Skip to main content

Sara Banleigh Brings Folk Back to its Dark Roots

From a media release:

Stories of Love and Murder: Sara Banleigh Brings Folk Back to its Dark Roots

Piano-based folk singer Sara Banleigh will be releasing her debut album The Folk EP (Self-Release; March 01, 2011), marking a unique and exciting addition to the world’s folk catalogue. Sara's riveting piano-based arrangements of traditional folk tunes from Ireland and the British Isles offer a rare and fascinating take on this beloved, age-old music, which has until now primarily been recorded on guitar and other stringed instruments. With intricate piano orchestration, compelling vocals, and a handful of other acoustic instruments, The Folk EP offers a fresh and spellbinding journey through this ancient genre of music.

The rich and captivating album offers Sara’s interpretation of 5 traditional English, Scottish, and Irish folk songs, each of them several hundred years old. The songs, which have survived through oral tradition in Northern Europe and in the United States, where they came over with English and Irish settlers, are centered around the most powerful and elemental themes of the human experience:  love, despair, beauty, longing, death, and betrayal.

The Folk EP was recorded over two intensive days at Parkwest Studios in Brooklyn, NY, not very far from where the Brooklyn-born singer grew up. Sara’s conception of an album of traditional folk music supported by piano-based arrangements led her to Parkwest, where studio owner and engineer Jim Clouse maintains an excellent 20’ Kawai grand piano. “When I conceived of the idea for the album, I knew that I would have to spend some time really looking into which studios in NYC had the best piano for the project,” says Sara. “I wanted the piano to have as much of a singular voice on the album as I did, so it was important for me to find an instrument that sounded like it had some good stories to tell.”

Regarding her insistence on using a real piano for the project, Sara remarks, “I knew from the beginning that I wanted an all-acoustic album, so digital keyboards with all their fancy plug-ins were out. Many studios I contacted were like, ‘What’s the problem? Our plug-ins sound just like a real grand.’ Well, these are 500-year-old folk songs, and there was just no way I was going to lay down the piano arrangements on a digital controller. Blasphemy!” Sara continues, “When I played the grand at Jim’s studio, I knew this was the one that would help me tell the stories of the songs. It had just the right balance of bright and rich tones, and a nice heavy middle and bass.”

The mesmerizing album begins with the track “Railroad Boy,” an old English tune about unrequited love that is also sung in Ireland and the United States under various titles. Sara’s version beings with a haunting a cappella introduction that lays down the story of a young woman who loses her maidenhood to a young man - a ‘railroad boy’ - who has convincingly courted her. As the song progresses and piano and violin join the storytelling, we learn that her one true love has betrayed her, and her profound heartbreak leads her to take her own life, her parting words a warning to the world of love’s desolating power.

The album’s storytelling continues through themes of true love, murder, and death, with “Mary Hamilton” and “Geordie,” two fascinating semi-historical Scottish and English ballads, respectively, in which each title character gets a public hanging in the town square for committing a capital crime. Both songs have a long history not only in the British Isles, but also in the United States, where they have been sung by the Appalachian descendants of Scottish and English settlers for centuries. The Folk EP honors both the British origin and the American adaption of these songs by keeping the lyrics and melodic forms true to their roots, while infusing the musical delivery with a bit of country grease and swagger.

On her interpretation of the songs, Sara says, “Overall, I was intent on staying away from the extreme ‘prettiness’ that can sometimes characterize professional recordings of traditional British and Irish folk music. Because the melodies and chord progressions themselves are inherently so beautiful, there are many artists who play to the beauty of the tunes, while ignoring the feelings of pain, betrayal, madness, and vengeance that underly the songs. If you really stop and listen to these lyrics that have been passed down through centuries of oral tradition, it's some pretty ghastly stuff. I tried to make both the beauty and the pain of the material evident and accessible for the listener.” Sara encapsulates the result of her efforts: “There is still some sweetness and loveliness in there, but overall, it's a very dark and haunting album, with a little bit of grit.”

Elaborating on the feel of The Folk EP, Sara says: “My musicians knew that I was really going for something that would be a bit dirtier, and, above all, raw, and I think the unique characteristics, and training, of everyone on the album really brought that out. The album was very minimal in instrumentation, and each of us added our own unique style to the songs. Harrison Hollingsworth, a down-home fiddler from Texas with an elegant classical touch brought out both the beauty and the gritty back-wood country tones of his violin, while Greg Remigio, a rock-oriented guitarist, added that bit of strut and boldness to the two pieces he's on; and Patrick Dunn’s viola provided a kind of ghostly, haunting undergirding for ‘Geordie,’ which proved perfect for the piece.

The Folk EP also includes Sara’s arrangement of the folk anthem “All My Trials,” a song of uncertain origin said to have passed between the United States and the British colony of the Bahamas, traveling with the English and Scottish settlers and their slaves. Sara’s use of the introduction of Bach’s Prelude No.1 in C Major in her arrangement of “All My Trials” is an unexpected addition to the song and brings out the main melody’s stirring sadness while also evoking the song’s message of poignant triumph and salvation. The album is rounded out by “Fhear A Bhata” (The Boatman), an Irish tune about lost love, which Sara sings in a bare and riveting a cappella, mirroring the naked introduction to the EP’s first track, and so, bringing the listener full circle.

Although Sara has worked with different artists and styles, from indie pop to electronica, both on stage and in the studio, she has decided to make her debut EP a collection of melodic, highly narrative British and Irish folk tunes because these are the songs that lived most strongly in her heart. Regarding her clean, straightforward name for the album, Sara says the following: “I decided to call the album ‘The Folk EP’ because I know that I will go on to other genres and projects in my career, but I am so proud and so settled in myself to make my debut as an artist with a folk album such as this. I find the traditional music of Ireland and the British Isles to be among the most beautiful, haunting, and magical in the world, and the darkness and light in the material has helped me mature as a singer and artist - it's given me a way to anchor my soul while the world shook around me, and I am thankful to the songs for this. They suffered for me, so I didn't have to as much. No matter what I do, I'll always come back to British folk - and it's American offspring, the American folk tradition and good ol' country music  - because I connect with it so deeply and I view it to be truly complete music. Lyrically, musically, vocally, emotionally, and rhythmically, this music lacks nothing, and has everything to give.”


What Else Is Hot This Week?

Jazzy Pop: Shihori - Soul Trip (Independent / 4 September 2020)

Jazzy Pop:
Shihori - Soul Trip
(Independent / 4 September 2020)New York City based singer and songwriter Shihori's new single Soul Trip is atmospheric and ambient. Interesting rhythms and interwoven melodic vocal lines showcase jazzy harmonic progressions in a slow groove mode. 
As a songwriter, she uses electronic effects with impeccable musical taste. As a singer, her flexible vocals range from a sweet soprano to a strong mid-range.A veteran of the Japanese pop scene, Shihori moved to New York City in 2018, a move she talks about in a media release."I was so surprised when I came to NY for the first time. Independent and strong women are respected and there are lots of different preferences in music and style. I thought, 'oh my God! This place really accepts uniqueness and freedom! I didn't know there is a place like this totally different world that allows you to be yourself. Everybody looks so different. So many races, colors, cultures, fashion, ideas...I am so happy…

FACTORY presents World Premiere ACTS OF FAITH November 19 to 28 2020 - Free Livestream

From a media release:World Premiere
FACTORY presents 
Directed by Nina Lee Aquino
Starring Natasha Mumba
November 19 – 28, 2020 @ 7:30PM
Streamed live for 6 performances
Free of charge
TORONTO (October 19, 2020) - To kick off its groundbreaking 2020/21 season, Factory presents the world premiere of acts of faith, by multi-award winning Asian Canadian playwright David Yee, directed by Nina Lee Aquino, and starring Natasha Mumba. Written specifically to be performed for a digital platform, acts of faith will stream live to audiences at home for six performances, November 19-28, 2020. 
Thanks to the generous support of the TD Bank Group, admission is being offered entirely free of charge to audiences across the country and beyond.acts of faith tells a story about the power of faith, the inescapable persistence of our online identities, and the nature of truth in a digital age. The story follows Faith, a young woman who gets mistaken for a prophet. When a questionable r…

Psychedelic Punk Rock | Lord Sonny the Unifier: (All My Friends Live) Underground (Independent / 25 September 2020)

Psychedelic Punk Rock
Lord Sonny the Unifier: (All My Friends Live) Underground
(Independent / 25 September 2020)Stream it on SpotifyLayers of rhythm and percussive piano characterize this earworm track from Brooklyn's Lord Sonny the Unifier. With spooky harmonies and guitar that is all distortion with a psychedelic vibe, it's a compelling single for the time. Sonny builds the track with an almost orchestral sensibility to a big sound finish.
Greg Jiritano, the main impetus behind Lord Sonny, talked about the song in a media release."(All My Friends Live) Underground is a song about iconoclasts and outsiders who find their group of freaks, or Tribe in the shadows and underbelly, outside the conventions of  society. It's a calling to join us and leave behind  what society has embraced as the norms and the acceptable, the well trod path above. Leave the trivialities being thrust upon us since birth and join our Tribe and rediscover there the truths that will enrich you and…

Alt Country | Doc Straw & the Scarecrows: Get on By (Independent / July 31, 2020)

Alt Country
Doc Straw & the Scarecrows: Get on By
(Independent / July 31, 2020)Stream it on SpotifyClever lyrics that tell a story and an appealing acoustic bounce give the new single by Doc Straw & the Scarecrows a classic modern folk vibe. The vocal harmonies are pleasing and the words are an upbeat ode to persevering during tough times.
It's a timely message, and Doc talked about it in a release."I wrote this song after getting off of a 3-hour long phone conversation with my sister, Jessica, and a lot of our conversation that evening  centered around some of the tougher things in life and how we were dealing with these struggles. If a person lives long enough then at some point they will experience these trying seasons. I've learned that it's important to pay attention during those times because that is when we have some of the best opportunities to grow."It has a nicely haunting harmonica line and builds to an emotional peak. Virginia based Mike Straw is…

Recently Released | The smallest Creature: Magic Beans (Independent / 30 September 2020)

Recently Released
The smallest Creature: Magic Beans
(Independent / 30 September 2020)Stream it on SpotifyWith influences from The Beatles to Alice in Chains, The smallest Creature's Magic Beans is an album of alt-rock with an intimate, almost alt-folk feel to it. The lyrics are poetic and integral to the song, lit up with tight chops and accomplished musicality.
Would You Blink has a nice sense of urgency and a driving rhythm, contrasted by October Song, something of an old blues song with a 21st century rock makeover. Their grunge influences come to the fore in Glow, with Let Burn another guitar-heavy rocker. The band goes softer in Break Me, an acoustic song that spotlights Stefanos Marnerides' soft tenor. The smallest Creature hail from Larnaca in Cyprus in the sunny Mediterranean. The smallest Creature is the brainchild of Stefanos Marnerides, with the name starting off as an alias in NYC where Stefanos was performing solo gigs and recording demos. When later Stefanos moved …