That Anna Tam comes from a classical background is notable from the first spin of her new album, Hatching Hares. For the most part, her vocal performances are underpinned by a clipped precision that sound – to this reviewer, at least – like something one might have experienced in an Edwardian parlour rendition of traditional folk songs, arranged and conducted by Mr Cecil Sharp. It’s rare to hear such a clear soprano among the folk albums we get sent for review, but it is used to good effect, notably on an unaccompanied rendition of Mike Waterson’s ‘A Stitch in Time’, and the octave-defying ‘Bess and Her Spinning Wheel’ – the standout track, to which I’ve returned the most often.
As viewers of Tam’s Folk From the Boat Youtube series will already know, her most obvious calling card (aside from the titular boat) is her multi-intrumentalism. Much like Nick Hart, she shares her living arrangements with an assortment of stringed shipmates, including a cello, viola de gamba, hurdy gurdy and a nyckelharpa (which, I must admit, I had to look up). She’s also the proud owner of a jangly, creaky piano (her words, not ours) on which she performs the haunted refrain that opens her recording of ‘Brigg Fair’ – a stealthy rendition that doesn’t quite prepare you for the journey you’re about to go on – and it’s these musical life partners that keep Hatching Hares varied throughout its 15 songs.
On first appearances, the somewhat classical nature of the performances betrays a keen willingness to experiment. While Tam’s vocals hint at the rigours of her training, she’s not averse to exploring the less controlled possibilities of her environment, and the results can be intriguing. Take, for instance, her collaboration with sound artist, srah, on ‘Holland Handkerchief’. The soaring purity of the singer’s voice juxtapose wonderfully with the gritty found sounds that grind away throughout the performance. You’ll find similar contrasts when you arrive at the Scottish Gaelic song, ”S Iomadh Rud a Chunna’, on which Tam’s soprano dances lightly over the earthy attack of her hurdy gurdy. Textures seem to be the name of the game for this artist, and Hatching Hares has them in spades.
Given that her gallery of instruments is a large part of the show, space is made for a handful of rare and interesting instrumentals. Perhaps the prettiest of these are the two self-penned pieces, ‘St Martin’s Waltz’, written for her parents and played as a solo on the nyckelharpa, and the throaty, satisfying sounds of the viola de gamba on the final track, ‘Thanksgiving Waltz’. It’s a restful close to what feels like a fairly dazzling showcase – 15 dexterous tracks that leave the listener slightly breathless, trying to work out where they might’ve been for the last 50 minutes. Listen for yourself, and kindly forgive this understatement: Hatching Hares rarely stays in one place.
It’ll be interesting to see how Tam takes these instruments on tour. Presumably, the easiest way would be to book gigs at canalside pubs, where we can watch her perform from the water. In the meantime, find some time for Hatching Hares – one of the more idiosyncratic albums we’ve heard this year.
Hatching Hares by Anna Tams is out on June 10th on Tam Records. Pre-order via annatam.co.uk.