"The Stars Are Ours" by Ellie GowersReview
As the follow-up to her single pushing back against HS2 ("Waking Up To Stone"), Ellie Gowers today releases "The Stars Are Ours": her first new music since her lockdown composed album exploring the heritage of Warwickshire, ‘Dwelling By The Weir'.
The good news is that it's Ellie standing up against the powers of reaction & destruction again: this time relating to recent reactionary attempts to restrict the right to roam, triggered by the moves to ban wild-camping on Dartmoor. I'm pretty sure that in one of my earliest reviews of her work, I compared her to Billy Bragg: her sense of justice has been in her music as long as I've experienced it.
When I talk to people about Ellie's work (and she is held in very high esteem within the circles in which I move), inevitably the discussion arrives at some point around the shift in style back to simpler acoustic folk on that last album: everyone I know was very excited by the fuller band sound she had developed pre-COVID19, best exemplified by the tracks which appear on her 'Parting Breath' EP and would all like to see her develop further, so the switch took some by surprise.
Well as most of you will know, the album was a COVID project: not foreseen by her & which ended up in the style it did due to the circumstances of those days & the subject matter: it was not intended as a necessarily long term artistic mode. Talking to Ellie last week when I met her at the Hannah Woof/Monday Nights Leamington Bandstand concert, she made it clear that a fuller band sound was something she had every intention of pursuing.
Personally I think Ellie works so well in both worlds & can see absolutely no reason why she would arbitrarily limit herself to one. Taking just her eco-warrior songs: songs like "Against The Tide" or "The Sky Is On Fire" are magnificent with their evocation of the apocalyptic via an electric arrangement: yet "Waking Up To Stone" conveys no less passion via its simpler setting.
"The Stars Are Ours" is cut from similar musical cloth. If you are lucky enough to possess a voice like Ellie's, then conveying pathos and a delicate beauty merits a quieter arrangement. Not that it's what I could call a "simple" one. She has in fact created three variants of the track: the single version, a choral one and an acoustic one (similar to the one she has already performed live on BBC Radio Two's "Folk Show" hosted by Mark Radcliffe). You'll get to see all three on videos but the latter two will only be available on an exclusive CD which you'll need to attend one of her autumn tour dates to access.
The versions are significantly different too: it's not simply a matter of addition or subtraction of instruments nor voices. Each approaches the subject & lyrics from a slightly different musical perspective: just like those devices, which by offering slightly differing images, combine to give a 3D effect, so Ellie gives you variants which come together to an effect even greater than the sum of them all. There are even melodic variations to the basic song to delight in.
What I have always loved about Ellie is her capacity to convey intense emotions without pressing the obvious & overworked buttons. From my earliest experiences of her live work, I loved how she would emphasise her feelings by constant, restless movement & through stamping her boot-clad foot. She simply does not equate communicating deeply held views with raising the volume of her singing: in fact often completely the reverse holds true. It's when her voice is most hushed that you frequently have to watch out for the profundity of her anger.
In fact, to help us grasp the depth of her own emotions here, Ellie has even provided us with a word picture: "you're walking through a valley. The grass is covered in dew and the tips are coloured with the warm morning light. The air is the freshest thing you've breathed in a while. Your brain is empty of the world's woes and you're not paying attention to what fence you're hopping or what path you're taking. You're purely roaming".
In terms of the choral version (which I hope you'll experience either via video or even better by getting the track at one of her concerts), For the first time on one of her records, we get to hear her experiments with complex vocals other than her own: in this case the additional ones coming courtesy of Suzzie Vango, and The Warwick University Chamber Choir Society.
You don't always have to push your music forward in a flamboyant way: Ellie, whose work epitomises "tasteful", demonstrates here that she can work towards what could be classified as "classical" approaches just as much as she can appeal to folk purists or those who are more inclined to indie-rock (e.g. "Against The Tide"). Junking the shackles of genre in her own mind, she can create what she wants, how she wants. No wonder her fanbase continues to grown quantitatively & geographically.
Of course this innovation will not have been introduced at random: it has artistic justification. I'd say that by bringing in all the massed voices (who in turn sing the lyrics "a hundred voices strong" to reinforce the point), Ellie is emphasising the sense of community involved: this is not her solo obsession but a manifestation of values held by many. That the feel of the track is timeless stresses that these are pleasures and rights not merely steeped in tradition but inalienable through practice generation after generation.
As ever with Ellie, she wears her sublimity lightly: the musicianship deployed is beyond most of us & the wonderful detailing of what on initial playing seems a simple accompaniment is revealed through repeated spins. But it's the words she particularly wishes your ears to focus upon and sets the variations up to do just that. I'm sure she's very pleased when you drill down into the crafting, but she would not wish you to do that at the expense of her message.
I suppose in some ways "The Stars Are Ours" has demonstrated its power in that the ban on wild camping on Dartmoor has already been overturned: possibly anticipating its release? In any event, the broad principle "..that standing up together does work…" remains as a template for other actions & an encouragement to activists. As Ellie goes on to say "..there is still a long way to go. A staggering 92% of the UK doesn't have the right to roam; including camping, swimming, and walking. This song seeks to push that message to anyone who will listen, showing just how important these small freedoms are and that the stars should be accessible to all."
These are exciting times for Ellie as her profile grows far beyond the borders of her home county. In between all her myriad other activities (not just her own music: she is a member of Filkin's Ensemble and the Chinewrde Morris dancing group, composed a commissioned piece for a retelling of George Eliot's Middlemarch on Radio Three and has been appointed a Patron of Warwick Folk Festival) and with a substantial national tour this autumn, she was telling me the other day of several other exciting opportunities which she'll be mulling over in the coming months and hopefully announcing.