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Alison O' Donnell - Profile

  by Malcolm Carter

published: 29 / 10 / 2020

Alison O' Donnell - Profile


Malcolm Carter examines folk legend Alison O'Donnell's two new digital releases, a compilation of her 50-year career in music and a new set of songs with Head South By Weaving.

Few things are certain in the world these days. Sometimes I feel fortunate that I live in a part of the world that has chosen to ignore what is happening worldwide and that I can, if I so choose, live my life as I did before the virus struck. Then there are those days when I see the stupidity of people convinced that nothing has changed and putting not only their lives but the lives of the ones I love and care about in danger. It's those days, the days when it hits that life will never be the same again, that I turn to music to help get me through. But one thing is certain: there are those artists on whom we can always depend to take us away from all the madness for a while, who can transport us to another place with their music and who are always exploring new avenues with the sounds they produce. Alison O'Donnell is one such musician. It still amazes me that, almost five decades since she entered the music world, O'Donnell is still making music that pushes boundaries. While many still associate her with all the various sub-genres of folk music O'Donnell truly does follow her own unique path with little regard to what her contemporaries are doing. The lockdown that those living in the UK have had to endure has not stopped O'Donnell from releasing her music. During this summer there were two releases bearing her name: 'Five Forests', on which O'Donnell joins the band Head South By Weaving and, at last, a compilation of her work, 'Spread Your Sailing Angels Over Me (50 Years Of Song)'. O'Donnell describes herself as a 'singer, musician and writer of songs and soundscapes'. She has played a major part in creating some of the most captivating soundscapes ever released through the years but 'Five Forests' finds her back in a folk/rock setting. Head South By Weaving features Graeme Lockett, and his guitar playing throughout the album is simply wonderful. The O'Donnell-written opening track 'A Penny For The Wrenboys' is a stunning start to 'Five Forests'. Lyrically it's typical O'Donnell in her folk mould, concerning boys who hunted wrens which were then displayed on sticks so they could beg for money on St. Stephen's Day - it shows that her voice has lost none of its charm or power through the years. But even before those familiar vocals draw the listener in, the short instrumental introduction from Lockett and the rest of the band (Tony Swettenham playing mellotron, synth and Wurlitzer and Paul Dadswell occupying the drum stool on this particular track) captures the attention immediately. O'Donnell's talent of delivering stories in that voice has not diminished an iota and her backing vocals as the track develops are nothing short of amazing. The backing from the musicians is also outstanding. Simply put, the song rocks, but there are so many elements to it: of course O'Donnell's outstanding vocals are what we came for but there are so many unexpected flourishes from the band that repeated playing is essential to fully appreciate the work and skill involved in just this opening song. 'Captain Swing And The Twopenny Trash' follows and is in the same folk/rock vein. If it has a fault it's that the song is too short, because just when the listener has been transported back to the English Swing Riots of 1830 the song slows and closes. As on the opener, O'Donnell's vocals are captivating and the backing from Lockett and Swettenham is once more outstanding. O'Donnell has been a contributor to many bands during her career, each time adding her own unique touch and only a fool would attempt to say which musicians worked best with her voice and writing but it must be said that her work with Head South By Weaving - this is their second collaboration - is among the strongest she has ever released. 'Waltzing In The Attic' slows the pace down some. An ageing woman finds her old dancing clothes in the attic which triggers thoughts of her youth. Lockett's subtle but effective electric guitar compliments O'Donnell's vocals perfectly. The sound they produce truly is spine-tingling, especially as the song reaches its climax. 'Little Sandie' is written by Lockett who handles the lead vocals with help from O'Donnell, and given the contrast in their vocals they gel well together. It shows the rockier side of their work together once more and also displays, like most of the tracks on 'Five Forests', short instrumental vocal breaks that inform the songs as efficiently as the vocals. The centerpiece of the album is the seven-minute-plus 'By The Banks Of The Itchen'. Here the pace is slowed down, the song being the most atmospheric on 'Five Forests'. It's given the space to develop slowly so the listener can take in every nuance, and there's plenty to take in. O'Donnell's vocals are breathtaking. We've said before that O'Donnell's voice is an instrument and it still rings true after all these years. This ten-track album ranks up there with O'Donnell's best work and while not wishing to take any credit away from this unique and pioneering vocalist, the input of Graeme Lockett both vocally and with his various instruments (especially his skill on the electric guitar) should be noted. While O'Donnell is still constantly evolving with her music and we never know what to expect next from her, Head South By Weaving is a collaboration we really need to hear more of. So we move on to 'Spread Your Sailing Angels Over Me (50 Years Of Song)'. It's a 13-track collection of songs covering O'Donnell's various collaborations throughout her career. It's not an easy job trying to collate examples of her work considering she has been involved with so many different bands and covered so much ground musically. Trying to make a cohesive collection of songs with just 13 tracks must have been daunting: there is so much to choose from and giving a fair representation of 50 years in one album must have been a nightmare. With a demo of a Mellow Candle song, 'Heaven Heath', and a couple of Flibbertgibbet tracks, there are plenty of O'Donnell's pure folk leanings on show. It's to her credit that these songs still stand up against the more recent tracks on the compilation. It's proof that she's never lost her vision, despite taking so many different roads with her music. In fact, given the timespan of these songs, it's remarkable that the whole 50 minutes sounds like it could have been recorded recently. For those yet to discover what a rare talent we have in Alison O'Donnell then 'Spread Your Sailing Angels Over Me' is a good place to start. The collection takes in tracks from O'Donnell's solo albums - 'Hey Hey Hippy Witch', 'Exotic Masks and Sensible Shoes' and 'Climb Sheer The Fields Of Peace' - and those are worth the price of admission alone. Then there are tracks featuring O'Donnell's collaborations with Isabel Ni Chuireain ('Seals In The Sound' which closes the collection and rates as one of the most beautiful songs O'Donnell has ever made - it leaves the listener in a good frame of mind for the rest of the day), Eishtlinn, The Owl Service, Firefay and Head South By Weaving. Such are the riches to be found in any album which features Alison O'Donnell that practically any track from any album could have been chosen to show the diversity of her work and the major contribution she has made to music during the last 50 years. But this collection is a perfect introduction to an artist who is still producing important music and putting more famous acts into the shadows.

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Alison O' Donnell - Profile

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Interview (2017)
Alison O' Donnell - Interview
Alison O'Donnell, the former front woman with 1960's/1970's pioneering folk outfit Mellow Candle, speaks to Malcolm Carter about her forthcoming second solo album,‘Climb Sheer The Fields Of Peace’

digital downloads



Exotic Masks and Sensible Shoes (2019)
Stunning collection of modern day folk songs on what is just the third solo album from 1960’s folk legend Alison O’Donnell
Climb Sheer The Fields Of Peace (2017)
Hey Hey Hippy Witch (2010)

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