One voice and one piano / Can hold a lot of space, / A lot of time …
So writes Karine Polwart, the multi-award-winning singer-songwriter with the polymathic muse, whose lyrics illuminate social and environmental issues and in particular her love of the natural world.
Now, in Still As Your Sleeping, a gem of a duo album with jazz-folk pianist Dave Milligan, she sings both her own and other material, with a recurring theme of edges, shores and partings as well as geological “deep time”, which she plumbs in her extraordinary song-recitation, Siccar Point, about the East Lothian promontory which enabled James Hutton, founding father of modern geology, to formulate his revolutionary Theory of the Earth.
We flit from East Lothian to Californian fault lines in Kate McGarrigle’s Talk to Me of Mendocino, while a sense of the liminal informs the Michael Marra composition Heaven’s Hound. Time and tide ebb and flow, too, in Richard Farina’s The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood, and in the uncanny shoreline voices of Alasdair Roberts’ piobaireachd-inspired The Old Men of the Shells.
Polwart and Milligan are old friends and near-neighbours in the musician-crammed Midlothian village of Pathhead. They’ve played together in numerous projects, but Still As Your Sleeping emerged from two very different commissions during lockdown. The first was two songs Polwart wrote for Luminate, the creative ageing organisation, which was developing a dementia singing pack, for which Milligan was musical director.
They recorded them at Castle Sound studio last autumn. “It was the first time I’d recorded anything during that year,” Polwart recalls. “A bit emotional to be playing again with other people but it was absolutely easeful because Dave is so brilliant.”
One of these songs, Travel these Ways, features on the album. Then the singer was asked by Radio 4 for a home recording of that timeless anthem of leave-taking, The Parting Glass, for a programme curated by author Margaret Atwood. “It was one of her husband’s favourites and had been played at his funeral,” says Polwart. “I got back to the BBC and said I thought Margaret Atwood was worth something more than me sitting in my bedroom, and that I’d love to do a proper, crafted arrangement with Dave. Amazingly, they got back to me and found a budget for us.
“That was how the seed was planted, and, to be honest, the material for this album came together very quickly. It helps that we live just across the park from each other and know each other really well, so the process of coming up with the material was a delight.”
Right from the introductory notes of the album’s opener, Craigie Hill, Milligan exercises a fine, spare lyricism in his settings. “We’ve done quite a lot of things when in the same projects,” he says, “but there was something quite exposed in this. Having realised the power of that kind of sparseness, with just piano and voice, it just felt really good. We were sitting in the mixing room after recording The Parting Glass, saying, ‘We should probably do more of this.’”
Milligan recently released his album Momento, recorded pre-lockdown with two Italian players. The collaboration with Polwart, he says, was “much more focussed. Momento was born very much out of improvisation and while there are elements of that on this one, I would say it’s quite a carefully crafted album.
“We spent quite a bit of time looking at how to make the overall album something cohesive, so there are little musical threads that keep reappearing. It was a very satisfying process, putting it together – something spare but with this kind of depth to it.”
Another associate from “The Heid”, as Pathhead is known locally, is woodcut artist Jenny Douglas, who illustrated the album’s striking sleeve, whose previous work with geological cross-sections chimed fortuitously with Polwart’s evocation of Hutton’s “no vestige of a beginning … no prospect of an end.”
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