For several years South London-based singer songwriter Lisa Knapp has been a little in the background. Her 2007 debut album, Wild and Undaunted, promised much and she has been a folk circuit constant, supporting and playing with the folkstocracy and working with husband Gerry Diver on the experimental Speech Project. An EP, Hunt the Hare – Branch of May which appeared last year, dropped tantalising hints of the music cooking behind the scenes. Now Hidden Seam is finally out, and the realisation dawns that far from being a sideshow, Lisa Knapp is the main attraction.
Knapp’s time away from the studio has taken her to new and striking places. Hidden Seam is confident and assured, much more ambitious than her previous work. On songs such as ‘Seagiver’ and the title track, she unrolls many phased songs that give her agile voice full scope. ‘Hidden Seam’ is where Knapp’s talent really unwind themselves as piano, strings, autoharp and tom toms build around a single repeating cello, her voice swirling and diving over the top. The song is about song itself – “All the singers and all the songs” – and Knapp’s vocals disintegrate at the end into disjointed vowels and consonants. It is a remarkable performance, strangely reminiscent of Björk.
Hidden Seam flows around a set of immaculate collaborations, with five of the finest folk musicians around: Martin Carthy, Alasdair Roberts, Marry Waterson, Kathryn Williams and James Yorkston. Waterson and Yorkston duet on ‘Black Horse’, a cover of a song by Marry’s mother Lal, with inimitably strange and alluring harmonies. Carthy plays the guitar on ‘Two Ravens’, a chilling piece of writing which at first seems to be a dark folk tale but reveals itself as a song about Alzheimer’s – “A cruel and merciless goodbye to love / when the ravens arrive / before the dove.” ‘Hunt the Hare Part 1’ still sounds as good as it did on the EP, Alasdair Roberts’ harmonies relishing the rich and complex lyrics, making lines such as “And as you drizzle to your velvet croon / And I succumb to your enticing tune” seem not just easy but inevitable. ‘Hunt the Hare Part 2’ is an irresistible Wicker Man caper in which “Sun is King again.” And Knapp’s 9-year old daughter even makes an appearance alongside Kathryn Williams on ‘Hushabye’, first sung to lull her to sleep.
If there is a weak point on ‘Hidden Seam’ it is perhaps the first track, ‘Shipping Song’, based on the Radio Four Shipping Forecast. Frankly, the original is simply impossible to improve. However, that is a minor quibble in the context of an album that combines lyrical inventiveness and feel for language with a voice that equally can sound wild and gently beautiful. Lisa Knapp possesses a glowing song-writing talent reminiscent of Lal Waterson, with the potential to influence just as many. ‘Hidden Seam’ deserves to be her breakthrough album and is essential listening, not just for folk aficionados but for those who want to hear the best.