This 2021 release is billed as a debut, but in truth Martha Middlemiss and Mary Moira McKay have been working together for nigh on a decade. That slow burn in the forge has paid off, with their quite distinct voices complementing each other with some really special harmonies. The same applies to their songwriting. Interestingly, while each song is credited first and foremost to either Martha or Mary, each also has a joint credit to ‘The Daughters’, suggesting that each song has been through a collective process to bring it to fruition. Self-penned as the songs are, this is at the singer-songwriter end of our broad folk church. There’s no trad here, though the beauty of the singing suggests they have absorbed the influences of many fine singers over the years. Rightly, the voices take centre stage, accompanied by Martha’s piano or Mary’s acoustic guitar, augmented sparingly by cello, euphonium and just a little electric guitar, but the instruments always leave room for the songs and the lyrics.
The pair came together in the rolling landscape of East Lothian, where they are both now based, but their individual roots in Lanarkshire and the Highlands show too. Indeed the song The Mountains suggest the old cliché that you can take the woman (Martha) out of the Highlands, but you will never take the Highlands out of Martha.
Landscape features strongly, both literally and figuratively. In The Mountains, a runner strives for victory in a beautiful yet challenging landscape; family bears witnesses to successes. It is not hard to read the allegory in the lyrics. Likewise, elsewhere in Hedgerows, the small scale detail of countryside sits together with broad horizons of land and mind; the details ground and anchor, while the skies and distances allow freedom. ‘The contours and the colours / They give my soul space’
Many of McKay’s songs are informed by faith, while Middlemiss too sings on Choose Wisely of ‘the book is our guide’. The language of many of the songs is explicitly biblical in grammar and style; How we Dream is delivered in an angelic register by Maria, asking ‘Your will be done’; while Martha ‘to the hills will lift mine eyes’ in The Mountains. A psalm spoken in Gaelic closes Warm Island Light, a song of personal, inspirational history, rooted in Martha’s highlands.
But the lyrics neither preach nor evangelise. Muchmore, theyillustrate reflection and self-questioning, even self-deprecation, that sits quite naturally in the singer-songwriter idiom. So, in Left Over Love, a song populated by angels and devils, Mary admits to weakness in her faith, styling herself an adulteress, seeking an undeserved forgiveness.
There is also a thread of therapy and healing, through faith, music and the open air. The collection closes with a chorus of ‘We’ll keep on singing ‘til the sighing is no more’. Indeed, in another of Martha’s projects, she has worked with those suffering from Dementia. These ideas can easily be coupled with the lockdown times during which these songs grew. Again, in Doves on her Rooftop, the blowing snow on the Lammermuir Hills is ‘just like the year that’s been’. But heavy going it is not; the tune lilts along in waltz time, which they both seem to favour for so many of their songs.
It is easy to hear in the songs, echoes of familiar artists within folk circles, but there’s much more besides. Returning to Choose Wisely and listening to the unexpected directions of those harmonies, there are shades of California’s Joanna Newsom, while elsewhere, there is the ambition of Kate Bush (have a listen to the vocal filigree on Chocolate Sky), the exploration of Tori Amos.
It really is a broad palette.
Available on bandcamp or from the Amazon platform ‘Folking Storefront’, just be sure that you don’t mix them up with the American rock band of the same name, otherwise you really will be in for a surprise!