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Maddie Morris – Skin, a review

Gavin McNamara reviews Maddie Morris' Skin: a folk fusion of personal tales, queer & feminist insights, and activism. A musical journey of voice and virtue.

Release Date
23 February 2024
Maddie Morris - Skin
Maddie Morris, winner of the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Musician award, integrates a feminist and queer perspective into their folk music, championing the underrepresented voices. Their debut album Skin is a mix of personal narratives, traditional folk, and political statements, with songs that pay homage to figures like Marsha P. Johnson and explore personal and societal themes, showcasing Morris's role as both a talented musician and a vital storyteller.

There’s a line in the searing Simon Armitage poem, ‘Black Roses’, that goes like this: “I said let them all be/ I said breathe and let breathe”. It forms part of a powerful, thoughtful, rhythmic, arms-wide-open invitation for understanding and acceptance; an open-hearted plea for all voices to be heard, wherever and whomever they may be. Maddie Morris probably knows this bit of poetry backwards. 

In 2019, Morris won the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Musician award and, since then, has released two EPs and has established themselves as a significant voice in the folk world. Morris’ worldview is avowedly feminist, determinedly queer, and makes the personal entirely, importantly, political. They use their lived experience, as well as a deep understanding of the folk tradition, to give voice to all of those that need to be allowed to breathe. 

Skin, their debut album, starts with, possibly, one of the most vital modern folk songs of recent times. Whilst ‘Marsha P Johnson’ is a celebration of the famed Stonewall activist and African-American self-identified drag queen, it is also a beautifully self-deprecating hymn to self. Morris traces early experiences and personal philosophies, threading them between samples from the Making Gay History podcast and beautiful, understated folk playing. Belinda O’Hooley’s piano and Archie Churchill-Moss on diatonic button accordion form a lush setting for Morris’ sweet, gentle voice. There’s something so striking about the careful, measured delivery pitched against the impassioned, raw words that, when Morris sings that they want to “change the world for people like, and unlike, me”, you can’t help but believe it. 

The original songs on Skin all have an infectious vitality to them. Each of them features a little, gleaming moment that will stick in your temporal lobe, changing perceptions, bobbing to the surface when you least expect it. ‘Easily Bruised’ is head-spinning and triumphant, a lazily strummed guitar and Janice Burns on mandolin effortlessly creating a sense of Englishness. There’s something a tiny bit Eddi Reader to Morris’ vocal, and there’s the same warmth that you get in those old Fairground Attraction records. Morris thinks back to her 17-year-old self with a mix of fondness and embarrassment but creates space for everyone to reflect on their own formative times, too. ‘IT Teacher’ also looks back, but this time Morris is quietly furious, full of disgust for homophobes. This is story-telling of the highest quality. It is desperately personal, utterly universal and, as Morris pours out their heart, every emotion is easily caught. Ultimately, it’s a story of liberation, of feeling pride and Pride (with a capital P), all using a simple violin as the sound of heartbreak.

‘Political T-Shirt’ is angry, too… well, as angry as a waltz can be. It rages against “they”, fiercely defiant and full of the mad blood stirring. Yet Morris’ voice retains its composure, the even temper matching the smooth line of travel of the violin and guitar. Somehow you feel that they have rehearsed these lines a thousand times before, arguing the same points. ‘Icarus’ addresses a parent and child relationship from the child’s point of view, wondering what to do with the gifts given. Complex ideas are given complex orchestration as violins swell around simple guitar lines and O’Hooley’s sympathetic piano cascades. It’s beautiful and, strikingly; Morris’ voice shifts on the word “imagine”. As with so much of Skin, ‘Icarus’ seeks to find a better way.

When Morris explores the tradition, something seriously interesting happens. Taking these songs – often traditionally voiced by men – and giving them a queer slant utterly subverts them. They become something else altogether. Where Jean Ritchie’s ‘Cedar Swamp’ could be unpleasantly lascivious in male hands, Morris makes it joyful and fun. There’s a sway and swing, an Appalachian bounce that’s simply lovely. ‘A Bonny Bunch of Roses’ [Roud 664] is another where a different point of view helps to re-frame the narrative, uncovering a deep love in this Napoleonic ballad. It is here that you realise that Morris is not simply a fine singer-songwriter in the Ani DiFranco mold, but they are a wonderful interpreter of songs, too. ‘Must I Be Bound’ [Roud 18829] was learned from the singing of Rachel Newton (although there is a myriad of versions, from Shirley Collins and June Tabor to Angeline Morrison) and Morris turns a song about an abusive relationship into something of support and defiance. Female voices mass around, lifting, protecting and, ultimately, triumphing. 

In Simon Armitage’s poem, he celebrates “all the human race/ in its crazy parade”. You feel that, on Skin, Morris tries something similar. They glory in the life that they lead, proud of who they are and of the people that surround them. For this alone, Skin is a wonderful achievement. 

Skin, by Maddie Morris, is available now from the artist’s bandcamp page.