Devotees of quality Australmericana may recognise Cathy Burke’s voice from previous recordings of Dirtbird. In 2007 she, as Cathy English, constructed spine chilling harmonies alongside David M. Lewis on the sublime album White Horse Road. It’s been a long time between recordings for English, now performing as Cathy Burke. This, her first solo venture, has proven to be an album worth waiting for.
Let me begin this review by saying how much I love the album title. In a competitive culture that seems to undervalue the fragile, the weak, and the flawed, it’s wonderful to come across a creative project with such a provocative title as Born Soft. However this is not just some vague and clever conceptual banner. A soft, fragile approach appears everywhere in these songs. One banjo, one voice, one harmony, one fiddle, one take to analogue tape – this album is about taking risks, but not a bravado laden jump from the cliff to prove how exceptional you are, more the risk of walking bravely into dark, cold water to see what menacing revelations may be lurking below.
The album begins with the beautiful Shoes are Fine. A gorgeous ode to hope in times of hardship. Burke’s voice is captivating and soars sweetly above her solo banjo as she sings of every troubled person’s wish – to see those troubles lifted from their shoulders and exchanged for the plain and peaceful joys of a simple life. The arrangement here is characteristic of much of the material on this album, the solo instrument and voice states it’s message surely and with confidence before welcome support is added by Burke’s sister in law Kate Burke (Trouble in the Kitchen) through her tasteful and adept fiddling as well as poignant vocal harmonies.
These troubles and their stoic acceptance is a common theme on the first side of this wonderfully intimate LP. The second track, Safe at Last, is a fleeing mother’s song to her child, as they ride a bus, while journeying to some promised refuge. She sings of the challenges of tolerance that the displaced face as people stare at them trying to make sense of their story. “They don’t mean to stare and look… and read my body like a broken book, I’ve done much the same.” Burke is not one to bog us down with misery. There is hope in her story as well – the meagre, yet welcome, hospitality that is received at journey’s end. “Take us in kind soul. Hearts are sometimes full and whole. What a tiny house, got just 3 sides, you say the 4th one will be here some time.” The way Burke captures such a broken character and the limitations of the community’s reaction with such sympathy and understanding reveals her own compassionate heart, yet one that is also tuned by a perceptive and critical mind.
There are those who might find such material challenging. Often people I know will label sad or slow songs as depressing. However artists like Cathy Burke are not trying to bum us out, but rather attempting to build bridges of empathy between us and the less fortunate. There is nothing like a poignant and sorrowful song, artfully exploring the nuance of a person’s hardship, to light the flame of compassion in the listener’s heart.
Empires Fall continues this theme, though while Safe at Last is a personal story, the artist’s eye here is taking in grander themes of the conjunction of personal and national history. Here Cathy Burke examines the unconscious consequences of our relentless human story – expansion and the things we choose to fight over. The human consequences are what interests her – the legacy that is passed down to the conquerors as well as the displaced – “Blinded by the ocean. Hidden beneath the sea. Underground roots grow sucklings from the great old tree.”
The mood lifts with Orbit #9 which is a lovely toe taping jig, played jauntily on the banjo, invoking a feeling of a pre or post-electric country dance. An odd pair of characters are stepping out into the night, or perhaps remembering their courting days. Burke’s plaintive vocals add a tinge of sadness into the song as though her characters know that this joy, they walk towards, is both precious and fleeting.
After returning from the dance we are led once more onto the porch with the solitary rocking chair rhythm of My Bones. A sweet lament on the fears of being left behind. There is a lovely sinister quality in Burke’s lyric writing. Here she sings “Each day I run away from home. I get back before you so you don’t know.” I’m left wondering, is this character trapped in a relationship by fear, or perhaps a lost spirit seeking acknowledgement or absolution. Either way My Bones is a ghostly invocation gorgeously executed.
Look out, as the title suggests, is a wry cautionary tale about the kinds of smooth characters that inhabit the world looking to take advantage of the unwary. Here Burke’s poetic aptitude is on display once again with great lines like “Look out for the ones who say your name like they wrote it just yesterday” and the final king hit of the song “Look out for the ones who have nowhere else to stay. There ain’t nothing wrong with sleeping in the rain.” Country music has a great tradition of music that preaches. While these are usually religious songs, there is a growing catalogue of songs preaching secular morals, and Look Out is definitely of that ilk. While preaching to some may be a bit on the nose, when it is done with a certain fire and finesse, as this song is, one is left feeling uplifted and vindicated.
Part of the enduring allure of this album is the variety of rhythms that Cathy Burke brings out in her songs through an impressive and varied mix of frailing styles on her banjo. The banjo is one of those instruments that people either love or hate. One need only think of that wonderful Gary Larson cartoon where the devil is leading a noted conductor into a room of banjo players saying “And this is your room Maestro”. So a whole album of songs for solo banjo is a rare feat to accomplish with such success. To deliver it in single takes, where the attentive listener can not avoid hearing the odd dropped or added beat, is even more praise worthy.
My favourite rhythm that Burke invokes is in Mother May I, which has a definitely trad-folk-song transplanted into the modern world feel. What is particularly memorable about this song, apart from the lovely frailing rhythm, is the way the banjo and the voice weave their melodies together. This is one of the great gifts that arpeggiated picking styles bring to song writing and performance. When a singer harmonises with themselves on their instrument we are not only impressed with the artist’s skill but witness the power and the joy that the art of solo accompaniment invokes.
August Bloom is a lovely snake like melody that slithers and weaves into itself. The opening bluesy banjo riff is a delightful and welcome reprise between the verses where Burke sings of the first longings for spring in the depths of winter and the struggle and strain of keeping hope alive in a harsh assaulted land. Central Victoria is cold in August, and the scars of the gold rush of the 19th century run deep. Yet the gold, in the form of a thriving creative community, is still being extracted from the land and the small yellow flowers, that Burke sings to in this song, continue to emerge faithfully every year. They remind the locals, and us, of the hope of renewal that is one of life’s most precious gifts.
The album ends with the languid title track. Born Soft, the song as well as the album, is a grower. The melancholic textures are teased out beautifully and those who listen intently and repeatedly are bound to be rewarded. As the two Burke’s sing in the chorus “Take off your skin, long suffering. I saw it float away so light and thin, so light and pale.”
Born Soft is a consistent and adeptly arranged and executed collection of well crafted songs. It is the work of an artist who thinks and feels deeply. It is clear from her words that Cathy Burke understands that life and its gifts are varied and uncertain, however if one persists, one will find golden truths and inspiration in the most unlikely places. Whether that’s in a discarded teacup, the footsteps of a child, or a sad story told by a displaced traveller – these all hold rich emotional colours that add depth and meaning to life’s tapestry.
This album can be purchased from the artist at https://cathyburke.com.au/shop/