Folk musician Lizzie Nunnery has won considerable acclaim since the release of her debut album ‘The Company of Ghosts’ in 2010, with BBC Radio 2 DJ Mike Harding including the LP in his Top Ten albums list that year.
Mixing and matching contemporary folk music with older forms of the genre, Lizzie recently had the chance to interview a major influence on her work, legendary English folk musician Martin Carthy.
Running parallel to her musical output, Lizzie is a hugely revered playwright whose work has regularly been garlanded with excellent reviews from the national press. ‘The Swallowing Dark’, which debuted last year in Liverpool’s Playhouse Theatre, detailing the bureaucratic absurdities Zimbabwe asylum seeker Canaan encounters on his voyage to Liverpool, was the recipient of four star reviews from 'The Independent' and 'The Guardian' amongst others.
Lizzie’s most recent play, an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Painted Veil’ for BBC Radio 4 aired in January to superb notices and starred Sarah Smart, most famous for her role in the UK version of detective drama, 'Wallander'.
At the present time however Lizzie’s energies are focused primarily on music. Recording on the follow up her debut LP is nearing completion and is slated for a June release. Titled ‘Black Hound Howling’, a moniker it shares with a song on the LP, the title chimes in with the apocalyptic imagery that features in many of the songs. "There’s a lot of stuff about time and transience and things fading in lots of different ways and a lot of stuff about the apocalypse and end of the world imagery," Lizzie explains, sat outside a café in Liverpool’s Georgian Quarter.
Indeed, ‘Five Thousand Birds’, a standout track on the album shares the same end of days feel as PJ Harvey’s ‘Let England Shake’. Maintaining the same melodic fluency of her earlier work and (predictably) brilliant lyrics, ‘Black Hound Howling’ sees Lizzie moving into different sonic territory, as her songs now carry a pronounced percussive undertow.
Working closely with Vidar Norheim, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and drummer from acclaimed Liverpool-Norwegian band Wave Machines, the rhythmic element of the tracks gives Lizzie’s material a different perspective. "It’s less traditional but it’s still all acoustic and stripped-down, still all about the songwriting, which is where I’ve always come from," Lizzie explains. "It’s a step in the new direction but it still has a link to the first album."
Vidar’s involvement in the record from songwriting onto recording and producing has meant the pair have worked almost on an equal footing. "We’re thinking of putting the album out under both our names now because it’s become so collaborative," Lizzie says. "There’s so much of his drums and his percussion that led the album it makes sense, especially because that’s how I play live now."
The two are likely to use their own names instead of forming a group as such, the songwriter explains. "It’s the way a lot of folk and jazz musicians work, to keep that sort of openness through a career, you can keep on experimenting and bringing other people on board without it becoming a band that’s set in stone."
"It’s like King Creosote and Jon Hopkins that way of presenting things," Lizzie states, referring to the Burns Unit alumnus’ hook-up with solo electronica artist Hopkins.
Vidar’s presence onstage has given Lizzie greater freedom to concentrate on other aspects of her music. "I love playing live by myself, but there’s a limit to what you can do," she says. "It means on certain tracks I can just sing as well which is brilliant in being able to focus on vocals and performance that way."
Gary Daly of Liverpool stalwarts China Crisis contributed to the album sessions, donating a track he had earmarked as "the Kate Bush one." "It was written years ago and he couldn’t find a lyric or a melody for it. It was kind of a complete backing track with nothing on top of it," Lizzie recounts. "He’d given it to Vidar months ago and we’d listened to it on the iPod loads. Without asking him we started writing a melody and lyrics for it, and when we thoughr we had something for it we got in touch with him and said ‘We’ve got this thing…’," Lizzie remembers, smiling.
"We mocked up a demo we sent to him which he was really into. It was quite nerve-racking, but he was really excited by it. I’d never worked like that before, doing a co-write in complete separation."
The resultant track ‘Tread Lightly’ Lizzie describes as "probably the closest I’ve ever come to writing a straightforward pop song." One of the lead tracks from the LP that will be sent out to radio, the song is likely to have a video shot for it, following in the footsteps of ‘The Sleepers’, the stunning George Mellies ‘A Trip to the Moon’-esque video which was helmed by Liverpool based film-maker Chiz Turnross.
Norwegian singer-songwriter Arne Brun and Swedish group Wild Birds and Peace Drums. who consist solely of a female singer and a drummer. served as inspiration on the new record. Instruments that featured strongly on Lizzie’s debut LP and live shows, such as the Cajon, a box-shaped drum from the Americas that looks like a stereo speaker and folk mainstay,and the ukulele have been avoided on the new record.
"It wasn’t really by design," Lizzie says of the instrumentation changes, "It was because of the songs we chose." In their place a major element Vidar has brought to the LP is the Vibraphone, heard on several of the tracks. Splicing folk and jazz, combined with acoustic guitar live, the instrument lends the material an otherworldly feel. "It has a ghostly quality. It’s a film soundtrack instrument. It's unusual to hear in a folk setting. It’s more of a jazz instrument," Lizzie says.
The acoustic guitar and vibraphone set-up was recently showcased at a recent performance the two made during 'In Conversation with Paul McGann', which saw the Liverpudlian actor discussing his life and work at St. George’s Hall Concert Room.
"Paul asked us to play a song from World War One, because he played a part in ‘The Monocled Mutineer’, the Alan Bleasdale series," Lizzie recalls. The song in question, ‘The Lads in Their Hundreds’, has a long history. "It started life as a poem written by A.E. Hausman during the Boer War, then it got set to music by George Butterworth and became associated with the War. It’s got a line about ‘the lads that will never grow old’," Lizzie explains.
On the subject of upcoming live work, 'The Goose is Out', held at various venues in East Dulwich, London, frequented by BBC Radio One DJ Rob Da Bank, is lined up for May this year and her next project. Bridging the gap between venues usually associated with guitar bands and more traditional folk clubs, the two set-ups can be markedly different, Lizzie reflects.
"It’s a really different culture with the folk festivals and old folk clubs. They’re really super organized. It was quite strange when I was first contacting folk clubs when they’d say ‘Yes, we’d be interested, but not for a year and a half!’ Once you start getting the bookings in though, they come round quite quickly. You have to kind of feel it ou, Some places are quite strict and traditional when it comes to material and others are a bit more general.’
Back on home soil in Liverpool, the hugely successful 'Irish Sea Sessions', held at the city’s iconic Philharmonic Hall sees Lizzie return to perform at the season. Boasting a bill that has featured Niamh Parsons and Damien Dempsey in recent years, Lizzie sang lead on ‘The Leading of Liverpool’ at the finale of 2010's event.
Touring the UK this month and next, including a show at the Gower Folk Festival, Lizzie’s beguiling songs demand to be heard in a live setting, the perfect showcase for their delicate instrumentation and powerful, deeply thoughtful lyrics.