Songs I love

I started recording this series of covers about two years ago with the idea of sharing versions of songs that have inspired me over the years. Some of the songs are by known songwriters and some are traditionals. I’ll be recording a new one every month and uploading them up as I go along. All the songs are downloadable for free in exchange of your email, so you can be alerted of any updates directly in your mailbox.
I’ll be recording in my home studio but the lo-finess’ll be part of the process. For the most part, it’ll be just a case of putting a mike in front of a guitar or any other instrument that comes to hand with another for the voice and pressing record with a quick mix afterwards.”
I hope you’ll enjoy these tributes to the songs and songwriters I love.

Piers


SONGS I LOVE #23: BELLA CI DORMI (ft. Mauro Durante)

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It’s been a while since I’ve released a new cover from the ongoing Songs I Love series so here’s a version of the beautiful southern Italian serenade “Bella Ci Dormi”.

I first sang this song in 2010 when my friend Mauro Durante invited me to perform with his band Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino at the festival Le Notte Bianca in Puglia. ‘Bella ci dormi’ was traditionally sung by musicians under the balconies of women who were being proposed to but the tradition of the serenade and the custom of paying a musician to sing as a gesture of love has all but disappeared. Even if the concept of the serenade could do with a little C21st tweaking, I can’t help thinking that making a mixtape or a digital playlist for someone doesn’t have quite the same romantic quality as being sung to under a balcony in the light of the full moon but I may be wrong!

Mauro visited me recently at home as we were writing the lyrics for a song on the new album called “Bring down the wall”, my words in English, his in the Salentino dialect. In between writing lyrics, we also found the time to record together a new cover for Vol II of Songs I Love.

Here’s ‘Bella Ci Dormi’, as always it’s a simple, no frills recording with Mauro on violin and me on guitar. I really hope you’ll enjoy it!

SONGS I LOVE #22: LITTLE GREEN (Joni Mitchell cover)

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Given my love of her writing, I really should have already covered a Joni Mitchell song in the series by now. As a lyricist she’s in a hallowed place all of her own and I can’t think of anyone else who writes with such invention and grace. Little Green almost hurts to sing. It tells the story of the daughter Joni Mitchell gave up for adoption. One can only imagine the torment of a young mother having to give up her child and it’s tempting too as the verses unfold to question her for doing so. Perhaps that’s what makes it such a moving piece, taking us as listeners, deep into complex and ambiguous emotional waters where compassion, sorrow and forgiveness can mingle?
I wonder how Joni’s biological daughter feels about the song, would she have preferred it to have remain unwritten, unsung? It makes me think that writers are inevitably selfish beings as nothing is ever off limits for them. Shining a light on events that others might rather hide is hard for the people that inspire the stories. But despite the sorrow Little Green calls up, I have no doubt the rest us are better off for hearing it. 
The beautiful guitar part here was played by my friend the South African Guy Buttery. We met when I toured South Africa in 2008 with Nibs van der Spuy, I’ve collaborated on a few songs of Guy’s over the years, including one on his next album, I encourage you to discover his amazing music, he has a crowdfunding thing going on for his next album, I hear guitar buffs can even bid for one of his guitars! http://igg.me/at/guybuttery/x

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Franchement, vu comme j’adore ses compositions, il y a longtemps que j’aurais pu inclure une chanson de Joni Mitchell dans la série! Comme parolière, elle évolue dans une sorte de sanctuaire qui n’appartient qu’à elle – je cherche en vain quelqu’un qui écrive avec autant de grâce et de sincérité. ‘Little Green’ est une chanson très sensible, poignante. Elle raconte l’histoire de la fille que Joni Mitchell a dû abandonner et confier à l’adoption. On peut imaginer les tourments d’une jeune mère acculée à laisser son enfant ; mais au fil de l’histoire, on a aussi envie de l’interpeller sur son geste… C’est sans doute ce qui rend ce récit si touchant, et qui plonge ceux qui écoutent dans les hauts fonds des émotions complexes et profondes, là où peuvent se fondre la compassion, la tristesse, et le pardon… Je me demande ce que ressent la fille biologique de Joni à l’écoute de cette chanson : aurait-elle préféré qu’elle demeure non-écrite, jamais chantée ? Je réalise que les auteurs sont en fait des êtres assez égoïstes, qui ne se posent aucune limite. Porter au jour des événements que d’autres préfèreraient cacher n’est pas sans conséquences douloureuses pour les personnes qui inspirent ces récits. Malgré la tristesse que ‘Little Green’ éveille, je suis convaincu qu’une autre part de nous est heureuse de l’écouter.
Sur cette reprise, la superbe partition de guitare est jouée par mon ami Sud-Africain Guy Buttery. Nous nous sommes rencontrés lors de ma tournée là-bas en 2008 avec Nibs van der Spuy. Je vous invite à découvrir son incroyable univers musical. J’ai contribué à quelques chansons de Guy ces dernières années, y compris pour son prochain album. Il y a une campagne de financement participatif en cours sur ce projet, et je crois même qu’il y a des enchères possibles pour une de ses guitares. Avis aux amateurs ! http://igg.me/at/guybuttery/x

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SONGS I LOVE #21: NOTTAMUN TOWN

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Since I first started up Songs I Love, the series has been a way for me to share songs with some of the different friends and artists that I play with. So last summer while recording Jenny Lysander’s album Northern Folk, we also found the time late one August evening, to record a cover for the ongoing Volume II of the series.
Nottamun Town is an old English folk song that I first discovered on Fairport Convention’s 1969 album ‘What we did on our holidays’, their version was sung by the great Sandy Denny. Between takes recording Jenny’s album, we’d spend a lot of the down time listening to music. I love playing records for friends and seeing the excitement on their faces as they discover new music. I played Jenny some of my favorite singers like Anne Briggs, June Tabor or Joni Mitchell.
Listening to Nottamun Town, some of you may be reminded of Bob Dylan and he used the same melody for his song Masters of War. There’s a trance like cadence to the strange and original lyrics in Nottamun Town and Dylan used this relentless and hypnotic rhythm to great effect in his timeless anti-war anthem. According to various sources the original song dates back to medieval times and there’s a theory that the surreal nature of the text relates to the traditional day The Feast of Fools, during which time which power was briefly conferred on those in a subordinate position. On this day, the fool took his revenge, the servant beat his master and the cat chased the hounds! So for the full sensory experience as you listen to this song, picture a Hieronymous Bosch painting in your mind and enjoy!

“Met the King and the Queen and the company more
Came a riding behind and a walking before
Come a stark naked drummer -a beating a drum
With his heels in his bosom come marching along”

SONGS I LOVE #20: THE SNOWS THEY MELT THE SOONEST

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I first heard this song on my favourite Pentangle album ´Solomon’s seal’. I read later that it was Anne Brigg´s beautiful a cappella version recorded in 1971 that brought this jewel of a song to wider acclaim. Like much of the great English folk canon, this early C19th song blends a delicate and haunting melody with some stunning poetry.
My friend, the South African guitarist and songwriter Nibs van der Spuy introduced me to Dick Gaughan’s masterpiece ‘Handful of Earth’ while we were on tour in South Africa a few years ago. If I had to pick my favourite version of The snows they melt the soonest, it would doubtless be Gaughan’s wonderfully intense and amost spoken rendition.
I live in the Cevennes in Southern France and during the Summer I organize acoustic concerts in the region. For each show, I share the stage with a different artist and friend. After Dawn Landes in May and Vincent Segal in June, I invited Nibs for July’s concert in the Romanesque chapel of Sainte Croix de Caderle. I took advantage of him staying for a couple of days at our home to record a version of The snows they melt the soonest, a song we both love!

SONGS I LOVE #19 WITH KITTY I’LL GO

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As a guitarist and a songwriter I’ve been been influenced by many different styles of traditional folk music from around the world. Two of the main schools of influence through which I eventually found my own way of writing were the folk music traditions of England, Scotland and Ireland and those of West Africa, more specifically Mali. In the early nineties, I came across the music of Martin Carthy and Davey Graham at around the same time that I discovered the Malian greats, Boubacar Traore and Ali Farka Toure. As incongruous as it might be to compare the musical equivalent of a frosty winter morning on an English moor with that of sweltering afternoon on the Niger Delta, I’ve always felt there were endless points of comparison between the two worlds. I began my side project The River, with the Malian master N’goni player, Badje Tounkara and French guitarist Seb Martel in order to deepen this profoundly complementary dialogue.

Being the descendant of Italian, Irish, Ashkenazi and Gypsy immigrants, I don’t have a big claim to represent British or Irish Folk traditions any more than I do those of West Africa but what I do feel I can stake a claim to is the right to blend styles just as my blood has been blended with the trace of so many different languages. I’ve written several songs both for my own albums and for The River that explore the dialogue between northern European Folk and West African traditions but I wanted for the ongoing Vol II of Songs I love to find a cover that I could play with in the same way. Much has been made of the links between Mississippi blues and Mali but I find the ties between certain aspects of British and Irish and Malian folk to be just as strong. Martin Carthy is one of my all time favorite guitar players, I played Badje Tounkara his version of Cold haily, windy night and Badje said.”On dirait la musique de chez nous” “It sounds like music from my country”

With Kitty I’ll go is a wonderful song that I first heard sung by the extraordinary Norma Waterson. I fell in love with it when I discovered Waterson Carthy’s first album. Reading Martin Carthy’s original liner notes, I found out that it was an Irish song and that there is also a version in Gaelic. I live in the hills of the Cevennes, in a land that I left London for in order to ‘ramble over the mountains wild.’ so singing these wonderful words feels like a perfect match!

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SONGS I LOVE #18 THERE’S A MAN GOING ROUND TAKING NAMES

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This summer, Sylvie Lewis and Dawn Landes came to visit me at my home; Sylvie had written to me a few weeks earlier to say that she and Dawn were passing through en route to Spain and would love to meet up and hang out for a day. At that time, I was in the middle of proof reading the last version of the Songs I Love book before sending it off to the printers but it felt like as good a time as any to start on the next installment of the series.
Dawn and Sylvie had been singing ‘Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key’ by Woody Guthrie during their summer tour and although we initially thought about doing that one, it inspired me to get out some old Lead Belly vinyls. Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly who played and recorded together were undoubtedly among the greatest and most prolific American songwriters of all time and both of these unique writers documented their age in the most profound way, carrying the torch for the disenfranchised and the poor.
Their songs, like the great American literature of the time such as Steinbeck’s ‘The grapes of wrath,’ stand as pillars of 20th century American culture; almost everything I hear today pales in significance compared with the power of these two songwriting giants.

In the end I suggested to Dawn and Sylvie we record a song Lead Belly used to sing, ‘There’s a man going round taking names’. I’ve always loved this song although I’ve never quite grasped the meaning of the lyrics. There’s such a power to the words ‘there’s a man going round taking names’ – both profound and slightly sinister, my sense is that it refers to being marked out for hell or heaven according to our actions. (If anyone knows the significance and meaning of this song, please let me know!)
It was a joy to sing it with Dawn and Sylvie in one take, sitting around one microphone, the window open and the birds joining in outside.
Vol 2 of Songs I Love is underway!

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