Roll up for the Magical Mystery Tour

Watching Ella Joyce Buckley perform her sweet, delicate songs is a window on to a naive, childlike, enchanted forest, a hybrid of CS Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia and Joanna Newsome’s harp-driven avant-garde approach to Appalachian folk music.

The voyeur who ventures into the world of her debut album, For Astrea, would be forgiven for expecting Pattertwig and Reepicheep to appear before them, dancing to the hauntingly evocative blend of piano, acoustic guitar, bells, chimes, handclaps, tweeting birds and zither.

Much like the lauded king of the American freak folk movement, Devendra Banhart, Buckley’s relationship to Mother Nature and the animal kingdom appears in flurries of folk brilliance, transporting the listener to a wondrous world of magic, mystery and peaceful tranquillity.

For Astrea, which she describes as ‘that little celebratory funeral of feelings that I wanted to document”, was recorded ‘through friends and favours” in late 2007 and early 2008.

It became quite clear during an online interview with Buckley, who lives and workes in New York, that her songwriting and recording processes are far removed from the conventional.

‘I’ll develop a certain fixation on an idea or melody and really drown in it,” says Buckley. ‘It’s a garden; some plants need more sun and some need more water or different soils, climates, different types of attention.

Under the Wild Whats, for instance, was thirsty,” she says. ‘I wanted to write that song as if each part was a dancer, each braiding their scene into telling the story or exploring a circumstance.”

One listen to the eleven-plus-minute epic Under the Wild Whats and one can’t help but feel that for Buckley it’s mission accomplished. The song effortlessly shifts from a lilting, minimalist piano and vocal groove into a beautiful instrumental piece with exquisite wailing backing vocals and then back into a quite magnificent segment where Buckley pulls out all the layered vocal stops, before closing the song with a folk freak-out.

It is clear that Buckley falls directly into a lineage of eccentric female musicians, with artists such as Kate Bush, Karen Dalton, Vashti Bunyan, Tori Amos and the aforementioned Newsome springing to mind.

‘There was no structure or time schedule to recording the album,” says Buckley. ‘Some days I’d go round to record and we’d end up swimming. Other days we’d record way into the night.

‘Some of the effects I recorded quite a long time before we started the album: the storm at the beginning of The Majesty of Violet Sky, clanging chimes inside an old grandfather clock, whistling into jugs, dropping necklaces into metal ashtrays,” she says. ‘We leapt into bushes on some days when the wind was right and recorded me crawling around. We just did what we could at the right time to augment a feeling or mood I wanted to express through the songs.

‘Wanderlust was basically recorded live—not at a show, but at Dirk de Kock’s place [the producer]. The effects I played live with a delay [reversed] effects pedal,” says Buckley. ‘We put the zither on a wooden chest with two contact mics—one running through a reversed-delay pedal, which I used like a sustain pedal on the piano.

‘It probably doesn’t sound like a zither because it has guitar strings on it and a made-up tuning and I don’t know how to play one either, but that’s not important actually,” she says.

And she’s right; it doesn’t matter!

Ella Joyce Buckley ‘s For Astrea is available on musician Righard Kapp’s record label \/#/. The album is available from Canned Applause Records in Melville, Johannesburg, and Mabu Vinyl in Cape Town

Lloyd Gedye

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