If a banjo could sing: the astounding voice of Liz Green
Halfway through her set the vocalist put down her guitar and donned a stylised, home-made bird’s head. Silence and stillness. Then she started to make odd little gestures, delicate twitchings which subtly suggested an avian interior monologue, maybe a crow communing with his secret sorrow. If a bird had hands, this is how it would use them. She then delivered, in her extraordinary voice, an a cappella version of the children’s murder ballad nursery rhyme ‘Who Killed Cock Robin?’ It’s an unearthly performance, compelling, absolutely convincing – if birds had words, this is what they would say…
Last week my friend Will and I arrived early at a small club in Exeter, Devon, and talked to the best singer in England. She has just issued her first full-length studio album, O Devotion!, an outstanding collection of anti-folk, played by a sympathetic band in invigoratingly varied time signatures and produced by Liam Watson, of The White Stripes fame. Liz Green was generously forthcoming about her singing, but determinedly untheoretical about the technical aspects of her astonishing vocal resources. Characteristically, she ascribes the improvement in her voice over the years not to a process of conscious refinement but rather to the passage of time and to a strict regime of smoking and drinking. She seemed modestly reluctant to concede that she has gained control since she started singing at the age of 21, but in reality her voice, always outstanding, has become richer in tone, rounder, and markedly more confident as time has gone by.
LG has a highly idiosyncratic way of speaking – phrases come in short bursts with a curious upward inflection; each word is separated from its neighbours by a little sonic no-man’s-land. The effect is singularly charming and a clue to the strange, staccato nature of her delivery – which, as she pointed out, is something she shares with one of her heroes, Blind Willie McTell.
In fact, Green has been compared with McTell – also with Karen Dalton and with the most original English folk singer of the 60s, Jake Thackray. You can see what is meant in all three cases, but what the comparisons really indicate is not a true likeness but, instead, the fact that, like these other singers, she is sui generis. What they have in common is their distinctiveness.
Green’s songs are strange messages from an alien and threatening, but enchanted world. They float earthward in little flurries of four or five notes, fragile and lovely, evanescent as snowflakes that melt on contact with her warm voice. Her compositions are melodic but elusive; their tunes leave no trace. Like Nick Drake’s songs, they are somehow bound to the instrument they are written for.
The lyrics are enigmatic in the extreme, and sometimes recall the long history of English whimsy; but the sombre hues of her strange landscapes and the sheer perverse nastiness of her imagination are as night to day when set against the twee blandness of much current English roots music or the tiresome kookiness of Devendra Banhart’s misguided disciples.
The songs suggest, but do not exactly depict, the weird old England of hangmen and rag-and-bone collectors. There are no modern references; if a cell phone made an appearance, it would be as a murder weapon. The words and stanza-structure sometimes suggest the ballad-form, but the narratives are always thwarted, the storylines ravelled into knots of opaque images and frustrated meanings. Pronouns slip their moorings, lines avert their eyes from what has gone before. Green herself said that her songs are composed of fragments, sometimes gestate over several years and often derive from a single visual image. Certainly this chimes with the experience of the listener. It is as though all her material is a single work in progress which has been cut up, then thrown in the air; finally, the bits are semi-randomly assigned to individual songs. The result is the creation of a world rather than a sequence of coherent stories. Motifs recur – birds, inappropriate couplings, unnamed protagonists in unspecified, extreme situations. But overall the songs do rather than mean, unfold a marvellous realm in which the Knoxville Girl serves as the muse for the rewriting of English folk in the language of literary modernism and the Theatre of the Absurd.
Whilst her songs are often splendid, and never less than interesting, it is her voice, a rare thing of great sweetness, which requires a thesaurus of superlatives. There are limitations – Green tends to stick to a medium register, rarely going higher than first octave C. As a result, she can very occasionally sound somewhat frail, though endearingly so, on her forays among the top notes. Moreover, she uses a somewhat narrow range, and so doesn’t go as low as, say, Nina Simone. Unusually for a woman with a deepish voice, she is still able to suggest vulnerability, confusion or dread – due to her formidable repertoire of vocal tricks. She uses vibrato to great effect, at the end of words, on longer notes and before breathing. Her phrasing is highly unorthodox – bar divisions being treated with magnificent indifference – and is used with great skill to suggest the emotional parabola of the song. She sings with an open throat and uses air with great adeptness to vividly colour her voice, which often simply becomes one of the instruments, another horn in her small band. The dynamics of her singing are exemplary; there is an unfailingly logical quietening of the voice at key moments in the lyric. Most of her songs are in a minor key, but, thanks to the energetic artistry of her readings, the total effect is never downbeat; rather, her sound-world resembles Peggy Seeger’s description of the characteristic quality of the banjo – ‘jaunty melancholy.’ The combination of minor chords and a lowish voice shouldn’t be uplifting, but somehow it is.
It’s hard to categorise Green’s voice in terms of genre. To American ears she will probably sound utterly English – her diction is clear in a very Anglo fashion and she sings with a North of England accent. However, her style is quite other than the often barren purity, the enervating mediocrity, of the over-familiar English folk manner. Just as, in the early 60s, Davey Graham, with his famous DADGAD tuning, found a way to incorporate American idioms into British guitar stylings, so in LG these islands have at last produced an artist equal to the task of reinventing folk singing for the twenty-first century.
In fact, Green sees herself as working in the blues tradition. Thankfully, she is not in the wretched, overpopulated line of cretinous blackface impostors, those dunderheaded copyists and champion point-missers epitomised by the likes of Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan – heritage apparatchiks parroting their 12-bar clichés. No, Green goes back to the deep, warm roots, to the ever-fruitful 30s lineage of country blues eccentrics, primitive gospellers and hillbilly pioneers. You can see why The Handsome Family chose her to support them on a tour of England – finally this country has a singer to match such contemporary remakers of Americana as Brett Sparks, Paul Burch and Gillian Welch.
Bob Dylan once wrote a song with the refrain, ‘No one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.’ He should listen to Liz Green.