Mother’s Not Feeling Herself Today Suzannah Espie Vitamin
Coracle Emily Portman Furrow/Planet
With their latest releases, Australia’s Suzannah Espie and England’s Emily Portman have addressed bravely some rarely aired maternal matters.
Both albums bristle with honesty, offering intense and occasionally painful listening, rendered palatable by the pristine beauty of the artists’ singing and the quality of their backing crews.
Mother’s Not Feeling Herself Today is particularly poignant, largely on account of Espie’s lyrics, which are more prosaic and personal than Portman’s, which veer towards the florid and allegorical style of traditional English folk music.
The songs on the Melburnian’s country, folk and blues-flavoured magnum opus reflect the emotional rollercoaster she encountered while attempting to juggle motherly duties with life as an artist. The apogee of Espie’s postnatal guilt, specifically her fear of failing as a mother, is expressed in the surprisingly upbeat title song that follows a sad, hymn-like piano instrumental.
The juxtaposition of tracks provides dramatic irony.
“Stop making all that noise, put away your toys / ‘cause mother’s not feeling herself today,” Espie sings as a prelude to lines such as: “I need some time to sit and think, pour myself another drink / And ponder on a life gone astray”.
The tenor is set at the get-go as this expressive singer-songwriter backs herself on acoustic guitar while posing the question: “What would you say if I said that motherhood was not the best thing I’ve ever done?” A string section underlines the pathos of What Would You Say. In If I Knew, the album’s biggest production number, featuring electric guitars, strings and back line, she uses the analogy of a rudderless boat to explain her lack of direction: “Look at me sinking to the bottom of a river of tears”.
In Catalina Blue, a pedal steel-infused country ballad, she tags depression the “big old cloud battleship grey”. No fewer than 13 female vocalists join Espie in the latter stages of I’m Sorry, an epic mid-set mea culpa.
With Coracle, Portman takes listeners to similarly dark places with stories of birth and bereavement.
Several songs on her first exclusively self-written album draw on standards from the English folk songbook relating to motherhood, a couple with avian figuration. The eerie Borrowed and Blue, written as a response to the well-thumbed infanticide ballad The Cruel Mother, addresses postnatal depression front-on: “What are those two bald red chicks / Come screaming from my body? / Clawing, pawing to be fed / I’ve turned from glade to factory”.
In the ensuing title piece, a mother is painfully separated from her baby: “They took away my Bonny and what did they leave me? / No cuckoo bird to sing me lies, no wicker doll with painted eyes / To dandle on my knee”.
In brighter humour, on Brink Of June — inspired by traditional words that feature in May Song — Portman looks forward to the birth of her own daughter. The bleakness elsewhere is leavened to a degree by Portman’s exquisite singing and multiinstrumental skills and the excellent harmony provided by the equally fine voices and playing of her chief accompanists, Lucy Farrell and Rachel Newton.
The trio blends sublimely in an imaginatively arranged a cappella retelling of the lullaby Dotterine that also focuses on childbirth.