REBSIE FAIRHOLM: Mind The Gap
2008/ Sonic Spongecake
11 tracks / 45:47 minutes
Rebsie Fairholm, known simply as Rebsie to most Macjammers, is one of the sweet voices of the MJ community. I say this because of her gentle demeanor and supportive honesty as well as her airy vocals. I had the privilege of interviewing her for the Macjams Blog Artist Spotlight. You can read it here: Rebsie Fairholm: Psychedelic Renaissance Woman. I have included further conversations with Rebsie at the end of this review (see below).
Central to every track on her contemplative contemporary Celtic album, Mind The Gap, is her voice. A voice that conveys innocence, authenticity, simplicity, and an eternal sense of youthful agelessness. Like an ancient wind instrument trained within a modern sensibilities, her vocals are cleansing, a respite from the day’s concerns. Although my ears wanted more precision in pitch, more depth and variation in underlying chord progressions, I found this CD a personal delight, stories retold down through the ages with a personal and true imprint placed on them, compelling and understated.
Because this is a vocals driven album, it seems more intimate than most, more a specific vision of a person alone, adrift in a time that isn’t completely natural, that isn’t necessarily the era she wants to be living in. Ambient instrumentation swirls in the background like ripples, outward. He vocals dip into them yet remain above, like bare feet touching water.
I felt an affinity to the themes she mines: journeys, death, vast spaces, floating repose. Although the sense is of a person by herself, you can tell she is filled with spirits of others. I like that very much. She finds lightness on this sort of weight. The weight of memories and meaningfulness.
Influences that I felt were all from an earlier time, like the influences that animated Fairpoint Convention and Loreena McKennitt. But the style reminded me more of Vashti Bunyan, who also makes up for a certain lack of precision with her honesty and goddess femininity. If you like one, you should try out the other.
Although the momentum for this album may have found it’s roots in Rebsie’s earlier duo, the Revolving Doris (with William Shaw, MJ’s mandolinquent), Rebsie’s participations in Macjams collaborative spirit can be heard in the album’s development. Some tracks evolved directly out of MacJam’s events, such as Spirits Of The Dead, a spoken word track entered into the 2005 Edgar Allan Poe festival. Martyn Kember-Smith (MJ’s Komrade K) adds a melancholy vibe to Geordie with his electric fiddle.
The most successful cuts on the album for me were the most traditional. (I’ve included a few below). Rebsie’s vocals seem most fitting when the accompaniment is simple and controlled, when it flows underneath like reflective water. Her voice is less suited for uptempo or more modern arrangements. Most of the album mines the floating lyricism of traditional Celtic music
Rebsie plays piano, Celtic harp, 12-string acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bodhrán and electronics/synth. William Shaw adds mandolin, fiddle, slide guitar, electronics. Jason Gazda plays didgeridoo, Steve Lang plays electric guitar, 6-string acoustic guitar and Martyn Kember-Smith his electric fiddle. Steafan Hannigan provides Uillean pipes on Julia Dream. Phideaux Xavier provides guitars on Leafblower, the humorous track on the CD.
The album ends with the strongest example of simplicity and focus, She Moves Through The Fair. It is also the most emotional, devastating in its simplicity. A satisfying a conclusion, to say the least. It’s a powerful song and this is a particularly impressive version which will send shivers down your spine. Although Mind The Gap takes you on an intimate travelogue of places near (Rebsie’s back yard) and far (in time), what it does more, for me, is take me inside. It exposes the gentle contradictions, the timeless longing, the transcendent nature of stillness within Rebsie herself, and, thus, within myself as a listener. A marvelously personal vision that, because it is honest, becomes a universal expression. The anonymous lineage behind these songs, morphing through the centuries, live on in these loving interpretations.
1 Round Window
2 The Unquiet Grave
3 MacCrimmon’s Lament
4 Buain A’Choirce
5 Blackbirds & Thrushes
6 Spirits Of The Dead
8 Fine Horseman
10 Julia Dream
11 She Moves Through The Fair
Q: Where were the photos taken used on the CD?
RF: Most of the photos were taken in a strange village called Portmeirion in North Wales (about 100 miles from where I live). The village was built by a rich and eccentric architect who collected bits of historic buildings from all over the world and reconstructed them in this very intense, idyllic, almost fantasy setting. It’s built on a rocky cliff over the sea, and the beach photos were also taken there. Portmeirion’s main claim to fame was its use as the set for a highly acclaimed 1967 cult TV series, The Prisoner.
The only picture not taken in Portmeirion was the one on the inner back cover, of me on a hillside with a tree. That was taken in the hills above my home town of Cheltenham.
Q: Do you own the quilt used on the cover?
RF: The front cover quilt was made by the sister of Phideaux Xavier, the progressive rock musician who played guitars on “Leafblower”. She’s an artist based in NYC. Phideaux used one of her quilts as front cover art on his own album, and I fell in love with her work and asked if I could use it. The quilt is called “Fall From Grace” and depicts New York in the autumn of 2001. She started it as an expression of the unusually deep and beautiful autumn colours that year, and then 9/11
happened, and it developed into a more complex piece with the lines of the burned out tower interlocked with a traditional Arabic star pattern. I was mesmerised by the levels of symbolism in the image as well as its beautiful colours.
Q: Is William Shaw MacJams’ own mandolinquent? Did you meet on MJ?
RF: Yes, William Shaw was mandolinquent. I met him on MacJams and although we met up a couple of times in person we worked entirely over the internet, mostly by exchanging ideas via iChat. He was a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist and we did a lot of music together, of which the stuff on the album is only a small part. I did most of the arrangement on the songs here but I gave him complete freedom to add whatever he wanted … he was extremely good at coming up with
creative ideas and played a beautiful antique Gibson mandolin. Sadly he went through a very rough time a couple of years back which prompted him to abandon music altogether.
Q: Did Spirits of the Dead come directly out of the MacJams’ Poe challenge a few Halloweens ago?
RF: Yes, it was done for the Poe challenge. And because there was a tight deadline for it, I did the whole thing in a day. I found an old penny whistle down the back of a bookcase and twiddled away randomly on that. I don’t actually play penny whistle, but being a singer I have a good set of lungs.
Q: Is the river in the photo also the river used in Round Window. Is it the same window, too, or did you find these images afterward to illustrate the booklet?
RF: Funnily enough I chose the images for the booklet very quickly and instinctively, and only afterwards noticed how much symbolism there is to tie them all together. All the windows in the pictures are not quite what they seem. One is not a real window and has a sea scene painted on it. Another shows a real view of the sea but the window itself is not in a real building.
The river and water symbolism trickles through the whole album, even down to the names of the artists whose songs I covered (Roger Waters, Lal Waterson) and there’s actually a reference to water, in one form or another, on every single track on the album. That’s coincidental, but it fits the overall symbolism of a crossing point, a nebulous area, between the worlds.
Q: Was this entire recorded and master on a Mac? Using Garageband?
RF: Entirely done on Macs and in GarageBand – except for “Leafblower”, which was mixed by Phideaux Xavier’s producer Gabriel Moffat – I don’t know what software he used. The rest of the mixing I did on my Mac G5, mostly in GarageBand v.1. There was no additional mastering, it’s all GB. My music is very earthy and natural, so I was happy for it to have minimal gloss at the production stage.
Q: There is a textual theme that involves journeys, death, vast spaces, floating repose. Did you deliberately set out to build songs around a conceptual framework?
RF: It wasn’t a conscious decision, but the same themes kept emerging. The name “Mind The Gap” is well known in the UK as a recorded announcement used in some stations on the London Underground, where the trains don’t fit the platforms properly. Symbolically it’s a reminder to take care when stepping between dimensions. It’s about the gap between life and death, real world and faery, sea and shore, reality and imagination.
Q: What does this album mean to you, now that it is finished and out there?
RF: I’ve actually only listened to the album twice since it was released. Is that a terrible thing to admit? I am very proud of it, but as soon as it was done I just wanted to get on with the next one.
I’m mostly proud of it because it was such a struggle to get it made. I was struggling to find and keep collaborators… and when I couldn’t find anybody to help me I struggled to do stuff on my own. So it felt like I was constantly just muddling through it, one song at a time, trying to play instruments I didn’t know how to play, and to mix by trial and error. I’m amazed it hangs together so well as a whole, when all the parts were conceived in isolation from each other. It was a battle to prove myself and to find out what I was capable of, and only my bloody-mindedness got me through it. And then in the week it was released I found just the right collaborator, who could fill in all the gaps, and so the second album has been a breeze to work on by comparison.