Album review: Vox Salva by Juliet Russell
by Keith Rodway
For the independent creative artist, there are no pensions, company cars or private health schemes; no gym membership, yoga classes or weekday creche. There is uncertainty and self-doubt; little or no support from the establishment, whose focus is on the mind-numbing mediocrity of cash cows like Lloyd-Webber and JK Rowling; bemusement and incredulity from civilians, those outside the artists’ sphere: you’ve chosen to do what for a living? Recently there has even been, in the devastating wake of the current pandemic, patronising advice to artists from government to ‘retrain’ – a sign, if any were needed, of the institutional philistinism at the heart of British public life. It’s no surprise that the words so many parents dread from their teenage offspring are ‘I want to be an artist’, a career path only marginally preferable to that of a professional assassin, cocaine baron or a Tory MP (or, to my mind, Labour, Lib Dem or indeed an MP of any political persuasion).
What many creative artists have in their favour at times such as those we are now living through is self-reliance, an almost pathological drive and determination, a skin as resilient as Boris Johnson’s grip on power in the face of behaviour that in earlier times would have earned him a moonlight flit from No 10 and a p45; and the necessary – if delusional – belief that miracles can happen, that the caprice of the gods can sometimes, somehow, work to one’s advantage; and a necessary love of solitude. This is where artists have had the upper hand over those who can’t wait to be released from current restrictions so they can go to the pub/football match/music festival or crowded holiday beach. Artists need above all else to be left alone to think, and to work: in the words of Nicolai Tesla, ‘The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude… Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind.’ For many creatives, last year’s lockdowns were once-in-a-lifetime, socially-sanctioned opportunities to work for months on end, uninterrupted, the only caveat being that they keep away from other people. No worries there.
I first met composer and singer Juliet Russell five years ago, when she asked me to work on a music video for which she had footage but no editor. We got on well: Juliet is a realist with an earthy and self-deprecating sense of humour – not always the case with those who essentially, to paraphrase Alan Moore, earn a living showing off. The real clincher though was her voice: a four octave range and a seemingly effortless facility for generating astonishing passion, power and control.
Juliet has been a presence on the national and international music scene for more than 25 years. As well as running three choirs (two in her native Hastings, one in Brighton, often all at the same time), she has performed at major festivals, in English castles, at Mayan temple sites, on the rooftop of the National theatre, on Scottish historical bridges, at royal jubilee visits, in the atrium of the British museum; in Mexican football stadiums, Polish town squares (from the mayors’ balconies)…circles of trees…the list goes on…
Yet, until the national lockdowns that began in March 2020, she had never made a solo album – the pressures of earning a living in this precarious profession had mitigated against it. (Here also, confidence for many artists can be a limiting factor. In the immortal words of William Butler Yeats, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Amen to that). Now, with the release of Vox Salva (which translates as The Voice Survived), all that has changed. With no professional engagements, Juliet was finally free to do exactly as she wished, or felt compelled to do, in the way that she felt would best express, in her view, the potential for music to describe or reflect the sublime, the terrible beauty of the natural world. In Juliet’s own words, ‘I am constantly trying to find the sound of the ancient -especially ancient Britain; some kind of sound that comes from between the spheres and is huge and lost. I also want to take some of it out for live performance, particularly in massive strong landscapes and skies – which inspire so much of my work as I look for a glimpse of the divine. I strive for the lowest of notes and the highest of notes…indeed in this work I realised to my surprise that I have a four octave range. I love sounding like a Russian bass and a prepubescent choir girl-boy and all the shades in between’.
To realise her vision Juliet enlisted the help of producer and fellow musician Edd Blakely, whose father, Garry, has worked as support to such folk legends as Christie Moore and Steeleye Span, and who has been active on the British folk scene from the early 1970s. Working from his home studio in Hastings, Blakely has done a masterful job of allowing Juliet room to develop her ideas, while providing a back-up soundscape that allows her voice to weave interlocking melody lines, continually shifting patterns of harmony and counterpoint, building wave after wave of breathtaking power and precision. The album’s seven songs stand as bravura displays of skill and invention, drawing inspiration from a variety of ancient forms –Arabic and Jewish, African rhythm and bass voice, Eastern European open-throated lament, plainsong, Celtic; all this while often writing in her own simple phonetic language. Make no mistake, this is someone fully committed to her art. This is stirring stuff.
As someone who knows relatively little about the influences Juliet draws from, I can only go by my intuitive response to what she has done. For my money, this music is truly transcendent. At a time when so much music is being made, and when it seems that virtually any music that has ever been recorded is available wherever there is an internet connection, it is easy to become blasé. We are saturated with music, much of it good, some of it not: very little contemporary popular music breaks new bounds or explores radically new forms. Overwhelmed by the alarming rate of technological advance we seek comfort in the past. Yet Vox Salva neatly avoids this impasse. In taking traditional forms and interpreting those through her own unique approach, Juliet Russell has created of the most impassioned, refreshing and compelling pieces I have heard in a long time. Am I saying this because Juliet is a personal friend? No. I have friends who make music that is, frankly, really quite awful. For reasons one hopes might be clear, I wouldn’t take to the columns of this august journal expressly to point that out. Nor am I easily given to hyperbole, or use superlatives lightly. What Juliet Russell has spent her time in lockdown doing, during one of the most bizarre passages in our recent collective history, is to produce a work direct from the heart that is quite simply stunning. Her ambition is to perform this music live, and, the gods willing, attract the attention of film and TV – for which it would seem to me to be ideally suited.
In that regard, I, for one, am grateful for the solitude that produced this work, and I wish her every success.
Listen to an extract from album track Torzay here https://youtu.be/1oooB6pkivw
Web addresses: www.vocalexplosion.co.uk