If the toe-tapping jig that opens up Kate Ellis’ debut album wasn’t enough to highlight her Irish influences, they light up the lyrics of Don’t Lie To Me: “across the Bridge of Sighs/my heart is crying out/keeps getting no replies.” What follows is a sad song disguised with wit and wordplay. It’s a portrait of a woman who’s had enough of being a bit of fun because there’s no fun in that: “every tear you make me cry/takes a little piece of me.”
She’s ready to give the lie to ‘friends with benefits’ and any other euphemism or platitude: “don’t call it friendship/don’t call it love/I’ll try not to mention all the words that I’ve been thinking of.” Importantly, there’s little sense that the protagonist wants it, whatever it should be called, to stop – simply that the errant partner should stop lying to her and that they should both stop lying to themselves. Don’t Lie To Me sparks with the pain of realising something that never will be.
Ones You Love The Most is similarly shrouded in loss, regret and confusion, but a type that’s deeper, rawer and more permanent. The story is simply sketched and no less visceral for it: “Honey was a mother and a wife/it’s been one of those days all of her life/said that she was moving to the coast.”
It was inspired by a real-life story, a decision made with the best intentions that’s bound to ensure the pain it was thought to spare. It’s gentle and evocative: “say goodbye/their faces white as snow.” More than that, subtle shifts in tenses seem to implicate us all in a complicated dance of decisions and ramifications.
I Believe brings some much needed contrast. It’s a positive tale of unwavering love and support, a tender track dancing around a poetic refrain: “the beauty of you is just plain to me/how can I tell you I’m your shining night/you’re my morning.” Despite her doubts and low self-esteem, he’s always there to pull her out of the darkness.
Night Before The Dawn was written in, and is perfect for, the time of day that it’s about. It speaks of finding relief and clarity in stillness. It’s another song shaped by loss; a sense of grief stalks the edges: “I take my hopes out to sea at night…holding on to some hopeless dream/when I know that you are gone.”
The song, like the night, gets darker: “there are days when I could live or die/when I’m barely hanging on/knowing you will never lie with me/in the night before the dawn.” Still, poetry and hope remain: “I see the beauty in the darkest night/in the cold, collected calm.”
Paper, Scissors, Rock lifts the tempo and the mood. There’s a quaint innocence in Ellis’ voice here that matches the metaphor. Childhood games stand in for transition to different kinds of games; from a song of innocence to experience as the friendship changes with age. There are hints of Andy Hobsbawm’s intricate guitar work, which is sure to be really let loose when played live.
Ellis’ way with words to describe loss and survival is uncanny. Inside is beautiful but poignant: “hiding in a teardrop/hidden in a heartbeat/where the dreams don’t fade.” It’s a heart wrenching song about moving on reluctantly: “If you see me falling/in someone’s arms again/it’s just the part I’ve learned to play.” Sympathy is simultaneously with the protagonist and with the new love who will never truly be loved.
Holding The Whole Thing expresses a sense of bewilderment that lows aren’t universal: “I will never know the reason why/you never falter you never cry…do you ever wake up in the morning feeling like your strength might just give way?” Nonetheless, the song itself is luscious and warm.
Going Against The Grain could be a companion song to Ones You Love The Most as the protagonist is also defying convention to satisfy a need to be free: “Tired of doing all the things that other people do/Life’s jumping someone else’s train/She knows it’s time to make a change.”
Like so many songs on the record, What I Can’t Have is coloured with violin and Dobro guitar parts. The lyrics continue the theme of wishing for something more than loss and disappointment: “I want to change all the endings/and stick with pretending/‘cos real life just ain’t good enough.”
The final song, Carve Me Out, ties everything together. There are Celtic influences, grief, memories and a vast landscape: “she is off beyond these pastures/and she is out beyond these seas/she is high above these mountains/and she is watching over me.” Crucially, the song, and the album, ends with hope: “She’s in every room I walk in/her beauty is everything I see/she’s in the faces of my children/she is living on in me.”
Carve Me Out has a timeless sound that still feels contemporary and accessible. It’s haunted by grief, but Ellis’ angelic voice and deft wordplay, combined with rich instrumentation, make the record feel warm and ultimately uplifting. It’s a rare and beautiful thing.
Here’s how the songs sounded live when Ellis headlined a set at London’s Green Note, supported by Two Ways Home – “joyous, expansive and warm” to say the least!