Joshua Burnell - Flowers Where the Horses Sleep
As I type this, I am listening to Joshua Burnell’s album “Flowers Where the Horses Sleep” and all I can say is that it is brilliant. It is diverse and offers full modern arrangements with a trad feel and traditional themes. While tracks like ‘Le Fay’ are brushed with pop music stylings the whole album retains a wonderfully engaging modern folk atmosphere.”
Joshua Burnell is ready to uncover Flowers Where The Horses Sleep which sees him returning to original songwriting. He says: “Having dedicated the past three years to rearranging traditional material, I wanted to build on that experience to produce an album of folk songs for a modern audience.
Joshua Burnell’s music takes you to places others simply don’t reach.
Recent winner of the Rising Star accolade in the 2020 Folking Awards, Burnell is an extraordinary talent, seemingly with his own musical time machine – able to teleport listeners back into a rich, retro past or into a bold, other-worldly future.
A highly original songwriter and multi-instrumentalist (from his trademark Hammond organ to acoustic guitar, accordion, mellotron, synths and a Steinway grand) the York-based performer is adept at conjuring up vast, layered theatrical soundscapes and moodscapes as well as simpler, starker, equally captivating arrangements.
Together with his six-piece band he has become a festival favourite with a growing reputation as one of the most exciting and innovative acts on the scene, never afraid to push the boundaries. Born in the Haute-Savoie in France, Burnell’s music has been described as ‘folk baroque ‘n’ roll’. It is a heady brew from a melting pot of genres – English folk, prog, contemporary classical and vintage pop-rock.
Proving equally appealing to Radio 2 and 6 Music listeners, Joshua started making waves with his 2016 ‘fantasy epic’ Into the Green. The ambitious ‘Seasons’ project saw him release a folk-rock arrangement of a traditional song or tune every week for a year leading to the critically acclaimed Songs from the Seasons album in 2018 which he followed up a year later with folk-rock odyssey The Road to Horn Fair. Now he is ready to uncover Flowers Where The Horses Sleep which sees him returning to original songwriting. He says: “Having dedicated the past three years to rearranging traditional material, I wanted to build on that experience to produce an album of folk songs for a modern audience.”
Recorded and mixed just before the world went into Covid-19 lockdown, the 10-track album has a pertinent theme. Says Josh: “The songs were all inspired by people, past and present and explore humankind’s remarkable ability to find beauty, even in the hardest of times.”
He alighted on the album title after listening to a moving podcast in a series called Family Ghosts. A Japanese-American woman who had been interned in a U.S. concentration camp during WW2 told how the prisoners, forced to live in stables, grew flowers to bring a touch of beauty into the ugly reality of their days.
With all music and lyrics written and arranged by Burnell, he is joined by Frances Sladen on lead and backing vocals, Nathan Greaves on electric guitar, Katriona Gilmore on fiddle and mandolin , Paul Young (melodeon) , Oliver Whitehouse (electric bass) Tom Mason on electric and upright bass and Edward Simpson, who also mixed the album, on bass drum.
The opening song Labels was inspired by something said by actor Sir Ian McKellen in an address at Oxford University in 2017 -“The only label any of us needs is our name” – something that could also apply to Burnell’s own pigeonhole-dodging music.
Gentle acoustic strumming opens the track with Burnell’s effortless, wide-ranging vocal telling us “Throw your labels away – for love has no use for them”.
The tempo quickens for the stand-out Le Fay – a song about Morgan Le Fay, the shape-shifting sorceress of Arthurian legend, performed in a lush, extravagant, all hands on deck soundscape with strident drums, swirling keys and electric guitar.
The driving, percussive The Ballad of Mark Jeffrey, written in the style of a traditional broadside transportation ballad, narrates the story of the real life 19th century Cambridgeshire convict deported to Tasmania’s Isle of the Dead, where he was put to work as a colony gravedigger. An unsettling track it tells how burglar ‘Big Mark’ reportedly had an encounter with the Devil.
The track contrasts with another transportation ballad Look at Us Now, this time imagining a future where convicts are deported from an unnamed planet to barely habitable planet Earth. A deliciously retro sound embroiders the clever lyrics which touch on folklore, climate change and space ace Elon Musk’s vision of seeing humans on the Red Planet.
The striking ‘papercut’ album cover by Mumbai-husband and wife artists Hari & Deepti depicts another stand-out track – Run with Me. Based on a surreal experience when Joshua and partner Fe explored a ruined fortress near Yorkshire’s Harewood House. Seeing men approaching with guns, they took to their heels. Says Josh: “As we were running, a deer leapt out of the undergrowth and for one gloriously fairy tale moment locked eyes with me and ran alongside us.” A sweeping fusion of styles, it has a modern pop feel and features open-tuned guitars and the soothing vocal of Frances Sladen.
Demonstrating his songwriting versatility are the gentler but compelling tracks Invisible Wings (“for inspirational families”) and the acoustic guitar and piano-led Outside (“when you would do anything to help those you love”).
The versatility continues with Joan of the Greenwood – traditional folk song or original? You’d be hard pushed to tell the difference in Burnell’s beautifully judged pastiche. He explains: “I’ve taken various archetypal characters who hang around in folk songs and added a dash of the supernatural which I pinched from Greek mythology”.
Sounding like it got lost on the way to Berlin’s decadent Kit Kat Club Let Me Fall Down is an impactful burlesque about greed and those who trample others in their race for the top– with Burnell holding court, his vocal as direct and mocking as The Emcee.
The Steinway grand piano is centre stage in the final track Two Stars – an emphatic, slow-burning, beautiful appreciation of two people. “The best of people always are shooting stars; Take your chance this time around and orbit them while you can”. Reminiscent of the cabaret piano-influenced sound that Bowie dabbled with on Hunky Dory and other early albums, it builds to a dramatic climax and sparkles away into the stratosphere.
An album chock full of style, poetic lyrics and impressive musicianship it marks Burnell out as an artist with a true difference. Whatever box you might try to put him into you can be sure he’ll be thinking outside it!