Sara Banleigh
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Sara Banleigh

New York City, New York, United States | SELF

New York City, New York, United States | SELF
Band Folk Celtic

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Time-tested stories get the raw treatment

Brooklyn-born Banleigh looks across the pond to 500 year-old songs from various parts of the British Isles in this début EP. The five narrative tracks are heartfelt stories of death, sorrow, betrayal and love. She felt that such material needed to be raw, so to avoid the prettiness of some romanticizing folk, she has sung these pieces with as little embellishment as possible.

Twisting the normal presentation of these folk songs on guitar with pipes and fiddle, Banleigh uses piano as her main instrument, with occasional, discreet guitar and lashings of violin in between, used more classically than in Irish folk.

The bookending tracks both start with à capella vocals throwing the story at the heart of the music into the spotlight. “Railroad Boy” is a stark, poignant tale of betrayal that always touches the heart. Memorable high point “Geordie” (with Patrick Dunn guesting on viola) has the lightest, most sprightly feel (and a cracking tune); while “All My Trials” has the air of an American spiritual as the protagonist longs for heaven to avoid the sorrows of Earth.

Part of stripping away the polish that prettifies these hard songs is Banleigh’s dispassionate vocal style – more newsreader than grieving friend. Together with the clipped, dancing piano lines and some of the violin work, it gives this collection an almost old-French feel in places.

While my head understands the reasons she gives for the way that she presents these pieces – and it does suit “Railroad Boy” particularly well – I tend to prefer the sheer beauty that artists like Cara Dillon or Solas bring to folk, and which they manage without necessarily losing the pain inside the songs. That said, I can find no fault with these enduring pieces and they preserve the tradition particularly well - Phantomtollbooth.org


Not many journalists are going to struggle about whether or not to include a review of a CD on a blog because of dark subject matter. But my blog features the healing power of music and leans towards softer material (even though Sara Banleigh introduces the song All My Trials with Bach’s Prelude #1 in C major). So I’m reviewing Banleigh’s recording The Folk EP as a culture preservation project and not as a healing music CD. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to review a CD featuring Irish songs from 500 years ago, especially arranged for piano and voice.


Banleigh mentions in the press notes that she preferred to give a grittier interpretation of these old murder and love ballads. She’s not the first to accomplish this task since Irish song interpreter Susan McKeown covered similar territory on her 2006 World Village recording Black Thorn: Irish Love Songs. Similar to McKeown, Banleigh provides gutsy vocals instead of the misty-eyed vocals featured in Celtic music. I have no problem with this approach except that it loses the irony of dark material sung in sweet voices. Banleigh’s creates an edgier sound by bringing her piano center stage and lightly framing it with violin and guitar. At times the beauty of the instrumental arrangement transcends the dark text.


When I first listened to this disk, I thought of an American folksinger from the 1950s, Barbara Dane who also sung folk ballads in a more urgent tone. In fact, I dug the archival reissue of Anthology of American Folk Songs from my collection to draw comparisons between Dane and Banleigh. My hope is that Banleigh sticks with this Irish song project and releases a full-length album because I can see a crossover appeal for alternative music fans and Celtic music aficionados. Just one listen to the song Geordie and I think Banleigh’s going to win listeners’ loyalty. I think she’s onto something and has the talent to pull it off. Hopefully, she includes some uplifting songs in her repertoire in the future. - The Whole Music Experience


There is a timeless quality to the five full songs that comprise this debut EP for the New York based Sara Banleigh. The stunning vocals amplify the feeling with each quivering note. English, Scottish and Irish folk songs, each hundreds of years old, are arranged impeccably, with sparse piano orchestration. The songs came to the United States with English and Irish settlers, and have survived through oral tradition, powerful and elemental themes passed down through the generations: love, despair, beauty, longing, death and betrayal. Recorded in Park West studio specifically for the superb 20-year-old Kawai grand piano, the attention to detail is commendable. - The Epoch Times


On The Folk EP, Sara Banleigh has picked five traditional songs from the British Isles and given them chamber-tinged arrangements of lush piano, violin, and guitar. The prominent use of piano alone is worthy of note for the genre. Her semi-operatic “proper” vocals could easily be mistaken for a number of 1960s folk singers (it would be more unusual if Anne Briggs and Joan Baez were not influences here). And though nothing on the disc is overly obscure, none of the songs are overdone chestnuts. So here you’ll find, for instance, “Mary Hamilton” instead of “Barbara Allen.”

Her rendition of “Railroad Boy” starts a capella before the instruments introduce a challengingly complex rhythm. It’s a brave way to begin a disc of traditional material. She takes on a Gaelic tune, “Fhear A Bhata,” to close. But the true gem on this record is “Geordie.” The interplay between the strings (guest Patrick Dunn provides a viola), vocal improvisation, a bluesy guitar solo, and a rollicking piano line makes for a chill-inducing centerpiece. - Driftwood Magazine


Discography

The Folk EP (2011)

Photos

Bio

Sara Banleigh is a singer of spooky 500-year-old folk songs from the British Isles. Finding material in old folk books, scratchy records, early broadsides, and even contemporary folk albums, she lets songs creep into her subconscious where they brew and bubble and start to form roots in her soul. She sings them softly to herself for years before deciding to arrange them for piano and play them for interested listeners. She hopes you are one of them.

One of the few native Brooklynites on the music scene today, Sara traces her interest in the music of Scotland, Ireland, England, and Wales back to her early exposure to old country music. In a time and place where there was maybe one crackly country station leaking in over the radio from the hinterlands beyond NYC, Sara remembers her Dad driving down Brooklyn’s Shore Parkway, blasting Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, and Johnny Cash from his collection of old country tapes!

This early acquaintance with old country music led her to uncover artists on her own, such as Linda Ronstadt, and Dolly Parton, all of whom drew from the rich tradition of Appalachian folk music. From there, Sara started tracing the roots of the Appalachian ballads and up-tempos back to their origins, and discovered the great wealth and beauty of the Irish and British folk tradition.

Sara’s musical influences are thus drawn as much from the pioneers and legends of old country music as they are from the printed pages of forgotten folk books and the modern albums of influential Irish and Scottish folk artists such as Planxty, the Bothy Band, and Rebecca Pidgeon. In either case, the listener is drawn into a world of storytelling, where true lovers pine for each other, betrayal torments the soul, and the heart crumbles from despair.

Sara is a new artist, a young woman with a young spirit, and she often gets asked why she has decided to record and sing ancient British and Irish folk songs, when her contemporaries are creating catchy indie pop with whirly synth loops and crispy beats. Sara likes synth loops, and perhaps, in the future, she will create music with machines, but at her core she has a special fondness for honest, unfiltered, acoustic folk music that tells the ageless, heartbreaking stories of the human condition. She is a happy person with a sad soul; or maybe it is the other way around: A sad person with a hidden champagne spirit. Either way, these songs help her get out some of the velvet green sadness.

The songs selected for Sara’s debut album, The Folk EP, have, in their own particular way, helped her deal with the torment of gut-wrenching relationships and negotiate many years of spiritual and emotional desolation. The idea of a one true love that is unique and irreplaceable is a popular theme in British and Irish folk music, and one that is woven throughout the material on the album. Much of the heartache and suffering in these tunes stems from the death of the beloved, or from his betrayal, and the highly-narrative stories, with their developed characters and tragic outcomes, bring the listener on this profound journey through love and loss. Of her relationship to the songs on the album, Sara says, "I connect deeply with the characters in the tunes - I desperately want Mary Hamilton and Geordie to live, and I am absolutely shattered that the girl who's lost her heart to her 'railroad boy' is so consumed with anguish that she takes her own life. Even though I know the ending, I am continuously and repeatedly devastated by this final and inevitable outcome of unrequited love.” Sara continues, “The songs are special. They are living. And it’s the eloquence and universality of the narratives in these songs that make them something that I believe anyone can relate to - anyone who’s ever felt for another human being.”

Sara offers some final words on the traditional folk music that creeps around her psyche:

“I sing this music because I need to sing it. I am compelled to. These songs, which relate dark and haunting tales of immortal love, murder, death, suicide, vengeful lust, and the supernatural are the primal, sweat-filled howl that reminds humanity of it's own broken heart. They are the layers of thick wool that one wears to protect the body against a biting wind, and they are the wind itself. They are the beginning of love, and the end of it. The rose bloom of health and the grey pallor of illness. Something entirely special and unique to this world, and the most common, front porch melodies that any one man or child can carry. They are just enough for one person to carry. These songs are the beginning of life and the beginning of death. The most complete and most connected dichotomy. Birth and departure. Triumph and tragedy. Union and disunion - of friends, lovers, families, and countries. A soft coo and a bitter dirge. They are a cry and a wail. But more than that, they are honest. When everything else fails, these songs are the last honest friends you’ll