See: Emma Houton – ‘Bow & Balance’: a Scots murder ballad reframed as soaring ambient folk

Emma Houton

EMMA HOUTON, the ambient-folk artist based in New York who draws on the traditional songs we’re all surrounded by and those of her Irish ancestry, has released the video for a second track to be taken from her forthcoming debut album, The Bath.

It’s her plaintive, bold reworking of the traditional murder ballad “Bow And Balance”, known otherwise as “The Twa Sisters”, a bleak and treacherous tale with Hibernian origins, seemingly first captured and recorded for posterity in Virginia in 1932 and since versioned by Pentangle, Bob Dylan, Clannad, Tom Waits, Okkervil River and Alasdair Roberts among a host of others.

But it’s the naked and defiant power that Emma brings to the dark tale that sets it apart. You can watch the lyric video for it below; she blends a churchy choral tradition with an unadorned and soaring reading, immersed in the tragedy of the tale.

Emma says: “It tells the story of two sisters who are in love with the same man. When he proposes to the youngest sister and she accepts, the oldest sister pushes her sister into the sea. A bystander nearly saves her, but the oldest sister gives him gold in exchange for pushing her sister back into the sea. The youngest sister drowns, the oldest sister is hung, and the miller is burned at the stake.”

Born to an Irish father and raised a Methodist, The Bath sees Emma intertwine her experiences of religion with her deep love for Irish folklore with haunting results.

The drowning central to the narrative of “Bow & Balance” is why she thought it particularly fitting for inclusion on the album, with its aqueous themes: purification and cleansing; baptism; drowning. The presence of the liquid of life comes from the central role it plays in Irish folklore and religion.  

The album has its roots in a hundred-page score intended for a choir of eight voices, written for Emma’s senior thesis recital. The pandemic scotched the recital, but spurred the young singer on to create it, eight voices and all, herself.

Emma says of the album: The Bath is an exploration of the voice: I play with how voices can blend and separate, and dive into the unique ways in which the human voice interacts with audio effects.

“The lyrical themes of drowning, baptism and purification are reflected in the album’s sonics through enveloping delays, cavernous reverb, and a general sense of being completely immersed in sound.”

Emma Houton’s The Bath will be released by Trapped Animal digitally and on limited cream and blue twist vinyl on May 21st; there’s also related merch. Place your order over at Emma’s Bandcamp page.

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