KATY CARR: PROVIDENCE
by David Pratt 27 October, 2020
Katy Carr – Providence
Deluce Recordings – 30 October 2020
Unseasonal as it may be, Providence – Opatrznośc the latest release from Katy Carr delivers in much the same way as the very best advent calendar. As each new song unfolds, just as in opening each window, gifts of unimaginable quality and delight are exposed.
For nigh on a decade, the Nottingham born singer has embarked on a voyage to rediscover Poland, the land of her mother’s birth, with the specific personal quest of seeking to explore her own family’s inter-generational trauma, from both a British and Polish World War II perspective. This new album sees the third and final chapter in her Polish roots re-discovery trilogy, initiated with Paszport, a Folk Radio Album of the Month in April 2013, (read review here).
Initially inspired by a dream sequence that Katy remembered upon waking, Providence, her sixth studio album, explores themes around water, be it miracles on the River Vistula or Hampstead’s Ladies’ Pond, love and death, fighting for freedom, in addition to the age-old battle between good and evil. As Katy explains, she believes that the people she has met along the way on this journey have been linked through providence and that her experiences have been synchronised through fate.
The listener is also encouraged to suspend reality and let a fertile imagination kick-in, as one is asked to picture a post-war 1947 Hampstead scene where you are hosting a party for the elite thinkers, writers and military leaders of Britain and Poland throughout the ages. Thus George Orwell rubs shoulders with Edgar Rice Burroughs, and engages in discussion with Polish resistance fighter Witold Pilecki and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Czeslaw Milosz, against a background of the beginning of the imposition of Stalin’s Iron Curtain. Heady subject matter indeed, and all the better for it for those who like substance in their music.
In her notes, Katy further explains that ‘she learnt that at the heart of every story was a quest for inner enlightenment, freedom and peace’, and that “The ten songs on the album reflect the immense need the singer had for strong role model characters that could become her friends and family and demonstrate survival techniques through their own life histories, trials and experiences.’ This additional information/explanation both assists in the appreciation of what is being presented and informs, without removing the scope for interpretation on the audience’s part.
The power of opening track, Hero to Zero, is a tour-de-force, and a dramatic aural statement with which to open an album. The George Orwell 1984 influence, to this listener at least, is compelling, from the tormented opening notes of musical director Rupert Gillett’s cello to the ear-worm chorus in which Katy’s vocal delivery echoes that of Hazel O’Connor.
The only song on the release not written by Katy, Afterwards, follows. Written by Peter Hammill for Van Der Graaf Generator’s début 1969 album, The Aerosol Grey Machine, the interpretation presented here is exquisite. The windswept bleakness suggested by the original Norfolk-inspired setting, ‘The petals that were blooming are just paper in your hand’, no doubt resonates equally with similar geographical locations in Poland too, and reflects the dream that sees a little girl born into poverty in the Polish mountains who will eventually become her mother. The sparse musical accompaniment leaves ample space for Katy’s demonstrable vocal talent to shine through, and the track is a fascinating and inspired choice.
The single released from the album, The Miracle on the Vistula, (Cud nad Wisłą), cleverly meshes historical fact and legend. The title of the song derives from a decisive victory for Poland during the Polish – Soviet war of 1919 to 1921 and took place on the 15th for August 1920, which happens to also be the Feast Day of the Assumption of Mother Mary. History shows, however, that the victory was short-lived as, in September 1939, the Soviets invaded Poland and stole half of the land. The inspiration for this song came by a Veteran of the Polish Home Army telling Katy that during the Iron Curtain in Poland he wanted to commit suicide to get away from being forced to join the Communist party and the only thing that saved him from jumping in the Vistula River was a vision of the Mother Mary. With a dramatic narrative, the lyrics read as a true modern-day folk song.
As one might expect of an Ambassador of Polish history in Great Britain, her extensive knowledge of folklore extends to song, and the delightful Hej Sokoły, (Hey Falcons), a song popular among Polish soldiers fighting during the Polish-Soviet War mentioned above, tells the story of a Ukrainian girl who says goodbye to her betrothed, a Cossack, for the last time, against an up-tempo melody that exudes Eastern European vibes.
Reference to Queens, albeit of differing kinds, is made specifically in three songs on the album. In the first, Boadicea, the eponymous Queen Boudicca “Boadicea” of the Britons and Celtic Iceni tribe is celebrated in a lofty song, and whilst lyrics such as ‘I’m fighting for the land I love’ refer to Britain, they could equally apply to the people of Poland. Gloriana! Gloriana! Gloriana! is another truly epic offering, this time praising Queen Elizabeth I for the Armada Victory, before the dream sequence moves to The Ladies’ Pond, honouring the glorious institution which is The Hampstead Ladies’ Pond, the only all-female, wild swimming pond in Great Britain, proving a safe haven for women to bathe, swim and rejuvenate since 1926, and a further regal reference appears as Katy sings
Oh! I might be powerless on the ground
But in the water
I’m a beautiful Queen!
A Beautiful Song For You, a gentle, lilting song inspired by Oscar Wilde’s The Nightingale and the Rosecontrasts sharply in content with That Little Devil In You in which the dream reveals the grandfather, suffering from Auschwitz syndrome and inflicting immeasurable cruelty upon his family. Awaking from the sleep, the task is now to make sense of the dreams, and the final song, Freedom Song, a satisfyingly meandering song, offers hope and optimism,
I’ve got a feeling of freedom!
As I fly into the sun
The beautiful sun…
Katy’s vocal style is beguiling, in much the same glorious mould as, for example PJ Harvey, Kate Bush, Bjork and Amanda Palmer, it never fails to captivate. Added to this are her idiosyncratic song-writing skills, and high-class musical arrangements.
Providence – Opatrznośc is unique, bold, innovative and, in many respects, brave. It is a totally immersive listen for those willing to lend their ears and dedicate time to it.