There’s nothing better than an artist taking your breath away. A painting can do it, a line in a book or the movement on an actor’s shoulder. But there’s nothing, nothing, that can startle you like a great voice singing an interesting song. Scouser Rachael Jean Harris has a great voice… and her songs get more interesting with every performance. By Alan O’Hare.
“I’m interested in communicating the stories of people found on the raw edges of life.” Rachael Jean Harris’ songs back that statement up. Lots of songwriters will tell you that they’re interested in the darkness on the edge of town, but there’s only a few who manage to find the hidden words that shine.
‘Dig’, Harris’ first album, was released in 2013 and struck whoever heard it. It’s good, there’s no doubt about that, but where did the white heat of ‘Black Heart’ and ‘Man Of The House’ come from? Here was a songwriter, you see, whose beautiful voice had captured imaginations and attention spans wherever it showed up (not to mention whoever it showed up) and was often accompanied by a delicately picked nylon string guitar. ‘Dig’ arrived fully-formed, with broken rhythms and beat-up rhymes, and explored the stories of women caught up in war zones.
But that was then. In 2018, Harris is closing in on a new set of songs that have come to life at the various gigs she’s been asked to play over the last year. Word has spread and there’s been support slots with Steve Pilgrim, guest sets at La Violette Società and headline gigs of her own (including this weekend at Naked Lunch on Smithdown Road). “My new album is inspired by the experiences of two ‘Death Row’ inmates in the USA,” she reveals. “It’s about how human dignity holds out in places of conflict and confinement.” Conflict and confinement are words that you could also use to describe the music holding up her latest tunes, with Harris’ new work lives on a bed of unresolved chords and the perpetual motion of her jazzy delivery.
Reference points? You’re joking, aren’t you… this is startlingly original art and the likes of ‘Carson’ and ‘Crystal Speaks’ (video below with bassist Jamie Brewster) are mesmerising in the way they marry erudition and economy. Sure, I could be lazy and throw Joni Mitchell at you… but you’ll find more contemporary comparisons with, say, Villagers and Laura Marling. There’s gospel in the harmonies and lead vocals, frustrated indie rock in the percussion that often scatters noise through the tunes and pure folk in the tales told.
“The dark will keep me sane,” she sang on 2013’s ‘Workshy’, but an electric bulb has been switched on somewhere around Harris’ work since then and this is an artist now stepping confidently into the light.
Rachael Jean Harris
Saturday January 27th 2018, 7.30pm
Naked Lunch, Smithdown Road, Liverpool
Pic by Ray Kilpatrick