Whenever he’s in Deià, American musician Jay Ansill slots comfortably into the village music scene, playing and jamming everywhere from the Resi to S’Hortet. I’ve been listening to Fragile Gifts, Jay’s new album with Anne Hills constantly since he sent it to me a few days ago. I have to say that the music’s ethereal, haunting quality has bewitched me somewhat.
I was curious to find out from Jay how Fragile Gifts came about and he was kind enough to tell me the story.
Anne Hills, who’s been one of the leading figures in the American folk music scene since the 1980s, and I have been discussing making this album for years. I worked with her on her Angle of the Light and she was an integral part of my CD A Lost World, a collection of settings of Robert Graves’s poetry. A couple of songs from each of those albums were newly arranged for Fragile Gifts. As far as the musicians are concerned, the core group is a string quartet I’ve worked with for years and friends from the local music scene, Barcelona and Los Angeles. Recording was pretty complicated, as you might imagine. We recorded a full orchestra one by one at my house. My neighbours were probably somewhat confused.
Could you describe the songs in a little more detail?
There wasn’t a conscious concept but the CD does follow a general arc describing the experience of Love from youth through old age and death. The CD begins with a new arrangement of what is probably Anne’s best known song “Follow That Road”, which describes the nicest way to get to her house in each season. So we’re introduced to the idea of the cycle of the year turning.
The song “Rowan” was written to mark the birth of a child of dear friends of mine. There are settings of Graves’s “Allie”, “Counting the Beats”, “One Hard Look”, and “Under The Olives”, as well as Yeats’s “When You Are Old”. We also include a song called “The Scarecrow”, which was written by Lal and Mike Waterson. This is a mysterious and disturbing song that always struck me as connected to The White Goddess.
“Lover’s Knot” is from a theatre production we worked on in ’94, Brian Friel’s Lovers. Here we present it with a full orchestra. “Winter Roses”, also scored for orchestra, is about staying in love as age takes over. “Fragile Gift” is a sonnet that Anne wrote for the death of a friend’s mother that I set to music. The only instrumental is a piece I wrote called “Cap Vespra a Deià”, a suite of traditional melodies from the island that I put together and arranged for a combination of a string quartet and woodwind quintet.
Why is Robert Graves so important to you? You seem to have read a lot of his work and been inspired.
Graves’s work appeals to a number of my sensibilities. I particularly appreciated that, since he grew up steeped in traditional British and Irish folk songs, a lot of his poems are informed by this. I liked the “Celtic-ness” but also the way he combined this with an earthiness that I associate with Graves more than other poets in that world. I also found, as I was reading more and more of his work, I was using it as a way in to a wide variety of things. Graves got me interested in Ancient Rome, in The First World War, in the Mabinogion, and so on and on.
What’s your take on The White Goddess?
When I first ordered my harp in 1980, I met Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band, who was, and still is, my favourite musician. (It was through Robin’s music that I got interested in playing the harp in the first place.) I told Robin that I was taking up the harp and he said that, if I was to be a harper, I had to read The White Goddess. So I ordered a copy the next day. Over the next few months I slogged my way through about sixty pages and had no clue what I was reading!
I was determined though, so I did my homework, I read up on my Celtic Mythology, the Mabinogion and all that good stuff and eventually worked my way through it with some sense of the basic idea.
But ultimately I think it’s a really personal book. He was working out some personal issue by seeking historical evidence and interpreting things to fill his needs. I know that much of it is laughed off by scholars, but I think they’re missing the larger point. I mean, what is mythology if not a way to answer your questions?
How does Deià itself inspire you and why do you think the village is a special place?
That’s a big subject! On a purely personal and kind of technical level, Deià is a place where I exist without the baggage I have where I live. When I first started playing music in front of people, I was a teenager and probably not really ready for it. And I developed a reputation for being “the young guy” which was a blessing and a curse. But in Deià, people only know me as who I am. This is very freeing to me. Add to that a community of people who are all about creativity and artistic expression and I felt very much at home.
And I feel very lucky to have been so naturally accepted and included by the people in Deia, it definitely makes me feel like I must be doing something right. And it inspires me to try to live up to the honour. Plus it’s just so beautiful.
Can you tell me more about the poem translated from Mallorquin into English? What’s the provenance?
“Epitalami” is a poem by Antoni Maria Alcover, a priest and writer born in Manacor in the mid-19th century. It’s sort of a wedding prayer. Joan Bibiloni, who many people in Deià will know, set it to music. I learned the song from the singer Maria del Mar Bonet, who recorded it on her CD Terra Secreta (Which has a setting I wrote of a Graves poem translated in Catalan) and I also got Joan Bibiloni’s CD Mà en es Cor with his own version of the song. The Bonet CD had an English translation, which Anne rewrote to fit the English. She did an amazing job!
What are you doing to support the album? Where can people buy the physical thing and a download?
That’s one of the issues with a record like this. It’s hard to perform many of the songs without a chamber orchestra. So we’ve been doing some of the songs with just me playing the harp. We’ve been hoping to put together a few performances with a group of players but it hasn’t been easy. The CD can be bought through my website and it can be downloaded through iTunes or CD Baby. We’re looking into ways to make it available in Mallorca.
When were you last in the village and when will you be back?
Summer of 2014. I actually came with Anne to play for the Robert Graves conference in Palma. We did a short set at Bellver Castle and a longer concert at Belmond La Residencia with a string quartet made up of musicians who live on the island. We’re hoping to try to do something in summer 2017.
What is your favourite time in the village – of year and of day?
I’ve only been in Deià in the late Spring and through the Summer, so I can’t really compare it to other seasons. My favourite time of day is the evening, when the Teix turns that otherworldly reddish colour before the moon sets.
Thanks Jay, let’s hope you won’t have to wait to long to experience your favourite time of Deià.