But piece by piece we lose control
You break your heart
You lose your soul
They give their word and we give our trust
Until we stand
On fields of dust.
First World Problem, Blair Dunlop
Some singer-songwriters grab your attention from the first note you hear, from the first song, from the first album. Blair Dunlop did that. I lent him my ears, and I was captured. He commanded through his music that I listen. And so, in a mere five years and now four albums, the chain remains unbroken.
There is in the meshing of fingers on strings, of the ringing and the thrum, the rhythm and the melody and the play of words upon the air, a unity in Dunlop’s songs. Call it pantheism for six strings, piano and voice. Call it the beauty in creation, and if this sounds folky and naïve, a murmuring of wonder, then perhaps it is. The lad can play and sing. I’ve been playing his albums all week. I’ve been returning to First World Problem a lot. One can’t help having favourites.
Blair Dunlop had a head start from birth. His father is Ashley Hutchings, one of the legends of the British folk scene, having been a founding member of Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and the Albion Band. His mother is singer Judy Dunlop.
There is at times, a melancholy or a subtle edge to an insight over a relationship or a view of the world.
Despite this pedigree, it wasn’t until Dunlop was at Sidmouth Folk Festival in 2007, basically tagging along with his parents, when he met Jim Moray, one of the new lights on the scene.
Dunlop told the Herald Scotland in 2012: “It took an outside influence to get me into my parents’ music. I didn’t even want to be at Sidmouth. I was just there because my mum and dad were playing. But Jim Moray heard me playing some instrumentals and asked me to play with him. He became my idol and I loved the new edge he was bringing to folk music.
“I’ve since gone back and listened to the old stuff and I love that too. But I felt if young people were going to get into English traditional music, it needed a fresh perspective and that’s what we’re doing now with the Albion Band.”
It was not long after this he went solo. On the margins of this, it was not long before, in 2005, however, his life went in an entirely different direction when he played the young Willy Wonka (to Johnny Depp as the adult Willy) in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and appeared in a couple of episodes of the TV series Rocket Man that starred Robson Green.
No songwriter emerges into the glare of the public spotlight fully formed – and indeed none would want to for where would the future lie? – but Dunlop in 2012 with his debut Blight and Blossom, showed both maturity and potential enough in his work to mark him as one to follow. The following year he won the Horizon Award at the BBC 2 Folk Awards.
The music and the mood flows seamlessly from light to dark and back again.
Through his subsequent albums House of Jacks (2014), Gilded (2016) and now Notes From an Island, Dunlop has ploughed his own field while still dipping his hands into the soil of traditional music. Roots and branches. From covering Black is the Colour on Blight and Blossom, he has moved out of the folk stream and is creating his own world. In the process, he formed his own label Gilded Lily Records. If you want “creative integrity”, if you want control, it made sense. Ani Di Franco was one who saw this years ago when she formed Righteous Babe Records.
Notes From an Island is British in temper and tone; it has a particular feel to the dynamics, in its instrumentation, and manner of story-telling. There is at times, a melancholy or a subtle edge to an insight over a relationship or a view of the world. It all seems a work beyond the creator’s 26 years. The music and the mood flows seamlessly from light to dark and back again. And, in just a few places, there are threads of other influences, an electric guitar riff, a melody that one could imagine Stevie Nicks singing and Fleetwood Mac, circa the ’70s, recording in the song Threadbare.
There is also a reference to Ry Cooder on Sweet on You: “If you don’t like Ry Cooder, how could I ever be sweet on you.” Indeed, many might ask. But the kick is the last line: “If I had a choice between you and your mother, I know which one I’d choose.”
And for Melbourne trainspotters, the city gets a mention, too, in Cobalt Blue.
No doubt the song will get an outing in the next week. Be prepared to be enraptured, and captured.
Blair Dunlop plays at the Port Fairy Folk Festival this weekend. The Thornbury Theatre, Melbourne on Wednesday, March 14, the Enmore Theatre, Sydney, on March 15, supporting Rodrigo y Gabriela, and the Blue Mountains Music Festival, March 16-18.