such a small and intimate venue. I've already had that same feeling watching Norah Jones and Melody Gardot at the start of their careers, and as far as Blanchard is concerned, I wouldn't try to guess where or when, but it will come one day soon.

The Fire seemed like a random (but fortuitous) booking on a short American tour preparing for the European tour that she has just embarked upon. For this show she brought her band, bassist Matthew Kloss and drummer Charlie Smyrk, and accompanied herself on electric guitar.

Both her voice and guitar sounded great, as she drew mostly from her latest release, deux visions. Like the album, her set was divided between songs sung in French and those sung in English. Her live set sounded so good in fact that I'm reluctant to single out any one song, but I do love "It's Not Her Fault" and "Home Is a Cage" which were her second and third songs respectively.

Watch "It's Not Her Fault"

The second half of her set was comprised of mostly new songs destined for her next album. The new stuff all sounded excellent, especially "Big Big World". She played five new songs in a row, followed by a cover of Philadelphia native Amos Lee's "Arms of a Woman". Francesca made the song her own, changing the gender to "Arms of a Man". She then came back with deux more songs from deux visions to end her set. The crowd may not have been large but they were most enthusiastic. This was the kind of show I was really glad that I didn't miss.

Blanchard displays so much confidence both in her singing and her easy rapport with the audience between songs, you would never know this was a young artist early in her career.

The Fire is a very music friendly venue which I think flies under the radar most of the time; they don't seem to get that much publicity or do that much advertising. When you walk in it looks like an old school neighborhood bar with the venue in the next room, kind of like the late North Star Bar. The venue room offers a relaxed atmosphere with the stage at one end with good sound and lighting. I have been to The Fire a number of times, mostly to see Natalie Walker, good times all.

The show's opening act was Joyel Crawford who did a set of well chosen covers and some highly personal original compositions. These songs were made more meaningful by her explanatory introductions. Click here to watch her performance of Tracy Chapman's "Give Me One Reason". There are two additional videos by her on my YouTube page. Also opening was Alli and I aka Andrew Standley whose forceful vocal and guitar style has won him a good following in his hometown. Many thanks to Beverly Kates for the camera work and Lindsey Mitchell for video production.

Watch "Home Is a Cage"

Setlist: click title to watch video
1. Opening song, name TBD
2. It's Not Her Fault
3. Home is a Cage
4. Empty House
5. New song, name TBD
6. New song, name TBD (Let Go, Let Be)
7. Heart (new)
8. Edge of it All (new)
9. Big Big World (new)
10.Arms of a Man (Amos Lee Cover)
11. Rame
12. Tu N'existes

Photo courtesy of Francesca Blanchard

Buy at Amazon
Buy at iTunes
Stream on Spotify
Stream on YouTube

Francesca Blanchard is an extraordinary recording artist. I've read hundreds of website biographies, but I have never read anything quite like this.
"Francesca Blanchard is a young French-American singer-songwriter whose lyrics and melodies reflect her bilingual and multicultural upbringing. Born in the south of France where her family resided until she was ten, Francesca recalls her Mediterranean childhood as one of bare feet on terra cotta tiles, fuchsia sunsets, and mistral breezes. ...With parents who’ve worked for international humanitarian agencies worldwide, Francesca lived and went to school in Ethiopia and Burundi. Family journeys have taken her to over 30 off-the-beaten-path countries such as South Korea, Mauritania, Rwanda, Kenya, Egypt, Thailand, Australia, Honduras, Tanzania, Guatemala and India. ...Growing up in a household consisting of a French father, an American mother, and adopted siblings from Ethiopia and Guatemala, Francesca’s own family reflects a spirit where the sense of 'belonging' comes not from a particular place or heritage but from the bonds of being passengers on the same metaphorical ship. This, she says, is why she sings: to nourish these bonds."
Listening to deux visions, the first thing that strikes you is how fully formed this artist is this early in her career. Her songwriting is excellent, her voice is beautiful, and the production by Chris Velan is nothing short of superb. I love the electric guitar work, especially the pedal steel. The combination of acoustic and electric guitars is sweet. Several songs have lovely string arrangements, another has a horn section, and the piano and organ also add to the terrific sound. This is an album that takes a few spins to absorb, but once you do you can't stop playing it. The CD booklet for deux visions has the lyrics to every song in both French and English. Also, you get a digital version of the booklet when you download the album on MP3; I can't compliment this enough, every digital download should come with the CD booklet. Sadly, not many do. Thank you Francesca Blanchard.

Spend some time at her website, there is much more to her bio plus an in-depth interview with Francesca, which includes the following.
"This album is split into two languages; French and English, the two cultures and worlds that have shaped and made me who I am today. Each language carries its respective home for me; I am a different person when I sing in one vs. the other. These are my two visions, my “deux visions”…my divisions. My heritage.

It also represents the symbolic split between my confident self and my shy self, my bold self and my quiet self. All these “selves” I carry inside me, that make me the whole being that I am, the artist that I’ve become...they are what I wanted to devote this album to. It is an ode to where I’ve been and where I’ll go, who I was and who I’ve become. The album is both a bittersweet eulogy and a heartfelt welcome."
Watch "Rame" from deux visions

Buy at Amazon
Buy at iTunes
Stream on Spotify
Stream on YouTube

Jumping back to her bio, "Francesca took piano lessons and sang in choirs growing up, but it wasn’t until she moved to the States in 2002 that she started taking guitar lessons. She writes in both French and English, choosing whichever language best fits the mood and poetry of the song. Aided by Vermont singer-songwriter and producer Gregory Douglass, Francesca recorded her first 6-track EP, Songs on an Ovation, in 2011 and began selling the collection of original compositions and well-chosen covers in French and English to friends, family and neighbors."

Songs On An Ovation sounds more like a finished album than your typical debut EP. As promised in the title, all the songs are based around Blanchard's gorgeous sounding acoustic Ovation guitar. I love her style of playing on this, and the songwriting on the five originals is remarkably good. Track 6 is Blanchard's cover of the 1952 Jo Stafford hit, "You Belong To Me", or more to the point this seems like Blanchard covering Carla Bruni's solo acoustic cover of this old favorite. Either way, Blanchard's version sounds so personal that it is a brilliant choice to end the EP.

Watch "Mon Ange" from Songs On An Ovation

Francesca Blanchard Website
Francesca Blanchard Facebook
Francesca Blanchard Twitter
Francesca Blanchard Instagram

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Jealous of the Birds - Parma Violets, Grunge-Folk Singer-Songwriter Naomi Hamilton Soars In Her Full Length Debut

Photo courtesy of Naomi Hamilton

Parma Violets is the title of the debut full length recording by Jealous of the Birds, just released. Naomi Hamilton, a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and poet from Portadown, County Armagh in Northern Ireland records under the name Jealous of the Birds. Last year she racked up many positive notices for Capricorn, her six track EP of original compositions recorded in her bedroom. Drawing much attention was "Goji Berry Sunset", which also leads off Parma Violets, now given a proper studio recording.

Heretofore I might have questioned the judgement of anyone who incorporated whistling into their music, but after a number of plays I must admit that I find the whistling in "Goji Berry Sunset" most charming and a nice way to draw you into the song. Before you know it, you are one on one or maybe I should say one on two with Hamilton's attractive voice duetting with herself. The effect focuses your attention on some very intriguing lyrics as her multi-track vocals alternate between the right and left speakers.

Watch "Goji Berry Sunset"

Parma Violets is all over the map, stylistically. Hamilton describes her music as "indie, indie rock, alternative, punk, lo-fi, bedroom, acoustic, grunge, (and) singer/songwriter." I'll go along with all of that except maybe lo-fi. Setting aside for a moment my issues with lo-fi, having listened to Parma Violets repeatedly, I'd say that in this instance "lo-fi" refers more to an attitude or even recording style than a measure of the actual sound quality.

Hamilton, who wrote all of the songs and played almost all of the instruments, is far more than an overachieving teenager. Her musicianship sounds like a well accomplished band, particularly the electric guitar work, piano, acoustic guitar and some more than adequate drumming.

She has quite a gift for songwriting, especially her lyrics. Since the release of her EP in March 2015, she says that she wrote 60 songs from which the thirteen selections on Parma Violets were drawn. Hamilton says, "My only hope is that the songs sound like a real friend talking." And that they do. This is how the title track begins:

hang tibetan paintings on my bedroom wall
stick stars on the ceiling so i don’t feel so small
god i wish i could call you, what the hell would i say?
hope you’re feeling better, we should hang out some day
oh please don’t you swallow
pills like parma violets again

That's the first verse of a very compelling song. The press release explains, "It goes back round to the sense that it’s like a real friend talking. In this case it’s as one person offering real compassion and empathy to another struggling with suicide. As Naomi explains: 'In essence, it's an expression of compassion ­– a hand of loving kindness reaching towards another human being across the widest chasm.'”

Photo courtesy of Naomi Hamilton

Much of her subject matter is consistent with her age (nineteen, as of this writing), but her lyricism is not; her use of language is genuinely artful making this debut sound like the work of a fully realized artist. In interviews, Hamilton mentions reading and writing poetry since the age of thirteen, and it shows. At times I am reminded of the subtle and delicate sweetness of Rosie Thomas' compositions crossed with the brash smarts of Nellie McKay. Hamilton cites Elliott Smith and Kurt Cobain as influences; you can hear them in there too. I love the sound of her voice combined with the apparent contradiction of singer-songwriter, folk, and grunge-punk. It all really works.

It was interesting to read that when she first started playing, Naomi sang quite a few Bob Dylan tunes. Listening to this album, the first couple of seconds of "Trouble in Bohemia" always make me think of Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone". Hamilton's got some very quirky love songs too, and I mean quirky in the best possible sense. Listen to "Marcus" using the linked tracklist below. Another great example is "Russian Doll"; here's how it ends:

in truth, i’m a russian doll
my egos shut inside
i painted them by hand
and i’ll never let them die
my cracked skull is a bowl
that holds a coral sea
it’s filled with trashy poems
and eastern cherry trees
despite how much i want to
just punch you in the face
my favourite smell on this earth
is still your pillowcase

Declan Legge produced the album. Naomi Hamilton sang and played everything but violin and cello, which were played by Hannah McPhillimy and Nianh Galwey respectively. Parma Violets was recorded at Legge's studio in Newry from May to November, 2015.

Hamilton was interviewed in The Irish News. In the issue dated May 7, 2016 she said, "Before the EP came out I had just been singing Bob Dylan songs and Elliott Smith songs and stuff like that. Then I was given recording equipment as a gift and I started recording in my bedroom and when I had enough songs I just thought, `I’ll release an EP’. I put it up on Facebook and I couldn’t believe the attention that it garnered. But people were kind of pigeon-holing me as this folky singer-songwriter, but part of that was just because I was limited in what I could record myself at home – so that sound kind of just presented itself. I’m into punk and grunge a lot of other stuff, so I’m happy that I was able to create the sounds that I wanted to on this album."

Buy at Amazon
Buy at iTunes
Stream on Spotify

Tracklist: click song title to listen
1. Goji Berry Sunset
2. Parma Violets
3. Russian Doll
4. Miss Misanthrope
5. Trouble in Bohemia
6. Tonight I Feel Like Kafka
7. Dandelion
8. The Zodiac Bar
9. Powder Junkie
10. Marcus
11. Purple Octopus
12. Mountain Lullaby
13. Hornet’s Nest

Photo courtesy of The Irish News

Poet's Day: I am in the debt of blog contributor and published poet Sara Clancy who sent me a link to the video you see below as Bonus Video #1, Hamilton singing Leonard Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat". It's quite lovely, a stops-you-in-your-tracks type of cover tune. Sara met Naomi at an small on-line poetry group. When it comes to song lyrics and poetry, I know what I like. And although the same may be true about modern poetry, I feel somewhat out of my element commenting on it. So I asked Sara for her reaction to Parma Violets. I now turn the floor over to Sara.
"Poetry is medicine,” says singer-songwriter Naomi Hamilton on the
euphonious track, “Goji Berry Sunset," the opening song of her new
album Parma Violets. And what a sweet relief that poetry is. No dull
predictable corporate-written break-up tunes, here. No breathy vocal
gymnastics and no artifice. Instead, the listener is treated to a slice
of this young woman’s outlook in tactile specificity and gorgeous
detail. These songs are vivid, lush and surprising.

From laugh out loud self-parody, “I couldn’t be any more of a hipster if
I tried” and the joyful “from my bluebird heart, I’m a singing girl” to
the sensual “blackjack eyes and tambourine hips/got a corkscrew mind and
the sweetest grip” these songs demand that you listen to each word, defy
you to anticipate them and then reward you with their quirky complex
beauty. There are so many great lyrics on this album, it’s hard to pick out
just a few without falling back into the songs and listening to the
whole thing over again.

No need to keep your eye on Ms. Hamilton’s career. If she keeps
writing songs like these, “when [she] is 22,” she’ll be a household name.
Debut EP: Here you can listen to and/or buy Jealous of the Birds' debut EP Capricorn.

Bonus Video #1: Naomi Hamilton performs a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat".

Bonus Video #2: Radio Interview with Johnny Hero on U105 Drive, which includes a live performance of "Miss Misanthrope", April 29, 2016.

Jealous of the Birds Website
Jealous of the Birds Facebook
Jealous of the Birds Twitter