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Shire Folk Album of 2017
Trails & Tribulations
The Rheingans Sisters:
Daughters of a musical instrument maker, Rowan and Anna Rheingans released their debut album, ‘Glad Gold Hearts’, in 2013, but it wasn’t until 2015’s ‘Already Home’ that they arguably hit their stride – winning Best Original Track at 2016’s BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards for ‘Already Home’s Mackerel’.
Despite ‘Already Home’s’ success, new album ‘Bright Field’ marks a real step change for the duo, whose sound calls on not only music from the British Isles, but also outside these shores (both have studied in Sweden and Norway, while Anna plays and teaches in Toulouse, France). It’s also their first to feature almost exclusively original material (there’s only one ‘traditional’ credit).
Key to the creation of the record, and their development as songwriters, has been their decision to spend more time on the process.
‘We spent about a year writing and working towards the album, and then we recorded it quite slowly,’ says Rowan.
‘In the past we’ve had four-and-a-half-days and tried to record three or four songs a day. With this one, we wanted to go into the studio on the first day and only think one song ahead. We do that song, then we move on. We decided on a slower pace, to think about the detail. I’m proud of how much space there is in the album, we’ve taken time to enjoy it. For the first two, we were desperately trying to find a week to record. Now, we have more of a reputation, we can rest a little bit, and take our time a bit more.
‘We wanted to see what would happen when we just concentrated on writing and playing.’
Behind many of the songs are themes of light and darkness, and also nature: fox cubs in forests, wild boars and badgers, mountains, creeping ivy, birds, fields …
‘Nature and the natural world is in there – that could be about stopping and taking a moment to look at our lives. But lots of the songs are set in nature, are about the natural world. I write about animals, but for me they’re metaphors, I use animals like a vessel … ‘
Central to the album is the title track, which is based on a poem by writer R. S. Thomas, who spent much of his life as a clergyman in rural Wales, and passed away in 2000 aged 87. A fan, Rowan picked up several books of his prose from a local Post Office while visiting a friend who was studying on the Llŷn Peninsula, where Thomas used to live. But it was a chance discussion about Thomas with a former headmaster after a gig that led Rowan to re-evaluate ‘Bright Field’.
RS: ‘He said his favourite poem was ‘Bright Field’ so I went home and re-read it. That was two-and-a-half-years before we finally realised we could frame this whole album with it,’ she recalls.
‘It just kept returning, this idea was not going to go away. The poem was one of the later things we recorded and it gave us a boat to sail in …
‘I love that – how life knits itself together.’
Bright Field’s songs are framed by two almost other-worldly instrumentals, Anna’s ‘Glattugla’ and Rowan’s ‘Three Springs’.
‘The way it opens and closes is quite a hard thing. It’s quite … esoteric, quite raw, the fiddle sound we’ve gone for, it’s … tense! It’s like you know that something is going to happen – that’s how the album begins. I’m quite proud of that.’
‘It was a decision we made for artistic reasons. It’s very hard work thinking about track order, we do have to think about that. People want to have a single or short song to open with or something suitable for radio play within the first three songs, and those things are important, they’re about how we listen to music.’
Though they did debate the placing of the two instrumentals, in the end, the sisters decided to trust their instincts and the listeners.
‘Dylan Fowler, who we recorded the album with, described it as quite an uncompromising sound. I remember thinking, how will it go down? It was the right decision, it was. You have to trust the listener. Some of my favourite albums are not immediate, and I like that. So we decided to trust people.’
The coming months see the sisters perform headline dates across the UK and take to the stage at several major festivals, including Towersey in Oxfordshire (24–27 August 2018), where Rowan will be appearing both with Anna, and also her other band, the equally acclaimed folk trio Lady Maisery.
Of the challenge of performing with two very different acts, with relatively little time to re-set between appearances, Rowan says: ‘It can be difficult to make the transition, but you can also just slip back into it.’
The Rheingans Sisters’ third album Bright Field is out now on Rootbeat Reacords and you can see the Sisters play Towersey Festival on Sunday 26 August