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Nathaniel Mann, Marry Waterson and Lisa Knapp - the three members of Hack Poets Guild - stand in a row, with their visages sliced as if in a collage.

Hack-Poets Guild, Blackletter Garland – a review

Out of the annals of history and into exciting new territory, folk supergroup, Hack-Poets Guild, create an auspicious sonic universe with Blackletter Garland, their ambitious debut.

Release Date
10 March 2023
Hack-Poets Guild, Blackletter Garland
One of the most striking albums of the year so far comes from Lisa Knapp, Nathaniel Mann and Marry Waterson, collectively known as Hack-Poets Guild. Produced by Gerry Diver, Blackletter Garland is a sonic treat for anyone who cares to jump in.

Folk music of all countries, including British folk music, has always attracted reinvention, often in ways you least expect. Sometimes it’s the more obvious course of fusing folk with other styles, but others push the boundaries in more sonically diverse manners, truly questioning what can be done with the original source material. 

Hack-Poets Guild are a trio, but not in the traditional ‘folk’ sense. These three singers and creative minds have used their individual and unique knowledge of music and balladry to create a new experience in the British folk song canon. Teaming up with producer and musician Gerry Driver, they have created the 12-song album, Blackletter Garland, “twelve fascinating interpretations and original compositions that tell intricate tales of birth, love, conflict and death”, as their website boasts, consisting mainly of re-worked broadside ballads from the 17th and 19th century (plus a few very fitting originals).

The trio could be considered a supergroup. Lisa Knapp has been popular since her highly esteemed debut, Wild & Undaunted, released in 2007. Having since performed with some of the biggest names in British folk, Lisa has achieved that pedestal herself and continued to release a mixture of original and reinterpreted traditional songs, often using modern production techniques to enhance some of the more esoteric material. 

Nathaniel Mann is a proper renaissance man in every sense of the term, his work spanning multimedia and genres. With experience in film, broadcast, research, production and curation, his most reminiscent work to that of Hack-Poets Guild is his group Dead Rat Orchestra, who perform traditional-style songs with custom-made resonant meat cleavers. Well worth checking out. 

Finally, Marry Waterson needs scant introduction. The daughter of Lal Waterson and co-creator of landmark albums, The Days That Shaped Me and Hidden, she has the sensibilities of folk singing coursing through her, and the ability to deliver sincerity and sharpness to anything she sings – traditional or original.

It’s not uncommon for albums by folk musicians to contain a variety of original and traditional material, however, the Hack-Poets Guild have found a perfectly balanced mix between the two, including songs with lyrics loosely based on the themes of the original texts, in some cases even blending both original and traditional lyrics in one song. With this approach, the different sources blend without friction and keep the album fresh and inviting with every progressive track. 

Focusing in on a few of the songs that instantly caught the attention, the album opens up with ‘Ten Tongues’, a powerful original (and second single) credited to Marry Waterson, who takes the lead vocal. Straight out of the gate, we are greeted with a very cinematic and macabre soundscape of percussive chains and eerie tip-tapping. The work of Gerry Diver becomes immediately obvious, his experience in the film and TV world elegantly deployed in building a world around Marry’s vocals. Her lyrics are perfectly in keeping with the broadside theme central to the album – poetic, but with a touch of that sinister, stylised aesthetic that is currently en vogue with material set in the 19th century. Diver’s roomy and sporadic violins soar left and right over a primative drum kit made of shakers, a large bass drum and cutting cross-stick sounds. ‘Ten Tongues’ opens Blackletter Garland with all the promise of lurid detail and three-dimentional musical experience to come.

The lead single, ‘Daring Highwayman‘, is a broadside from the year 1819 and has Lisa Knapp’s instantly recognisable vocal as its focus point throughout. ‘Daring Highwayman’ (or ‘The Jolly Highwayman’/ ‘Alan Tyne o’ Harrow’), lives at Roud number 1553 and was printed in London by J. Pitts in 1819, through to the 1840’s. Identical versions were also published by T. Birt based in Great St. Andrew Street (now Seven Dials), London. Originating from the 18th century, it’s a perfect example of the folk sub-genre known as ‘goodnight songs’, in which a rogue – commonly a highwayman – admits all before taking his first step up the gallows ladder.

This time, the track’s driving force is a rock drum kit, allowing Lisa to dance the syllabic pattern of the original lyrics across the groove. Gerry’s plucked violin is, sonically, intimate, offering room for the found sounds and percussion, constantly keeping the listener on their toes. This song also features an aggressively plucked electric bass with a strongly compressed and direct sound. Together with the drums, we encounter a kind of glam-folk sound, but the spoken lyrics twist the style again and we’re into the territory of punkier progressive acts like Yard Act and Dry Cleaning, not to mention the work of Stick in the Wheel

‘The Devil’s Cruelty’ beautifully highlights Nathaniel Mann’s deeply expressive voice. Without holding back, Nathaniel laments an injustice caused to him by the devil, very in keeping with the metaphysical and somewhat morbid themes scattered across the album. Though sad in theme, the song takes on a lighter and more buoyant feel as the vocals sing out in a more traditional ballad fashion during the verses.

This song is loosely based on the broadside ‘The Divils Cruelty to Mankind’ [Roud V14231]. First printed as far back as 1662 by William Gilbertson in London, the ballad is reportedly the “true relation of the life and death of George Gibbs”. Hack-Poets Guild repeats this introduction to the ballad at the beginning of the song itself. The lyrics sung in this version follow a similar feeling but are not identical to the printed broadside lyrics. Here, they’re shaped into something far more appropriate to the style of both the musical and singing style that Nathaniel is known for. 

The traditional material on Blackletter Garland is expertly interpreted. With the exceptional guidance of Gerry Diver, the material evokes a cinematic and mystical universe of blood-curdling adventure, loss and love. Gerry’s ability to draw the listener into different musical environments at the strike of his bow is a huge plus point on this album. They are expertly brought together resulting in an invigorating to and fro of experience that accompanies the extraordinary singing. 

As an example, ‘Hemp & Flax’ [Roud V32749] is based on another of the older ballads available in the Bodleian library. Printed between 1624 and 1640 by H. Gosson of London, the original title of the broadside is ‘Whipping Cheare, or The Wofull Lamentations of the Three Sisters in the Spittle’ – perhaps a little too long for the album artwork. It features a pounding rhythm built with a bass drum and bouncing found sounds used as percussion. Within the first 30 seconds, you hear muted bells, finger clicks, egg shakers, and what I can only describe as the sound produced when you flick a single piece of paper (you’ll know what I mean when you listen to it). The chorus is a layered harmony that helps build the weight of the song into the following verses, with the addition of more plucked strings and percussive sounds made by both instruments and voice. As the song builds in pace and feeling, processed strings lead to a booming bass drum that fills the soundscape. 

Mary, Lisa, Nathaniel and Gerry have found a way to bring out the most caustic yet endearing version of each other’s talents and voices in a perfect complement of moods across this album. Finding material that speaks to a modern audience, they have gone on to interpret it in a way that makes it both fresh yet in keeping with its antiquity, all the while safeguarding its powerful messages. 

The Blackletter Garland project was brought together by the Bodleian Library, which contains one of the finest collections of broadside ballads, and Sound UK Arts, a charitable organisation funded by the likes of Arts Council England and PRS that pours all its efforts into helping new music and performances of all kinds come about, working with the likes of The Unthanks, Leafcutter John and Pee Wee Ellis. It can be pre-ordered from olirecords.com.