A folk prayer to the ancestors. A stunning debut from Lewis Barfoot
Release Date: 19th November 2021
Label: Self release
Formats: CD (limited edition) / Download
I’m a recent convert to the music of Lewis Barfoot and, judging by the plaudits that her debut album, Glenaphuca, is gathering from right across the folk media, I’m not the only one to be thoroughly transfixed by this remarkable talent. Lewis Barfoot has a voice like an angel’s, she writes songs that stop you dead in your tracks and she has a talent for interpreting the most familiar of traditional songs and bringing them back to vibrant, relevant life. On Glenaphuca, Lewis exercises all of those talents over and over; it’s a tremendous album; a stunning debut.
The album’s press release describes Glenaphuca as “… a folk prayer to the ancestors, an album full of evocative, autobiographical original compositions and reinventions of traditional songs from Ireland and the UK. Poignant and profound, melancholic and beautiful, Lewis muses upon life, death, loss and the silenced feminine voice with the deepest of grace.” Yes, she certainly does that – and when you’ve listened, you feel like you’ve been hit on the back of the head with a shovel, or run over by a bus, such is the impact of that “deep grace.”
It’s likely that the name Lewis Barfoot is a new one to you. If you follow developments on the folk scene (and, as you’ve read this far, I guess that there’s a good chance that you do…) I guarantee that she’ll be a familiar figure before very long. Born in Walthamstow, London, to an Irish mother and an English father, Lewis is now resident in Cork. She studied medicine at Southampton University and worked as a Junior Doctor in Bath, but her talents were just too great to be constrained by even such an honourable profession. She worked as a Shakespearian actor before turning her attention fully to music, firstly as a singer in Irish folk outfit, Rún and latterly as a solo composer and performer.
Although Glenaphuca is her debut album, it’s not the first product that she’s released – there’s also been a five-track EP, Catch Me (2015) and a couple of singles, Wise Owl (2017) and Hecate (2018). Described as “A timeless and gifted storyteller who captivates listeners with her fearless lyrics and her gorgeous otherworldly voice,” Lewis has been frequently compared to the likes of Kate Rusby, Sandy Denny, Maire Brennan, the young Joni Mitchell and Julie Fowlis – and, after hearing Glenaphuca, I have to agree that those comparisons are accurate.
Those with their ears closest to the folk ground may have already picked up on the singles that eased into circulation over recent months as a precursor to Glenaphuca – White Dress, Sweet Dreams and, most recently, Fishermen – all tracks from the album – have been creating waves through airplay on such channels as RTE Radio 1, Raidio na Gaeltacht and on the BBC. It seems that a lot of people are waiting impatiently for Glenaphuca…
Glenaphuca is characterized by a number of things. The album has a recurring theme of life and death, and the interface of one with the other, particularly situations that involve Lewis’s close family. The production and the instrumentation is uniformly sparse. That’s not to say that the album lacks any presence – Lewis is a wonderful guitarist and most of the songs are built around her softly picked acoustic guitar – and she’s been meticulous in her selection of supporting instrumentation and musicians. Eilisabeth Flett (violin), Matt Dibble (clarinet and piano), Hannah Thomas (cello), Ansuman Biswas (percussion) and Jonny Huddersfield Helm (drums) all contribute excellent, often discretely understated, parts that shine the spotlight on the real starring feature of this album – Lewis’s stunning, clear, intimate vocals.
Latest single, Fishermen, gets the album off to a blistering start. Fingerpicked guitar, laced with some delightful clarinet from Matt, fiddle and interesting percussion that mimics the ebb and flow of the tide, it’s a song that successfully combines the compositional and the traditional, with Lewis’s lyrics blending nicely with references to the traditional song, Dúlamán. The beautiful White Dress, one of several truly outstanding songs, is a touching tribute to Lewis’s late mother. Lewis recalls her mother being laid to rest in her white wedding dress to an accompaniment that is as sadly beautiful as it is respectful.
Despite its subject matter, which contemplates the relationship between the living and those who have passed on (specifically, Lewis and her late mother) Sweet Dreams is a bright and hopeful song, packed with happy memories and the assurance that we can keep in contact with those we have lost through our dreams. The tune is wonderfully comforting too, and there’s more of Matt’s excellent clarinet!
Any former listeners to BBC Radio’s Childrens’ Favourites will be familiar with The Fox – a song that Lewis’s father would sing to her when she was young. Lewis manages to coax a sound from her acoustic guitar that is almost harp-like as she does the song full justice and brings out the humour in lyrics (I particularly enjoyed hearing the description of Old Mrs Flipper-Flopper jumping out of bed – it gets me every time!) Lewis’s delivery of the Gaelic traditional Amhrán Fosuíochta is sublime. Again the accompaniment is restrained, such that Lewis’s voice gets the attention it deserves, and the violin/shruti sound, combined with the Gaelic lyrics has a fascinating cross-cultural effect.
The anthemic Sister Lover is the first of three songs in which Lewis’s expression of subjects that are close to her is at its strongest. A song of feminine solidarity, it’s both gentle and powerful, with a refrain, “Rise up with me, and I’ll rise up with you. Step on my shoulder, sister, I’m coming too” that leaves the listener in no doubt with regard to the strength of Lewis’s commitment.
Written back in 2012, Ballinatray – the name of Lewis’s grandmother’s house in County Cork – is, perhaps the most direct and even disturbing song on the album. The song tells the true story of how Lewis’s grandmother stood up to her abusive husband and was institutionalized for her trouble. Of the couple’s nine children, the six boys all died and the three “raven-haired” sisters (including, I assume, Lewis’s mother) were taken into a convent. The song contains some stunning lines as it recounts the tragic family tale: “The mother was a fine one, the father put drink in his mouth,” “She was labelled as a mad one for speaking her own mind,” “The nuns, not a smile between them, locked the orphanage door” and “Sticks and stones have snapped their bones, but words they hurt the most” are four examples, as the song confronts issues which, as frequent news stories confirm, continue to scorch their mark, even in 2021.
The tribulations of Lewis’s grandmother are also the subject of the gentle Rise Up, as, across the living/dead divide, Lewis urges her grandmother to “Reclaim your name, your strengths, your family.” As I’ve already inferred, this material pulls no punches.
The theme of life and death is continued with Lewis’s take on the traditional Twa Corbies and into the album’s penultimate track, the self-composed Transmission Complete, a song that evokes the wild landscapes of these islands’ extremities, to some vibrant fiddling and the lightest of clarinet touches.
This fine album is brought to its close (and, believe me, this is an album that I didn’t want to end…) with Diddlage, a tune built around a recurrent acoustic guitar figure and – is that a synth bringing up the rear?? The song’s refrain bids us to “Slow down, slow down, slow down” but, in truth, if you’ve been listening to Glenaphuca as closely as I have, you’ve already slowed right down, and you’ve also been given a whole load of food for thought.
By the way – if any of this has whetted your appetite for a taste of Lewis Barfoot, you might be interested to learn that she’s currently on tour to promote Glenaphuca and. As an added bonus, a new single – Tabhair Dom Do Lámh – not included on Glenaphuca – has just been released to coincide with the tour. You might wish to pop along and see for yourself if any of the following dates are convenient:
Sunday 21st November: The Green Note, London;
Wednesday 24th November: Lewes Con Club, Lewes;
Thursday 25th November: Folklore Rooms, Brighton;
Friday 26th November: The Silk Mill, Frome;
Monday 29th November: Prince Albert,. Stroud;
Tuesday 30th November: Baristocrats, Swindon;
Friday 3rd December: Sirius Arts Centre, Cork;
Saturday 4th December: Uillinn, Skibbereen;
Sunday 5th December: Hacketts, West Cork
Watch the official video to White Dress – a track from the album and one of the lead singles – here: