Debut albums arrive in all sorts of contexts, but ‘Tiny Boat' by Lauren South, which comes out tomorrow, relates to an artist whose career trajectory is as close to vertical as one might imagine, so far has she come in so short a time.
Admittedly well respected both for her violin playing, singing & writing in a group context before the period to which I allude, nevertheless I really admire how she learned to play guitar & shruti box to professional performance standards in astonishingly short a time as playing solo was otherwise very challenging trying to combine her primary instrument with vocals.
I'm proud that one of her very first solo outings was for the "Hot Music Live Presents" organised "Hush!" event in March of 2022: an evening, as my review noted, of an impeccable quality: yet also one where she felt she was taking a step into unknow territory. In the intervening twenty months, I couldn't begin to list the gigs she has played, including some very prestigious ones & now she is very much regarded as at the pinnacle of the local folk scene.
That, to some extent, is reflected in her guests on ‘Tiny Boat'. Lauren plays frequently as a duo with Keith Donnelly who contributes six and twelve string guitars and in addition musicians of the calibre of John Parker (double bass), Ben Haines (percussion) and Ellie Gowers (harmony vocals) were keen to play with her: I should also mention that it was Ellie who first drew my attention to Lauren's talents some years previously when she was part of the group Greengrass: her song "History", recorded with that band can be found on ‘Hot Music Live Presents Volume Four‘.
Not that all that stellar support (and there are three other guests I'll mention shortly) in the slightest way makes this anything other than Lauren's album: production (for the record, ‘Tiny Boat' was recorded, mixed and mastered at Heathcote Studios, Whitnash by Lauren with Bill Bates). being another set of skills she set out to acquire (interestingly, Izzie Derry who gave advice on arrangements & mixing also has her album out tomorrow) and all the material is not only her own, but deeply personal, although lightly veiled (certainly not cloaked) in various metaphors which are deliberately diaphanous enough to see through.
In might be worth before plunging into the album to at least acknowledge the context Lauren experienced in creating this magic: a year or so of tremendous artistic progress, though transitioning to a solo artist was, as mentioned challenging, plus some profound personal issues which also required attending to.
The result is exquisite music of the highest class compositionally and performance wise: that sort of beauty informed by pain & sorrow but also of realisation of wonder and love and above all recognising that the future can bring marvellous things too. That these contrasting ideas tend to co-exist in so many of the fourteen songs is a testament to her writing: in fact they entwine themselves around each other within them.
With your permission (which I'll take as read), I'd like to flout convention and start with the thirteenth track, "Judith's Song" as to me, in some ways it's the gateway into Lauren's solo career. Originally recorded three or more years ago with Greengrass (you can find it on their ‘From the Forge' album). I don't often quote unrelated lyrics, but Lauren strikes me in this way: "she's got everything she needs, she's an artist, she don't look back" so this revisit is not, I think, nostalgia, but punctuation between phases of her musical life and even more a reclamation of her personal property as she moves on. The song itself explicitly concerns "..a friend, an over-the-road neighbour and a wonderful mother who left us far too soon" but I think she fits very nicely into the cast of strong women we meet on ‘Tiny Boat'. The song too "..reminds us that people do live on: in memories, in hearts, in our children.." and this sense of moving our gaze onto the future is again prevalent throughout.
Four years ago, the Mechanicals Band, of which Ben & John are members, released their ‘Miscellany #1' EP which included a setting of the W B Yeats poem "Meditation of an Old Fisherman" In one of those curious coincidences, the opening track of Lauren's album is her setting of the same poet's "The Mermaid and the Swimming Lad". With some editing assistance by Reg Meuross, we get perhaps the most abstract song on here: or at least the one most obviously further into fantasy and away from the mundanity of life: though through the prism of the gorgeous music and imagery, the tale tells of tragedy caused by profound incompatibility and of loss caused by desire: ideas which could be applied elsewhere..
The title track is one I loved the moment I heard her perform it live: "a song to remind us to hold our loved ones close. Sometimes, navigating the vast ocean that is life can be daunting, especially when the world seems to spiral out of our control. It's easy to feel insignificant, like a tiny boat on a raging sea, or one small star in the great heavens. This song tells of riding those waves, and ultimately of a realisation that the most precious things in this world are right under our noses". It sets the tone for the emotional heart of the album: if your eyes haven't moistened by this point, then you have a heart of flint and this album is beyond your capacity to relate.
"Heavens" fits right into this: concerned her father whom they lost the same week her first child was born, it references "..the dark and quietness of the night.." which he loved, but despite this considerable specificity, the theme and the imagery without doubt must connect with absolutely anyone who has lost someone that close.
"Weather The Storm" is one of the transitional songs within the set inasmuch as its starting point is clearly a state of challenge reflecting her own trip, but its end extols the value of having people with you to help you through: a very beautifully balanced piece which offers resolution but also advice.
Once we pass this emotional midpoint in the album, wherein negatives are acknowledged rather than denied and can be shown as being susceptible to being faced down, then the imagery & themes start moving away from tempests & angst and towards those aspects of life Lauren values: which include friends but overwhelmingly are her young daughters Sophie, Erin & Chloe to whom ‘Tiny Boat' is dedicated.
I'll cut to the chase here: not only are they dedicatees, but the other three guests mentioned above & they perform backing vocals on album closer (it had to be) "Shine Away". You may have pretty much exhausted the Kleenex by this point. Lauren has a wonderfully "pure" voice, ideal for evoking the most keen of emotions and if you add the vocals of Ellie who has similar talents then the combined effect is stunningly overwhelming. If you then switch to a song which very specifically references aspects of their domestic life, then expresses hopes for her "three little lights" and hear their own voices on there too…. well firstly you'll need to hear it yourself as my words can barely scratch the surface and secondly there is nothing you could follow that with on the album.
I look forwards to hopefully reviewing these three in the future: it's been quite a year for them too. Before their studio debut, they made their live one, at Warwick Folk Festival no less when they accompanied Keith when ill health precluded Lauren being able to perform.
Leading us to that point are "Love is the Answer" (also dedicated to them) "Bring You Home" (about the mindfulness benefits of walking in woods and how Mother Nature grounds us and brings us home), "Across The Sea" (wherein the sailor for once gets to return home safely to be with his loved one) "Here For You" ("some people are worth writing songs for"), "Jessica" (who subversively uses the lemons life gives us to make lemonade: the song is another about moving forwards and the walk here is around Hilmorton locks), "Wayfinder" (again: finding one's way through life and the benefits of nature), "One Star Awake" (which takes an image from "She Moves Through The Fair" to craft another nocturnal sky paean).
To extend Lauren's own woodland theme, sometimes one fails to see the wood for the trees: it was only when I came to start jotting my own thoughts down that the massive internal connections and consistency struck me. I don't think ‘Tiny Boat' was an artificially constructed concept album, but it's impossible to escape Lauren's continual return to the same ideas here: in different precise settings and combinations for sure, but there is a tremendously strong sense of unity and purpose here with song after song building reinforcement of the things she's been learning and which she wants to pass onto us: you suddenly add them all together and you are struck by the cumulative passionate belief in this core concepts: the passion building as each individual track features only that calm, serene voice. This is an exquisite album as I said, but it's also very powerful as you come to understand.
With this combined intensity, one perhaps needs a mid-album emotional breather and so the last track to be mentioned is an instrumental medley "Hope/Boo to the Goose" wherein Lauren reminds us of what brought her to many people's attention in the first place: her fiddle playing. Not that the tunes themselves (the first is a lockdown one and the second autobiographical: she never thought that she'd do this) are inconsistent with the prevailing tone of the tracks around them.
Lauren can truthfully be said to sing and play towards the traditional end of the folk spectrum: hence her standing in that community. However having lured you in with what appear at superficial examination to be from the canon, you find none of them are: one of Lauren's great contributions to music is to refresh the repertoire with new songs, some in a traditional lyrical idiom, others much closer to modern vernacular in order to tell the truth about family life in 2023.
This is a stunning debut & having had a go at describing it to you, I advise you to go out and hear it yourselves: it's transformative and is intended to be so. As I've said, family is prime to her, followed by the woods and countryside round Warwickshire, so breaking out into the wider musical world may not be what she necessarily wants. This album however might lead to that potentially. It must continue that stunning career arc I mentioned at the beginning.
Out of my respect to Lauren, I'll leave the final words (save to point you towards a video of the title track at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CgpjLJl-pHY ) to her
"..'Tiny Boat' is a collection of songs dedicated to my children and written in awe of love and friendship, motherhood, the natural world and the night sky. Life is a gift, and the most precious things in it are free."