Iona Lane – Hallival: Album Review

Reflective, intimate musings – a fine debut album from young Leeds-based singer-songwriter Iona Lane.

Release Date:  25th March 2022

Label: independent – Cat no ILR001CD distributed by Proper Music

Formats: CD / Vinyl /Digital

Leeds-based singer-songwriter Iona Lane is turning quite a few heads at the moment.  She’s attracting complimentary plaudits from the likes of Nancy Kerr, Karine Polwart and Julie Fowlis and the awards are starting to gush in.  Her song, Western Tidal Swell (the opening track on this remarkable album) was a winner in the 2020 Fèis Rois/NatureScots’ In Tune With Nature Competition and she was chosen, by Karine Polwart, to receive the 2020 Taran Guitars Young Players’ Bursary.  After releasing a string of EPs that received glowing reviews, Hallival is her first full-length album.

Iona is 23 years old and a graduate of the Leeds Conservatoire.  Originally from Lancaster, she has spent most of her life across the Pennines in Yorkshire.  She grew up in the market town of Settle and her rural upbringing, and the love of the outdoors that her parents instilled in her, shines through in the music she creates – as Iona explains: “Spending my childhood in the [Yorkshire] Dales was wonderful, but pretty much all our family holidays were north of the border when I was a child so I’ve grown to love the Scottish as well as the English landscape.  Although when I was very young, I remember hating the hills and the walks my parents would take me on and now I love it!”

All of the songs on Hallival are Iona Lane originals – she’s helped out by friends Sol Edwards and Jay Taylor on a few numbers – and each song is reflective, intimate, tastefully arranged and performed and stacked with thoughtful, insightful lyrics.  Subject matter is varied and strongly influenced by the stories, folklore and wild places of these islands.  Iona plays guitar and shruti box and sings with a delightful, vulnerable voice that occupies the middle ground between Kates Rusby and Nash.  The focus is very much on Iona’s lyrics, and she delivers these with clarity and articulation.  The instrumentation is subtle, yet impeccable, and guest musicians, Mia Scott on violin, Louis Berthoud on drums and shells, Sol Edwards on synth and Jay Taylor on double bass, guitar, piano and field organ help to flesh out the sound in all the right places.

The award-winning Western Tidal Swell gets the album underway and sets the template for what’s to come.  The song was inspired by the landscape, wildlife and brutal beauty (Iona’s words) of the Scottish Island of Rum, home of the mountain Hallival that gives the album its title.  Iona evokes the island’s scenery and character in the softest possible way, yet her passion for the place is evident as she sings the “Oh I pine for that coastline/ to climb mountains forged in volcanic decline” lyric.  Mary Anning, a song co-written with Sol, recounts the story of the famed Lyme Regis paleontologist, the subject of the well-known tongue-twister, She Sells Sea Shells by the Sea Shore…, the words of which are included in the song’s lyrics.  It’s a fascinating song that switches between a jazzy style and something that’s almost chamber music, as Iona’s lyrics consider the challenges that Mary Anning faced as her scientific credibility was placed in doubt, merely because she was female.

The haunting, delicate, Tipalt Burn takes its title from a Northumbrian watercourse that Iona imagines holding a dialogue with the nearby Hadrian’s Wall, as the stream makes its way across the borderlands to join the South Tyne River.  One of the sparser songs on the album, it features Iona’s voice and guitar, with just a light touch of violin to add the necessary colour.  May You Find Time is a joyful little song with lyrics that encourage listeners to think of the things that make them happy – Iona’s suggestions include encounters with the ocean, bathing in wild waters, drifting with the ocean tides and currents and listening to a whistling kettle – a kind of “My Favourite Things” for the 2020s.  Sol and Jay both helped with the writing and the result is a song that is genuinely uplifting and softly reassuring.

The Machrie Moor Standing Stones on the Isle of Arran were the inspiration for the reflective, almost anthemic, Fingal and Bran.  Legend has it that the Irish Giant, Finn MacCool, would often tether his dog, Bran to one of the stones, and Iona tells the story in the song as the sparseness of her strummed guitar accompaniment is enriched to an almost orchestral level as the band kick in and out.  Forthcoming single Schiehallion is described in the album’s “outstanding track” in Iona’s press release, and it’s certainly something quite special.  The lyrics reflect not only on the “Schiehallion Experiment” of 1774 when scientists from the Royal Society used the shape and location of Schiehallion mountain in the Grampian range to estimate the density of the Earth, but also on the drunken antics that followed when the learned men had finished their calculations.  Iona sings quickfire lyrics that fit perfectly around the song’s pattering rhythm, whilst guest Lauren MacColl adds some wonderful fiddle parts that seem to dance around the whole thing.

The haunting drone of Iona’s shruti box provides the accompaniment to Mermaid, another song that takes its inspiration from Celtic legend.  This time, the subject is the mermaid that is said to inhabit Loch Assynt in Sutherland and the song is riveting and dramatic, particularly when the band burst in as the story reaches its climax.  The short, happy, Headspace features another sparse accompaniment – Iona’s guitar and some economical piano touches from Jay, before things take on a rare richness for the fragile Crossroads.  Bass, light percussion and Mia’s violin all combine to create a sound that is, simultaneously, light, lush and enjoyable.

News of ongoing arts education cuts and the realization that people often take access to the arts for granted prompted Iona to write The Poet and The Painter.  Iona’s shruti box drone gives the song the feel of a traditional Scottish lament.  The pensive Humankind (the album’s lead single) brings things to a close.  Written during the first lockdown, the lyrics reflect on the importance of human interaction and how exchanges of kindness can help to overcome the effects of isolation.  Scottish singer-songwriter Jenny Sturgeon sings backing vocals as, once again, the band provides a rich chorus counterpoint to Iona’s pared-back verses.

Hallival is an intriguing album that showcases a remarkable talent.  Iona Lane is a hugely talented lyricist, composer and singer and I have no hesitation in predicting a long and successful career for her.  Iona Lane is definitely a name to watch.

And Iona will be taking Hallival on the road this spring, so why not pop along to see for yourself?  Tour itinerary details can be found here.

Watch the Official video to Schiehallion, the forthcoming single from the album, here:

Iona Lane Online: Website/ Facebook/ Twitter/ Instagram/ YouTube

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