The last few months, as we have come to terms with a new way of living, dealing with a pandemic and finding our ability to live hindered, have been difficult. We have found new ways of working and living. For some of us we are spending our days in home offices, not seeing colleagues or friends other than on zoom calls or team meetings. I, half jokingly, call my spare room at home, which is now an office/radio studio, my hermitage; the feeling of being a hermit looked away from the world can come, on occasions challenging, over bearing and soul destroying. In our own Covid versions of Groundhog Day the oppresive monotony of doing the same thing every day with only the weekly trip to Aldi for the essential shop to keep us sane is hardly conducive to good mental health. But, through all of this, I have one constant that keeps me on the level. Music is my saviour without which I’m not sure things would be as bright as they are now.
Spare a thought, though, for those who provide us with that music. Especially those who have adapted and continued to produce work, whether that be through live streams on YouTube or own websites, in producing podcasts or in still finding the ways to create and record new music. Musicians who thrive on the buzz they get on performing their work to crowds of fans whether that be in small club venues or large arenas and stadiums. People for whom a major income stream has been taken from them and who find themselves struggling without both financial and emotional support through no fault of their own. Some for whom the need to perform is an absolute must for their own health and well-being. And who have found ways to help not only themselves but us as well. Music is, for me, a healing force for good and, thankfully, we still have musicians able to provide that for us.
One such performer is James Walsh, the Starsailor front man and songwriter, who has just released a gorgeous album, Small Illusions. In the first lockdown James was one of the very first musicians to stream a live gig from his own home on YouTube, he presents a regular music podcast on Islington Radio and he’s been a guest on Tim Burgess, of The Charlatans, Twitter listening parties playing and talking about the debut album from Starsailor, Love Is Here. It is Small Illusions, though, that has put the cherry on top of the beautifully iced cake which is James’ contribution to making the Covid world of isolation just a little bit more bright.
The album itself, weighing in at little over 26 minutes for ten songs, is, as you’d expect in these challenging times, a pared back and minimalist recording featuring just James’ voice, guitar and piano. But what a voice it is. Like another singer on an album, A Common Turn by Anna B.Savage, I’ve recently reviewed James has a voice that is unique, quite unlike any other singer around. A voice that has strength and vulnerability in equal measure performing James’ trademark gently observed lyrics of life and love in a beguiling and emotive way. James truly has a voice that reaches deep into the listeners emotions to bring to the surface hopes, fears, desires and wishes that you may even never knew were there. Indeed the softness that James uses to sing his wonderfully poetic lyrics adds a power and meaning to those words in a way only the very best singer songwriters can do; a skill many try to achieve but very few attain.
Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay James is that listening to Small Illusions I was reminded of the third and final album by the ethereal and amazing, but ultimately tragic, Nick Drake. Whereas Drake’s first album, Five Leaves Left, were accompanied by lush and beautiful strings arrangements by Robert Kirby, Pink Moon was just Drake, his guitar and the issues Nick had in living the life he was. Like that wonderful but concise album Small Illusions covers many similar themes of loneliness, loss and drifting along in a strange new world without really knowing exactly how normality will be returned to; though in James’ case there is more than just a little optimism in the songs that is joyful to the heart and soul. Small Illusions also has, in it’s sumptuous melodies, the ability to hold greater production, maybe in the style of Nick Drake’s debut, should James wish to revisit the album in a future where bands and musicians can record together again.
I personally have never made secret of the fact that the music that lights up my soul is music that could be described as perhaps miserable, certainly melancholic or sad – certainly not typically cheerful. I love music that reaches deep into the psyche, that allows retrospection and thought to come to the fore. James Walsh, right from the very first time I heard him with his band, Starsailor, has written music that I feel speaks to me. And, at a time when I have needed it most, James has given us all the album that can help in troubled, confused and concerning times. An album of gentle, wonderful and beautiful songs that will help soothe the soul whilst allowing all the small illusions that feed and inspire us all to start to come true.
To purchase Small Illusions by James Walsh visit https://thetshirtsshop.com/collections/james-walsh