Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker
LP/LP+Bonus CD/CD/CD+Bonus CD/DL
Songwriting can seem a funny business. It can be soul-searching, introspective, solitary. The more personal the subject matter, the more it can feel like you’re denuding yourself. Performers must have variations on that dream where you’re in the midst of doing whatever you normally do, then you suddenly realise you’ve neglected to put yer kit on. Even the least clad of recording artists usually takes to the stage having at least donned rudimentary undergarments.
Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker’s latest studio album, Seedlings All, begins with such a tale of exposure with the song Chicago, a true-life-inspired lesson in how to “make your peace with failure.” Imagine a day-long drive, followed by five minutes to drop your bags at your hotel, and a further hour’s drive to your gig. No-one turns up to listen. But you play your entire set anyway. To nobody.
Sounds ghastly. That was their Chicagoan experience. Josienne took refuge in a quadruple Bourbon. Ben totalled his guitar, a la Pete Townshend (not really, but I hope you enjoyed the momentary thought of that image as much as I did).
That song is typical of the content on this, their first album of entirely original compositions. It’s subtly insightful, yet brutally honest. As the duo’s lyricist, Clarke regards it as by far the most autobiographical work she’s put out. It’s festooned with human flaws, hopes and fears, and the inevitable morsels of momentary moroseness that any self-proclaimed ‘Harbinger of Folk’ will reliably supply.
But their other coinage, ‘corduroy punk’ can be used to describe Seedlings All. Clarke is the more likely of the two to go ape and have a Polly Styrene-style, “Oh bondage! Up yours!” moment. Walker is mild-mannered, wry and shy. The likelihood of having a Steve Jones/Bill Gundy moment is about as large as the average seedling. It’s the restless, emotive rawness of punk that we sense. It rubs up against the mellifluous compositions that they arrange, ones that sound more mainstream-radio-friendly than ever here, whilst losing not a hint of quality.
Struggle predominates. Track ten, Bathed In Light, offers the recognisably-pessimistic mantra of, “I’m too old/ I can’t change.” On All Is Myth, Clarke sings, “I feel with my hands,/ I don’t trust my eyes./ They lie/ And so do my ears.” The slow rock of Things Of No Use talks of processing adversity and “trying to make things out of our heartache,” with extra outpourings via some particularly cascading drums and guitars. Ghost Light talks of fading, unsalvageable love.
The album’s lip-quiverer and bottom-lip-bulger arrives via Maybe I Won’t. Anyone who has questioned parenthood, whether they are disposed towards it, or whether it is worth pursuing, especially as time ticks by, will probably need a moment to pull themselves together. Clarke can mine some seriously deep existential seams.
Yet if we are all seedlings, as stated on the titular track, “we are all but progeny,” forever starting afresh, forever finding our way and in a state of flux. Restlessness and discontent become the necessities of progress. It’s a potentially healthy mindset, especially if you were thinking yourself a bit old and past it, or slightly unloved. Let’s face it, the failure in Chicago merely paved the route to the triumph that is this album.
See the video for Chicago here: