IN the pantheon of 21st century British folk music there is a vast range of styles, voices and instrumentation from the gravelly tones and often angry lyrics of Dick Gaughan to the soaring harmonies and sweet melodies of Dorset duo Ninebarrow.
There is a world of difference – emotion, politics, instrumentation and attitude – between them – so it is really surprising to read, in the songbook accompanying their new album, how much they admire the Scottish singer, and how it has taken them ten years to “pluck up the courage” to record their own version of the 200-year-old song The Snows They Melt The Soonest, which is on Gaughan’s 1981 album Handful of Earth.
Ninebarrow, Jon Whitley and Jay LaBouchardiere, have been singing together for many years and have built up a large following, not only in their native Dorset but across the region and nationally. Reviews of their recordings and live performances focus on their beautiful close harmonies – “like two halves of one voice,” said Mark Radcliffe on BBC Radio 2 – and on the meticulous way their songs are crafted.
When they formed their professional duo – taking their name from Nine Barrow Down in the Purbecks – they gave up their full-time professions (Jon was a teacher and Jay a GP). It may have seemed a gamble at the time, but it has certainly paid off.
The new album, The Colour of Night, is their fifth studio recording, and follows 2021’s A Pocket Full of Acorns, which won them Folk Album of the Year awards. It is a combination of original songs and covers, including Among The Boughs, an adaptation and arrangement of The Blackbird, by the Dorset dialect poet William Barnes.
In addition to the Barnes poem and the ancient folk song, the 11 tracks include five original songs, one original tune, called Kitty’s Song, and three covers. The album features their regular band members, cellist Lee Mackenzie, double bassist John Parker and Evan Carson on percussion.
When you listen to Ninebarrow, you are almost certain to think of early Simon and Garfunkel – the intricate harmonies, the clear vocal and narrative lines, the poetic sensibility and the emotional commitment. At the heart of Ninebarrow’s sound are Jon’s tenor voice, ukulele and piano playing, with Jay adding his lyrical vocals and skills on the reed organ.
The opening song, House, is a cover of a song by Patrick Wolf and is described by Jon and Jay as something of a lockdown anthem, reflecting on a time when we were all confined to our homes. This was a period when Ninebarrow expanded their activities and creativity, with popular streamed gigs. They have also written books of Dorset walks and have led musical walks for various groups.
Names In the Sky, the second track, was inspired by a Radio 4 programme about a children’s hospice and the work of sound artist Justin Wiggan, who created a sonic garden, using local birdsong, to commemorate children who had died.
Jay’s song Walk With Me is described as “an ode to sharing time … with someone who makes your life better just by being there.” It is a theme which will surely resonate with many listeners. Jay also wrote the title track, inspired by a favourite location, Ninebarrow Woodland, and set to an Icelandic folk tune.
Cast To The Waves recalls an old May Day tradition at Abbotsbury, where village children offered garlands of garden blooms and wild flowers to the sea. The harsh lives of Purbeck quarrymen are celebrated in Ten Miles By Two, with percussionist Evan Carson bringing to life the sounds of a quarry – pickaxes, chisels and mallets. The other tracks are Ride On, Ninebarrow’s version of Jimmy McCarthy’s song, most famously recorded by Christy Moore, and Nick Drake’s River Man.
With Ninebarrow’s trademark perfect harmonies, this album is sure to delight their many fans. If you are coming to them for the first time, you may feel there is too much piano for a folk album – it is all exquisite and beautifully crafted. Not one, perhaps, for the traditional Dick Gaughan fan, but a restful and eloquent collection which will touch many hearts.
The Colour of Night will be released on the Winding Track label on Friday 1st September, and Ninebarrow will be on tour from Lyme Folk Weekend (27th August), with local dates including 15th September at St Michael’s Church, Brent Knoll, Milford on Sea Community Centre near Lymington on 16th September, and The Exchange at Sturminster Newton on 25th November.