Quiet power. Alt-folk style.
The beauty of ‘In This Place’, Mara Simpson’s new album, is that it’s taken a lot of conscious steps to get to the place of release. It feels confident, defined and graciously powerful. Somewhere between Loreena McKennit, Tori Amos, and Sarah McLachlan sits the style of Mara Simpson but I wouldn’t say she specifically borrows from anyone. Her alt-folk tendencies distinguish her from her peers.
For instance, the title track is a swaying river of muted drums, banjo and rootsy synths. Mara then layers vocals up over time and builds up a folk gospel choir behind her before a lone trumpet signals a triumphant arrival home. Elsewhere, ‘Christchurch’ written as a response to the 2019 Christchurch Mosque shootings, merges birdsong, distant piano and an unusually mournful choir performance. Then if you flip to a track like ‘Reason’, you have a piano pop anthem about taking control of your judgements and defining your own path, complete with drama drums and slightly off-kilter riffs. It is a wonderfully diverse mix of UK folk and New Zealand influences. This comes out most in the rhythms and song structures, which often don’t follow a simple verse/chorus structure. ‘Fault Lines’ is inspired by the Waitangi Treaty and the concept of ownership. On a topic about how the two countries have very different stances, the tincture of the two cultures merge together into a wonderful sound.
Outside of these ideas, the main thread of the album’s narrative is about bringing more kindness to the world. ‘Grace’ is a key track that explicitly calls this out in a heartwarming slow sway of folk-rock. It builds as a track bringing in lots of different instruments that all play tiny little motifs. I felt like the idea of the track was that no one instrument could play the entire melody – each one points towards a unified goal instead. In stark contrast ‘Traquair’ has a bold string arrangement from Poppy Ackroyd. The strings swell and expand emotively in an extended and dramatic outro. In some ways, this album also feels like it’s painting an ideology for Mara Simpson’s daughter to think about. Some lyrics reference being a new mother and having worries about the world she’s being birthed into and these songs were written pre-pandemic! Ultimately, they are words of reassurance – circling back to that level of kindness and maternal warmth.
Mara Simpson has fought for the album she wanted to make and it has taken several years to get the right environment to let it bloom. Mara sticks the landing by staying true to what she wanted to make and it is all the better for it. ‘In This Place’ will scratch the itch for folk, alt-pop and chamber pop music lovers whilst being all and none of them at the same time. A wonderful album that grows upon each listen and leaves you feeling a little more loved by the end of it.
Recommended track: Fault Lines
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