It seems like only last year that 1320Radio joined forces with the Nilupul Foundation to showcase new music Upstairs at Nilupul. One particular highlight was the appearance of Seven Sons and their engaging brand of old-time Americana. They performed as a trio with Ruth Alexander and Clayr Borthwick guitars, ukuleles, mandolin and sunny vocal harmonies, and Barry Nesbit providing wonderful adornments on bluegrass fiddle.
They combine original songs with a sound knowledge of the traditional American roots music repertoire in a way that one wag has describing them as “a female Everly Brothers.” Certainly, the vocal harmonizing is very close and while that description is a little trite, is not wrong to flag up a true connection with the spiritual roots of country music.
Their set-list featured songs direct from the source such as Rough and Rocky (sung a capella) and I’ll Fly Away from the Carter Family songbook, the Louvin Brothers’ Are You Teasing Me, and the even more conservative Little Cabin Home on The Hill by Lester Flatt and Bill Monroe. Their treatment of these songs is certainly respectful, but Seven Sons are by no means intimidated by the burden of legacy.
Ruth and Clayr are each confident and capable singers in their own right, but together they sound as if they had learned these songs sitting in front of the hearth in the family home. Perhaps it’s by remembering that the charm of melodies such as Carter Stanley’s White Dove lies in their simplicity, that Seven Sons are able to convince us that their affection for these tunes is authentic and sincere.
In that sense, the distance between Seven Sons and the Everlys is not so great, and the comparison not quite as leftfield as it first seems. The brothers may have been successful rock n roll stars, but as performers it was love for the song as much as shared DNA that made the singing so alluring.
Barry Nesbit provided a sublime presence on fiddle with carefully punctuated phrases dipping in between verses and offering the most delicate shading possible in accompaniment. His ideas were a melodic delight and came in welcome contrast to players who all too often outstay their welcome on instrumental breaks.
Ruth Alexander also offers a nice line in original songwriting that is of course modern in conception and outlook, but sits comfortably alongside the traditional material. One Virtue is an especially strong platform for their harmonizing, while Dial Me Up and We Are Waltzing suggest ambitions for to apply some refinement to the ‘rough at the edges’ image that traditional Americana has acquired (if not encouraged) down the decades.
Upstairs at Nilupul was busy for this afternoon show and you have to smile when you think that contemporary Scottish audiences warm so readily to music from such a distant era. The “O Brother Where Art Thou” effect can’t explain it all, and it may just be that the old tunes really are the best.
After the show, a few questions occurred to me and I though it worthwhile to put them to Ruth Alexander (see below).
1320Radio Q and A with Ruth Alexander of Seven Sons
We all really enjoyed your set at Nilupul and I wanted to ask you the following:
The set is varied in terms of the songs you perform, but the overall sound is consistently reminiscent of old time country music in the Carter Family style. I wonder if that’s been a conscious consideration when arranging songs and choosing instruments to accompany the voices?
I got into singing and playing through my interest in first Bluegrass and then Old Time music and then, as I delved deeper into the roots of the music, I really fell in love with the harmony style.
I won’t pretend that we have spent a whole lot of time planning the arrangement of each song although it has taken us a lot of tweaking to work out the harmonies on a couple of them.
It is worth the trouble, though. The most difficult ones are generally our favourites. “Can You Hear Me Now” – took hours! We often – as at Nilupul – don’t have the whole band to perform with us so arrangements vary a bit from gig to gig. We hope to get the best version of each recorded sometime soon.
The harmonies really gel, and I suppose it’s an obvious question but I’ll ask it anyway! Did your voices blend naturally this way from the outset, or have you had to work to hone them into the sound you wanted to create?
I think a lot of is has been pure luck! I hadn’t done a lot of harmony singing with another female before Clayr and I assumed that was just how it went! It was only when I tried to work out parts with someone else at a workshop that I realised it doesn’t always work so easily. We are still evolving though, and I am trying to sing more high harmony parts so that Clayr can get a shot at the lead melody.
Your own songs have strong melodies and both of you can take the lead part. I wonder though if it’s those songs that speak most strongly to the strength of the harmonies that are most likely to make it into the set?
I still consider myself a beginner when it comes to songwriting and although we have both written a fair few songs the ones that work best with harmonies tend to feature more in our sets. It’s hard to write a song that focuses on lyrics, melody and harmony. We’re trying though!
Photographs courtesy of Upstairs at Nilupul
Seven Sons are essentially a six-piece but perform in a variety of permutations. They have released on CD so far and are currently working on new songs. Catch up with all their news on their website by following the link below.