SANDY DENNY – ” I’ve Always Kept A Unicorn: The Acoustic Sandy Denny “

Posted: April 24, 2018 in MUSIC
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All Her Own Work: The Acoustic Sandy Denny

Sandy Denny is without doubt one of the finest singer-songwriters of her generation, in a few short years Sandy Denny helped shape the direction of British folk-rock legends Fairport Convention, and also embarked on a solo career that saw her write some of her most affecting and timeless material.

I’ve Always Kept A Unicorn: The Acoustic Sandy Denny is as 2CD collection of demos, acoustic recordings and live performances that reveal her music at its most unadorned and personal. As noted by Sandy biographer Mick Houghton, whose superlative study of Sandy’s life and work lends the collection its title, “In the last few years, people have been appreciating Sandy more for her songwriting… If anything, this collection makes it easier to hear the songs themselves because they’re more naked than before.”

With his unique insight into Sandy Denny’s music, Houghton tells us why I’ve Always Kept A Unicorn is an essential addition to Denny’s body of work…

Sandy started out playing around London’s folk clubs in the mid-60s. these demos tap into those roots, To some extent, in her early days she wasn’t really a songwriter at least not a prolific one. She did write the most famous song she’s known for, ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes?’, when she was 18 or 19, in 1965, which is remarkable in itself. But at that time the folk and pop worlds were so distant from each other. Anyone outside of the folk scene wouldn’t have known who she was.

What was important about the early folk world was that it had the first generation of singer-songwriters, but were all men  Bert Jansch, Jackson C Frank, who was her boyfriend for a while; Sandy met Paul Simon, Roy Harper – and I think that probably gave her the confidence to write songs. The unique thing is that she was the only female songwriter at that point. I don’t think she saw herself as a “female songwriter”.

A chance encounter at The Troubadour coffeehouse swung open a gate for Denny’s interest in songwriting. Dave Cousins of London folk outfit The Strawberry Hill Boys asked Denny to join the group after seeing her perform onstage in the club’s cellar. All Our Own Work by Sandy Denny & The Strawbs was recorded over two weeks in Copenhagen. Twelve songs were captured, including Denny’s breakthrough and most enduring composition, “Who Knows Where The Time Goes?,” which showcases her emotive power and palpable solitude simply and immediately in the first verse, over minor-key acoustic guitar:

Sandy Denny 1966 - 530

The folk scene gave her the impetus to start writing her own songs, I think the folk idiom was very much the idiom that singer-songwriters came out of, both in the UK and in America, But the other thing to bear in mind is that, at the point when she joined Fairport Convention, they didn’t know who she was, even though she was quite well known on the folk scene.

Fairport Convention’s excellent third LP, Unhalfbricking. Denny joined Fairport Convention in 1968, they were already the most besainted act of the British folk-rock scene, having magnetized UFO Club owner and noted producer of the period Joe Boyd, who’d helped them secure deals with Polydor Records and then Island Records.

Denny won over the group with a cover of Jackson C. Frank’s “You Never Wanted Me” during her audition and replaced singer Judy Dyble, who’d founded the group with bassist Ashley Hutchings, guitarist Simon Nicol, and guitarist Richard Thompson, notable for his later solo works and collaborations with his wife Linda. … Fairport opened an entirely new world for her, after making three albums with them in the space of 18 months, Leige & Lief was a collection of traditional folk songs with no outlet for her own songwriting.

Denny brought a more plaintive, less pop-oriented intensity to the group with her wide vocal register and open-ended songwriting style. Under Denny’s leadership, they became less focused on ape-ing American folk acts, and instead carved out a signature appreciation for British traditional songs and the negative space between notes. The Denny-penned original “Fotheringay,” which opens Fairport’s second album, What We Did on Our Holidays, is the shaky and incongruous LP’s saving grace, a mystical meditation on isolation and death, inspired by the story of Mary, Queen of Scots.

The cover of her second album with the group, Unhalfbricking, released in 1969, features a portrait of Denny’s parents, Neil and Edna, standing outside their family home in Wimbledon—the band barely visible in the background. Though the Unhalfbricking version of “Who Knows…” is notable, and prompted a slew of covers, its full band noodling and subdued vocals temper its fire, making it more pleasant than powerful. Denny stayed on with Fairport through the recording of the heralded album Liege & Lief, their first record comprised mostly of adapted British and Celtic traditional songs, with Denny’s profound delivery front and center. Today, it’s considered the most important record in the British folk-rock movement, a beacon of modernity inspired by antiquity.

Conjecture about Denny’s departure from Fairport Convention abounds to this day. Some cite a new relationship with Australian folk musician Trevor Lucas—others, her increasing thirst for alcohol. Regardless, Denny left the band shortly after the release of their most prestigious album, as unceremoniously as her audition in a humble folk music dive.

Interestingly, after she left Fairport, and after the first Fotheringay album, she only actually recorded one more folk song, ‘Blackwaterside’, on her first solo album. But, at the same time, she never left folk music behind. I think it was still really important to her. She took the language, she took the imagery, but she sort of abandoned folk music stylistically – through the musicians she chose to work with, rather than through anything she was particularly trying to do. I think her music is quite radical, actually. It’s too easy to say, “Oh, she was a folk singer.” But she was a singer-songwriter. She was influenced by early country-rock – The Band, The Flying Burrito Brothers and groups like that. She also had a really strong sense of melody and was grounded in classical music. And I think that comes out in her songs. The big shift when you get to the 70s is: prior to Fotheringay she wrote everything on the guitar – so again that takes you back to folk music. But from 1971 onwards, she wrote everything at the piano, which freed her up a lot more and brought all these other influences into play.

Her 1971 solo debut for Island Records, The North Star Grassman and the Ravens, is no clearer testament . An album comprised of mostly Denny-written songs, the only time it veers off course is when she covers others—Dylan’s “Down in the Flood” and Charles Robins’ “Let’s Jump The Broomstick.” Of the album’s 11 original songs, eight are phenomenal. The title track, a core-rattler. It leaves one to wonder what Denny might have been capable of earlier, if empowered to write and record more originals by her peers in The Strawbs and Fairport Convention.

Her single album with The Strawbs, All Our Own Work, finally saw a release in 1973 via the Hallmark label, a nascent subsidiary of Pickwick International. For the first time, folk-rock fans heard Denny’s masterpiece, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?,” in its purest and most arresting form. Though Denny would die five years later due to a brain hemorrhage, her compositions on the passing of time, loss, love, and tradition, and her unparalleled voice, live on.

Sandy Denny I've Always Kept A Unicorn Album Cover - 300

Even though all her fans and fellow musicians would say they wished she’d made an acoustic solo album, if you think about it, it wasn’t particularly the norm at the time. And this is the other thing: there weren’t that many other female singer-songwriters around in the UK. The ones that were weren’t that successful – they’d have one hit and that was it. I guess the most successful female singer-songwriter, was Joan Armatrading. But the difference between Sandy and Joan is that Joan didn’t have that folk background. I think her songs have that emotional, simple, almost Van Morrison-like aspect to them. Sandy’s songs didn’t have that. They were far more complex.

Sandy tended to record her music and vocals first, and everything else was added afterwards. Plus a lot of the versions on this collection are demos, which are just Sandy at the piano or on the guitar. That’s the way she recorded. Even if she went back and redid the vocals, this very unadorned version of just about every song she ever did always existed.

One of the great things about this collection is that it’s effectively – you can’t say it’s her “greatest hits” because she didn’t have any hits  but it’s effectively her best-known songs, and most of her best songs, in terms of ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes?’, ‘Solo’, a lot of material from the Sandy album.

She did have this predilection for over-producing herself, and actually encouraging the people she worked with to lay on the strings on with a trowel, or to embellish too much. A lot of the blame for that gets attached to Trevor Lucas, who produced a lot of the albums, or John Wood, who engineered them. She says about her first solo album that the reason it sounded like it did was because John Wood was a “string freak”.

The producer Joe Boyd really wanted Sandy to go truly solo, but whenever she went on tour she would surround herself with a band. So asides from that defence aspect, is there an element of Sandy simply wanting to play with other musicians?.
After the Sandy album [in 1972] she actually spent most of the year performing solo. She did a whole American tour: a month of dates, just her at the piano. And I think that was a pretty awful experience for her, because she was playing stadiums with people like Loggins And Messina or the Steve Miller Band. I think she also toured with Randy Newman, which she enjoyed.

What is interesting is that she did do this famous show at a club called The Howff, in London’s Primrose Hill, at the time that Like An Old Fashioned Waltz was due to come out [1974]. That album is drenched in strings, but she did this show where she previewed all the songs solo and it easily got the best reviews she ever had. Once she’d gotten over her nerves, which would take a couple of songs, she was absolutely captivating. That show was actually taped. John Wood recorded it on Ronnie Lane’s mobile, but the tapes have gone missing.  It seems unlikely that these tapes will ever appear, but you never know. If it’s something that’s completely mis-filed and under a completely different name, who knows? What’s interesting is that Andrew Batt, who compiled I’ve Always Kept A Unicorn, did find three unreleased demos from The Bunch’s album. The Bunch was post-Fotheringay: Trevor Lucas produced and it used all the Fotheringay musicians and the Fairport musicians.

Essentially it was folk-rock musicians making a rock’n’roll album. Andrew found these three demos, which are absolutely fantastic. Sandy was a big Buddy Holly fan – had been since she was a kid – and she does two Buddy Holly songs and a version of The Everly Brothers’ ‘When Will I Be Loved’, which she sings with Linda Thompson, one of her best friends. And they’re absolutely wonderful. The duet with Linda is one of those things you’d say was worth the price of admission alone. It was probably just done in one take, With Richard playing guitar, and Linda and Sandy singing.  I don’t think people should be surprised that she liked rock’n’roll or The Beatles. She was a teenage girl in the early 60s when this whole revolution in music was happening. In a way, you can almost argue that it’s more surprising that she ended up singing folk music… Maybe that separates her from a lot of the other folk singers on the circuit, because I think they were more pure. They liked pure folk music, or they liked blues.

Sandy Denny 1971 - 300

The things that really stands out are the songs from Rendezvous, which was her last album, and the one a lot of people dislike. It is a bit of a mess, but you could argue that it features her best collection of songs, in terms of their structure and some of the things she’s trying out. There are songs on there that are much more soulful than anything she’s done before, and much simpler. It came out in ’77, but didn’t even get released in America, and Sandy died within a year, so people say her career was on the way down. But if you hear those songs in the context of this collection, unadorned, it completely reverses the notion that, creatively, she was in a downward spiral. Anything but. On their own, with just her piano and guitar, all those songs work really well. ‘One Way Donkey Ride’ and ‘I’m A Dreamer’ are fantastic songs.

During her lifetime, people saw Sandy as a singer first and a songwriter second – and, to some extent, people always remember her more as a singer with Fairport Convention. Being a member of Fairport Convention is a really hard thing to shake off; it casts a really long shadow. She never got away from it, and Richard Thompson’s still under it after about 40 albums in almost as many years.

I’ve Always Kept A Unicorn: The Acoustic Sandy Denny

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