“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”
So begins L.P. Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between, but it could easily apply to this wondrous reclamation of a past that had almost been considered lost forever. The story is a well-told one but worth retelling in crib note form. Back in 2021, amongst a plethora of lockdowns and restrictions, Josienne Clarke emerged free after a decade in the music industry, to release A Small Unknowable Thing, where she handled every aspect from the writing, recording and release herself, on her own terms, on her own label. This triggered something within though. A sense of a back catalogue that had been buried somehow, that had never had had their opportunity to shine. The opportunity she sensed that they deserved.
What came from those initial thoughts is Onliness (Songs of Solitude & Singularity), a truly remarkable achievement by an artist who is finding her voice and her feet at the same time. Keen to allow these songs to stand on their own, unshackled from their initial source, with each one recorded anew, following her instincts inspired by musicians like Taylor Swift and Will Oldham revisiting reworking and re-presenting older material and the stripped back sparseness of Anais Mitchell’s XOA. “It’s not a new idea, or one that’s exclusive to me” Clarke says, “But it’s a much more creative endeavour with much more for the listener to gain than a consumerist driven ‘best of’ compilation.”
As for the songs themselves, they are majestic. From the opening number, ‘The Tangled Tree’, written almost 20 years ago, to the bruising ‘Ghost Light’ and ethereal ‘Bells Ring’, these songs have managed to climb out of their history, wearing new clothes, proud of themselves. Allowing a song like ‘Anyone But Me’, a track initially recorded on 2013’s Fire & Fortune with Ben Walker, a new platform to display the paranoia of the lyrics, managing to sound more frenzied than it did on the initial recording a decade ago. Where A Small Unknowable Thing felt like an artist finding her way out of the chrysalis, untangling herself from the ropes that initially bound her, Onliness feels like Clarke is happier in her own skin now. In-between A Small Unknowable Thing and this came the six-track EP Now & Then, which found Clarke covering a random array of tracks that hold a special place in her heart. It also builds a bridge between the new and the old and is well worth listening to for anyone who wants to explore further.
Clarke is much more than a simple folk singer. There are more strings to the bow than she’s ever been given credit for, especially when it comes to her guitar playing, which allows many of the songs to shimmer and shine with a humanity and openness that many of the original recordings couldn’t have. They couldn’t have because she wasn’t that person then, submerged and subdued. Clarke breaks out of the folk setting many times on this set too, the beautiful ‘Chicago’ and ‘I Never Learnt French’ tapping on the jazz door, whilst she straps on her best pair of cowboy boots on ‘Homemade Heartache’ – a song that Clarke always saw potential in, but was initially too country for her tastes.
There’s a playfulness to the music that forty years on this earth, battling the ups and downs of living will give you. She is a powerful songwriter with a voice that insists on being listened to. As an audience, we should be grateful that Clarke has found a happy place, and her music allows her the space to share her many faceted talents with us. The title comes from a word that Clarke had thought she’d invented, only later finding out that it already exists. It means the fact or condition of being alone. As Clarke says herself, “it has both a positive connotation and a really melancholic one – and I feel like that fits every song I’ve ever written.”