Down By The River – released: 3rd December 2021
A prolific and acclaimed composer in the world of film, theatre and TV, Roly Witherow won many plaudits for his debut folk album ‘Ballads and Yarns’ last year – including glowing reviews in the Times and Guardian as well as praise from the specialist folk press. Now Roly has followed up 2020’s ‘Ballads and Yarns’ with a new five-track EP ‘Down By the River’ containing both original compositions and his own unique interpretations of traditional folk songs.
As a film and TV composer, Roly’s credits have included Channel 4’s On The Edge, 2015 BIFA nominated film Gregor and Netflix feature film TRY.
As a folk musician and singer, Roly’s influences include Pete Seeger, Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger, A.L. Lloyd, Richard Thompson, Nic Jones, Pete Bellamy, John Martyn, Shirley Collins, Dick Gaughan, Nick Hart, Lisa O’Neill and Will Pound.
Roly Witherow: “This new EP is a very new direction for me. If my first album, ‘Ballads and Yarns’ had an experimental bent, stemming from my experience as a film composer, this new album has a ’back to basics’ approach, focussing on the song itself in its most minimal form. The vast majority of the songs are for just acoustic guitar and voice, and the recordings have a very live feel to them, realised in large part by the expert production of Joe Garcia of Joe’s Garage, in Bristol.”
The EP is a combination of traditional songs from the British Isles and further afield, alongside originals such as ‘The Bird and the Frog’ – originally released as a single back in January. The album in general touches on themes of rural vs urban life, family and growing up, love and love lost, nature and animals, industrialisation and mechanisation, as well as the death and lament found in so many folk songs from Britain.
The ‘Down By The River’ EP showcases Roly’s beautifully-evocative acoustic guitar-playing alongside his resonant, distinctive lead vocal. The backing vocals on ‘Johnny’s Gone to Hilo’ are by renowned folk singer Nick Hart. Roly, himself, can also be heard playing harmonium on that same track.
Roly adds: “Down by the River has quite a playful, innocent and childlike quality to it, influenced in part by the children’s songs of Pete Seeger, Ewan MacColl and A.L. Lloyd, but also by my experience of recently becoming a father. One of the songs on the album ‘Ernie’s Song’ is dedicated to my son. Written in a remote part of Devon shortly after he was born it falls somewhere between hymnal folk and a traditional children’s song.”
Critical reaction to Roly’s debut album ‘Ballads and Yarns’:
“The result is like a modern Fairport Convention: folk, but not as purists know it. Witherow’s resonant voice sits beautifully against a spacious guitar arrangement” – The Times
“Soundtrack composer Roly Witherow mixes up art-rock, atmospherics and folk on his personal project, Ballads and Yarns, a rousing half-hour of music given extra warmth thanks to his old-fashioned vocal” – The Guardian
“a modern yet classic celebration of the art of folk music” – Folk Radio UK
Down by the River EP – track by track:
The Bird and the Frog: Previously released as a single The Bird and the Frog is a fable-esque love story, centred on the taming of a Bird by the Frog. The Frog seduces the bird, convincing her to give up her wild and free existence to live with him under a log. They live a peaceful yet humdrum life in the frog’s world and whilst the Frog is contented to have tamed the object of his love, the Bird is left with the sensation that something might be missing. I had in mind thoughts of suburban lifestyles – perhaps the home counties – and our adoption of a highly compartmentalised society, as well as being a tale of young love.
Johnny’s Gone to Hilo: The second single from the EP, Johnny’s Gone to Hilo is a sea shanty originating from the sailors of the nitrate trade of Western South America in the 19th century. Hilo likely refers to the Peruvian port of Ilo, and whilst the tone of the shanty varies a great deal in all its different versions and iterations – from drinking song to lament, I thought the melody of the song lent itself best to a sorrowful arrangement with guitar and harmonium. The backing vocals are provided by renowned local folk singer Nick Hart who, raised in a family of Morris dancers, is no stranger to telling a mournful story with his powerful voice. The recording of the harmonium with all its noisy stops, billows and pipes was a particular challenge for producer Joe Garcia, but with some clever mic placement was eventually achieved with great skill.
The Poacher’s Fate: I first heard Peter Bellamy’s beautiful rendition of this folk song that celebrates the poachers of old, a trope of English folklore, and instantly wanted to do my own version. The song is full of raw emotion and has a kind of Robin Hood ethos to it. I wanted to heighten the drama of the song by using a few different guitar techniques to follow the story, like the flamenco-style strumming that accompanies the death of the poacher. This is something I learned a long time ago when I played Classical and Flamenco nylon string guitar, but I also think it works nicely on steel strings!
Three Butchers: I came across this song in the penguin book of English folk songs, so I was first drawn to the story which is one of intrigue and deception, then I set about setting it to music, with the guitar playing a steady trot to suggest the motion of the horse and cart.
Ernie’s Song: This last song is an original named after my son. It kind of spans the territory between hymnal folk and children’s song! I’m not really sure how to categorise it to be honest, but it talks of growing up, longing for a more simple life, as well as rural vs urban existences. I wrote this during the pandemic shortly after my son was born. We were staying with my mother in a remote part of Devon which undoubtedly influenced the lyrics.