Heartland Soul is Red Velvet’s long-awaited second album. Red Velvet is singer Deirdre Murphy, songwriter Les Ray and their band of talented multi-instrumentalists from very diverse musical backgrounds: Gene Thunderbolt from classical, blues and rock, Mike Udin from folk, pop and rock and rock drummer Colin R Smith.
The name Red Velvet encapsulates the band’s repertoire, with the red part represented by deeply committed political songs on the side of the dispossessed and the marginalised, such as Stranger Welcome and El Patrón y El Diablo, and the velvet part by songs of the heart steeped in life experience, such as You put a spell on me and Our love is music. The album is all about passionate performance, particularly in Deirdre’s heartfelt, bluesy vocals, and great musicianship from the whole band.
You’ll find this album truly genre-defying: while Carrickfergus and Aragon Mill are very much from the Irish folk tradition, revealing Deirdre’s Northern Irish roots, the mariachi/cantina sound of That’s what duos do and the up-tempo honky-tonk of Night Train to Memphis have a more country sensibility, and You put a spell on me strays into jazz/blues. Then there’s the soulful pop of Our love is music and the quasi ska of Stranger Welcome. But perhaps the band’s tour de force is El patrón y el diablo, which evolves from a brooding Latin mood into full-blown angry folk-rock. The oldest track on the album is the Cohenesque Private Prisons, which Les wrote back in 1985, when prison privatisation was in its embryonic stages in the USA. For Harbour, the final track on the album, written by Eleanor McEvoy, the band are joined by Deirdre’s fellow Northern Irelander Gene Thunderbolt on keyboards. Red Velvet would also like to thank Chris Fox, George Harper and Robin Gillan for their excellent musical input in the making of this album.
Following on from their album Heartland Soul released last spring, which received a very positive reaction from folk radio presenters and critics alike*, on 23rd February Red Velvet release their new EP Darkness & the Angels with a new line-up.
Singer Deirdre Murphy, songwriter Les Ray and drummer Colin R. Smith are joined by Gene Thunderbolt on keyboard/electric guitar and Mike Udin on bass, and the result is a bigger, more folk-rock/bluesy sound. Les and Deirdre work collaboratively and Deirdre has recently been writing her own material and also contributing to some joint songwriting projects. They believe that one of the many joys of working with their talented musicians is how their contributions and input lead to quality and exciting final versions of their songs, making them truly representative of the whole band.
Red Velvet was originally Deirdre and Les as a duo, and they chose the name because the red part stood for deeply committed political songs on the side of the dispossessed and the marginalised and the velvet part for songs of the heart steeped in life experience.
That has never been truer than in this EP, which tackles some tough issues in its five self-penned tracks. The EP’s title Darkness & the Angels hints at that struggle between the forces of negativity and positivity that we have to face so often in our daily lives. In 2011 Deirdre and her brother, actor Gerard Murphy, were both diagnosed with cancer within a couple of weeks of each other. Deirdre has been in remission for 7 years now, but Gerard sadly passed away in 2013.
Aware of the healing power of music, the band continued to perform through those sad and difficult times. But memories of those dark days never go away, and now Deirdre has put the experience into words in the chilling yet life-affirming song Ride of Darkness (“In the time of our long days of cancer/Of treatments, of drugs and that’s life/We laughed and we cried, we stood side by side, We gave it our best to survive”). The music ebbs and flows between the gentle and the dramatic, with a glimmer of hope emerging at the end (“Where despair becomes a light”).
2013 not only saw the loss of Deirdre’s brother, but also of Les’ mum, so both found themselves coming to grips with grief, but also the challenge of what to do with all the precious things that had belonged to their loved ones. From this came the co-written Self-Storage, in which Gene’s church organ sound and the hymn-like melody reference Les’ mum’s Methodist faith.
The other songs on the EP move from the personal to the political, always very present in Red Velvet’s music, but particularly now in these Trump-and-Brexit-blighted times. The Fourth Freedomis a full-blown heavy folk-rock song, with Colin and Mike’s driving drums and bass and guitar pyrotechnics from Gene. It’s an imagined story of a family wanting to cross an unnamed sea; while they are not allowed to travel, they watch how easily the goods they have helped manufacture make that move (The EU’s ‘four freedoms’ are those of movement across borders for goods, capital, services and labour, with people - as ever - last on the list). After the War harkens back to the optimism that was felt as WWII drew to a close, bringing the Labour Party to power in 1945 and leading to the creation of the NHS in 1948 - such optimism is badly needed now!
Finally,That’ll never happen in real life, which starts the EP, is a playful revisiting of three stories from fiction - a play, a film and a book (a free copy of the EP to the first person to guess which they are) - that could never happen in real life. ... or could they?
On 1st July Red Velvet are releasing their new EP If Hawks Were Doves, which is a follow-up and companion project to last year’s Darkness & the Angels. Like the previous EP, this one explores the positive and negative forces, both inside and outside us, that bear upon our lives.
In the case of Darkness & the Angels, these forces were the pain and despair of dealing with cancer (Ride of Darkness) and grief and loss (Self-Storage), the perils and injustices of migration (The Fourth Freedom), as well as - in a more positive vein - the optimism felt at the end of WWII (the recently re-released single After the War). Grown-up stuff then, songs written based on Deirdre and Les’ own life experiences.
If Hawks Were Doves
It’s fitting that After the War was re-released before the issue of this new EP, as it’s theme of optimism and moving towards the light is taken up in a number of the songs here. The lead track, The Last Thing We Need Is Another Love Song, is - of course - a love song, written by Les, ironically suggesting that no more love songs are needed when there’s so much else that’s important to write about, yet concluding by saying “without love we may just survive, but this living game isn’t worth the candle, only when we love are we truly alive”. Listen out for Gene’s two fine Knopfler-esque guitar solos, Deirdre’s incredible vocal performance, drawing every drop of meaning from the words, and the delightful harmonies towards the end of the song. The band have released a video of the song to coincide with the EP release. See the YouTube video here:
Imposter is co-written by Deirdre and Les, referencing imposter syndrome, which they have both had to live with, as indeed have many of us, referring to it - true to the “Darkness & the Angels” theme - as a “devil who sits on my shoulder”. But the song resolves optimistically as the demon is beaten into submission. Listen out for the first ever “Red Velvet rap” by Les and Deirdre and a great keyboard solo by Gene.
This EP is the first to include songs written by another band member, Mike Udin. Getting Too Serious takes us away from the pressures of city living to the redemption offered by a trip to the coast. If the pressure gets too much we can press ‘pause’ and start again “I guess this’ll be my millionth brand new start”.By letting go of the ‘if onlys’ of regret, we can embrace the healing power of hope. Deirdre’s powerful vocals reflect the strength of redemption, Colin and Mike drive the song’s rhythm,and Gene’s honky-tonk piano and Les’s skipping banjo help us on the journey.
Still Believe in Love is about overcoming the hurt of a broken heart and getting back up, out there and still looking for love. It moves from the cynical defensiveness of “love’s just a heart getting ready to break”to opening up your heart, knowing that to give love you have to risk being hurt.
Sad Songs and Wine, like The Last Thing We Need..., is about writing songs, which is unsurprisingly a favourite topic of songwriters, Les included. It’s darker than the other song, however, bemoaning the evils of the world, which prompt the writer to withdraw into the company of the aforementioned sad songs and wine: “the songs let me forget, and the wine dulls the regret”. A big shout out here for the band’s sound engineer and producer Sam Inglis, who was responsible for conceiving the great vocal arrangement.
The EP’s title track is If Hawks Were Doves, an uplifting song driven by Colin’s solid beat with a great ragtime-style piano arrangement by Gene. Its writer Les borrows hawks and doves from political usage to muse on how the world would be a better place if we were all more dove-like and less hawk-like.
Finally, a mention for our lovely friend and fellow musician Naomi Randall, who did the amazing artwork for both this and the previous EP.