5* The Financial Times, 5* fRoots, 4* The Guardian, 4* The Telegraph, 4* Q Magazine, 4* The Scotsman
“...the lovelorn lines of “The Only Thing To Do” tumble out over the loveliest melody imaginable.” - The Financial Times, 5*
“She has created nothing short of a masterpiece” - The Sunday Times
“Bravely personal diary of a touring folk singer... never since Paul Simon’s Homeward Bound has the life of a touring folk singer sounded quite so angst-ridden” - The Guardian, 4*
“Ultimately, what Hardy has done here is make a folk album for people who don't normally like folk music. In doing so, it's both a credit to her and the genre.” - Q Magazine, 4*
“...an album that deftly bridges new and old, forging new links between the two without forgetting the importance of the song” - Folk Radio UK
“...the 6Music market surely beckons for Bella. As well as reaffirming her status as a shining star in the folk scene’s firmament, With The Dawn feels like a game-changer” - fRoots, 5*
The Financial Times - 5*
Banjo and brass turn on a sixpence from jaunty to mournful in an album presented as a year’s worth of musical autobiography
Bella Hardy’s new album presents itself as a year’s worth of musical autobiography, fragments captured on iPhones or in the bath, with excursions for Great War commemoration (all VADs and Land Girls).
Banjo and brass turn on a sixpence from jaunty to mournful; the lovelorn lines of “The Only Thing To Do” tumble out over the loveliest melody imaginable.
The Daily Telegraph – 4*
Named 2014’s Folk Singer of the Year by the BBC, the 30-year-old from Derbyshire develops a bigger, poppier sound on the opening track of her sixth album. The Only Thing To Do builds from a base of mournful brass and Hardy’s clear, fluting vocals before the big drums wallop in for the kind of arms-akimbo chorus you’d be more likely to hear on a top 10 R&B track than in your local folk club. “Should I hide a broken heart/ Or let the world tear me apart again?”
Although there’s nothing else quite so bombastic on the record, it’s a bold statement from a woman breaking back into the 21st century after 2013’s fiddle-driven Battleplan, in which she reworked traditional folk material or imagined herself back in time. She only does that once on this record, with Jolly Good Luck to the Girl that Loves a Soldier, on which the heartbreak of the German nurses and Verdun widows fits perfectly with the tales of failed personal romance Hardy describes elsewhere.
She elegantly smudges the borders of a brass and banjo-driven sound with sophisticated little experiments in rhythm, production and arrangement. Fans of the Unthanks should check it out.
The Guardian - 4*
Bravely personal diary of a touring folk singer
She may have been named BBC Folk Singer of the Year, but 2014 clearly wasn’t easy for Bella Hardy, judging from this bravely personal musical diary of travelling, working, and questioning: “Should I hide a broken heart?” Never since Paul Simon’s Homeward Bound has the life of a touring folk singer sounded quite so angst-ridden. Hardy’s last album, Battleplan, was a collision of traditional songs and folk-influenced new compositions, but this adventurous new work mixes intimate, drifting ballads and pop choruses, and is backed by an intriguing mix of her own fiddle, banjo, brass and percussion. The best tracks, First Light of the Morning and Oh! My God! I Miss You, are slow, atmospheric, and sung with easy confidence. Also included are her poignant contribution to the first world war project Songs for the Voiceless, and a country-edged duet with Canadian Cara Luft, Time Wanders On, another thoughtful travelogue.
fRoots - 5*
"With The Dawn is a title redolent of new beginnings. Not without reason. This, as the editor would have it, is a Great Leap Forward of a record.
"Bella’s voice, like a razor-winged bird in a clear blue sky, speaks for itself. But her writing here is a breath-halter – articulate, earthbound and disarmingly honest. Rather than drawing inspiration from the traditional canon, the songs document, and attempt to make sense of, a turbulent year on the road: a relentless year of displacement, of heartache and of joy. Her intimate observations and revelations are sharply focused and poetically crafted, from the hearth-embrace of friendship in The Darkening Of The Day to the misfit-relationship study of Gifts or the hopeful resolution of And We Begin.
"And the writing on With The Dawn explodes into life as a result of the instinctive match of sound to lyrics. Its great, enveloping bigness, its aching starkness and melancholy, its mellifluous loveliness! The artful and intuitive sound-painting of (my new favourite!) producer, Ben Seal is masterly. It sweeps you into Bella’s world, to share not just the blurred landscapes she sees from the trains, the tumbleweed existence of life on the road, but also the moments of revelation in a sunrise, the Damascene clarity of a homecoming, the revised expectations, the making sense of lost and found love, the search for meaning.
"The Only Thing To Do is a case in point, matching Bella’s litany of incessant motion, her frenetic physical and raw emotional ride of a year, with anthemic horns and edgy electronic blips and neon buzzes. The wistful First Light Of The Morning (hear it on this issue’s fRoots 53 compilation) builds and drops back from a bare-boned banjo melody and a tsunami-swell of brass, exquisitely framing Bella’s tumbling cascade of a vocal. On the dark and bruised Another Whisky Song, we hear a scratchy gramophone-filtered fiddle and drunken, lurching percussion. And there is also a glorious magpie collection of sounds here to add texture and depth and colour: the rough-edged immediacy of an iPhone-recorded intro on You Don’t Have To Change (But You Have To Choose) bursting into vivid studio crispness; plunky koto-esque sounds; high, reedy violin motifs; rushes of harmonies.
"Whilst all the songs bear witness to Bella’s year, two songs fit in a slightly different capacity: the moving Jolly Good Luck To The Girl That Loves A Soldier (from the WWI-themed Songs For The Voiceless project) and the traveller’s eyes of Time Wanders On, co-written with Cara Luft as part of a Canadian exchange project.
"Just as with the Unthanks’ wonderful blurring of musical boundaries, the 6Music market surely beckons for Bella, as well as reaffirming her status as a shining star in the folk scene’s firmament. With The Dawn feels like a game-changer."
While her first four albums were very much couched in traditional folk, The Herring Girl from Songs Lost and Stolen winning her a Radio 2 Folk award in 2012, the release of Battleplan in 2013 made it very clear that she had other interests within the genre. This, her first recording since winning Folk Singer of the Year at last year's awards, makes it clear that her direction is upwards and onwards, adopting slurred beats, discordance and a heavy use of drums to provide more than simple percussion.
Such musical nerviness does, perhaps, reflect the fact that the album grew out of a particularly turbulent year impacted by life on the road, turning 30 and a variety of personal difficulties, a time of flux that has resulted in confessional, intimate songs steeped in reflection, loss and longing. It doesn't take a genius to work out that a failed love affair played a considerable part in the proceedings, the opening track, the moody, brass-embellished The Only Thing To Do with its lurching beats chorus, finding her comparing trying to make a relationship work with the writing process.
Produced by Ben Seal, who was also responsible for programming, all the songs here are by Hardy, the demos often recorded on her iPhone and, in the case of the intro to You Don't Have To Change (But You Have To choose), a fragile, vulnerable blues-tinted song about not compromising herself for love, and Lullaby For A Grieving Man with her characteristic plucked fiddle, retained for the finished version.
She wears her emotions like open scars, at times raw as on the self-explanatory Oh My God! I Miss You, although its soft, gentle melody and arrangement belies the hurt in the lyrics, and Gifts, a song about trying to accommodate another, 'trying to fit into you' as, accompanied by pizzicato fiddle, banjo and horns, she desperately repeats "I can't fly." At others, she's more reflective, as with the Appalachian-hued, trumpet-stained and slightly jazz-influenced First Light Of Morning, co-written by and featuring Seal on banjo, where she remembers when she wrote "I think I might love you now" on a silver wood gatepost, or optimistic about coming through the long night of the soul, as evidenced on the relatively perky, warm and traditional-sounding The Darkening Of The Day which features Cera Impala on banjo, and the clear, clean air feel of piano-tinkling album closer, And We Begin There's nothing I wouldn't give to start and end my days like this"), which puts me in mind of some 30s music hall ballad.
She even shows a knowing sense of humour as, nodding to Whisky, You're a Devil on Battleplan, there's a number titled Another Whisky Song, although, backed by discordant rhythms, clattering percussion and what sounds like wheezing treated fiddle (recorded, along with the vocals, in her wardrobe), this is a lament about the combination of love and alcohol.
There's also two numbers that don't fit into the general diary scheme, although, co-penned with Cara Luft (who also plays banjo) as part of a Canadian songwriter exchange, Time Wanders On, with its mountain music sensibility and nature-imagery, does echo the themes of home and hope elsewhere. The other, commissioned for Songs For The Voiceless, an anti-war folk project about lesser known stories of World War I, is Jolly Good Luck To The Girl That Loves A Soldier, a brass-burnished, poignant and lyrically non-partisan universal letter of sympathy to "those who know the inconsolable despair of the unknown, to those whom only shells of men or ghosts of men come marching home" that well deserves to find itself among next year's Radio 2 nominations.
It may have been a troublingly dark year, but as Kahil Gibran observed, "one may not reach the dawn save by the path of the night", and this album finds morning has broken on what promises to be an even more glorious tomorrow.
Hot on the heels of The Unthanks ‘Mount The Air’, Bella Hardy’s seventh studio album With The Dawn arrives with a similarly progressive take on the Folk genre. Hardy, current owner of BBC Radio 2’s Folk Singer Of The Year award, is already known for stretching the boundaries of her musical palette, but this time she’s penned an album of originals (with assistance from Ben Seal and Cara Luft) that combine Seurat’s penchant for impressionism with Pollock’s love of chaotic expressionism. Or, if you like, she’s drawn all over the lines.
Such is her confidence, Hardy retains a coherent narrative throughout a record that pays due reverence to Folk’s wellspring whilst wading in the waters of ambient and trip-hop experiments. Quite a feat, and with Mount The Air, a sign of the abundant creativity within the genre’s walls. Analysis apart, this is a fabulous record from start to finish.
The first two tracks engage with brass and strong hooks, opener The Only Thing To Do spinning rhymes around a belter of a chorus most pop bands would die for. First Light Of The Morning is a reflective ballad with beats that echo Lamb in their Gorecki pomp. It has an extended introduction that fools you into thinking the song is instrumental before a single piano chord calms the heartbeat and Hardy’s voice stirs the emotions. Both tracks beguile with fresh invention but provide plenty of opportunity to sing along.
Jolly Good Luck To The Girl Who Loves A Soldier is a World War One lament from the perspective of those left behind to watch and wait and worry. Written for Songs Of The Voiceless project, sad and sinister effects crawl underneath the lyric, which is carefully plotted and heavy with the tone of reprimand and common-sense. It takes in all sides of the conflict to become wonderfully universal; ‘To all those who think that having one as big as theirs will stop the bomb’ is a clear message as to where Hardy stands.
Another example of Hardy’s wish to experiment is clear in You Don’t Have To Change (But You Have To Choose). A vocal initially submerged rises to the surface even as industrial rhythms, stop-start verses and call-and-repeat choruses take over. After the similar Another Whiskey Song the piano of Oh My God! I Miss You feels positively traditional. Gifts is an eerie ode borne aloft on picked fiddle, acerbic brass and the remembrance of a certain Ms Bush in the refrain ‘..it’s me, I’ve come home’.
The final song, And We Begin, is a beautiful ballad shorn of accompaniment and showered in positive vibes, ending on the repeated phrase ‘There’s nothing that I wouldn’t give / To start and end my days like this’. Giving the lie to anyone who thinks hope isn’t the best way forward, it’s a fitting end to an album that deftly bridges new and old, forging new links between the two without forgetting the importance of the song, all of which on With The Dawn are another feather in the cap for an award winning artist.
Bright Young Folk
The process known as “taking stock” may be triggered by a milestone birthday (let’s say, 30) or growing professional recognition (let’s say, Folk Singer of the Year 2014). With The Dawn, Bella Hardy’s seventh album, sees her reflecting on a year in her life, in love, in loss. A year of travel, emotionally and literally - evocatively captured in the wistful leave-taking of First Light Of The Morning and the healing, homeward-looking Time Wanders On.
This album of her own compositions gives Bella space to experiment. Her soaring, clear voice and highly expressive phrasing allow every word and emotion in her songs to breathe.
Producer Ben Seal creates spare, atmospheric arrangements that brilliantly fuse new technology with traditional instrumentation. Electronic effects are sensitively used, with some delightfully managed transitions from iPhone demo to studio recording, such as the rippling water fiddle on Lullaby For A Grieving Man.
On You Don’t Have To Change (But You Have To Choose) a confined vocal gives way to explosive choral layers, pealing like church bells. Ghostly, flickering sound effects add period authenticity to Jolly Good Luck To The Girl That Loves A Soldier, commissioned for the World War One commemoration project Songs For The Voiceless. That final “Hallelujah” is heart-stopping.
Relationships are scrutinised fearlessly. In the visceral Gifts, ill-suited lovers are in torment. Woven into panicked cries of “I can’t fly” is a crafty lyrical nod to Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights, another tale of star-crossed lovers.
The sardonic, weary, Another Whisky Song describes a love triangle of sorts, punctuated by slow fiddle drones and clattering percussion. The simple, heartfelt refrain of Oh! My God! I Miss You has a captivating immediacy and honesty.
There is plenty of light among the shade, however. Opener, The Only Thing To Do, sets an overarching air of optimism, a refusal to be ground down by self-doubt or to shut out receptiveness to love. The Darkening Of The Day celebrates the value of friendship, and the green shoots of hope in closing song And We Begin brings the album back full circle.
Anyone who enjoyed The Unthanks’ Mount The Air will find plenty to appreciate here. It has a similar, unclassifiable modernity and spaciousnes,s underscored with tender, poignant brass and lean piano. With The Dawn is more grounded, less ethereal, but is equally exquisite in execution.
Gig Soup - 4*
Summary: For those who have dismissed folk in the past now would be the time to reintroduce yourself to the format via this clever release
Album number seven, from Edinburgh based folk-artist Bella Hardy, arrives after a quite stunning 2014 for the artist. Being voted BBC Radio 2 Folk Singer of 2014 seems to have caused little anxiety for the singer-songwriter as new album ‘With the Dawn’ provides recordings of the highest calibre.
This isn’t your standard folk release though. In a week where Mumford and Sons have seemingly dropped the banjo from their latest album Hardy turns the genre on its head with some extremely inventive production.
The familiarity that is sometimes unfairly associated with folk music is rarely in evidence here. Sure, the genres key principles are still in place but Hardy has given this traditional format a reboot by replacing 19th century characteristics with an altogether updated, fresher sound. For those who have dismissed folk in the past now would be the time to reintroduce yourself to the format via this clever release.
Drum machines, horns and samples are evident throughout, while the mixed vocal arrangement on ‘You Don’t Have to Change (But You Have to Choose)’ showcases an artist who is unafraid to experiment. The un-conventional use of instrumentation on ‘Gifts’ (the stand-out track on the LP) and ‘The Only Thing to Do’ tweaks at the folk format and gives the listener something else to ponder. Importantly the song writing remains strong throughout and is never lost in the inventive production. This is impressive stuff from an artist who is still young but has the ability to create work beyond her years.
Hardy has managed keep something for the purists, while deliberately offering something else to those of us who may not be completely at home with folk in its purest form. ‘James Vincent McMorrow’ followed a similar path with his 2014 LP ‘Post Tropical’ but his was a more drastic change. Hardy has managed to maintain the essence, ensuring she doesn’t alienate fans of her last 6 LP’s.