Ellie Gowers premieres new materialReview
Among the various categories of concerts one can go to, there exists the one where the artist can not just slip one new song into their setlist without triggering blank stares, phone checks or toilet/bar breaks, but test out significant numbers of them.
I guess that the key criterion is trust: the artist has built an audience who can cope with the trauma of the previously unheard and who positively embrace what their favoured artist is up to now.
Ellie Gowers has got that fanbase & has long had it. Not only was her lunchtime showcase at Warwick Arts Centre (where she was Artist in Residence last year) of fresh material devoid of covers, it did not include any of her songs from before her ‘Dwelling by the Weir' album and lord knows there are plenty of fan favourites from then.
In fact, after the opening warm-up of "Ribbon Weaver", there wasn't a single piece which I'd ever heard before until she ended the set with her most current single "The Stars Are Ours" and then "Dwelling by the Weir" itself (though she did share "Woman of the Waterways" as an encore due to audience demand for "just one more please").
And the reaction was totally positive: her new songs actually fed a desire from those present for her next moves & believe me, when you hear them too, you'll be as moved & impressed as we all were. At this point I'd also say how great it was to see so many musicians whom we've featured in "Hot Music Live" including Lauren South, Keith Donnelly, Rebecca Mileham, Ali Hutton & Jacob Palmer.
After the passionate songs of the period before the album, which tended to be arranged for a full band sound & were mainly angry laments at how the world was going, I think some people were a bit thrown by ‘Dwelling by the Weir' with its reversion in style to a purer folk one.
I am surprised by this: lockdown circumstances dictated that Ellie would need to simplify her range of instruments for a while and limited for a time to Warwickshire, her project of writing about local subjects, lives & social history was a marvellously creative use of her time rather than sitting idle waiting for better times.
That period came & went and as Ellie herself said, those songs were the stories of other people: it was time to write about herself.
At the moment, these tracks are works in progress. Talking to her, she has yet to commit in her own mind over arrangements beyond the acoustic guitar versions she played today & even the song titles are not set in stone.
What is clear though is that she is exploring structures & forms including but far from limited to what might be called "folk". One (currently referred to as "I Could Be Right") is a beautiful ballad on a very personal note and beyond being sung with that acoustic guitar, owed very little obvious to traditional forms.
Another ("Love in a Park on a Sunday Afternoon") was unlike anything else she has ever written and if she's not considering it as a possible single, then I hope she might. It really does have substantial crossover appeal. (I ran this theory past several others & they did seem to agree with me…..)
Some of the new material was inspired by her 2023 tour of Canada with The Magpies and one ("Sorrow" I think it's called) came from her experience running songwriting workshops at the Arts Centre with Lauren South and Steve "Stylusboy" Jones (she realised that if she was asking others to be honest in their writing, she needed to be a strong role model).
Songs like "A Moment" or "Testing the Water" (both Canadian inspirations) are quintessential Ellie Gowers: rooted in personal experience (the former is her telling herself that when she finds herself in a new place, loving it, that she need not feel guilty about not being homesick; the latter came from swimming on both sides of the cold Atlantic: off Scotland and then very appropriately off Nova Scotia), yet from those foundations fashioning songs which seem to be about so much more: piling abstract meanings upon the concrete.
While these new pieces are being tested in performance and honed before Ellie can decide how to fill the sound out (if it needs it), we get to hear her considerable guitar playing. How she manages the complexities while simultaneously singing so passionately is beyond me: pretty much every song required a new tuning and/or capo shift. Her fingers flew through patterns unknown to me and at one point she was casually dropping single note harmonics into her lines.
What was a bit different in terms of her stagecraft though was a stillness I've never seen from her before. I can only conclude that her trademark dancing as she plays comes from an instinctive reaction to songs she is wholly inside: newer songs may demand more of a conscious concentration before she has fully inhabited them: it was noticeable that she was back to her normal style for the concluding, better known tunes.
Some years ago I wrote in a review how grateful I was that Ellie didn't sound like anyone else: whatever her influences were, she synthesised them into a unique personal style. I'm pretty sure that at the time, I was referring specifically to her voice, but the same applies to her writing.
Some aspects of her craft are permanent: her values and ideals among them. More specific manifestations though evolve. Ellie cannot tread water: her songwriting moves constantly on, always true to who she is but changing as she explores herself and the world around her. This I think is a large part of her appeal to her audience & why they are as happy with unknown songs as her "greatest hits".
I don't know in what forms you may hear the songs we heard today: they probably will have developed by the time she records them, but don't bet against changes in her live performances in the meantime. What I can say is that you'll be moved by the sublimity of what you hear. I was.