Tilly Moses is a 19-year-old mandolin player and singer-songwriter, originally from Suffolk but now living in York – all the more surprising, then, that she’s thus far evaded my radar, especially since she’s been writing and performing since the age of 13. She released her debut EP, Painted Faces, a few years back – under the name of Tilly Dalgleish; since then, I understand, she’s built a faithful following through her colourful stage presence and a succession of highly-rated appearances supporting the great and the good of the folk world. It’s all been excellent preparation for the eventual release of her first full-length album, Alight And Adrift, on which she’s joined by BBC Award winners Sam Kelly, James Delarre and Kit Downes as well as several other talented musicians (Finn Collinson, Kevin Duncan, Ginny Davis, Samuel McKie, Ellie West and Dave Gatward). It’s a tribute to the artistry and insight of her producer Kevin Duncan that Tilly’s voice and the delicate texture of her mandolin (and very occasional guitar) playing are given space to breathe and remain in a credible perspective within the total sound-picture. And of course, the mandolin is not the usual instrument of choice for the average guitar-toting s/s – so Tilly scores points for her enterprise right from the start.
Having said all that, I don’t want to give the impression that Tilly’s a wilful eccentric whose sole objective is to make an impact and defy s/s convention by showiness and flamboyance. This is far from the truth – as just one listen to this brilliant album will convince you. Tilly’s songs are masterpieces of emotional raw power, a quality that resides in the stripped-back nature of her writing and performing style – and all this despite some imaginative, often quite busy musical settings conjured specially for the album. For Tilly possesses an uncanny ability to communicate her messages and narratives with total conviction and an immediacy and intellectual as well as emotional depth.
Tilly’s debut album pushes the boundaries of folk almost subconsciously, and it’s no exaggeration to say that virtually every track boasts a different sound or arrangement, however distinctive be her vocal delivery and filigree mandolin playing. The opening track, the decidedly empowering and defiant mission-statement of Definitions, starts sparsely, even diffidently, then truly blossoms as the texture opens out with swooning cellos providing a curiously lush repeated figure. Water Man is a simple yet extremely poignant reflection on the idealism of romance, with some delicately judged harmonies from Sam Kelly (his full duet with Tilly on the touching love song Harbour is an album highlight, by the way). The personal battleground of Fear With Fire is stirringly set to a sweet-toned, fulsome Celtic-style backdrop featuring whistle, fiddle, bouzouki and harmonium. The desolation of Lonely Birds is characterised by bleak mandolin wingbeat-ripples, while Flatlands wistfully explores Tilly’s connections with her native fenland landscape. The eerie atmospherics of Ragdoll invoke a sort of cross between Lal Waterson and Rose Kemp, whereas the harmonium-backed Footprints (where Tilly reflects realistically on, and takes strange comfort from, our inevitable impermanence in the scheme of things here on earth) has an almost religious, eastern-hymnal aura. Album closer Whisky is an affectionate waltz-time portrait-cum-memoir of her collaborator Sam McKie. Tucked away in the running order close to the end of the album we find its lone traditional song, Hares On The Mountain, which is given an extraordinary brooding, weird psych-folk treatment replete with imaginative touches and a full-blown electric guitar solo: another disc highlight, although entirely different from the rest of the tracks.
The only song which I feel loses something (a little)in impact is Paper Conflicts, an important song within Tilly’s work which is here given a plain, rather too “grey” setting that, while ably supporting Tilly’s voice, seems (at least by comparison with the rest of the songs) a tad lacking in textural or melodic interest, which thus arguably underplays, even dilutes, the passion of its message.
All the lyrics are given on the superbly presented insert too. A great package that sets a high benchmark for Tilly in what looks like being an illustrious career on the fringes of folk. Her strong will and determination, backed by her serious talent, have clearly paid off on Alight And Adrift.
As a postscript, I’ve just discovered that four of the album’s songs (Paper Conflicts, Definitions, One Of Them and Fear With Fire) are also part of a conceptual set (songs of conflict) that Tilly and Sam McKie performed at last year’s Folk Festival East; this set is available separately through Tilly’s website, in the shape of an intimate, home-recorded “live demo” album (War In Words).
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