Shirley Collins – Heart’s Ease

England’s greatest folk singer, braver than ever

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Then just 20 years old and working in a London coffee bar, Shirley Collins first appeared on record on the 1955 compilation Folk Song Today. She was a newcomer alongside such veterans as Bob Copper and Jeannie Robertson, accompanying herself on an autoharp for her take on “Dabbling In The Dew”. In a neat reminder of her dogged commitment to the traditional songs of England, especially of her home county Sussex, she revisits the song here, on her new album, 65 years later.

Heart’s Ease is only the second Collins record since 1978’s For As Many As Will, after which dysphonia and a painful divorce – interestingly, the same circumstances that led to the loss of Linda Thompson’s voice just a few years later – resulted in her 38-year retirement. While the new album’s existence is less miraculous than that of Lodestar’s surprise appearance in 2016, Heart’s Ease finds Collins’ voice rejuvenated, and her confidence restored.

Having performed live in support of the home-recorded Lodestar, she was bold enough to enter a proper studio this time, Metway in Brighton, where she discovered that her delivery was far more dynamic and commanding than on the slightly tentative Lodestar. Age has taken Collins’ range down by an octave since the ’60s and ’70s, but she’s still able to soar up to higher notes on the hymnal “The Christmas Song” and the bluesy “Wondrous Love”. The mellower tones of her voice today are perfect for storytelling too, as on the seafaring tale “The Merry Golden Tree”; indeed, the sharp voice of the more youthful Collins was bleaker, often better suited to tragedies than to swashbuckling.

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Half of Heart’s Ease finds Collins looking back to the work she’s done over the last 65 years. There’s “Dabbling In The Dew”, of course, here known by its other name “Rolling In The Dew”, and “Barbara Allen”, which appeared on her debut album, Sweet England, in 1959, but is now matched with its customary traditional tune. “Whitsun Dance” is a reimagining of a track from 1969’s Anthems In Eden, but stripped of its wheezing Early Music textures, all the better to allow the lyrics to unfurl in mournful celebration of those women widowed in WWI.

Its words were written by Collins’ ex-husband, Austin John Marshall, as were those of “Sweet Greens And Blues”, a tender tribute to her and Marshall’s children. Here Collins, once the companion and assistant of folklorist Alan Lomax on his travels to the heart of America, enlists Nathan Salsburg, stunning guitarist and curator of the digital Alan Lomax Archive, to provide the ornate intro and outro. The result is one of the record’s highlights, Salsburg’s spidery contribution reminiscent of Davy Graham’s 1964 collaboration with Collins, Folk Roots, New Routes. The fond crack of laughter in Collins’ voice as she sings the word “mud” is especially touching.

“She is a young girl with a modern approach to folk music,” read the liner notes of that 1955 compilation, and the rest of Heart’s Ease suggests little in her bold method has changed. “Locked In Ice” could pass for a traditional song, but is in fact a modern composition, the work of her late nephew, Dolly Collins’ son Buz. Just one of a number of sea-based songs on the record – an unconscious thread, the singer tells Uncut – it recounts the true story of a ship lost in the icepack for a century. To match the words, Collins and her main collaborator Ian Kearey transform the louder original into a spectral, translucent thing, floating on hesitant steel-string acoustic, ghostly mandolin and distant, almost ambient electric guitar. The result is one of her finest pieces, Collins’ unadorned voice perfectly inhabiting that of the “little ghost ship… doomed to travel endlessly”.

More experimental still is the closer, “Crowlink”, named after one of the singer’s favourite South Downs walks, and featuring Ossian Brown on droning hurdy-gurdy and Matthew Shaw providing electronics and field recordings from the actual location. With Collins’ voice drifting on the salt breeze amid eldritch synthesiser and harmonium tones, it’s a perfect, if unexpected, way to end the record. After all, so much of folk music is based on the idea of the drone, and many traditional songs, especially when performed by a sensitive interpreter such as Collins, have an eeriness about them, like some primal transmission from an ancient, collective dream.

At this stage, just the appearance of a new Shirley Collins album is cause for celebration. Heart’s Ease doesn’t just show up for applause, though: it’s as touching, beautiful and dark as any of Collins’ records, and even pushes her sound into new territories. Sixty-five years into her recording career, that modern approach to folk music is still yielding treasures.

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