What does it take to redirect the trends of culture? Is it money, or is it love? Was mankind tuned into disco, to apocalyptic movies? Or were they tuned into us? These are big questions. These are big, pretentious questions mused over by soul-patched students in suspiciously pristine pubs. But there are valid points behind them, because every now and then a piece of creative media – a book perhaps, or a television show – breaks into the world and deserves to be acknowledged by as many people as possible. Bands have changed the course of popular opinion before – in Fire & Fortune we have an album that deserves to open another new world to music fans.
In the past five years or so there have been two artists who have redefined folk music for those sitting on the outside. Mumford & Sons brought about a sort of respectability to the genre; they allowed the world to see that folk wasn’t all cable-knitted jumpers and fingers in ears. Admittedly now much of the world believes that folk is all banjos, banjos, waistcoats and banjos, but that’s besides the point. Next, Laura Marling redefined modern folk by drawing it back into its own recent history. She drew on influences such as Dylan and, most obviously, Mitchell to create a sound entirely her own but also, most importantly, entirely folk.
Josienne Clarke is a songwriter, first and foremost. She might try and trick you into thinking otherwise – that she is above all a singer of songs. This is a lie. As Marling brought 60s influences to life through her own incredible ability as a writer, so does Clarke bring to us the music of a far more distant era. Fire & Fortune is a record that pairs her own writing with traditional songs from centuries past, though at times you’d be hard pressed to know which are which. In fact, more often than not the best songs on the record are Clarke’s own compositions. As a lyricist, she stands right up amongst any of her contemporaries (a word that feels oddly misplaced when paired with Clarke’s name). On ‘Another Perfect Love’ she softly requests a love with faults: “Don’t peel the skin off my apples/don’t cut the crusts off my bread”. It’s stark and sincere, and over gentle piano and a shuffling snare proves a real highlight on the record. Elsewhere, the title track feels urgent, vital.
Though it stands apart from any other song on the record, all ominous drums and ritualistic vocals, it also represents the album perfectly – a bold mixture of the new and old, put together with great respect of the history but a brave vision for the future of the genre. Josienne Clarke is a songwriter above all else, but we should not kid ourselves. She is blessed with two incredible tools of the trade: her vocals, which are capable of beauty both soaring and subtle, and Ben Walker. The quieter half of the duo, Walker is as vital to the music as Clarke is to the lyrics. His style is instantly recognisable from the duo’s previous work – like the certain way with a brush stroke that separates a Monet from a Pissarro, his touch manages an omnipresence across the album that does not seek to detract attention from the work as a whole.
As a result, there isn’t ever a ‘first listen’ to Fire & Fortune. There are three ‘first listens’. Before anything else you will take in Josienne Clarke’s lyrics, and then you will hear it again as a complete piece. At this point the listener will be aware that they are listening to something very special. It’s only after the third listen, though, when one takes the time simply to listen to Ben Walker’s guitar work and instrumentation, that the listener will be aware that they are listening to something truly incredible. What does it take to redirect the trends of culture? I ask this not as a whisky philosopher, or as a pretentious student attempting intellectual significance. I ask this so that I might understand where we go from here. What we need to do to allow this album to change pop culture in the way that Blonde on Blonde did, that Blue or even Sigh No More did. It’s time the world understood what traditional folk music has to offer us both in history and influence, and if any album has the possibility – nay, the right – to do that, it’s Fire & Fortune.
Words: Stephen Thomas