Froots Album review
JigDoll RootBeat Records RBCD30
JigDoll is an exciting new project created by singer, musician and dancer Hannah, whose career to date has involved a number of col- laborative permutations (Kerfuffle, Sam Sweeney, Maddy Prior, Tuulikki Bartosik). Cur- rently, Hannah’s a member of the trio Lady Maisery, several of the strands of whose com- bined music-making flow both into and out of her own musical explorations. It’s always been apparent that her own strongly individ- ual talents were bound one day to brim over into a solo act both unique and yes, genuine- ly original. Such is JigDoll, in which Hannah combines music, songs and footwork in a spellbinding and dynamic show featuring her accordeon, voice and foot percussion and using the innovative technique of pedal-free live looping, whereby she’s able to build the textures live and create a thoroughly magical atmosphere. She sees this as the personal embodiment of the music of her life so far, weaving together the spheres of sound and movement. Of course, having both heard music as a dancer and seen dance as a musi- cian, Hannah is ideally placed to express this synergy, in taking the age-old concept of the travelling-minstrel-cum-one-person-band into the technological age.
Hannah has composed all the music on this album-of-the-live-show; she’s been influ- enced both by her continual moving-around and by her open-mindedness and eternal thirst for new experiences. She’s taken her natural cue from folk traditions, the core of which for her has always been clog dancing, now layered with rhythms and techniques from the traditions of song and tune inextri- cably melded with the dance. Deriving much inspiration from her great-great grandad Walter Andrews, a travelling music-hall per- former, she is also cognisant of the need for tradition to evolve. The JigDoll album pre- sents a wonderful sequence of simple yet imaginative musical experiences, beginning and ending with mesmerising lullabies and moving through broadside ballads, original songs and ethnomusical tunes; some linked by the theme of wood, others reflecting on attitudes towards refugees and the displaced. A real feast for the senses.
JigDoll brings to the scene a fresh, hyp- notic and invigorating experience, fusing the old and the new to create something which, while authentically personal, is to be seen as but a staging post in a life of perpetual wide- eyed adventure.
Songlines Album Review
✭✭✭✭ ‘Top of the World’ album.
The album begins with a soft low hum, then more lyrical vocal layers build up, like layers of cumulus across a twilit sky – this is First Lullaby, and the thrilling entry into the JigDoll cosmos – Hannah James’ first solo work. She’s been touring her remarkable stage show over the past six months or so, and the album is a stunning showcase of James’ accordion, foot percussion and voice – hers is among the most beautiful and compelling voices raised into the folk tradition over the past decade or so.
Fusing traditions of song and dance with her own original innovations, James draws on personal history – her great-great granddad was an itinerant music hall artiste – and her own travelling life as a performer. On stage, she used pedals, loops and live instruments, while on record, what’s striking is the beauty of the layered vocals, the mix of words and abstract vocalisations, the abstract textures of her solo accordion on, for example, Tuulika’s Tune or the following Yodeling, or the explicit message residing in Refugee Song, which takes a broadside ballad about a refugee from England, with James giving it one of her great vocals, while the voice-drones on the likes of Treasures, or the closing Last Lullaby, make for a unique and extremely powerful musical statement.
Album Review - Northern Sky
If the perceived adolescent voice of Kate Rusby reflects the back lanes of suburban Barnsley, then the hums, yodels and vocal doodles on Hannah James’ debut solo album conjures the dark dark woods of an M Night Shyamalan film, or wicker figures perched upon cliff tops with the beetle in the desk that goes round and round. Based on a stage show of the same name, Hannah explores her own musical past in words, music and dance, all three of which are inextricably linked and each of which she is neither stranger not novice. There’s an ethereal undercurrent permeating these lullabies, jigs, marches and broadsides, each delicately written, borrowed or deconstructed and reconstructed to suit Hannah’s sensibilities. Yet it’s all shaped in an adventurous journey celebrating movement through sound, even the dance steps, essentially a visual feast, can be enjoyed as a sonic experience. For the visuals, we leave it in the more than capable hands of Elly Lucas, whose photography shows us the Hannah James we all know and love and with not a single drop of splashed paint in sight. The photograph on the back of the accompanying booklet shows Hannah clog dancing barefoot, which is audible on Barefoot Waltz, a whispered dance if you will, one of the treats that makes this a beautiful little album.
Album Review - Living Tradition
Arts Council and Crowd Funded, this album presents music composed, arranged and performed by singer, musician and dancer Hannah James at performances of her live show, Jigdoll.
Themed around her absorptive experiences as a peripatetic performer, passionate about the connective synergies between sound and movement, inured to travelling with a ‘tool box’ of tricks and reliance on the common kindness of strangers, the music also has an emphatic and rooted sylvan soul. This well befits the rhythmic percussive qualities of clog dancing on wooden boards and connection with the customary character of the hand carved jigdoll, her metaphorical show persona.
The compositions reflectively draw on personal life experiences, musical collaborations and manuscripts in the Full English Archive. Their instrumental mainstay is Hannah’s accordion, generally sparingly used but atmospheric and powerfully rhythmic, sometimes heftily so. In addition to sung words she uses a lot of layered ‘diddling’ (vocally rendered tunes as a sort of ‘mouth music’ or, perhaps, folk scat) and some yodelling, interwoven with her percussive dance patterns underpinning the pieces.
Book-ended with soothing lullabies, faintly charged with a slightly sinister edge, songs about woodmanship and woodworking skills are rich with respect for nature and its rejuvenative cycles (the delightful Coppicing Song, for example) and mythic lore (such as The Carpenter’s unsettlingly merry song accompaniment to his manufacture of a cradle for the “little white soul” under the wood-pigeon’s wing). Cleverly onomatopoeic and alliterative song content (Clog Song) also notably exemplifies her respectful balance of authenticity and originality.
Kevin T. Ward
Album Review - Liverpool Sound and Vision
Liverpool Sound and Vision Rating * * * *
Like all good journeys, Jigdoll starts with a kind of hush, the shadow of least expectancy and the haunting breath in the dark, the silence growing till finally the realisation hits home that something nurtured by the elements is about to be unleashed. Like the island at the centre of the world in The Tempest, it is a world populated by the unknown and the spectral, of the rising swell and the phantom cries of nature berating and beating its heart in time to the passing of each moment on the album.
Jigdoll may start with the sound of a solitary breathe but it soon turns into a tornado, an unstoppable avalanche that blissfully catches fire and creates a tension, a conflict that can only be abated, never controlled. It is a tornado that whips a savage sea into shape and rather than leaving desolation in its wake, instead it produces power, unmistakeable and unrelenting, yet beneath its surface it is still able to make the listener’s heart feel satisfied and safe in its care.
Hannah James combines the richness of sound and imagination in her solo album, the product of atmosphere, the rhythm that dances unseen but felt with each marker of the pulse laid down by the agility of accordion, voice and foot percussion, it is a dance that suggests you would be grateful to be asked to attend and to be swept off your feet by and in terms of experience, feels oddly unique and devastatingly haunting.
In tracks such as Barefoot Waltz, Tuulikki’s Tune, Treasures and Karen’s, the musician aims high with her voice, with the intrigue firmly entrenched and it leaps, bounding above the parapet, with integrity intact, captures something unworldly, furtively qualified to make the listener catch their own breath, make them swallow down hard on their preconceptions and relish the sunshine that comes from out the dark.
Jigdoll is an album that comes out of nowhere and sits at the table waiting patiently till you know that the whispering of attraction is loud, practised and forceful, like a seasoned politician biding their time to bring a house to order, Hannah James is so tough that she can stop a listener in their tracks but gentle enough to soothe their worries away.
Hannah James releases Jigdoll on September 2nd.
Ian D. Hall
“The folk traditions of England can be a frustrating field in which to live and work. Unsure of ourselves, and uncertain how to present our art to the wider world, it sometimes seems the performer has a stark choice. They can preach to the already converted with ever more complex, worthy, and finger in the ear interpretations of the contents of Bert Lloyd’s waste-paper bin, in order that a sceptical and greying audience may grant them the gold badge of ‘authenticity’. Or else they can dumb down, mixing in simple dance rhythms of the day and needless electronica, five years after other more contemporary genres have moved on from such sounds, in a futile and usually embarrassing attempt to achieve some sort of ‘relevance’. When was the last time the English folk tradition genuinely led from the front?
Jigdoll, a one woman show conceived and performed by Hannah James, rises above these paths of low resistance and offers something much more interesting. An intelligent, outward looking performance designed to challenge the audience, and pose useful questions both for those inside, and outside the tradition.
This is a full-on show, combining dance, music, song, and digital layering, with few breaks, and even less interpretation. There’s no explanation as to where this or that comes from, no lengthy monologues explaining how this song was learnt from a wax cylinder of the singing of Stanley Scatterbucket in 1907, no discussion of the finer points of clog making. It is a show with the confidence to let the material speak for itself.
Through use of loops, and with a hard working sound engineer furiously balancing levels at the desk, every element of the show’s complex soundscape is generated by the hands, feet, clogs, voice, and accordion. Loops are not new in music, of course, but too often they’re used by guitarists to build walls of sound to contain their self-indulgence, rather than to free up the performer to use a much broader palette of expression.
Hannah goes further still in breaking from the conventions of English folk performance. By taking the character of the Jigdoll, in stylised clothing, swept back hair, and a touch of makeup, she is stepping back from folk world’s clichéd role of performer as lecturer and stand-up, and depersonalising the performance. And brilliant though this performance is, there’s not a trace of showing off, as you are invited to consider the quality of the art, rather than the performer. Her personality returns briefly at the end of each section, as a broad grin suddenly lets us know we can applaud. It makes sense here. In what other genre would the performers normally feel obliged to discuss the material in great depth in the middle of the set? Let the music and dance communicate everything important, and trust the audience to interpret it themselves.
The great triumph of this approach is to change the dynamic of how the audience relates to the show. The ethereal nature of the singing, and the lack of immediate information on the origins of the melodies and words, create welcome space for the audience to ask much more interesting questions. In not knowing, I found myself free to consider the timelessness of this continuously evolving tradition, and the joy of hearing traditional vocal ornaments in such a contemporary setting. By removing the spoken information on the material that one would normally expect at a traditional folk concert, the show, perhaps counter-intuitively, becomes much more open and welcoming to a wider audience. With ‘serious’ traditional music, sometimes you need years of audience experience to understand what the performer is saying about it and why that matters. This can create a barrier that is both off-putting and intimidating to someone encountering the genre for the first time, as it creates a distinct clique in the room who are in the know. By letting the music and dance speak for itself, everyone is free to enjoy it equally on whatever terms they choose. It is richly complex, drawn squarely from the tradition, and yet is immediately accessible.
This is a show I could take my non-folky friends to with complete confidence, and without fear of it being glibly dismissed as merely ‘a good laugh’ at the end. It’s brilliant, utterly engaging, and it needed to happen.”
“Those who saw JigDoll at Shrewsbury whitnessed an elegant, flowing transition between tunes, movement and song. Loops of accordion melody were left to play by themselves, augmented by feet-made percussive sounds that repeated seemingly of their own will. It was Beautiful and Baffling”