By Jamie McDonald of the Reflex Hour.
Subtlety, intricacy, pain and whimsy. All words wrapped up in the charm of Rachel Sermanni’s ever broadening forays into love within her blend of folk-noir. Since her first EP, The Bothy Sessions, in 2011, Sermanni has taken on a journey of self discovery in her music. Through constant touring, collaboration and spontaneity in recording, she has moved from lonesome balladeer to commanding songstress at the leading edge of her genre, with an impressive backing band to suit.
Walking this path has culminated in a string of records, EPs, joint ventures and, of course, much time spent on the road. Her most recent project will be revealed next month with the release of a digital EP, the sale of some of her artwork and a collection of Sonnets.
Adorers of Scotland’s folk queen were treated to a particularly special concert at Edinburgh’s Summerhall on Friday night. After a worthy ovation for artist, sculptor and songwriter, Faith Eliott, Sermanni and her band fill the tight stage in the Dissection Room, so named because of the venue’s previous life as the Edinburgh Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies.
With the rise and fall of her heels acting as an orchestra conductor’s baton, Sermanni submerges us in Breathe Easy from Under Mountains (2012). The set list is comprised of tracks plucked from various releases from the discography, but each song still seems to blow a kiss to the next with the pain of love a persisting motif.
Run and Tractor, both from Tied to the Moon (2015) are where we get to see the new Sermanni. There’s a real vigour shown in these tracks, with deep-cutting driving guitar riffs and piercingly beautiful yet haunting vocal lines ebbing from major to minor so freely, this is a clear move away from the supple sweetness of earlier songs.
The set is broken up neatly between the full band, solo pieces and a quartet of piano, guitar and two violins. The starkness of Ferryman, where we are treated to a lone Sermanni with nothing but her mandolin is a standout moment. The wise fables embedded in her strand of trad carry over so much gravitas that it’s hard to believe these words weren’t penned a century ago by some forgotten poet.
I asked the old man about crossing the river
“How much do you charge for the ferry boat?”
He told us he wasn’t a fisher
He’d punt us across without asking
But caution was there in his rowing
“For love like this”, he said, “don’t ever float.”
There’s an attractive self-deprecation in all of this too. The gut-wrench is dressed up in Sermanni’s sweet, playful sense of humour. “This song is even sadder than the last” she jokes before the extraordinarily long and, it has to be said, extraordinarily sad Gently, released last year on the EP of the same name.
As we come towards the close, Edinburgh’s Adam Holmes takes to the stage for a duet on Banks Are Broken, a simple song on which the full band shine bright, building and building into a swaying choral bliss.
Love and the lack of it is at the core of Sermanni’s songwriting. But as we venture side-by-side with her through this forlorn journey, there’s actually surprisingly little retrospective heartache. Despite how painful these love songs can seem on the face of it, the beauty in which they are delivered makes everything fade into the background. As Sermanni says herself, if you’re feeling bad, do something with that energy and it’ll make you feel better once more. Clearly, her way of harnessing that emotion is in penning classics, a lesson to us all perhaps.
The final flourish; a cover of Johnny Cash’s A Thing Called Love, is the neatest summary.
See Rachel Sermanni tour dates here.