This is Part Five of a six-part series on South African Vocalists
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Out of the emotional wreckage of a failed six-year relationship has emerged a recording that critics are praising as one of the best folk albums ever to emerge from the southern tip of Africa.
Somewhat ruefully but with a slight smile, Laurie Levine acknowledged, “[Six Winters
] is a break-up album and I suppose it charts six years of something.”
That “something” that ended so traumatically provided fuel for songs with titles such as “So Long, Farewell,” “Hand to my Heart,” “Beautiful Loser” and the title track where she sings of her heart being “Six Winters Wide / Six Winters Deep.”
The record is a lush lament for a love gone wrong. Levine sings of homelessness; loss and hurt; sad and damaged people; betrayals; imprisonment; soaking rains; and a woman finding comfort in the dark, under covers, hiding from what would harm her.
“I was very fragile at the time of writing this album,” she said. “It was quite a painful process [although] I wouldn’t say the writing of it was difficult; it was more the recording of it because you’re trying to kind of move on and then you’re focusing on these songs that are just really indulging in your feelings….”
Perhaps surprisingly, given the record’s tortured roots, it’s a pleasure to listen to...for if Six Winters
has a color, it’s the sepia tone of old America. It’s disconsolate without complaining; mournful but not pathetic.
Levine uses her plaintive voice and banjo, acoustic guitar, cello, violin, piano, accordion, and layered harmonies to create a work that sounds far more Nashville than her native Johannesburg.
“I love using traditional folk instruments…so it’s really got kind of an Americana / bluegrass sort of feel,” she explained.
Add to that odd bursts of electronica and electric guitar that crackle and crumble in the background, giving some of her songs a claustrophobic quality.
Fear and foreboding
begins with one of its most memorable tracks, “Oh Brother.” Like much of the album, it’s dark and filled with fear and foreboding -- lyrically and instrumentally.
Levine sings, “I was broken / And when the light fell / It was dull” before sliding into a chorus of glorious defeat, “Ohhhhhhh, it’s a long way down / I’ve reached rock bottom / But I don’t know how to climb….”
And later, “I was cold / I couldn’t stand…. Oh my brother / I’m scared,” as a jarring electronic rhythm chatters malevolently behind her.
“This track, there was just something about it. There was a feeling, there was a mood, there was a pulse, and it’s actually slightly different to the rest of the album,” Levine told VOA. “It was quite a strong way to open the album and a strong statement.”
Despite a piano that tinkles gently in the background, sweet harmonies and a dazzling banjo solo, “Heaven’s Door” bristles with impending doom, enhanced by a computerized, echoing drumbeat. It suggests that the pearly gates won’t swing open to the person waiting at their threshold; paradise could very well have been lost…and lost forever.
“Heaven’s Door” was co-written with Lize Wiid, pianist, keyboardist and accordionist, and Levine’s closest musical collaborator in recent years.
“The song came from [Lize’s] piano melody and we really stayed true to that sound,” said the singer. “It does have some banjo and it does take a rootsy turn at some point, but I think it is quite different; I hadn’t ever written anything like that and I suppose it’s because it was based on someone else’s piano part.”
Even the most jaunty song on Six Winters
, the infectious “Not Gonna Cry,” with its near reggae rhythm and insistence that no matter what, tears are not going to fall, is clouded by pessimism: Throughout it, Levine is waiting for a sun that never arrives and “Waiting for the end / Of this night to come.”
Defiant its beat is, but victory still seems some way off in a distance that remains discordant.
Ring of fire
Arguably the biggest call Levine made with regard to her latest album is to cover a song by inimitable country music and Americana icon, Johnny Cash.
While preparing to record Six Winters
, she listened to the Man in Black’s biggest hit, “Ring of Fire.”
“I just thought, ‘Oh, I’d like to play with this song,’” she said.
Levine also felt that thematically the Cash song, which warns of the perils of love, belonged on her record.
But others weren’t so sure. She acknowledged, “Many people tried to dissuade me and they said, ‘Don’t do it!’”
They were concerned that the Cash track was too much of a classic for her to try. She said she knew it was risky, but she had faith in her interpretation of “Ring of Fire.”
While Cash’s original chugs and churns with a rockabilly beat, and he growls the words in his trademark deep voice, Levine’s version meanders at a snail’s pace and her high-pitched trills are stretched to the point where they almost stop.
She has recreated, rather than covered, the Cash staple.
Levine’s latest work is garnering high praise. South African alternative rock legend Piet Botha recently said in Rolling Stone
magazine that her music is “brilliant,” and her homeland’s music critics have labeled Six Winters
a resounding success. The album also won a South African Music Award, the highest accolade in the local music industry, for production.
Yet, Levine’s songs don’t get much airplay on national radio stations. The artist is willing to voice only a veiled criticism of them for this, saying she understands that the market for her brand of Americana-folk is “really small” in South Africa.
Botha, however, had no such reservations, describing radio stations as “an evil empire, with their formulas and playlists,” and adding, “Radio has become the enemy of music, and the Internet the savior of music.”
For salvation, or at least a wider and more appreciative embrace of her musical talents and exceptional songwriting, Levine is gazing at a vision that lies beyond her current borders.
is about to be released in the UK, and she and her band will soon travel to London to talk about a possible appearance next year at one of the world’s premier music events.
Levine explained, “I was seen by someone who’s quite influential in the UK in terms of…Glastonbury [Music Festival]. He introduced us to an agent and we’re going to be going over there at the end of November, beginning of December. We’re releasing the album [in England as well]. So this is going to be a real chance to play for a different market and spread the music elsewhere.”
Levine has constantly had to battle for artistic recognition. It’s a fight that has steeled her, forged her in the purifying fires of disappointments and false promises. So her eyes do not sparkle at the mention of a possible international breakthrough.
She laughed, “People kind of have this misconception that a musician goes to [London] and all of a sudden, boom; they’re playing at Shepherd’s Bush [Empire; top UK live music venue]! It doesn’t work like that,” she said.
Levine is deeply aware that the opportunity that seems to be shimmering on the horizon now in terms of exposure in Britain could very well prove to be a mirage. So there are no ostentatious gestures from her about the future, only reserved expressions of hope.
“I just want people there to enjoy what I’m doing,” she said. “South Africa’s certainly a place that I will always play; I love being here and I love playing here. But it would be really nice to make it viable to play in other places as well.”
Levine is too modest, or too careful, to suggest it, but what a start it would be to appear on a stage at Glastonbury Music Festival next June…
Watch Laurie Levine’s video for her song “Oh Brother” on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qjeHQjrtQ3Q