Very little biographical information is available I’m afraid, so all I can tell you is that Kerry’s a young singer-songwriter from (I think) somewhere near Peterborough, or at any rate reasonably close to the Cambridgeshire edge of the Fens. By all accounts her live performances at last summer’s Cambridge Folk Festival (The Den) and Secret Garden Party were spellbinding; these were followed by an ambitious (and sold-out) “immersive multimedia” CD launch evening at Wicken Fen involving music, projections, paintings and sound installations, then a series of UK tour dates back in May. Those in the know will also have clocked the release earlier this year, in advance of the Away From Mountains album, of two separate tracks from it – Work You and Vehicle (the latter issued as a joint-single with Maija Sofia).
Kerry’s debut album is certainly an interesting prospect. She drew her inspiration directly from the natural environment that is the fens and wetlands of East Anglia – its Unique quality of stillness and its very particular landscape history. In preparation for the creation of her album, she visited the region extensively over a period of time, collecting sound samples and recording stories and reminiscences from local people. She derived great comfort from this activity, and her intention in creating the album was to connect the findings – and this feeling of comfort and belonging – to her listeners. Kerry explained it all thus: “When you’re there, and you’re still you can hear so many different sounds, so many different layers, so I wanted to create something that sounded like that, that had the depth and the richness but also very sparse. This place comforts me; I wanted to create a kind of sound womb that the listener could come into and be comforted too.” And by and large, I think Kerry has succeeded. For ‘Away from Mountains’ is mesmeric and haunting, and it is indeed easy to immerse oneself in its atmosphere.
This atmosphere is tangible also in terms of the location for its recording – all but one track of the album was recorded in the dead of night in the historic, remote Fotheringhay Church (yes, as glimpsed in the Sandy Denny song), which lies just inside the Northamptonshire border just a few miles west of Peterborough. Kerry’s coolly graceful, ethereal, slightly ghostly – and impeccably controlled – vocal delivery, somewhat reminiscent of Beth Orton or Portishead’s Beth Gibbons, is cradled, cocooned, by gently brushed guitar strokes, piano, layered strings, synth and soft percussion beats with touches of indie-folktronica and occasional found sounds. The intention is that these gentle, elegant atmospherics work with and for Kerry’s lyrics, but I sometimes find it’s easy to gloss over, or miss altogether, the impact of the intimate poetry of her carefully-crafted words. I suspect this is partly due to Kerry’s whispered, even-toned vocal quality (her voice is almost used as an instrument for much of the time), maybe as much as to the subtly shifting ambient musical backdrops themselves. It’s a difficult balance to strike, I’ll admit, and perhaps the curiously driving rhythm of bass and drums (Abid Mujtaba and Jes Kerr) that propels both the unsettling Ariel and opening track Charlston Town along (albeit in different ways) is a saving grace in that regard. Elsewhere, apart from the ominous electronic heartbeat of the pleading Work You, the more conventionally pop-song-like Not Telling You and the lilting, slightly melancholic chamber-folk parlour-waltzery of Fools That Fall, there may initially appear less within each track’s specific musical climate that could be said to consciously set the poetic lyric in its own individual response-frame. But that shouldn’t imply any lack of substance – it’s just that one needs to listen more closely into the textures to divine the context and authenticity of these responses. And it helps too that the song lyrics are included as part of the package, in a handsome foldout insert.
Kerry’s lyrics tend to concern themselves with the passage of time, whether in terms of impact on landscape or the environment or (equally often here) on relationships or friendships – mostly in the sense of a downward trend or bleak outcome that’s shot through with an element of hollow, though intentionally reassuring nostalgia. Kerry’s more oblique formulation of her sometimes complex ruminations occasionally gets in the way of the message, but her more direct and immediate expression on the last song on the album makes it especially heart-rending; Closed Roads concerns Kerry’s grandfather who had dementia, and laments the slipping away of what Kerry terms the “small window of time when we could really know each other”. An arguably even more intense feeling of desperation and helplessness pervades the pithy, angrily dismissive Lines In The Landscape.
A central paradox of Kerry’s music remains – that it possesses both a pervasive sense of airy, wide-open space and an airless claustrophobia, and these elements can be difficult to reconcile at first, especially in an age where initial impressions and superficial exposure, seem to count for so much. Similarly, in terms of musical setting and content, it’s possible to (again, initially) hear a majority of the album’s ten tracks as being in a literal sense “all on one level” – even-paced, and with minimal variation in tempo or dynamics; no peaks or troughs, just like the naturally flat contours of the Fenland landscape itself, sure (for after all, you really couldn’t be further “away from mountains” than here). And so, just as with the Fens’ landscape, one needs to spend time therein, soaking up the music’s myriad of subtleties and the understated patterns of rhythm, sound and language which a cursory or less leisurely visit would completely miss.