Delightful tales of Warwickshire lives and legends – a stunning debut album from Warwick’s Ellie Gowers
Release Date: 30th September 2022
Label: Gillywisky Records
Formats: CD / Download / Streaming
I love pleasant coincidences and, as it happens, I’ve just been complicit in one of the pleasantest! Let me explain: I live in Warwick and I like to spend my mornings wandering around the local pathways and canal banks, over whatever passes for hills in these parts and around the local villages. That’s before I return home to confine myself in my music room to delight in whatever new music has arrived in my in-tray overnight. And today, I returned from my ramblings to revel in Dwelling By The Weir, the new album from Warwick’s very own songstress the wonderful Ellie Gowers. To my delight, it’s an album that’s packed with songs inspired by Ellie’s own lockdown-induced ramblings around those very same local pathways!
But don’t let me mislead you. Dwelling By The Weir isn’t a Warwickshire travelogue; it’s a collection of mature, observational songs that cover historical, sociological, ecological and personal themes in the most musically engaging of ways. Dwelling By The Weir is a revelation.
Ellie Gowers is beginning to make quite a name for herself. Although Dwelling by the Weir is her debut album, she’s already caused ears to prick up across the broadest aspects of our folk scene through her two EPs – From Here On Out (2018) and Parting Breath (2021) – and she’s becoming something of a staple presence around the festivals too! In 2022 alone, Ellie has appeared at, amongst others, Moseley, Bromyard, Warwick and Priston festivals and she’s currently preparing to embark on a UK tour in November (see details here). You can expect to hear a lot more about Ellie Gowers in the weeks and months to come.
Like many other creative artists whose work has graced these pages over the past couple of years, Ellie took the opportunity, as lockdown hit, to explore and unearth the geography, history and social background that made her home the place it was. She took the time to capture the stories and tales of people who had lived in and around Warwickshire. Those reflections and that research evolved into the material that makes Dwelling by the Weir such a fascinating album. It’s a collection of story-songs that Ellie tells in her own uniquely engaging way, using her lyrical skills to transform the stories into likeable and imaginative songs that are pastoral, evocative, intricate and thoroughly charming.
Musically, the album makes regular references to the work of Nick Drake, Laura Marling and, particularly, Joni Mitchell. I also detected some pretty clear parallels with Kate Rusby and, in one particular case, early Fairport Convention. Ellie’s vocals and acoustic guitar are helped along by contributions from Josh Clark (drums), Seth Bye (strings), Lukas Drinkwater (bass) and Ewan Cameron (whistle). Josh has also looked after the album’s mixing and production and, I have to say, he’s done a masterful job, with focus rightly given to Ellie’s clear, soaring, angelic voice and her soothing, flowing guitar, with backing instrumentation used with great subtlety and timing. Dwelling by the Weir is all about the songs, and the production is highly respectful of that. It delivers an intimacy that is comfortable when it needs to be, but which is refreshingly challenging whenever Ellie starts to explore the darker aspects of Warwickshire life. As we’ll see…
A pastoral introduction of fingerpicked guitar leads into the album’s title track, a dreamy song that gives the first taste of Ellie’s vocal powers. The Nick Drake influence is clearly evident and the listener is put immediately at ease. The tribulations and freedoms of life aboard a working narrowboat form the subject matter for the wonderful Women of the Waterways. Ellie’s well-informed lyrics touch on the lack of space that boat dwellers were (and still are) forced to tolerate – “Born on the water in a landlocked place, for two of us it’s a crowded boat, but we find our space,” as she puts it, but which also celebrate the pleasures of the waterborne lifestyle with lines like “It’s a life with the joys that come with the freedom to roam.” The tune is folky, built around Ellie’s strummed guitar and a plodding bassline, with some lovely whistle from Ewan to top the whole thing off. Women of the Waterways is destined to become a firm Ellie Gowers favouri – just watch!
The death-row musings of Mary Ball, the last person to be publicly hanged in Coventry are given consideration in A Letter to The Dead Husband of Mary Ball. Mary was convicted, in 1849, for poisoning her abusive husband with arsenic and, in this haunting song, Ellie plays the role of an unrepentant Mary as she delivers the payoff line: “I’ll wear the noose, and I’ll see you in hell.” I surmised that the thought-provoking Brightest Moon is a reflection of the fear that gripped the population of Coventry whilst the city was blitzed by the Nazis in 1940, and I particularly liked the line in which Ellie refers to the devastation being caused as “a game only rich men play.” Josh’s production is outstanding as the full band sound adds a richness to the song without ever distracting from the lyrics and the story.
I’m reminded of Kate Rusby as Ellie takes on the persona of a self-pitying horse for Poor Old Horse. The horse reflects on its/his/her life which has involved farm work, an unhappy period in a riding school and being a vehicle for spoilt children before ending, happily, in retirement. It’s a lovely song and a wonderful piece of fun. After a short, enjoyable, instrumental interlude, we get back to serious stuff with Waking Up to Stone, perhaps my favourite on an album that’s packed with superlative songs. Joni Mitchell and What We Did On Our Holidays-period Fairport are both detectable in a song that combines sweeping cymbals, soft drums, swooping bass and the subtlest of guitar parts with Ellie’s passionate vocals as she delivers one of the most committed ecological laments that you’re ever likely to hear. It’s brilliant – a true highlight.
Ellie exercises her storytelling talent once again in Ribbon Weaver, a pleasant folky song with lyrics that reflect on the era of home-based production that pre-dated the industrial revolution, before the theme of the changing industrial environment is brought alarmingly up to date with Last Warwickshire Miner. In a story that will be familiar to the many millions who have seen firsthand the impact that closure of a dominant local industry can have upon the community, Ellie recalls the last days of Daw Mill Colliery in the village of Arley, near Nuneaton. At the time of the pit’s closure in 2013, Daw Mill was the largest colliery in the UK and 650 miners lost their livelihoods as a result of the closure. Ellie recounts the story in the best traditions of the folky industrial lament – in a minor key to suit the sad circumstances of the closure.
The reassurance of being close to home is a continuous theme throughout Dwelling By The Weir and, for This Ground, the album’s closing track, Ellie takes the opportunity to look back at everything her home has given her – security, a place to grow, a place to develop and a place to form her personal relationships. It’s where she belongs, the place from which sheconducts her wanderings and the place to which she always returns. This Ground is maybe the most sophisticated track on the album as Ellie’s guitar is joined by a selection of Seth’s strings to create a tune that touches, alternately and acceptably, on the borders of jazz and schmaltz. It’s a wonderful way to close a charming, engaging album. I’d go as far as saying that Dwelling By The Weir is essential listening.
Watch the video for the Women Of The Waterways, a track from the album, here: