When it comes to music we almost invariably have our soft spots. It tends to relate to our formative years, whatever the hell that actually means (I feel that I am still going through some form of formative education. Maybe I’m an exception…). But in the case of the 21-year-old Holly Macve, she most definitely has a soft spot for old school, emotionally draining, American country-noir. Crucially, she is not in hock to this music. It is but a tool that she uses to create thoughtful songs. From the plaintive and nostalgia imbued ‘White Bridge’ (“I’m coming home again where I can see the world in front of me / Walking down this road I know so well / Makes me feel like a child, living young and free”) to the more straight-laced and upbeat country tones and textures of ‘Heartbreak Blues’, it is apparent that while Macve is fretting somewhat about lost innocence (after all, she is not far into ‘adulthood’, the end of the adolescent process) there is some wonderful, easy-to-comprehend articulacy at work here, a trait that country singer songwriters are often damn good at. She is also a fine and graceful storyteller, and clearly spoken to boot. Indeed there is some resolution to the profound changes she is/has experienced, with final track ‘Sycamore Tree’ a kind of denouement, even if it is speckled with sadness and a profound wish to be back in the comfort of a childhood home, and snuggled up in a warm blanket. “One day when I’m old with the past behind me / I want to lay down in the shade of the same old sycamore tree.”
Born in Galway, raised in Yorkshire and based in Brighton, Macve has said she is fascinated and drawn to romantic imagery. Whether it comes via the letters her Great Grandfather wrote whilst serving in WWI (‘All of its Glory’), the aforementioned ‘White Bridge’ or the long and epic unfolding of her life in song form – ‘Sycamore Tree’ (“I was just a child, thinking childish thoughts / playing in the streets they watched me grow”), Golden Eagle is awash with nostalgia, yearning, heartbreak and unsettling changes and realisations, many of the songs here touch on having to face up to the realities of a bittersweet world, the end of youthful innocence, and the onset of sexual awakening.
Mostly recorded in Newcastle at the home studio of producer Paul Gregory (who is also with fellow label mates Lanterns On The Lake), accompanied in places by her touring band, Macve’s starting points are crafted on piano and acoustic guitar, tools she uses simply in underpinning her main weapons, her voice, and her well-crafted song smithery. Possessor of a powerful and deeply resonating voice, she’ll playfully over-emphasise it at times, such as on the classic Gram Parsons style Americana of ‘Heartbreak Blues’, which features heightened yelping and a-yodeling, whilst at other times there is a melancholic streak to the elongated tones, such as on ‘The Corner of My Mind’, which touches on her abandonment by her father, and ‘Timbuktu’ which again concerns escape and trying to face up to adulthood.
One problem that Macve might encounter is that she is British, having only set foot in America for the fist time last year, for SXSW. Brits may prefer a degree of authenticity (Hank Williamson, Johnny Cash et al), or some kind of mystique (see Gillian Welch). But then again, her noirish tones and sentiments are universal. And it’s not all country-style music and it’s various sub-genres, even if we often do appreciate a bit of twang in our lives. The aforementioned ‘All of its Glory’ has an elegant classicism, driven by deep and echoey piano, while album highlight ‘Fear’ veers towards some kind of folk, made up of acoustic finger picking, sparse piano chords, and angelic backing vocals, as Macve once again tackles anxiety and uncertainty: “Don’t hold me back again, I lost my battles for you / Oh fear, don’t tell me silence speaks, I know that can’t be true”.
A very accomplished debut album, Macve’s talents as a singer and songwriter are evident throughout, an artist able to glide effortlessly through jaunty uptempo country rock to deeply sombre and emotional tales of being, figuratively speaking, lost at sea and out of place and time, messaged largely through the idiom of country music and it’s various styles. Golden Eagle comes across as a therapeutic exercise, many times looking back at her much younger self. I look forward to what she has to offer next now that she is a fully grown up and blossoming woman.