Best of 2020: 21. Georgia Ruth ‘Mai’

Years of record buying instills in you a sense of which names to trust when it comes to considering new purchases. At the start of this year, the pretty heavyweight trio of the Bubblewrap Collective label, Radio Wales legend and all round good bloke Adam Walton and singer-songwriter Georgia Ruth coalesced around me in referencing the latter’s then-forthcoming album, ‘Mai’. I wrote at length previously about my love for her debut Week Of Pines and the follow up, ‘Fossil Scale’, was also a delight, so I was always going to be on side. However, there is something enjoyably heartening about splendid people working with and championing splendid people.

Mai

Bubblewrap Collective, a Cardiff based record label, is the sort of institution to whose entire release schedule I would happily subscribe, safe in the knowledge I would receive everything they put out. Charlie Francis, Sweet Baboo, Ivan Moult, Eugene Capper & Rhodri Brooks and The Gentle Good have all had releases on their imprint and they currently have some very appealingly priced bundles available if you’re fond of your ears. At the same time they announced that ‘Mai’ would be coming out via them, Walton played a teaser track on his always excellent Saturday night show and a pre-order for the very limited initial vinyl run was placed.

The album had the misfortune of coming out just before the entire world turned to shit and had to battle back to the foreground once a degree of equilibrium had been found in the wobbly lines of lockdown. Returning to the town where she had grown up, Aberystwyth, following the birth of her son, Georgia Ruth wrote an album exploring the reshaping of the world that is triggered by parenthood and responding to the pastoral pull of place. Moving between Welsh, English and instrumental, language proves fluid as these pieces form a beautifully cohesive whole.

The bare bones of ‘7 Rooms’ considers that new arrival, with evocative imagery that somehow gives words to the purest of human emotions: “Between these two worlds I watch you through the dim light. You move like fire in the shadow; there is something bright in you.” My shameful lack of Welsh betrays the land of my father but I’ve always been a melody person and they are here in substantial numbers on songs like the glisteningly beguiling ‘Terracotta’ and title track ‘Mai’, which uses the words of a poem written by Eifion Wyn, ‘Gwn ei ddyfod, fis y mêl’ or ‘I know it’s coming, month-of-honey’. It took on unimaginable importance once the early summer months emerged from the initial shock of the big pause, despite the album sessions taking place in a week during spring 2019.

‘Close For Comfort’ might be the most direct route in, with its mix of infectious jangle and the forthright demonstration of Ruth’s phenomenally dextrous voice. It was what caught my attention on the ‘In Luna’ EP back in 2012 and continues to floor me now. Her ability to shift tone, intensity and intent is utterly hypnotic and it ensures the meaning breaks through even if you’re not fully cognisant of the lyrics. The mellifluous harp feels a little less prominent this time around, but it is foregrounded on the aching ‘In Bloom’, which uses the presentation of nature to explore the wider impact of a child upon a relationship.

As our mental health takes a battering, our certainties shift before our very eyes and the digital noise envelops us, albums like ‘Mai’ can transport us: to Aberystwyth, to memories of family experiences and to a deeply emotional response that pulls attention from what is damaging us.

Buy ‘Mai’ on vinyl from Drift

BEST OF 2013: 1. Georgia Ruth – Week Of Pines

Growing up in South Wales with an interest in music meant that two particular attachments were formed that remain hugely important to me to this day. Firstly, there is the one utterly dependable source of exciting new acts who also manages to fill in the gaps from the past with utterly infectious enthusing: BBC Radio Wales’ new music show hosted by the inimitable Adam Walton. It became appointment listening for me when he was given a slot on weeknights in the late nineties, playing the noisy stuff before a new pop show that followed. I still have piles of CDs here that I won from the show and he is responsible for my love of the Super Furries, 60ft Dolls, Murry The Hump and Gorky’s, as well as some non-Welsh magic he also used to sneak in like The Beta Band and Doves. He was, and when time permits still is, my Peel. Adam, like Gideon Coe on 6 Music, is one of those presenters who could sell you most of the records he plays. Rare is the time I listen to one of his broadcasts without writing down at least one artist I need to investigate. He continues to fight the good fight on Saturday nights and, as music lovers yourselves, I would forcefully urge you to put aside three hours of each week to find out what has caught his attention recently.

The second totem in my grasp on music is Cardiff’s Spillers Records. I’ve written about them many times before, but they are the outlet for so much of the truly brilliant music being made in Wales. They listen to it all and match it to the people likely to love it. They make scarily accurate recommendations and send you off with a new favourite album you didn’t even go in there to buy. Several years ago, they brought Huw M into my world, for which I am eternally grateful, as well as keeping me fixed with records by The Gentle Good, Little Arrow, Meilir, H Hawkline, Sweet Baboo, Islet and many, many more. They are facilitators, curators and participants in a phenomenal music scene and they also play their part in Georgia Ruth’s stunning ‘Week Of Pines’ being my favourite album of 2013.

Adam has played her music for years, going right back to early recordings when she still used her surname Williams on releases. He would talk of this remarkable voice whose music was crafted on a harp and then play these beautifully sung, delicately balanced tracks. Her name remained on my radar and several digitally released EPs crept into my collection. However, the moment where I realised just why she was such a regular presence on his programmes was the first time I heard ‘Bones’, a beguilingly soulful paean to life working on the London Underground, replete with the sound of distant trains. It was to be housed on four track 10″ EP, ‘In Luna’, with which Spillers promptly furnished me. It remains one of my all time favourite songs and it’s not even on this remarkable album. Her Saturday afternoon set at Green Man in 2012, where ‘Bones’ was thankfully added to the setlist as an afterthought, was always going to be a must see, but it served to underline just what a tremendous talent was at play.

‘Week Of Pines’ entered the world in May and managed to traverse the full range of what various incarnations of Georgia Ruth’s music have covered to date. The title track’s motorik drums which rise from the silence, only to be partnered with a resonant harp, set the tone for a record which never sits still. Having spent time in Brighton as well as London, Williams felt the call of home and returned to Wales, pouring some of that aching nostalgia into this set of songs. This near six minute opener is unquestionably unique, marrying vague Krautrock with melodically rich playing of the harp in a manner that isn’t exactly en vogue right now. Not that it isn’t something very special. The intertwined notion of building relationships and the landscapes in which they occur is rather beautifully explored, not least in the gently stirring couplet: “You have got the best heart that I have ever seen; it lingers in the cracks and finds the dim-lit space between”.

‘Dovecote’ unravels across an organ drone, barely grounded with the vocal hovering free, entirely in keeping with the lyric “set the rigging high, my love, for I will no man’s anchor be.”  The howling harmonica which opens a cover of vintage folk number ‘Old Blue’ paves the way for a lament for a departed pet which skitters along at a fair old pace. ‘Mapping’, meanwhile, seems to have laid its strummed-harp cards upon the table before fading back up for an aching reprise. This is undeniably Welsh folk music, but so much more than that implies too. That it sounds so out of step with much of what I have listened to this year has perhaps served it well. ‘Seeing You Around’ remains a favourite, with its languid nostalgia proving to be all-encompassing and indulgently wistful. The delivery of the word ‘iconoclast’ in the line “I’ve tried to melt away like some old iconoclast, but I believed in breath and clay, I believed that we were built to last,” is wonderfully Welsh and serves to reinforce the importance of her homeland to her music.

As a plastic taff, whose formative years were spent perilously close to the border, I’m sadly not a Welsh speaker but the three tracks here which especially highlight Williams’ bilingual upbringing are no less beautiful for being reliant, for me at least, upon melody alone. ‘Hallt’, especially, is a full-shiver-down-the-spine piece, which, upon the arrival of percussion around the three and a half minute mark, lifts off to a quite magical place and the final take on its chorus is as serene a piece of music as I could wish to play right now. Although, ‘In Luna’, from the afore-mentioned EP, might run it close. Williams’ vocal rises and falls en route to a glistening chorus, bedecked with shuffling, subtle drums and delicate touches of guitar. The harp is, once again, foregrounded, becoming inextricable from her voice.

Where it is briefly sidelined, as on the richly melancholic ‘A Slow Parade’, a swooning electric guitar riff brings forth memories of a lost classic: the Richard Hawley-produced solo outing by A Girl Called Eddy. It is yet another subtle stylistic shift on this tremendously bold record. By the time ‘Winter’ retreats slowly from view, mirroring the slow entrance of the title track at the other end of the album, the Snowdonian landscape in which ‘Week Of Pines’ was constructed seems to have left its mark. Of a time, perhaps, but of a place, undoubtedly, this truly special collection of songs is unlike anything else I’ve heard this year. It picked up the Welsh Music Prize in October, which prompted a brief flurry of interest, but I put it at the top of the list not only because it quite sincerely is my favourite album of the last twelve months but also in the hope that some of you reading will seek out and enjoy an overlooked treasure. To Adam, to Spillers and, most of all, Georgia, thanks for reminding that music is a wonderfully powerful thing and, in the right hands, can make you smile, sob and stand up and face the world.