Onliness (songs of solitude and singularity)
(Corduroy Punk Records)
Released over thirty years apart, Joni Mitchell's two versions of 'Both Sides Now' provide a lesson on how an artist can best revisit their own material. Joni managed to reinterpret and reimagine something that she'd written many years before, adding decades of her own wisdom and experience without even changing a single word. Anyone considering revisiting their old material should listen to Joni and take notes.
There are, of course, other great artists to turn to when thinking about the art of reinvention. Paul Simon, dedicated his (not quite) final album to his songs that he felt had been overlooked. And then there is Randy Newman who made four whole albums worth of his non-hits with just a solo piano as accompaniment. He unfussily called the new albums 'The Randy Newman Songbook'. Because that was just that what they were - a songbook. And songbooks, well, they'll outlive us all!
I mention all this as singer-songwriter Josienne Clarke has returned to much of her own songbook for her third solo album 'Onliness'. I sense that she may be familiar with all of the (re)recordings mentioned above. She's also noted the brilliance of Bonny 'Prince' Billy and Anaïs Mitchell who've both recycled their earlier works. Clarke has also named Taylor Swift as an influence here. Although Swift's meticulous recreations of her old albums may feel like they are in another musical universe entirely to her, the decision to break away from being exploited to regain legal and financial control over what they're written is universal. In reclaiming her old songs, Clarke was able to '...view them from the place she was now, in charge of every little detail, free to do what she truly wanted with them.' The results are very, very good.
I'll admit at this point that I'm new to Clarke's work and that I'm glad I made my entrance here. I'm happy that I heard these versions first (I've listened to the earlier versions she recorded with Ben Walker and I'm less keen on those). 'Ghost Light' stripped of the decorous piano accompaniment is direct, far more intimate, '...I don't want you to think that I don't want you' feels sincere, more longing and aching than it was before. Similarly the solo electric guitar and voice of the opener 'The Tangled Tree' creates a desolate soundtrack for one of her most hurt and wide-ranging vocals ('you should have been true to your wings/you should have flown away). Its sadness is tangible.
Clarke spent many years being described as a folk singer, and there are moments here where I have had to check that a song is not an old traditional number that she has arranged... 'It Would Not Be a Rose' must surely be a few centuries old! It must be. But then again, it's the purity, the clarity of her voice that makes her performances seem so timeless (if you want further proof, find her moving version of Fairport Convention's 'Fotheringay' on YouTube). She is up there with the greats.
I'm oddly reminded of June Tabor's first album with the Oysterband when I heard the rockier revision of the raging 'Anyone But Me' (and please check out the dark comedy of the single's video) whilst the smouldering saxophone that now runs through 'I Never Learnt French' enhances it's late-night jazz feel. Best of all though is album closer 'Done' - a tale of unrequited love (To you I am a strange girl/ An adorable fool/ Who's full to the brim of nothing you need) the melancholy contrasted with the insightful admission 'be honest...I'm like nobody else'. The sensitive and responsive piano accompaniment adds to the torch-song-like mood. It ends the album on a perfectly tender and reflective note.
Whether or not you are familiar with Josienne Clarke's songbook, 'Onliness' is proof of what a remarkable singer and songwriter she is. I'm sure Joni would approve.