To win the Best Duo category at the 2015 BBC Folk Awards is quite an achievement at any stage of an artists' career. But just two years prior to this accolade Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker were virtually unknown on the folk scene (or any other, for that matter). So their success is quite remarkable.
Josienne and Ben had been performing to one woman and a disinterested dog at London acoustic nights since 2009. Following the release of their first two albums One Light Is Gone and The Seas Are Deep, interest began to grow in discerning pockets of the blogging community. But it was musician and producer Jim Moray who persuaded them of a far bigger audience who'd appreciate their classically instilled traditional songs and self-penned lovelorn ballads. Although Josienne was initially sceptical that the folk and roots scene would welcome outsiders, the reviews, end-of-year polls and nominations that greeted their 2013 album Fire & Fortune would prove her gratifyingly wrong.
But it's their latest album that has drawn the most attention and plaudits – earning five star reviews across the board. Entirely self-financed, self-produced, self-arranged and released on the Folk Room label they co-run, 2015's Nothing Can Bring Back The Hour was a hugely ambitious, uncompromised realisation of everything Josienne and Ben had planned when they met six years ago.
While much of their music is characterised by lush chamber ensemble orchestrations, what truly sets them apart is the combination of Josienne's exquisitely nuanced, emotionally affecting voice and Ben's intricately expressive, adroit guitar technique. They cite Sandy Denny, June Tabor, Nic Jones and Pierre Bensusan as respective influences but theirs is a captivating sound that's all their own.
Although Ben Walker (who grew up in Worcestershire) studied classical guitar during childhood, but opted for a maths degree, and Josienne Clarke (from West Sussex) is a classical music degree dropout, both are keen to stress that they're “bog standard comprehensive school kids” who didn't benefit from a conservatoire education. The elegance and sophistication of their music comes entirely from their own discipline, rigour and craft. To emphasise the point, Josienne has been known to quip: “We're not posh, just pretentious!”
This self-deprecating humour is key to their much-loved live shows. Given Josienne's often devastatingly sad and poetic lyrics, and the frequently death and doom-laden nature of the old songs they interpret, she feels it's only fair to lighten the mood. Otherwise they'd need to tour with a member of The Samaritans on hand for post-gig counselling. The misery, mirth and sheer beauty of their performances has taken them to such auspicious stages as Cambridge Folk Festival, Bristol's Colston Hall and London's Purcell Rooms. A far cry from the pub backrooms where they began.
After their ovation-stirring rendition of The Banks of The Sweet Primroses at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards this year, 6 Music DJ Cerys Matthews fell in love with the music of Josienne and Ben and invited them to appear in the National Theatre's production of Our Country's Good. The play, which runs from August to October at the Olivier will also feature two of Josienne and Ben's original compositions.
The way this duo inhabit songs that are centuries old, making them personal and present again, and their gift for pricking the heart with tales of everyday love and loss makes the music of Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker a rare and precious thing.to top
“a truly polished and elegant album ensuring that a hush falls over an attentive and absorbed audience... A triumph of an album”
“so damn good”
“sweet vocals combining exquisitely with…crisply delivered guitar”
“a thing of great beauty”
“something rather special”
“‘Fire & Fortune’ shouts classic album with every nuance and note”
“a true folk jewel”
“Beautiful and simple.”
“A gorgeous compilation”
“the green shoots growing from the very top of the English folk family tree”
“This intriguing record is definitely more than the sum of its already considerably intriguing parts”
“A major album, from major players, with a high score. Because it’s worth it.”
“Josienne and Ben are going to be big... finely crafted with clever lyrics... a real grower”
“an album that repays attentive listening”
“...poignant and strangely beautiful.....with it's restrained power and grace”
“This is an album to play in your own time to truly appreciate”
“a remarkable album”
“‘Fire & Fortune’ is a modern-day descendant of several milestones in the British folk music. That it belongs to the genre's best albums of recent years, I have no reason whatsoever to deny”
“this album is definitely a must”
“in Fire & Fortune we have an album that deserves to open another new world to music fans”
“no ordinary folk album”
“Josienne's songs are traditional and sound like they could be from the sixties or seventies, or long, long before - which really means they are classic and absolutely means you should listen to them. Josienne's voice, which is mesmerising live, is similarly hypnotic on this album, it's full of texture and emotion but never falters and never sounds frail.”
For Folk's Sake on One Light is Gone (2010)
“This EP brims with the confidence of a duo who are building on their well deserved critical acclaim that has followed them since they released their 2010 debut 'One Light is Gone'. Whilst their last album The Seas Are Deep featured some great favourite folk songs from the likes Silver Dagger and My Donal this EP feels like they are tapping another seam in their musical inventory that demonstrates the breadth of their talents more than ever before.”
Folk Radio UK on Homemade Heartache EP (2012)
“Ben and Josienne are a delicate, winding and unwinding proposition that requires close attention... She has this voice that's like a precision tool for making golden, ringing shapes in the air ... It's as if they pull in all the energy in the room, concentrate it in some kind of musical alchemy and then spin it into shimmering cathedrals of sound.”
Emma Hartley's Glamour Cave gig review at The Slaughtered Lamb
“... quality emotional storytelling with multi-layered vocals and a well-judged accompaniment from guitar and percussion. As a well balanced duo with a subtle approach to their music, Clarke and Walker have produced an elegant and engaging album.”
Bright Young Folk on The Seas Are Deep (2011)
“A remarkable debut album, alive and accomplished, one that draws on a musical heritage and adds a new chapter to the canon.”
FATEA Magazine on One Light Is Gone
“You can tell from her own songs that Sandy and to a lesser extent Annie Briggs have guided her style and performance; you can also tell that she left plenty of room for herself in those songs too. In Ben Walker, she has an excellent musical partner. His playing is so very very subtle. He delivers on song after song, supporting Josienne's lead by lending his strength, it leads to a sound that is the sweetness below the bitterness of the subject matter within the songs.”
FATEA Magazine - live gig review
“A single candle is relit on the British folk front... a stunning debut ripe with promise and enchanting in its impassioned delivery.”
“One Light Is Gone more than holds its own among other British folk records and deserves to attract due recognition”
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