Celebrated Dorset duo Ninebarrow (Jon Whitley and Jay LaBouchardiere) will release their first album in three years this spring. The arboreal-titled album A Pocket Full of Acorns is the pair’s fourth release and, if proof were needed, shows how they have further honed their already classy craft. Accompanied by a beautifully presented songbook and to be released on March 5, 2021, it follows on from the acclaimed The Waters &The Wild (2018).
2020 was not the year Ninebarrow, or anyone, had in mind. But as touring (both as a duo and first ever tour with their band) went out the window, they quickly filled the void by developing some of folk music’s most technically sophisticated streamed gigs; produced The Hour of the Blackbird, a lockdown charity single with two choirs described by Radio 2’s Mark Radcliffe as ‘undoubtedly one of the folk tracks of the year’ and used the time and space to perfect this latest studio album - a beautifully balanced, root and branch affair.
Says Jon: “It feels all the sweeter to be able to release this collection into the wild given all the detours we had to make in 2020. Our music will always be inspired by the incredible landscape and history of our native Dorset as well as our sense of home and belonging. But these days we can’t help but be moved by the many changes happening to our planet and society - we hope this fourth studio album reflects that.”
Jon and Jay relinquished their full-time jobs as a teacher and GP back in 2012 and took a leap of faith into the music business – a gamble that clearly paid off. Nominated for the coveted Horizon award (Best Emerging Act) at the 2017 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards the Dorset duo have carved themselves a distinctive niche on the folk roots scene for their outstanding harmonies, high production values, engaging original songs, poetic lyricism and magical instrumentation ranging from the delicate to the lustrous. Named after Nine Barrow Down in the Purbeck hills, their first release While the Blackthorn Burns was voted FATEA Magazine’s Best Debut Album of 2014 and was followed by Releasing the Leaves (2016) which prompted a string of ‘Best Duo’ nominations. By the time of their third release The Waters & The Wild Jon and Jay had firmly developed a signature sound – widespread critical acclaim came thick and fast with The Guardian selecting it as one of their albums of the month.
Produced by in-demand Mark Tucker at Oxfordshire’s ARC Studios, the elegant, painstakingly-crafted 11-track new album comprises mainly original songs together with inventive arrangements of traditional songs, lyrics inspired by the poetry of Dorset poet William Barnes and a spellbinding cover of a Patrick Wolf song. Jon and Jay are joined by the Ninebarrow band members - cellist and long-term collaborator, Lee Mackenzie, brilliant double bassist John Parker and omnipresent Evan Carson on percussion enabling lush, layered, cinematic arrangements on some numbers and spare, soulful, fragile settings on others.
At the core of the sound are Jon’s multi instrumental skills (piano, ukulele, tenor and octave mandola) with Jon and Jay sharing duties on the distinctive reed organ and vocals. Says Jon: “We set out to create something honest and organic with an up close and personal quality and sonically somewhat different from what has gone before. I hope we’ve achieved that.”
The title track was triggered by the inspirational true story of Newcastle-on-Tyne born Vice-Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, Lord Nelson’s second-in-command at the Battle of Trafalgar. At the time of the Napoleonic Wars, the grand ships of the Royal Navy were built from mighty oaks and Collingwood became concerned that forests were being depleted. Fearful for the future of the Navy and the nation he took to carrying acorns in his pockets, planting seeds in suitable places as he went on his rambles. Says Jay: “The story really touched us. The notion of using one’s time on earth to help secure a future for those who come after us seems to have been lost in modern times. Surely now more than ever we need to take action to ensure future generations and life on this planet in all its myriad forms- have something to inherit.”
The album opens with three Ninebarrow originals. First track Come January with its beautifully melancholic edge seems to mirror the mood of the moment where home has taken on a new significance. Inspired by their university years and their love of returning whenever they could to their home county, it is a poetic salute to the seasons and a moment in time. Nestledown is a perfect example of a Ninebarrow trademark ‘kid gloves’ song. Inspired by the elusive Dartford Warbler, once endangered but now found on much of the Dorset heathland, this is a ‘hunkering down for winter’ track, throwing a cosy blanket around the listener. With Jay on lead vocal, the immaculate harmonies are embroidered by Evan Carson’s subtle, ebbing and flowing percussion and Jon’s sensitive octave mandola.
The traditional song Cold, Haily, Windy Night inspired the original song Under the Fence with its topical theme of migration. The ominous tone of the reed organ opens the unsettling number with strident and intricate piano filtering through the song. It was written after they saw a TV documentary with a young girl giving a journalist a guided tour of her Calais refugee camp in surprisingly carefree mood while her father, by contrast, appeared troubled and haunted. Says Jon: “We felt that Cold, Haily, Windy Night offered an appropriate setting, given what so many people are suffering in refugee camps across Europe.”
As in The Waters and The Wild they return to the poems of Victorian Dorset dialect poet William Barnes for two numbers –the stand-out, strings-filled Zunshine in the Winter features lyrics based on Barnes’ poem Zunsheen in the Winter – on the one hand a simple ‘weather watch’; on the other a simile for old age and nostalgia - while the ‘call-to arms’ lyrics of the punchy and percussive Cry Unity are inspired by Barnes’s The Dorset Rifleman’s Song but given a modern-day ‘disarmed’ sentiment. As keen walkers and Lake District ‘Wainwright baggers’ the upbeat You Who Wander track is something of a signature dish - a joyous self-penned anthem to the increasingly popular pastime of walking – so significant in a pandemic year. The instrumental refrain comes from the traditional English folk melody and Morris tune Speed the Plough.
Ninebarrow delve straight into the English folk canon for another upbeat song –the ever popular, hop homage Hey John Barleycorn – and branch out with a memorable cover of Patrick Wolf’s Teignmouth, with wonderfully expressive piano from Jon. The narrative tells of the author’s world weary, overdue train journey from London to a Cornish bolt-hole with twilight descending as the train glides through the Devon seaside town of Teignmouth. The album ends on a nautical note, with an immaculate acapella Farewell Shanty with Jon on lead vocal. Also known as Padstow’s Shanty it’s a poignant valedictory. It is complemented by the final track Sailors All – penned by north-east singer songwriter Ewen Carruthers. With the refrain “We are sailors all/Until we’ve landed” it’s a sublime soliloquy sparingly delivered by piano and vocals ending an emotive, eloquent and exquisite album. Ninebarrow have once again created an ‘in the room’ oasis of calm that couldn’t be more timely.
A Pocket Full of Acorns is released on the Winding Track label on Friday, March 5 (CD and DL format), exclusively available from the Ninebarrow website: www.ninebarrow.co.uk. In the week leading up to the album’s release Jon and Jay will lead a socially distanced working party in the planting of 1,000 native English trees and 200 shrubs to form ‘The Ninebarrow Woodland’. To be sited on three acres of land near Gillingham in north Dorset, the ambitious project will see saplings of 10 different species planted, half of which will be English oaks, tying neatly in with the album’s ‘acorn’ title. See: Introducing the Ninebarrow Woodland! Ninebarrow have also announced a special streamed album launch show which will take place on Saturday, March 13. Details to follow on their website.
Photo Credits: (1) Dutch Attack on the Medway, June 1667 by Pieter Cornelisz van Soest, (2ff) Ninebarrow (unknown/website).