One of the great joys of listening to independent artists is that they are free to follow their own paths without constraints imposed by record companies or radio station play lists. Themes can be explored and an artist has a blank canvas on which to express themselves. Experiences can be drawn upon, and stories told, so that the final product is not just entertainment but something that crosses boundaries into a history which can be both very personal and yet have a wider message many years later. With "Heirlooms & Hearsay" Roxanne de Bastion has done exactly that.
It came as something of a surprise to me to realise that Roxanne's first album, "The Real Thing", was released in 2013, there has only been an EP since, which is why several of the songs will be familiar to anyone who sees her live on a regular basis. The album has a feeling that it has grown and matured as she has done and Roxanne's delicate, almost clipped, enunciation adds a tension to the stories.
There is a sense of melancholy running through the album, in marked contract to Roxanne's first release which was far more about relationships that could have both positive and negative outcomes. Compared to that first album "Heirlooms & Hearsay" has a more introspective, tighter focus on the individual and how they interact with a world where they are less important than the society around them. It also explores how so little changes over time.
At its heart this is an album about a man and a piano and understanding that is the key to understanding the album. Roxanne knows the piano, which is still in the family's possession, but she never really knew the man, who was her grandfather. Stephen de Bastion was born in Hungary and learned to play that piano before becoming a professional musician. That was in the 1930s. Shortly afterwards Stephen found his country fought over by two opposing ideologies which both he and the piano, somehow, survived. After the war he found himself displaced, as so many were and the only way to get home was on foot, but he discovered his homeland was no longer his home. He, and the piano, moved to the UK, which opened its doors to those in need.
Opening the album is "Run", very much drawn from her grandfather's life and it's the simplicity of this song that makes it so effective. A piano, obviously, leads the backing and combined with the words gives a very bleak feel. There is no sense of hope, more a throw of the dice with everything based on survival.
"train is heading east
your name is on that list
You better run, run, run,
in the other direction, run, run."
Whilst "Run" is based in the 1940s, "Wasteland" moves forward to the late 1980s and the fall of the Iron Curtain, particularly the Berlin Wall. This, for me, is one of the best tracks on an album which is full of really significant songs. Roxanne occupies a particular time in history because she can just remember the wall opening up, and going at it with a hammer and chisel for souvenirs. Those who come after her will never know it being a barrier, whilst those who came before can remember it being far more than just a piece of masonry, it represented diametrically opposed world views.
Once The Wall ceased to be a barrier, what did it become? That is the question this song poses; what do we "do" with history? Should it be preserved, either as a memorial or reminder, or should the dividing line be erased to represent a new, unified whole?
"On the graveyard / they're building hotels
fluffing up the pillows / so no one can tell
you're lying where I once / took my final stride
face down in the mud / heading for the other side
it's only wasteland to them now"
The sense of change, the lack of permanence, can be found in "Train Tracks" and the listener is unsure who is about. It could be Roxanne, the musician who has to travel to gigs, or her grandfather. Alternatively it could be any number of people today who have to leave their homes for whatever reason; economic, political, religious. The mass movement of people, not always by choice, continues. Despite its world themes this is also the most personal track on the album because the piano featured is Stephen's and is played by his son, Richard de Bastion, who is Roxanne's father.
It has not been easy to select the tracks on this album which best represent the central themes, as each song on "Heirlooms & Hearsay" is a further piece of the puzzle. However, mention has to be made of the final track "Rerun". This is at the core and describes both why the album was created and possibly why it took so long. It closes a very personal album and that must cause a conflict between telling somebody's story whilst respecting the privacy of that person. Roxanne, I have to say, has done a marvellous job with it, drawing together all the threads into a beautiful song. There is the link across generations and a projection into today's world where history appears to be repeating itself, where the lessons of the past not only seem to be forgotten but wilfully ignored. As she says,
"All I am watching / reflections of a memory
dreamt in someone else's dream / a rerun of last year's show"
and then, tellingly
"Where is there left for us to go?"
At the end of this song, so movingly, we hear Stephen de Bastion, playing his own composition "The Old Mill" on his piano on a recording he made himself. Stephen did not continue his career as a musician when in the UK but he still wrote and he used the piano that had come with him. At the end he leaves a message for his children, wishing them health and happiness for their whole lives. It is such a simple wish, but one that seems impossible to achieve.
It would be easy to summarise "Heirlooms & Hearsay" with clichés. It is ground breaking and it is significant but more than that I believe it represent a "coming of age" for Roxanne de Bastion and advances her from the good singer / songwriter she has always been to a commentator who has a real message to send to the world today.
"Heirlooms & Hearsay" is officially released on the 5th May but is now available to pre-order from the artist's website and will be accompanied by a tour. It should be an essential part of anyone's collection.
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