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EP review: Julie Murphy “Mermaid EP” (FRUK)

December 10, 2014

Julie Murphy "The Mermaid EP" coverPerhaps best known for her work with Fernhill, whose album Amser has been one of my musical highlights of the year, Julie Murphy has also previously collaborated extensively with other musicians – Dylan Fowler and Nigel Eaton come to mind, as does Robert Plant (she recently guested on the song ‘Embrace Another Fall’ on his album lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar) – but has always maintained a solo career, even though there have been long gaps between recordings. However, Julie’s now been able to find the time to record an EP of what she describes as “three folk songs I love, recorded in beautiful places”. It’s a real gem to round out what has been a busy year for her, while at the same time paving the way for the new solo album on which she’s currently working, to be released in 2015.

The opening ‘Mermaid’, in which Julie accompanies herself on piano, takes its lyrical inspiration from an 18th century sea ballad – a version of it can be found in the Child Ballads but it’s also known by a number of other titles, including ‘Waves On The Sea’, ‘The Stormy Winds’ and ‘The Wrecked Ship’ – but, despite the familiar melody, it’s Julie’s spine-tingling performance which draws you in.

Second track ‘Sparrow’ has its roots in an Appalachian ballad found in the Roud Folk Song Index and is also known variously as ‘Come All You Fair And Tender Ladies’, ‘Tiny Sparrow’ or ‘Little Sparrow’. As with ‘Mermaid’, it features Julie accompanying herself on the grand piano at a friend’s house on the Teifi Estuary, although on close listening, it’s possible to hear the chirping of caged birds in the room.

The closing ‘Shells In The Ocean’ is based on a 17th century English/Irish traditional song, ‘The Sorrowful Lady’s Complaint’ (also known as ‘I Never Will Marry’ and ‘The Lover’s Lament For Her Sailor’) and is a field recording of Julie singing a capella in a cave on the seashore near Llangrannog accompanied only, as she says in the sleeve notes, by the Atlantic ocean.

The presence of the sea, whether real or implied, is somehow felt throughout the Mermaid EP and it provides a conceptual link which resonates deeply. Welsh Celtic mythology tells us that those liminal spaces between land and water acted as doorways to Annwn – the Otherworld, or The Isles of the Blessed – a winterless land of delights and eternal youth where disease was absent and food was plentiful. Close your eyes and listen to Julie’s impressionistic and stunningly evocative interpretations of these three traditional folk tunes and it’s very easy to let your imagination carry you away to that blissful place. Through the intense intimacy of her performances, Julie Murphy demonstrates her rare ability to transform traditional tunes into something magical, light years from the originals while, at the same time, reminding us of the fundamental humanity of the stories they tell.

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Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (10 December 2014)

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