With the imminent global dominance of Laura Marling, it’s easy to forget that there are others quietly doing folk equally well or better. Alela Diane is one such ‘new-folk songstress’ – as they are wont to be called – who garnered rave reviews for her debut album, ‘The Pirate’s Gospel’, and which earned her somewhat erroneous comparisons with fellow Portlander Joanne Newsom.
With 2009 follow-up ‘To Be Still’, Diane demonstrated a sophistication and originality that transcended the mediocre plagiarism of some sections of the folk scene and established her as an artist of some talent. Her third album, ‘Alela Diane and Wild Divine’, now safely in the bag, this unassuming, elfin performer has made it across the pond to perform at St Pancras Old Church to a congregation of rapt believers.
The venue is perfect for Diane as the echoing dimensions add to the other-worldliness that characterises her material. In ‘On The Wind’ the strummed mandolin refrain becomes even more elemental, and lyrics such as ‘I am a dream on the wind’ oddly convincing. The acoustics work equally well on more upbeat tracks like ‘Of Many Colours’, a good old country foot-tapper with a multi-layered voice section that fills the church like a hymn to old America.
Diane is savvy enough to play tracks from her back catalogue rather than brow-beating the audience with new material. On ‘White As Diamonds’ her familiar, controlled yodel reverberates and dances around the space in a mournful duet with an ethereal Celtic violin. ‘Tired Feet’ is prefaced by the story of how Diane, lost in London, once came upon a boat she’d seen before in a dream. Her affinity with churches is revealed as something spiritual rather than religious as she describes how they provided a respite from the overwhelming streets of the capital, throwing light on the lyrics, ‘Jesus, he keeps the street out.’
New song ‘Rose And Thorne’ could be a metaphor for Diane herself: all fragility and strength, bitterness and sweetness. It’s fairly strong, with plenty of trademark ‘woawoahs’ delivered in a voice at first deep and then soaring to the heavens. One of the touching things about Diane is how she performs with her family, including producer father Tom Menig, and husband, also called Tom. A song written by the latter is pleasant enough but doesn’t quite stand up to his wife’s brilliance. Although there’s a nice moment when he accompanies Diane on the piano for new single, ‘Desire.’
Like many of the most talented female artists currently on the folk scene (Hannah Peel, Serafina Steer, Joely Holland, Sea of Bees) Diane is mesmerising in an understated way. And the beauty is in the detail: the stunning clarity of the voice, the little flourishes and swirls at the end of a melodic line, the delicately layered accompaniments and the lyrics which come back to haunt you. Quietly quite brilliant.
Words: Theresa Heath