Roots/folk

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music Reviews - Tony Hil­lier

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.

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