Perhaps the real test of an artist lies in how they perform when the usual props of performance – pyrotechnics, seething crowd, full electric band – are stripped away. If that’s true, this intimate new offering from Heather Findlay and long-time musical partner Chris Johnson demonstrates once again the potency of serious artistry and confidence. Equally, this fan-funded album – the product of a unique gig in York attended by a mere 30 souls who bid for their ‘golden’ tickets – confirms their long-standing commitment to artistic independence. The reward for Findlay’s and Johnson’s uncompromising passion is a work of delight and joy, their back catalogue reworked into music of vulnerability and longing.
Beginning with the startling Phoenix, Findlay unleashes the full impact of her haunting, rocky throat with such intensity that you are left in no doubt that her post-Mostly Autumn career is all about new life rising. Johnson fully earns his equal billing, however. Alternately sculpting precise riffs and rough-rimmed strumming, his voice engages edgily with Findlay’s, like lovers caught in a death dance. Leavening this ferocity is the banter between the two.
This, then, is prog seen very clearly through the lens of the folk scene, of small passionate crowds and the witty chat which traditionally sustained that genre. However, it is the musical sharpness which mesmerises. The sinuous harmonies on Blue Light are as uncanny and mysterious as two ghosts seeking to speak to us from the other side. Equally, the unity of purpose on Caught In The Fold is shattering.
When Findlay takes the lead on the Johnson-penned Gaze, we receive a reminder that Johnson is up there with Richard Thompson in being able to write songs perfect for the female voice. Findlay’s voice reveals new artistic possibilities with its precision, clarity and utter emotional focus. Her work with Mostly Autumn and Odin Dragonfly demonstrated her trad prog quality, but this album’s simplicity reveals fresh opportunities.
The stripped-back arrangement of Mostly Autumn’s classic Evergreen offers a moment of genuine transcendence: what has always been a song of beauty becomes an act of emotional exposure to shred your heart. Even setting aside the campfire country of Gillian Welch’s Dear Someone, the duo’s approach bears comparison to the acoustica of Eliza Gilkyson and Lucy Kaplansky, while retaining authentic English wit. Findlay and Johnson’s album truly deserves a wide audience.