Martha Tilston – The Sea

Martha Tilston - The Sea
Eschewing folk music in favour of the alternative festival scene from the early noughties onwards, the former Brighton girl Martha Tilston has, over the last decade, matured and grown in stature as an independent musician – all her albums have been self-financed with a strong social conscience – but who has decided to come home to roost, as it were, tackling some of the songs that were a staple of her childhood, often hearing them first hand from some of the folk greats of the modern era. Her father, Steve, ran a folk club in Bristol in the 70s and so players such as Bert Jansch and John Renbourn would file through the family kitchen, with the inevitable songs in tow.

And so, with a desire to bring the disparate strands of her family and musical friends together, she alighted on the idea of recording an album of folk songs and tales that are predominately, if sometimes loosely, themed around the sea, retelling many of the songs that was a big part of her upbringing, even if at the time she could barely remember them. With hindsight, it seems to be the obvious thing to do but there was probably a good deal of heart-searching on the part of Martha, questioning whether she could do the songs justice, to live up to the high standards that had already born fruit, on songs such as Lowlands of Holland, Lovely on the Water (both performed by Steeleye Span), Black Waterside (Bert Jansch), and The House Carpenter (Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Pentangle et al). She needn't have unduly fretted, for with the help of some fine musicians and singers in their own right, she has steered a respectful course through the perilous waters of folk history. Although not adding significantly to what are, for the most part, well worn songs, and occasionally falling prey to feyness (which is, perversely, part of her charm to many) and a limited vocal range, they're still interpreted with enough spirit of independence to make them distinct, and not just purist re-tellings… for folk's sake. With her gently finger-picked style, her own highly distinctive vibrato, the use of differing guest vocalists throughout, and supplemented by the generally tasteful playing of long time musical partner Nick Marshall, and her 'Scientists' Matt Tweed and Tim Cotterell – the Brighton based fiddler – The Sea is an important stepping stone in the gently sloping upwards trajectory of Martha Tilston.

With her stepmother, and formative singing influence, Maggie Boyle, on vocals and flute for the album opener, Lovely on The Water is given a slight Crosby, Stills & Nash harmony treatment and the tone is set for this respectful, engaging and thoughtful collection of songs, enlivened in the most unexpected of ways with the follow up track Lowlands of Holland, which features one Kevin Whately, aka Inspector Lewis, the actor best known for his roles in Morse and Lewis! Kevin and his brother, Frank, are part-time folkies it seems, both capable of delivering, albeit in that low-key pub singing type of way, as evidenced by both their contributions, apparently done long distance thanks to the beauty of the modern telecommunication age. Lamb double bassist Jon Thorne also contributes on Lowlands, with Maggie Boyle once again on flute.

The only true original here, Martha and Matt Kelly's Shipwreckers – although it does incorporate Rudyard Kipling's Smuggler's Song – epitomises the influence that Cornwall has on the album; it's long tradition of seafaring ways and war, the predominant histories of this ancient place. Not only does she live there now, but the album was largely recorded in a converted old fish warehouse, overlooking Falmouth estuary. The slave trade is also touched upon here, with the mournful Shallow Brown given a relatively rare outing. A West Indian sea shanty, it features the deep tones of Joe Tilston, her younger brother, and bassist with ska punk band Random Hand. A song suggested to them by fellow Cornwallian and also former Brighton resident Johnny Lamb (who in turn learned it from Mary Hampton, another Brighton resident) who goes under the moniker 30 Pounds of Bone, it's obviously a pleasure for them to sing together, Joe's rich and gruff tones belying his young years, while his heavier guitar playing is again an effective counterpart to overall lightness on the rest of the album.

The late Bert Jansch's Black Waterside gets yet another makeover (famously interpreted by Jimmy Page of course, via Black Mountain Way, although Tilston has good reason in that Jansch was a family friend and regular visitor to the family household. Ultimately a brave decision to have a go at such a modern standard, just guitar and Martha's vocal adorn the song, along with a smattering of piano later on; it's performed with understated skill and warmth, a job well done.

Martha's dad, Steve, provides vocals on The Fisherlad of Whitby, a song he had previously recorded for his Ziggurat album, while relative newcomer Nathan Ball – who Martha used to play a lot with in her festival days –  takes on the well-known Scottish ballad The House Carpenter, a deeply meaningful and dark song about  heaven and hell, love and duty, greed and selflessness.

Mermaid of Zennor opens with Steve James taking the opening verse, based on an old hymn, before Martha takes over, the song developed via a Cornish folk tale, and which displays her Joni Mitchell influence. It's a little more strident than almost everything else here, upping the tempo towards almost hoedown territory, before it changes gear, the ghostly voice of Steve James in and out of the mix, while Martha slowly brings the song to a vocal-only denouement. It's a beautiful song, and a fitting closer, before the 'hidden' track, a reprise of Whitby Bay, eventually appears with older sister Sophie joining Martha for a gorgeously performed duet.

Although at times giving the impression of being fey and dreamy, Martha Tilston benefits from the juxtaposition of other vocals here, male and female, in producing an album respectful of its roots, but not in thrall to them. I'm sure her family would be proud.

Jeff Hemmings