If Little Wise’s last single, Under Water, placed the Melbourne songwriter as an “evocative songbird”, then her debut album sees her doing full justice to that description.
If her moniker is a play on her given name (‘Little Wise’ is derived from the Yiddish and Greek translations of Sophie Klein), it is also a sobriquet that plays out across her music. As a lyricist, Klein explores the workings of life and it’s cycles in a way that is both astute and naive; wise enough to know the questions but yet to find all the answers.
Silver Birch is the first full length release from Little Wise, one that melds together folk and roots with dusty roads and sleepy small town life.
Recorded in part in her former childhood home, just before it passed onto new owners, and against the backdrop of losing her mother to cancer, Silver Birch encompasses love and loss across life, family and relationships. Produced by Megan Bernard and Kalju Tonuma (Neil Finn, Crowded House, Hunters & Collectors), the rest was recorded at Woodstock Studios in Balaclava, VIC.
With artists like The Waifs (Ben Franz guests on the record) and Emmylou Harris forming the pillars of her musical education, or at least her musical awakening, the cornerstone idea for the record was “country songs delivered in a non-country style”.
Launching with the sunny Sometimes, cascading finger picking and rolling rhythms set the pace of Little Wise’s country leanings. Evoking dusty dirt tracks and the time to think, its a track that muses on the meanderings of life.
Edged with country rock guitars, and whispery vocals, this is about as pop as Little Wise gets, but it does welcome you with its warmth. Followed by single release Under Water, which slows to a sleepier pace and has more of a folk feel in its melodies. Klein’s vocals echo Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac in their soft layers.
Klein has cited Emmylou Harris as an insidious influence on her writing, and in her interpretation of country music Silver Birch is reminiscent of Harris’ collaborative album with Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant. Particularly evident on Then Again, matching country style motifs with classic drumming and an interplay between swampy pedal steel and smooth electric guitar.
As a whole, the album is sweetly emotive and unmistakably thoughtful. But title track Silver Birch sees Little Wise reach to a slightly more personal level. Low and swaying, lullaby lyrics tell a heartfelt story as Klein sings a letter to her mother.
Commemorative and delicately brave, Silver Birch hits an important aspect of country music that is often misplaced. Growing out of small town communities, it’s a genre that honours the significance of everyday life and loss.
A change of pace brought by Favourite Song bookends the emotion within the previous track, and moves onto one of the most interesting moments on the album. Featuring a dual vocal from Klein and Sal Kimber, also a Melbourne based singer-songwriter, it’s a brooding and emotionally charged track.
Leaning heavily on the slow drum beat, it touches more on lounge than sleepy small town. There is less of the country strumming and much more of a sultry rock feel in electric guitar and vocals reaching for lower registers.
Returning to country style musings on the lazing Precious, Klein conceived the idea for the song during a particularly hair-raising motorcycle rife in Vietnam. Likening life’s journey to the perils of travelling, and equally how precious that life is amongst all its dangers.
Travel forms a big part of Little Wise’s narrative; in the rolling pace of her songs, lyrically and also in her dreams of being a musician. Having first taken up a guitar aged thirteen, inspired by the life of the rover as painted by folk and roots songs, Klein looked forward to that day that she would travel through the country with just her music for company.
That very sentiment is also echoed in her sign off track, Stairs. A simple goodbye, both looking back over the road behind her and forward to the end of the track. Once more Klein picks up the thread of a good country story, the draw of a home for one bound to ramble. The song also seems to tie in the memory of Klein’s mother once again, the loss of her childhood home and the memories it holds.
Silver Birch is a seamless blending of styles and ideas, along with the appealing stories spun by Klein. As with all good country music, there is a deeply personal touch to the album, but without overwhelming you in emotion or affectation.
Little Wise has taken in hand the well established threads of folk and roots, and aussie country, but gently chivvied them forward to something that is her own. The album was released last week, with Little Wise heading out on tour the same day.
Following her dreams of travelling with her music, Little Wise will be playing shows down the East Coast and Tasmania throughout November and December. Tickets are right here.
Nov 17 – Petersham Bowling Club, Sydney
Nov 18 – Smith’s Alternative, Canberaa
Nov 19 – Commonground Festival, Victoria
Nov 24 – Bella Union, Melbourne
Nov 25 – Martians Cafe, Deans Marsh
Nov 27 – The Wheatsheaf, Adelaide
Dec 9 – BASEMENT DISCS, Melbourne
Dec 10 – Brookfield Shed, Margate
Jan 21 – Northcote Social Club Melbourne