Album of the Week – Emily Smith & Jamie McClennan – Small Town Stories – 28 Dec 2019
Emily Smith & Jamie McClellan
“Some albums merely mark the passing of time. Others trace the fault lines of life itself as the ground beneath our feet shifts and slides.
Small Town Stories, the stunning debut album by husband-and-wife roots duo Smith & McClennan, features ten songs cultivated in the fertile earth of the couple’s shared life in rural south-west Scotland. The result is an intimate, accessible and ultimately uplifting exploration of the universal themes of love, loss, hope, struggle and joy.
Performed with heart and consummate craft, Small Town Stories reflects the pair’s deep-seated affiliation with American roots music. ‘It’s a style we’ve always listened to and loved,’ says singer Emily Smith. ‘As you get a little older, you identify more with the life experiences in the music.’
Influenced by classic American harmony duos such as The Civil Wars and Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, as well as stalwart Nashville singer-songwriters like Chris Stapleton, Miranda Lambert, Darrell Scott and Kacey Musgraves, Small Town Stories is a deeply personal work. In many ways it is a natural extension of the pair’s own relationship, making music and raising their two young children in a small village in Dumfries and Galloway. ‘A lot of the songs have got family connections,’ says Emily, who was born and brought up in the area. ‘It’s definitely something we chat about during our live shows.’
A New Zealander who has lived in Scotland for almost 20 years, her husband Jamie McClennan wrote eight of the album’s ten tracks. The Americana flavour of the songs was partially influenced by ‘the old-timey feel’ of a Framus acoustic guitar he had recently bought, but mostly he was inspired – compelled, even – to compose during a recent period of flux in the couple’s lives.
‘The songs all came through at an intense time,’ says Jamie. ‘We had our second child, we moved house, moved into the village. There were a lot of life changes in quite a short spell, so there was a lot of thinking time, and a lot of material for lyrics.’
While pushing their new-born baby daughter around the village in her pram, or during long drives to and from shows, Jamie would find lines, ideas and melodies coming into focus. ‘Parenthood and moving house was the stuff we had to stress about and focus on,’ says Emily. ‘In the meantime, this music just bubbled out of nowhere. It was like, Ah, we’ve got this now!’
Once Jamie had written the songs, the couple would come together at the dimming of each day to work on arrangements and hone their exquisite harmonies. ‘We really wanted to work on the blending, that closeness,’ says Emily.
The result is a consistently strong set of songs, thrumming with beauty and a quiet power. The mood reflects the changing colours of life, switching between dark and light, sunshine and shade. On ‘Firefly’, McClennan writes with a keen, compassionate eye for those forced to exist on the fringes of society, while he captures the ache of a rootless life on ‘Wait For Me’ and ‘Leaving’. These empathetic accounts of struggle and strife contrast with the bittersweet pull of childhood on ‘Bricks And Mortar’, and the promise of spiritual reconciliation on the soothing ‘Hummingbird’.
Among the other key tracks are songs which, says Jamie, ‘people always come up at the end of the gig and say they connected with, which is lovely.’ One is ‘The Sweetest Girl’, a gorgeous, lilting love song to their baby daughter, with ‘her mother’s eyes and her daddy’s curls.’ Another is the stinging ‘Long Way Down’, an unflinching immersion in the dark waters of addiction, and a testament to just how expansive the duo can sound at their most intense. Small Town Stories ends with the heart-breaking ‘One More Day’, a tender meditation written in response to the tragedy of a friend losing their child.
The two non-originals on the album are a cover of New Zealand folk singer Willow Macky’s elegant and wise Sixties peace anthem, ‘Better Than War’, and Emily’s stirring new arrangement of the traditional broadside ballad, ‘Sailin’s A Weary Life’.
Produced by Ross Hamilton (Mark Lanegan, Isobel Campbell, Texas, Wolfstone) at Rocket Science in Glasgow, and mastered in Nashville, Small Town Stories draws from a rich palette of sounds and textures to bring each of these heartfelt songs fully to life.
Working around touring and family commitments, the pair recorded every Monday for several months. ‘It gave us the space that we needed to let things settle in our heads,’ says Jamie. ‘You don’t often have the luxury of that much time to get things right. It allowed us the time to think, What does each song need to be the best it can be?’
The vocals and principal guitar accompaniment for each song were recorded live, before additional parts were added. ‘It was so exciting,’ says Emily. ‘We had no constraints, no expectations or preconceived ideas. There were no barriers in terms of instrumentation or anything else. It was really liberating and relaxing.’
They both pay tribute to Ross Hamilton’s contribution. As well as freeing up the duo to concentrate solely on making the music, he offered invaluable advice about arrangements, while also contributing drums, bass, additional guitar and piano to the songs. ‘We were a tight little unit,’ says Jamie. ‘Between the three of us we didn’t feel the need to call in any other people to play on the album. It was just for us.’
The result is a beautifully composed record on which the details sparkle like fine-cut jewels. Among the numerous musical high points are the flinty fiddle that scythes through the bluegrass-flavoured ‘Firefly’; the ominous drone that underscores the powerful message of ‘Better Than War’; the desert-plains guitar riff which gives ‘Long Way Down’ its widescreen drama; and the stunning climax of drums and ethereal backing vocals on ‘Hummingbird’.
Front and centre is Smith’s voice, a flawless instrument adept at conveying every shade of emotion, from the despairing cry of a mourning lover on ‘Sailin’s A Weary Life’, to a mother’s joy running bright and clear as spring water on ‘The Sweetest Girl’. McClennan contributes lead vocals on three tracks, while throughout the album the pair’s harmonies intertwine with an easy, natural grace, testament to a musical relationship which has grown almost telepathic during almost 20 years singing and playing all over the world.
Emily is already a hugely respected figure on the international folk scene. A former BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year and twice voted Scots Singer of the Year, she has released eight acclaimed solo albums of traditional music, and has twice been nominated for a prestigious BBC Radio 2 Folk Award. She has toured the world and recorded in the company of legends. A versatile fiddle player, guitarist and producer, Jamie has played in Emily’s band for 17 years, as well as being constantly in demand to tour and record with a host of other musicians.
Both are already highly valued artists in their own right, with many accolades and achievements to their names. But Small Town Stories is something different: an album created from their shared life experiences, lovingly filtered through the medium that means the most to them, American roots music. It marks the start of a new, exciting and more personal journey. ‘We made the album we wanted to make for ourselves,’ says Emily. ‘This is our music, performed in the way we want it to be.”
Small Town Stories tracks
2 Sailin’s a Weary Life
4 The Sweetest Girl
5 Long Way Down
7 Better Than War
8 Bricks and Mortar
9 Wait for Me
10 One More Day
1 Feb 2020 at Celtic Connections Mitchel Theatre