Ferna – understudy: Album Review

Curiouser and curiouser.  The debut album from Belfast songstress Ferna is a lesson in variety and unpredictability

Release Date:  14th April 2023

Label: Stunt Double Records

Formats: CD / Digital

Belfast-based songstress Ferna is starting to make quite a name for herself.  After a couple of years of time-serving – using her given name of Hannah McPhillmy – on Belfast’s vibrant music scene, she distinguished herself from her fellow runners when, with her single, Wasting, she won the 2022 Northern Ireland Music Award for Single of the Year.  And now, here she comes again – this time with her debut album, understudy, a work that has been described as: “…a labour of love for both Hannah/Ferna and for producer Stuart Reid, with a mission to amplify hidden characters and quiet sentiments.”

Ferna (she’s at pains to point out that her alter-ego is pronounced Fear-na) hails originally from Coleraine, a town that is enticingly close to Ireland’s mystical north coast, and there’s little doubt that the mysticism of her native territory – the Causeway Coast, the Bann Estuary, the waters of Lough Foyle and the hills of Donegal – has found a place in her music in which to manifest itself.  In understudy, Ferna has produced a body of work that entwines the intimacy of Kate Bush, the vulnerability of Kate Nash and the melodicism of Laura Nyro with the mysticism of her homeland and her own Laurie Anderson-like courage to explore the outer limits of every musical form to come with something totally unique and absolutely unpredictable.

It was whilst she was completing her Masters degree in Music Composition at the University of Michigan in 2019 that Ferna launched her creative partnership with producer Stuart.  As Ferna reflects: “I was feeling stuck in a musical rut when I met Stu.  We met to discuss recording a video, but he proceeded to provide an extremely honest assessment of my songwriting so far.  I then approached him about working together, after taking a few days to repair my ego…”   

The songs that make up understudy came together slowly; Ferna’s studies, the pandemic and her own rebranding considerations all contributed to the delay, but, mainly it was Ferna’s and Stuart’s attention to detail that that had the greatest impact upon the album’s gestation period.  Ferna, once again, picks up the story: “understudy is all about what’s going on beneath the surface.  Who is speaking?  What nuances are we not picking up on?  Stu and I were already obsessed with every tiny detail, but this became hyper-important due to the theme running through the album.  I can honestly say that every single note, effect and instrument has been handpicked and agonized over at some point.”

And it shows.  Understudy is a fascinating conglomeration of sounds, musical styles and deeply considered lyrics.  I doubt that I’ll hear anything else quite like it this year.

The album is kicked off, appropriately, with Open Up, accurately described in the press release as “emblematic of the album to come.”  Musically, it’s an interesting blend of 80s electronica and Ferna’s folky, comforting voice.  But, perhaps, with this song more than any other on the album, it’s the lyrical content that grabs the listener’s attention as Ferna poses the question: what happens when we become spectators, rather than players, in our own lives?  And that’s a question that, if given more general consideration by lots more people, could actually help us all out the mess we seem to be in…

Wasting, the song that secured that prestigious NI Music prize, comes next, and it’s an early album, highlight.  Pulsing bass and grand synth sweeps provide the backing for a strong, confident vocal from Ferna.  Wasting is a big song, with a big production and some nice ambient moments.

Perhaps my favourite track is the recent single, Morning After.  Guest, the singer-songwriter Joshua Burnside, joins Ferna in a vocal duet with a simple acoustic guitar backing, before the synths creep in and the song mushrooms into an outstanding piece that mixes threads of psych, folk, jazz and electronica to become something utterly unique.  There’s something of a dance rhythm to New City but, by this stage, the listener will know not to be swayed by first impressions and, true to form, the introspective verses come face-to-face with raucous chorus parts whilst, all around, there are dreamy synths, clarinet sounds and all manner of twangs and gurgles to be explored.

The north coast imagery is at its most vivid on River, a song that mainly features Ferna with her acoustic guitar, and which, somehow, manages to be both intimate and dramatic at the same time, before Ferna moves over to piano for Walk On, another of the album’s real highlights.  Swooping string sounds provide a warm background and Ferna captures the spirit of Laura Nyro more effectively than at any other point on the album.

Ferna seems to have stitched three or four songs together into a seamless whole with Bleed.  In between snatches of funky bass/drum rhythms, there are flurries of light, airy vocals and, on occasion, the electronic extremities are eschewed in favour of simpler devices such as harmony vocals and handclaps, before the song is wrapped up by a light, poppy slice of quasi-funk.  It’s another song that demonstrates the sheer variety and unpredictability of this remarkable album.

After the drama of Bleed, the folky Americana of Watchman is a real surprise, but a very pleasant one and Ferna’s vocals are stunning.  There’s more variety with the poppy, accessible, Go Quietly, which merges a quiet confessional song into a big ballad, before things are brought to a close with Lights Out, a final, extreme burst of unpredictability that takes in piano balladry, wild flights of synth, deep psychedelia and something that might be called avant-garde.  As Alice would say… “Curiouser and curiouser…”

Listen to Morning After – Ferna’s current single and a track from the album – here:

Ferna online: Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / YouTube

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