Bridget St. John talks to Atwood Magazine about her music influences, her emergence on the British folk scene, collaborations throughout the years, and about her music projects in the works.
By Guest Writer
Ambling down the aisles at Kim’s Records on Bleecker Street one day about twenty-five years ago, I picked up an album by Bridget St. John called Ask Me No Questions. The cover showed only the pretty face of a young English woman. It wasn’t overly fancy or decorative. Having become familiar with British Folk, and since it was in the British Folk section, I figured I’d give it a listen. Many of my most cherished music discoveries happened this way.
When I got home and listened to the CD, I was transfixed by the magic of St. John’s husky voice and spectacular guitar playing. More importantly, the songs were fresh and new. Each song was like a poem. And St. John’s guitar playing, while intricate and inventive, matched the words and moods of each song. Listening to St. John’s cello-like vocals felt very private, like I walked into a room where someone was playing alone. It didn’t feel like she was whispering in my ear, but I could feel the heat of her voice, as if she was right there singing to me. This intimacy is what makes Bridget St. John’s music so unique and special. More than just being technically interesting, her songs touched me then and continue to move me.
The entire Ask Me No Questions album is a masterpiece. Put out by Dandelion in 1969, Ask Me No Questions was produced by the British John Peel (DJ), who it was said, “created the label to get the music he liked onto record.” There is extraordinarily little production on the record. We hear St. John as she played.
There are a few gems that really stand out for me on Ask Me No Questions. “Curl Your Toes,” echoing the album title, asks questions with each verse, the melody sustained by St. John’s driving guitar picking. And the lyrics are enigmatic.
O, watch the mole as he buries in the dirt
Ask him why he hides, why does it hurt?
He’ll answer with a question:
“Aren’t I escaping just like you? Blessings in shades of what I do.”
While her guitar work is sophisticated, she’s never over playing. Her fingers lightly gallop, adding to the song’s gushing flow of emotion. All music is poetry put to music, but in St. John’s case, this feels more so.
Of course, I went back to Kim’s in a few days and purchased St. John’s other album Songs for the Gentle Man, which I think was the only other CD that was available at the time, at least in the United States. This follow-up to her debut album was produced by Ron Geesin, who had worked with Pink Floyd and Roger Waters. Geesin expanded St. John’s arrangements from the solo acoustic guitar on Ask Me No Questions, adding cellos, flutes, bassoons, violins, horns, and backup voices. The album is described on Allmusic as “penetrating rainy-day folk/Baroque.”
Songs for the Gentle Man opens with “A Day Away.” Reminiscent of Donovan and the Beatles, St. John’s voice and guitar in “A Day Away” are, as mentioned, accompanied by flute and a bassoon. St. John also performs “Back to Stay,” a song written by John Martyn, perhaps in homage to her longtime friend and collaborator. St. John slowly articulates her words, floating over the dreamy landscape of the song.
Although there might be other people in my life
You know, on my mind
You will always find there’s only you
And though you say you’ll journey
to some foreign land I will remember you
Yes, and I’ll be true to your memory
And there’s no need for you to cry
Because I’m back today
I’m back to stay in your arms.
The Tumbler was John Martyn’s second album released on Island Records in 1968. The album shows a progression from his previous solo folk offering to a more expansive sound including significant contributions from jazz flautist Harold McNair.
The duo’s new collection is shot through with a deep longing for home
Two years ago their Grammy-nominated album There Is No Other laid the ground for an intensely productive partnership. Now, Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi have released an album that somehow manages to distil the essence of what many are experiencing in this pandemic: a longing for home and a grappling with death on a scale and in ways living generations hadn’t imagined before 2020.
The American-Italian duo, both long resident in Ireland, give voice to their longing for home, drawing from the American bluegrass and folk canon, Italian opera and folk traditions, English folk and a sheaf of original songs and tunes. Few artists have processed the challenges of pandemic living with such pin-prick precision and raw emotion. This is an album that interrogates our notions of home in this particular time – its emotional lure, its geographical inaccessibility and, unsurprisingly, its ultimate meaning: death.
Giddens and Turrisi don’t shirk the discomfort and disquiet of these times. This remarkably cohesive album of 12 wildly disparate tracks cuts to the heart of what isolation and distance might mean. They draw on the bluegrass tradition for their opening title song, written by Alice Gerrard, and end the collection with a powerfully wordless reading of Amazing Grace, Turrisi’s frame drum and Giddens’s lilting, nay, crying of the melody more lonesome than any lyric. In between the pair draw on the spare contributions of Niwel Tsumbu on guitar and Emer Mayock on pipes and flute, to exquisite effect. Mayock’s pipes on Amazing Grace are lonesomeness personified.
Their cover of Pentangle’s When I Was in My Prime strikes a beautifully spare pose, baroque in tone. Giddens’s pacing is