Songwriter Heidi Talbot describes her new album, Sing It For A Lifetime, and creative process on The Table Read, “The Best entertainment magazine in the UK”.
Sing It For A Lifetime, out 20th May, was forged in a pressure cooker. It was recorded in one soundproofed room in a house that was being sold, as Heidi Talbot looked after her two daughters and negotiated the split from her husband of 11 years, the folk musician John McCusker.
Recording The New Album
A planned recording stint in Louisiana, cancelled because of Covid, turned into a remote real-time session over two different time zones, 3000 miles apart. An international group of musicians including her friend Mark Knopfler somehow came together so smoothly, you can’t hear the seams. The result is a crowning achievement in her 20-year career.
It shows a UK folk veteran going transatlantic, an unconscious return to her earliest years as a performer. But most importantly, it features her most raw and open-hearted work to date, as she finds a new voice away from the longstanding recording partnership with McCusker, who produced her records.
“Not to have that person there, for good and for bad, was a big jolt,” she says. “It was freeing, it was also
terrifying. I had to man up – woman up – and ask myself what I really thought, stand by my choices. It really forced me to work on my own and examine my own music. I wanted to make a totally different kind of record. I can’t make the same type of record without John.”
Working With Dirk Powell
She sought out the Appalachian fiddle legend and country producer Dirk Powell for this new phase in her life: the two had played together years earlier, when Powell appeared on her very first record, 2002’s Distant Future.
“If I was going to make a country record, now is the time,” laughs Talbot. “I’m divorced, I’m a single mum, I’m out of work…”
With Powell she found the freedom to experiment, push her own boundaries, experiment with the thumbprints of classic country – and junk them if they didn’t feel right. She hit upon a blend of Celtic and Americana that was already in her blood stream: born in County Kildare, Ireland, Talbot was entranced by her mother’s Crystal Gayle and Patsy Cline records. She moved to the US as a teenager and began her performing career in the bars of New York, with a five-year stint as part of the American supergroup Cherish The Ladies.
Any great upheaval is a period of self-discovery. Losing the intimate, end-of-the-day discussions she’d had with McCusker in the studio, Talbot found herself having to “live and die by my decisions”.
“It’s exciting and terrifying,” she reflects. “I’m not scared any more – at the start of the process, everything was so precious, it had to be perfect. Now I think, no, I’m going to make loads of records, and this is my best at this point in time.”
With her new producer, she wasn’t afraid to make mistakes. She exchanged favourite songs with Powell – “tacky eighties songs that weren’t cool. He was very open to different styles” – and gently got herself back into the swing of performing.
Taking A Break
Contrary to what country music might have you think, not everyone can write when they’re heartbroken. During the pandemic Talbot put music on hold: she was homeschooling and navigating her relationship with John, both of them at home and, like most musicians, out of work.
“Nothing was real, you didn’t know what was going to happen next,” she recalls. “I came out of that and realised how bad it had got – eventually I was standing in my own space again, having a look at what was left, and realising I hadn’t lost everything.”
The new songs were gathered from spring 2021 onwards. Forced to cancel a trip to Powell’s Lafayette studio to record in person, she hunkered down with her engineer Cameron Malcolm in Edinburgh, sending Dirk files each night to reach him when he woke in the morning.
A New Team Of Musicians
She found a new and exciting team of musicians in the UK and the US. Adam Holmes, with whom she recently performed as the duo Arcade, was based nearby in Edinburgh, and she called upon the Scottish violinist and orchestrator Seonaid Aitken, in Glasgow, for the album’s tender string arrangements. Guitarist Mark Knopfler and Keyboard player Guy Fletcher were in London, singer Amelia Powell and drummer Bill Smith were recording in the US.
The greatest alchemy, though, was with Dirk Powell himself, who has coaxed from Talbot her most exposed and intimate work, with a combination of self-penned songs and exquisitely chosen covers reflecting the huge changes in her life.
Sing It For A Lifetime
The exhilarating title track Sing It For A Lifetime was written in just fifteen minutes following a two-hour walk in the rain in the forest near her Edinburgh home. “It’s building, rising, raging in you / I know that it’s the right time…” she sings.
She thought it was a moment of inspiration: Powell told her the song had been inside her all along.
Two exquisite covers of country songs: Willie Nelson’s 1989 track There You Are, its synths replaced with Mark Knopfler’s guitar. And the frankly badass Dolly Parton song When Possession Gets Too Strong, from 1970, in which Talbot’s nightingale voice soars as high as Parton’s, but is softer, more reflective: “You may give me love like I have never known / But if you try to control me then you won’t never know me”.
Empty Promise Land is a duet with Dirk Powell, written by him many years ago and featuring Mark Knopfler whose guitar sings like a dobro. It dramatizes the end of a relationship, male and female voices reaching a shared place of resignation: “This woman whose life is boiling underneath her skin / This lonely man who’s just longing for his dreams again”.
I Let You Go (“I let you go, you let me down”) is Talbot’s most personal song yet, written in the form of a letter to her former partner: “I walk away with two hands in mine – their eyes tell me we’ll be fine”.
Seonaid Aitkens’ strings enhance the sweet melody, and Adam Holmes contributes soulful backing vocals. She feared it was too personal to publish – but pushed beyond that fear with his encouragement, and the results are transfixing.
Broken Mirror inhabits the same space, written in Edinburgh and sent to Louisiana where Powell wrote a sparse, elegiac melody around her wounded words. Again, there was apprehension at letting such a personal song out into the world. But the process has allowed Talbot to reach a new creative space.
Find More From Heidi Talbot Now:
Book Tickets: https://heiditalbot.com/live
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