Ruth Notman & Sam Kelly: Changeable Heart

Would you believe it’s been 12 years since Ruth Notman released her charming debut solo album Threads? A follow-up, The Life of Lilly, followed two years later, but then she quietly withdrew from the music world, concentrating instead on gaining qualifications and starting a career in medicine.

All credit to Sam Kelly, then, for getting in touch with Notman last year. You’d be forgiven for thinking Kelly was busy enough – what with his work with the Lost Boys, Changing Room, Kitty Macfarlane and Jamie Francis, to name a few – but he felt Notman’s absence was “depriving the folk scene”. A meeting was convened, and… well, judging from the pair’s debut duo record, Changeable Heart, it’s hard to imagine it took them long to realise they should make music together. It’s an album that plays to the strengths of both performers, while seeing them offer something new, too.

It only takes a few seconds of first track Bold Fisherman to remind us what we’ve been missing. Notman’s voice is beautiful, yes, but because it’s characterful and somehow wise – ideal for a folk singer. Kelly provides a sensitive accompaniment, as a sparing, swirling piano-led arrangement gives the song an appropriately spiritual air.

Sometimes an album that mixes traditional and original songs can fail to gel. But not here. The title track, the only song written by Notman and Kelly together, is a knockout. A big, bittersweet love song, it’s catchy, heartfelt – and absolutely soars. It’s a bold declaration that the album we’re listening to is about love (as is, to be fair, the great big heart on the cover). This might be a broad theme, but it’s one that’s rigorously and sensitively explored.

If Changeable Heart is the album’s Radio 2-friendly power ballad, The Cunning Cobbler (a traditional ballad) is its pop hit. Which you might not expect of a tale of cuckoldry packed with double entendres. It’s sung lightly and deftly: Kelly’s tension-building guitar drives things along, while producer Damien O’Kane’s banjo adds extra snap.

Caw the Yowes is meditative and solemn, and a real showcase for Notman’s voice, with Kelly’s restrained singing adding to a pure sense of romance. In a canny bit of album track sequencing, next up is Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill, in which Kelly sings a sweet and simple ode to the title character – though it feels like it could be a loving reply to the previous song’s protagonist. Then he keeps going with the next song, My Lagan Love, which feels deeper and richer in its romantic intent. The track is somehow ghostly, with Notman’s vocal at first providing a sparing backing, before seamlessly blending and harmonising its way to joint-lead status.

Notman contributes accordion to her own composition, the lament As You Find Your Way Home, before we’re back to upbeat third-person storytelling with Young Brian of the Sussex Wold. Ross Ainslie contributes whistles to an upbeat tale concerning princes, archers, maidens and a certain ‘heavenly Ruth’.

Just when you think you’ve got the measure of the album, a pair of covers add further depth. Ewan MacColl’s School Days Over chronicles the loss of childhood as a lad is told his future lies down the pit. Notman’s harmonium and singing voice are mournful and sympathetic. Paul Brady’s The Island, meanwhile, is cynical and optimistic in equal measure, a love song for the Troubles, sarcastic and sad. “This twisted wreckage down on main street will bring us all together in the end,” Notman and Kelly sing. It feels an unusual note on which to end, but then it underlines the complexities and uncertainties of the album’s principal subject – and any record about love worth its salt must surely acknowledge its fragility.

Changeable Heart, then, is more than just a vehicle in which to enjoy Notman’s return, welcome though it is. It’s a thoughtful, valuable album in its own right. Notman’s voice is like sunshine and Kelly is in a rich vein of form. Give in! Fall in love!

Changeable Heart is out March 15 on Pure Records, and Ruth Notman & Sam Kelly are on tour in April. Click here for dates.

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