A heavenly voice couched in spellbinding country & western ballads, with a devastating emotional delivery: Holly Macve is a fantastic addition to the Bella Union family, and her album Golden Eagle is one of the most remarkably assured debuts of this or any other year, especially given she’s though only 21 years old.
Despite her youth, Golden Eagle reveals she’s experienced enough strife to last a lifetime: parental splits, heartbreak, early career pitfalls…. Born in Galway in western Ireland, Macve and her sister were whisked away “in the night” by her mother from their errant father, to live with her grandparents in Yorkshire. Once in their own house, near the town of Holmfirth, Holly quickly responded to music: “My Grandad was a classical composer, and my mum sang, and she said I was singing before I was talking,” she recalls. Her mother’s record collection – lots of old blues and Bob Dylan – shaped Holly’s impressionable mind, before she herself discovered the likes of Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash and Gillian Welch.
“Words are my main love,” she declares. “I love songs that tell stories and take you somewhere else. I’ve always been drawn to that old country sound with it’s simple and memorable melodies. I enjoy music that feels timeless, that you don’t know quite when it was recorded.”
On Golden Eagle, roses wilt, fires die out, skies darken and love, ‘was a mystery that I’d been known to doubt / A puzzle that no one could ever figure out.’ Tracks like ‘White Bridge’, ‘Timbuktu’ and ‘Sycamore Tree’ all refer to a wish to return to a state of innocence.
“For some reason, I didn’t want to grow up. I was fearful of responsibilities and change,” she says. “I was scared of death, because I was always aware that the older I got, the less time I had. Childhood was good times, easy times.” The passing of her beloved grandad, in 2015, was her first experience of death, inspiring the album’s title track: ‘fly away, golden eagle, before you feel the pain / There’s a sky waiting for you, so let your feet escape the chain.”
“Songwriting is like therapy for me, it’s a way of turning a bad situation in to something positive”, she states.
At the age of 18 Holly moved down south. She worked in a café, while singing on open mic nights. Bella Union boss Simon Raymonde was a regular customer at the café, and had just set up his studio in the basement when he caught wind of this astonishing young talent, with her vocals notes of Welch, Patsy Cline and Paula Frazer (Tarnation), and the timeless melodies, altogether evoking the Appalachian Mountains and the Wyoming prairie rather than the Brighton seafront.
Holly has always been most interested in her own songwriting, despite the efforts of her first music publishers. “They wanted me to co write, but writing has always been a personal and solitary thing for me. I didn’t want to be moulded into anything I wasn’t, I wanted my music to be honest.”
Holly subsequently fled back to Yorkshire after a lost love and sense of direction, and wrote the songs that became Golden Eagle. “I was depressed, lost and lonely, in a dark place,” she recalls. “So the songs are a bit fatalistic.”
Hiding away in Yorkshire, “isolated, surrounded by countryside”, her imagination took flight. “All Of Its Glory” evokes her great-grandad, serving in WWI, writing impassioned letters (which the family still own, bound in a book) to his wife at home. Other songs describe ‘blood red fields’ and ‘burning skies’, and ‘a man standing by the river bank / His eyes were blue and his hair was jet black….’
“I’m fascinated and drawn to that kind of romantic imagery,” she says. ‘I went to America for the first time last year, to play South By Southwest in Texas, and I really felt a connection with the landscapes over there’.
The bulk of Golden Eagle was recorded in Newcastle at the home studio of producer Paul Gregory (of Bella Union label-mates Lanterns On The Lake), with extra recording in Brighton and London. Throughout, Golden Eagle remains beautifully spare and delicate, putting Holly’s goosebump-raising voice centre stage, beautifully controlled yet riven with feeling.
On stage, she’s a magnetic presence; it’s not just voice and songs. Audiences who caught her supporting the likes of John Grant, Villagers and Benjamin Clementine – incredible company to keep at this early stage – were doubtless stopped in their tracks. Golden Eagle is surely going to have the same effect. Time to fly.
“Exquisite… Her voice echoes the Appalachian-tinged old-timers Patsy Cline and Kitty Wells, all framed by the pared-down boniness of Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash and Gillian Welch.” MOJO – 4 Stars ****