wed 29/11/2023

First Person: Harpist Rachel Newton on creating music to accompany two well-loved books celebrating nature, poetry and magic | reviews, news & interviews

First Person: Harpist Rachel Newton on creating music to accompany two well-loved books celebrating nature, poetry and magic

First Person: Harpist Rachel Newton on creating music to accompany two well-loved books celebrating nature, poetry and magic

How a musical collective returned from COVID to the beloved Spell Songs project

Rachel Newton takes wing

I am fortunate to be one of the musicians involved in Spell Songs, a musical companion piece to both The Lost Words and The Lost Spells by acclaimed author Robert Macfarlane and award-winning illustrator and author Jackie Morris.

There have been some truly magical moments since the project began back in 2018. When we gathered to make our first album, I remember watching as Jackie created the first of the beautiful paintings that went on to capture the essence of each musician, each of us painted as a bird with our musical instrument. The first was an egret perched on a harp, my electroharp to be precise, which Jackie took to her room to work on and make sure she got the details exactly right. I have the print version hanging in my front room and it’s a special reminder of that time.

In the spring of 2021, after much rescheduling and careful testing, the Spell Songs group finally gathered together again at Greta Hall, where we first met back in 2018, to make a second album. As musicians used to a busy life of music making until it all stopped in March 2020, it was our first opportunity to sing and create with others in the same space in what seemed like a very long time.

It’s not easy to put into words how it felt making music with others again after lockdown, but I’m going to give it a go. The Spell Songs project has always been a very emotional one in many ways. And as those who know me will tell you, I can be a person who doesn’t do well in hiding my emotions. In a recent Spell Songs interview, Karine described me accurately as the ‘band crier’. There’s something about the intensity of our short time together making the music, the speed at which everything comes together, the beauty of Jackie and Rob’s work and what it means to so many who have come across it, that really gets under my skin. That, and the generosity and enthusiasm of everyone involved. It’s an honour to be a part of it.

I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a certain degree of trepidation in coming back together to make the second album. At the beginning of every collaborative project, I find I’ll wonder if the group will be able to achieve that intensive creativity that’s required to pull together a meaningful body of work so quickly. With Spell Songs, even though we’d done it before and the group is so carefully curated to work well together, there was still that seed of doubt that we’d manage it again, or be able to live up to expectations and the warmth we received in the feedback from our first release. There were also a few Covid-related nerves as we began to gather outside Greta Hall on the first day, each waiting for the result of our lateral flow tests before we could enter the house and get started. But that all dissipated as soon as the first notes were played and the music began to flow again.

At the end of that week, after many new songs were made as well as old ones sung around the table late into the night, we cast our minds back to the first album again in preparation for our live-streamed performance at the Natural History Museum. To go from being at home for months to a week of writing new music, then back to rehearsing and performing our first album was exhausting and wonderful at the same time. I even had a tyre burst on the M6 on the way to London to add to the drama!

A month later and we were at Real World Studios recording our second album Let the Light In. We felt more like a band this time around. We, and our brilliant producer Andy Bell, had got to know each other better and that meant we were able to make something truly special and unique together. I’m so excited for these songs to be out in the world. Soon, all being well and with huge thanks to the Spell Songs team behind the scenes, we will get to share our new songs with others in the same space on our upcoming tour. I can’t wait. I just hope I can hold back the inevitable tears long enough to be able to sing them!

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