Carla Fuchs – Songbird: Album Review

Artful, intimate and sympathetic channelling of Sandy Denny’s lost lyrics by the wonderfully talented Carla Fuchs.

Release Date:  15th September 2023

Label: Talking Elephant Records

Formats: CD / Digital

This one’s important.  

Back in 2010, when Phil Lloyd Smee – searching for inspiration for the artwork for the forthcoming complete Sandy Denny boxset – was browsing the notebooks that the great Sandy Denny had left behind, he discovered something very special indeed; the lyrics for a bunch of yet-to-be-completed songs. 

At the behest of Sandy’s estate, Thea Gilmore turned several of those incomplete works into songs for her 2011 collaboration album, Don’t Stop Singing. But that isn’t the full story – there was a whole tranche of lyrical work that didn’t make the Thea cut and, amongst the left-out material, there were some stunning works still in progress…

Fast forward to 2020 and the COVID pandemic.  Sandy’s daughter, Georgia, by then 43 years old and resident in Melbourne, Australia, was pondering over ways in which she could celebrate her mother’s incredible legacy.  Eventually, that quandary would be solved by a German singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist called Carla Fuchs.  

Already a lover of Sandy’s music, Carla’s Damascene conversion to the Sandy cause occurred during a long 2020 car journey through the snowy mountains of her homeland.  Sandy’s almost-eponymous 1972 album, Sandy was in the CD player and, as she listened, Carla was, in her words, “Overcome with inspiration” by Sandy’s music and voice.  When Carla finally arrived home, she sat down at her piano and started to play her way through Sandy’s songs.  Carla’s project: “Songs of Sandy Denny” had begun.  

Carla started to include Sandy’s songs in her performing repertoire, alongside the songs of Laura Nyro, another massive influence.  Carla posted a few of her covers of Sandy’s songs on YouTube and, as she moved her “Sandy” project forward, Carla started to dive deeper into Sandy’s world.  She composed a new tune to Sixpence, a song that had made its only previous appearance under the title of Song No.4 on the Thea Gilmore collaboration. She came up with a completely new song, Songbird, that considered the relationship between Sandy and her daughter. The song is dedicated Sandy and her daughter, Georgia.

The YouTube postings came to Georgia’s attention and the pair, Georgia and Carla, made contact.  Carla takes up the story:

“Georgia and I first met online after I put my first Sandy covers on YouTube.  Our connection from that first moment is another mystery that is hard to put into words.  We had found each other.  I took courage and sent her my song ‘Songbird’ and my version of Sandy’s lost lyrics to ‘Sixpence.’  Shortly after, I almost fell off my chair when Georgia suggested we make a whole album with lyrics Sandy couldn’t put to music.  From one part of the world to the other, from Australia to Germany.  The depth of our friendship grew with a great gratitude that we had both found someone with whom we could all share this Sandy journey in all its details.  We lived together in our project.  We made plans, supported each other in questions of music, song writing, searching through the original lyrics together with [Georgia’s stepmother] Elizabeth Hurtt.  And, while I was taking care of the music, Georgia was crafting [the album’s] artwork [by merging her own sketches with Sandy’s.]”  

Be in no doubt, Songbird, the end result of all that dedicated work, is a thing of great beauty.  It’s definitely NOT a Sandy Denny tribute album; Carla makes no effort to replicate Sandy’s vocal stylings, and, yet, she manages to allow Sandy’s presence to pervade each and every song.  Carla’s tunes are deeply respectful to Sandy’s legacy and, at times, it’s difficult to believe that Songbird isn’t a genuine, lost, Sandy Denny album.  And, perhaps the ace in the hole as far as these songs are concerned, is the sparse-yet-warm arrangements which allow the listener to fully appreciate how powerful Sandy’s lyrics could be.  

Carla’s delivery of these extra-special songs is marvelous.  Her voice is versatile, equally comfortable at both ends of her impressive range, wonderfully tuneful and no less vulnerable than Sandy would have sounded.  For most of these songs, her chosen accompaniment is piano, and she adds depth and colour in all the right places with splashes of acoustic and electric guitar and some breath taking clarinet.  She can play, there is no doubt about that…  

It’s the aforementioned Sixpence that opens the album, and it’s a truly powerful version.  In the best Sandy Denny tradition, the song is an intimate piano ballad and Carla does it full justice.  The lyrics may have been in the public domain for more than 10 years, but time hasn’t diminished their poignancy and Carla channels Sandy’s deep regret at her place in the world – at the beck and call of others with no care for her frame of mind – and her baffling failure to achieve the major recognition that she so richly deserved, delivering lines like “If I don’t make it before I die, I just ain’t gonna die” with passion and sympathy.  It’s a stunning song.  

A similar lyrical theme is carried over to Go West.  Carla manages to sound uncannily like Joni Mitchell as, once again, Sandy’s lyrics consider her own situation and contemplate whether she would have been better off upping sticks to LA to join her (arguably) more famous songwriting equals.  Carla lifts the mood with some vibrant acoustic guitar work and the pedal steel licks are sumptuous.  

Carla’s own Songbird, the album’s title track, is, of course, the song that put this whole project into motion.  As befits the song’s subject and sentiment, it’s another piano ballad.  Carla’s vocals capture Sandy’s intimacy and introspection wonderfully as Sandy, in the guise of a “beautiful guardian angel” guides Georgia along the obstacle-strewn path of life.  Carla’s electric guitar solo adds a shaft of light and hope to the sad, contemplative Simply Fall Apart, before things take an altogether more optimistic turn for the glorious If You Are Free.  Carla’s come up with a great tune, and her arrangement, laced with acoustic and electric guitars is even quite lush.  Sandy’s lyrics offer encouragement to listeners to confront the world on their own terms, and Carla sings them with passion and commitment.  

The strength of Carla’s own presence is probably at its strongest on the folky Charm and Patience, with strummed guitars and some lovely clarinet providing the foundation for her strong, confident, vocal, but it’s the spine-tingling Georgia that lifts the album to another level and, possibly, provides its focal point.  It’s a song that crystallises the utter devotion of a mother to her helpless child; indeed, these are lyrics that only a mother could write, and the words expose Sandy in her tenderest of moments.  Carla’s new tune suits the mood perfectly and her woodwind parts add substance, whilst the picture is completed by the sleep-chimes at the song’s close.  

Even on an album that captures and channels Sandy’s spirit so thoroughly and authentically, it’s hard to believe that it isn’t Sandy who wrote and sang the tune to Half Way Home.  Really, although she didn’t write the tune, you have to believe that she WOULD have done.  It’s another of the folkier numbers, driven along by multiple guitars, and the electric guitar solo would do credit to another great friend – Jerry Donahue.  

Carla’s atmospheric tune to the lovely Winter Elms is a sure-fire match to the wintry bleakness of Sandy’s lyrics.  The accompaniment of fingerpicked guitar, violin and more of that delicious clarinet adds comfort and warmth to the song, without disturbing the quiet desolation of the leafless scene.  Carla sings the lyric “I wish I was a painter, so I could try to put it down” but, with lyrics as vivid as these, and a tune to match, there’s no need for visuals – we all get the picture, so very clearly.  

And that us leaves us with the epic Winning the Game to close out this amazing album.  I guess that most readers of this review will be familiar with the various published accounts of Sandy’s life story, and it’s all too easy to speculate over the events that maybe sparked the anguish evident in the lyrics of this deeply personal song.  But we won’t.  In structure, the song reminds one of John the Gun, and the piano and clarinet interlude at the song’s heart turns Winning the Game into something of an epic.  Can I be bold enough to suggest that Carla is invited onto the Cropredy stage sometime soon to sing this one with the full Fairport backing?  I guarantee that it would leave the Home Farm crowd dumbstruck.  

What can I say?  Songbird is a fantastic album: tuneful, sympathetic, respectful, innovative and intimate.  The best possible celebration of the legacy of the one and only Sandy Denny.

Songbird is released on 15th September, but if you can’t wait that long, Carla will be launching the album at The Brasenose Fringe in Cropredy on Thursday 10th August (tickets here). Songbird is also available for pre-order via the link here.

Listen to Songbird, the album’s title track and the song that kick-started this whole project, here:

Carla Fuchs: Facebook / Instagram / YouTube

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