Fern Maddie released her debut EP, North Branch River, in 2020 and it was promptly named one of the best releases of the year by Seven Days. The title track was recommended to the Tradfolk staff in late 2021, and we’ve been eager to hear what she might come up with ever since. Her Instagram posts depict a life as rustic as her music sounds – sheltered in a cabin in the N’Dakinna woods (Vermont), surrounded by goats and hounds, her banjo never far from reach. Occasional musical clips have been seriously intriguing.
It was with some excitement, then, that we received an email from Fern Maddie herself, just two days ago, telling us that her debut album, Ghost Story, was about to drop. Sure enough, it arrived in our inbox the following morning. We’ve had our ear-goggles wrapped around it ever since.
Produced by Fern Maddie and Colin McCaffrey, it’s a beautiful patchwork. If you were expecting another North Branch River, you won’t be entirely disappointed. There are hints of that EP’s beautiful simplicity here, not least in the lead single, ‘Hares on the Mountain‘ [Roud 329] and the opening track, a simple voice/acoustic guitar arrangement of ‘The Maid on the Shore’ [Roud 181]. However, they quickly step out of the path to allow something a little more exploratory to come through. Maddie never strays too far from the homestead, but there are instruments here that you might not expect. We haven’t heard too many recent albums using bones for percussion, but the self-penned banjo instrumental, ‘Green Grass Growing’, clacks along like a skeleton tap-dancing on a gravestone. It is one of the album’s early treats, too – stripped raw, basic, compelling. It’s a joy to hear a musician building in confidence and stretching their limits.
It quickly becomes apparent that Ghost Story is no pretty, pretty folk album, and the first original song, ‘Dorothy May’, demonstrates a very pleasing darkness. As Maddie picks her way through lyrics such as ‘He minds his linen/ Sundays are for black’, we stagger uneasily through the backwoods, wary of what we might find. The unnerving expedition continues into a superb version of ‘Ca’ the Yowes’ [Roud 857], although there’s an impishness at play here, underpinned by a Bontempi rhythm that you can be fairly sure Robert Burns never encountered when he first heard the song in the wild back in 1794.
Fern Maddie proves herself to be a ballad singer of real note.
‘Northlands’ appears to be a version of ‘The Outlandish Knight’ [Roud 21], and as its full seven minutes flit by, Fern Maddie proves herself to be a ballad singer of real note. The instrumentation is sparse, occasionally seeking out brief diversions, but it’s her voice that keeps us gripped. She inhabits the song wonderfully, feeling her way from character to character and painting the ancient song in full technicolour. It’s a stunning performance, a powerful centrepiece, and a surefire calling card for this promising young folk singer.
The final three songs are all Maddie’s originals, but they fit alongside the traditional songs without any obvious issues. Stripped back to the singer’s voice and an unfussy acoustic guitar, ‘Unmarked’ and ‘Catherine Wheel’ both demonstrate her ear for a great melody. The band (always the singer and her co-producer) return for ‘You Left This’, an indie-folk finale, atmospheric with chordless piano notes, fiddle, and a gently rumbling synth, not to mention one of the album’s best vocal performances, resplendent with hints of Joni Mitchell.
In short, this is a superb debut, quiet but brooding, confident but never ostentatious. It sets out from seemingly nowhere, scales challenging heights to reveal glistening vistas, before quietly descending a simple trail back to where we started. There are bold approaches to some of the traditional songs – questing, unsettling, occasionally visionary. Best of all? We’ve only heard it a few times, and we can tell it has plenty more to give.
Ghost Story by Fern Maddie is available from the artist’s Bandcamp page. For more information, head to fernmaddiemusic.com.