Originally published in the Mail & Guardian, 13 March 2015.
“I hope you don’t get fired for trying to make a story out of the most boring human in musical history.” Granted, things on the surface don’t paint Julian Redpath as particularly exciting – and he seems to know it. Another reclusive singer-songwriter with a day job, 29-years-old, who has just independently released his debut full-length album – of acoustic guitar-driven folk. About as vanilla as it gets, in other words.
But from the first minute of Maiden Light, an eleven-strong suite of restrained and resonant heartsongs, something clicks. Redpath’s voice is clear and sonorous; his lyrics poetically concise; the production warm and clean. The opener, “Nightingale”, exhibits everything good about Redpath’s music: assured songwriting embellished only by passages of bright piano and cello, rich with reverb, and hinting throughout at some intimate, primal longing.
Such studied simplicity is the culmination of years of work, and the corralling the experiences of a young life spent between Mthatha, Nottingham Road, Johannesburg and a few places in between. Having recorded his parts for Maiden Light primarily on a farm in Dullstroom in 2012, Redpath has spent the interim period bringing on a host of collaborators – including virtuoso instrumentalist Guy Buttery, cellist Clare Vandeleur (who Redpath met on Facebook) and States-based musician Prism Tats – to further coax the heart out of his compositions. Even in the album’s (very) few weak moments, the nature of Redpath and Buttery’s production means that something interesting is seldom far away. Whether a sudden orchestral moment, a slash of anti-folk fuzz and sheet-metal shimmer, or a burst of poetry from Simo Majola, there are pieces for magpies in every track.
While there are plenty flourishes to savour on a second listen, Maiden Light’s emotional context initially makes some of its songs overpoweringly sad. The album’s two great highlights both meditate on death, albeit in very different ways. “Richard Turner” – which appeared in a slightly different form on Redpath’s EP Shipwrecks in 2009 – reflects on the firebrand University of Natal philosopher and activist, who was shot through a window in his home by an unknown assassin in 1978, and died in his daughter’s arms.
Redpath says the track was directly inspired by an exhibition, Andries Botha’s (Dis)Appearance(s), which featured a drawing of the front of Turner’s home in the suburbs of Durban. “The song just came to me, complete, as I stood looking at the drawing,” he says.
“Immediately I went to the front desk, where I found a pen and scribbled the words down on the back of a flyer. Then I rushed home to play it.” After six years of gestation, the song comes out hypnotically unrushed, laced with gorgeous, subtle shifts in timbre, resolving brightly into its melancholy chorus: “Sometimes January / seems so cold and lonely.”
Then there’s “Ballad of a Good Man”, written in memory of Redpath’s father, its lyrics strewn with the minutae of mourning: standing around in circles with loved ones, listening for footsteps on floorboards, the counting back of moments and words shared. But as it progresses, the song’s plaintive tone shifts ever upward. Eventually, the sun breaks through the clouds, a triumphant passage of strings lifting the pall, however momentarily. It’s a moment of palpable catharsis; a bringing of colour into the gray landscape of life after loss.
Redpath calls these moments in Maiden Light “a joyous celebration of sadness”, but warns that too much shouldn’t be read into it. “I’m nervous to give too much of my stories away,” he says, “because what the album is to me is not necessarily what it could be for someone else.”
“Songs are alive,” he adds, “and you have to be careful not to chase their meaning off.”
In any case, the final two tracks – including a ever-so-swaggering full-band instrumental – sand off any emotional roughness. And even then, Redpath resists the urge to turn a trot into a canter, exchanging counterpoint for crescendo, slow release for grandeur.
These hallmarks distinguish Maiden Light as one of the most assured and exemplary folk albums to come out of South Africa in recent memory. An album with broad vision and influence, intimately its own, and – thankfully – not boring at all.
Maiden Light is available at http://julianredpath.bandcamp.com/