After moving from the coast of North Devon 5 years ago, folk singer Jess Hall (no relation, before you start crying nepotism…) has certainly not forgotten her roots on debut album Bookshelves. Classically trained and from a musical family, Hall has an undeniably stunning voice and her captivatingly pure vocals have seen her quickly established on the Oxford music scene, attracting attention from a number of big names.
A musical acquaintance of Hall’s for a number of years, renowned folk-roots cellist Barney Morse-Brown (Duotone) produced this debut, as well as providing accompaniment throughout. On hearing her performance with local band Flights of Helios at 2013’s Wilderness Festival, Stornoway’s Jon Ouin also expressed a keen interest to work with Hall and had a hand in arrangements and instrumentation. The result of such high profile collaborations is, however, still very much her own record. Instrumentally sparse, Bookshelves holds Hall’s hymnal voice centre-stage, with her own gentle guitar picking rippling beneath, there simply to accentuate her wistful and nostalgic musings. Morse-Brown’s subtle yet affecting cello movements exquisitely compliment Hall’s alto range – most notably on opener ‘Dearest Heart’ – lifting the touchingly open lyrics and adding emotional depth. ‘Apple’ (cover of traditional folk tune ‘I Will Give My Love An Apple’) is sung entirely unaccompanied, showcasing the power of the human voice as an instrument. This though, is the only song on the album that could be said to stem from the traditional heritage that inspires numerous folk artists. With Bookshelves, Hall instead focuses on the more personal, setting to her familiar back-drop of sea-spray and sand, stories of friendship, love and childhood memories, all narrated with a simplicity and honesty that is surprisingly emotive. On tracks such as ‘Sea Song’ and the playful ‘Maps’, this lyrical simplicity can sometimes come across slightly twee, but for the rest of the album, it works perfectly. Achingly tender vocals, choral at times, wash over the poignant undercurrent of rising riffs and hooks, crafting the purest declaration of love on stand-out track ‘Duet’, while building heart-rending pathos on break-up song ‘Winter Branches’.
Although elements of influences such as Laura Veirs and Lisa Hannigan are visible on Bookshelves, Jess Hall has certainly carved her own style and this simple but strikingly beautiful debut is a confident entry to the UK folk scene.
Bookshelves is out on 24th February 2014