Ennis, Co. Clare-based Californian Amelia Baker performs under the name Cinder Well. PHOTO BY JIM GHEDI
Traditional Music / By Daniel Neely
Folks, just a quick heads up that that Donie Carroll’s annual Mercy Centre Fundraiser will take place this coming Saturday the 7th at 7:30pm EST! Most readers here know that the Mercy Centre is the organization that works to help the children and communities in the slums of Bangkok. It’s a fabulous organization and Donie’s done yeoman’s work over the years to rally the support of New York’s Irish community in its favor.
As you might expect, the fundraiser’s gone completely online this year, but the lineup is as impressive as always and will include Mick Moloney and the "Green Fields of America" with Billy McComiskey, Haley Richardson, Brenda Castles; Frances Black; Joanie Madden, Jimmy Crowley & Eve Telford; Gabriel Donohue & Marian Makins; Roy Buckley; Cillian Vallely & Dylan Foley; Niall O’Leary & Tom Dunne; Rory Makem; Mary Donegan; Máirtín De Cógaín; Matt Cranitch & Caoimhe Flannery; John Nolan; Louise & Michelle Mulcahy; Clare Horgan; Barry Tierney; Heather Martin Bixler; Donie Carroll; Tom Sweeney; Declan Forde; and more!
Hope you take some time to check in! The Mercy Center is a 501c3 organization, so every donation is tax deductible. For more information, contact Donie Carroll via Facebook (www.facebook.com/donie.carroll) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
In the player this week is “No Summer,” from the band Cinder Well, an album that takes this column out of its normal comfort zone. Why? Well, it’s because it doesn’t draw on “traditional Irish music” per se. Rather, it’s an album that’s very clearly inspired by American roots music, but the way it’s expressed here has been colored by – and really explores – the experience of living in contemporary Ireland. The way this contrast is handled is what I think gives the album its strength.
Cinder Well is the performing name of Amelia Baker, a singer originally from California who now lives in Ennis, Co. Clare. According to the album’s press release, she got her start “in the world of anarchist collectives and protests around Santa Cruz.” In that time, she was a member of the bands Blackbird Raum and Gembrokers, but her more recent rambles (which included a desire to learn about Irish music) landed her in Clare. This album, a product of this move, was recorded (perhaps pre-quarantine?) in Anacortes, Wash., and while it’s unclear to me how much the COVID crisis influenced its conception, its July 24 release hit at one of the pandemic’s moments and captures – intentionally or not – something about the times we’re living in.
Of the nine tracks, only three are traditional, five are Baker originals (all of which are excellent), and the last a short evocative soundscape. Baker’s orchestration is minimal: she’s joined by Marit Schmidt (viola, vocals) and Mae Kessler (violin, vocals), both of whom seem limited to supporting roles.
The album starts off dramatically with “Wandering Boy,” a traditional song she took from a recording of Roscoe Holcomb’s, to which she’s added verse of her own. Here, she sings with what would call a “lonesome” old time touch, accompanied only by a reedy drone that adds intensity to strongly evocative lyrics. It’s followed by “No Summer,” a crisp original that tells a story about longing and place. Baker’s plaintive approach conveys the song’s deep emotion and stark imagery well. “Our Lady’s,” a song told from the perspective of the abandoned Our Lady's Hospital in Ennis, starts with a bold vocal & piano intro – almost like a pop song in tone – but changes with the addition of a frailed banjo. (Unfortunately, the banjoist doesn’t seem to be credited as far as I can tell.) Over the next nine minutes, a story unfolds in words and music that imagines the experience of the building and those who passed through it. The mention of “quarantine beds” here sounds ominously prescient. “From Behind The Curtain,” the track that closes the album, is a meditation on loss and distance that seems bracingly autobiographical in its construction and leaves the listener with some intriguing imagery.
The album’s only instrumental is “Queen of the Earth, Child of the Skies,” a version of the Irish set dance “The Blackbird,” collected in West Virginia in 1917 from the legendary old time musician Edden Hammons. Here, Baker features on fiddle and its really the album’s only nod toward “Irish” music, albeit one filtered through the old time tradition, but I love the choice and how it was delivered very much.
“No Summer” is a fascinating and compelling album. It’s dour but bold, and its stark old-timey streak makes it feel very plugged-into the connection between Ireland and an archaic Irish America. There are elements here – Baker’s strong, expressive voice and her interest in American old time music – that remind of Liz Hanley’s album “The Ecstasy of St. Cecilia” (www.lizhanley.com). I can also see how some Murphy Beds material resonates with Cinder Well’s music as well (www.murphybedsmusic.com).
Mostly, though, I’m reminded of the band Lankum (lankumdublin.com). There is a similarity in terms of approach and execution, which should be no surprise as there is, indeed, a real life connection: in 2015, Blackbird Raum collaborated with Lankum on its album “Destroying.” It was a great album and it included some absolute gems, including “Adder,” “Reville,” and “The Man in the Bog.” But having listened to both groups, the philosophical bond that seems to have brought about the collaboration in the first place appears to have influenced each band’s trajectory moving forward. What Baker has done here appears to make a very compelling case for this, anyway.
Ultimately, the music here speaks to isolation and longing, but also to social justice, feminism, and resolution. The press for this record calls it “doom folk,” which I think is kind of reductive. (It is, however, an easy parallel to make just by looking at the cover, which recalls that of the band Black Sabbath’s debut.) I also think it’s a mistake to call it “Celtic,” because it creates a musical expectation that does this album does not fulfill. Honestly, I’m not sure how to categorize Cinder Well’s music. It’s folk music, but not “folky” or traditional. Sure, she sings and writes songs, but I wouldn’t say it’s “singer-songwritery.” It’s hard to pigeonhole, which is maybe why I find it so appealing.
Give this one a listen if you like engaged, evocative modern song – there’s a lot here to take away. Learn more at cinderwellmusic.com.