An admirable thing in music is when simple lyrics are lifted in meaning through the sound they are part of; allowing us to perceive words in a whole new way. That is the experience achieved by the work of Emily Mae Winters; a folk singer pulling poetics and poignancy into her work – playing with the listener’s emotions like strings in her debut release ‘Foreign Waters’.
In the release she expresses the drama of self-identity, relationships – made intimate through the layering in her music. Her lyrics may appear brief, but they are not basic – ‘I won’t stay in the lines/ as they toy with your mind’: indicatory that she will not be limited by language. Instead she unlocks it through sound.
‘Not shying away from sharing her passions in her sound’
This is a poetic attitude – celebrated by her own interests, having worked at the Poetry Café in Convent Garden. After studying and graduating from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London, she has gained a rightful reputation for not shying away from sharing her passions in her music. And despite spreading her connections in London, she does not lose her roots in the rugged coasts of Southern Ireland, where she grew up. It is this honesty about place and personal identity – rather than a focus on generic folk topics – which makes Winters’ work especially memorable.
Her voice is stand-out, with a guttural depth which reminds me a little of the early Grace Slick – not just hitting notes, but getting inside them and giving the audience something to think about. In the track ‘Anchor’ from this debut EP, she seems to use her voice as a kind of tide, turning over the ebb and flow of emotion of a persona reflecting on a relationship. Influenced by artists including The Unthanks, Kate Rusby and strong connections to contemporary folk and Celtic music, she provides a greatly interesting listen.
‘An instrument opened by touch, and capable of touching the feelings of the listener’
‘Anchor’ starts off with strings that are almost cutting, before mellowing into carefully-caressed succession of guitar notes; a changeable mood perhaps reflecting the changing nature of love and intimacy. A guitar is an instrument opened by touch, and capable of touching the feelings of the listener, too. After all, music is not just an artefact but an experience of exploration, with lines like ‘I’m scared to say/I’m still on my way’ unashamedly revealing that a personal journey is still continuing.
The way she uses strings to work meaning into her music deserves a mention – as steel guitar and mandolin add alternate depth, played by Radio 2 Folk Award Winner Ben Walker on this EP. I very much admire the way these strings are used to provide a framework for the tracks. In ‘Anchor’, steady slaps of acoustic are used; so rather than a drumbeat this has a drawn-out sound closer to a heartbeat. You really can feel it. It allows her swelling vocals to gain more prominence; for this is clearly music driven by occasion, not production and the over-dependency on set drumbeats and chord patterns.
‘Darkness and depth mixed in’
Winters herself reflects ‘nothing scares me like the silence’ – music is clearly a means of expression and these are lines taken from the title track ‘Foreign Waters’. Like water itself, this sound serves like a partially reflective surface: giving us a way to contemplate our own self-identity, but also the aspects of darkness and depth mixed in. The tune follows this combination of history and mystery – a steady drumbeat is topped with mandolin for most of the track, before coming to close with a deeper stringed sound, like a double bass.
Winters’ inventive combinations of sound show that she is not afraid to use single instruments to communicate different emotional levels. ‘Miles to Go’ is a track where this effect is most memorable. Steadily plucked strings of the guitar guide the song along, reminding me a little of Nick Drake’s style in ‘Five Leaves Left’. Low notes are then topped with a charm-like tinkling as she contemplates ‘The night has claimed you again’. Her use of the second person ‘you’ in many of her tracks adds to the intimacy and the message of music as our guide; so perhaps it’s no wonder ‘Miles To Go’ has achieved recognition in the UK Songwriting contest. It’s like a soundtrack for our personal journeys, something you could listen to through headphones in an unknown place and feel slightly more at home.
‘There is always the potential for change’
‘Miles To Go’ also illustrates Winters’ beautiful lyrical harmonies; so there is still height despite the depth. She sings ‘I will wait for you across the water’, suggesting a process of coming to stability through sound has been reached.
Yet what I appreciate too about this music is that it makes you take nothing for granted. There is always the potential for change – just like the nautical theme, the sound of seas and waters, indicate. The final track ‘Until The Light’ is more dark and dwelling in tone, with the lines ‘I drag my heels because the morning is now in sight.’ Is that because the morning is something to be feared? Or because she is actually enjoying the night? Both are possible interpretations, and as her vocals swell, this track really does open up the emotions, bringing a high to the end of this debut release.
Already gaining recognition on BBC Radio 2 and BBC Radio Scotland, there are big things ahead for what Winters is releasing – not only musically, but emotionally. This music retains personality and personal insight, it is not just a piece of production – and something to be particularly appreciated in this age. You are invited in, so why not take the journey?
To find out more about Emily Mae Winters, you can visit her website: https://www.emilymaewinters.com/