The first two sentences I wrote while listening to Three Strand Braid for the first time were: ‘The music feels like a warm soothing blanket.’ and ‘She is an amazing storyteller!’. Now that I’ve spent about a week listening to Gwendolyn Snowdon‘s first solo album, I know those lines sum up this whole album quite nicely. –‘Wait a minute.’ I hear you ask ‘Did I just hear you say storyteller?’ Yes. Although we are talking about a Folk album, I am sure I have been listening to a book filled with small stories. It has taken me overseas, it told me stories of lovers lost, It told me tales of ‘naughty girls’ and men young at heart, it gave me moments of laughter (you just have to listen to the lyrics in Little Duke Arthur’s Nurse) and a tear of melancholy. Twelve stories found a place on Three Strand Braid. Four English songs, four Dutch and four Irish. I will explain why that is after I introduce Gwendolyn a bit more.Gwendolyn Snowdon was born in 1980 in Haarlem, the Netherlands. At the age of 10 she started learning guitar, soon followed by vocal lessons. Nowadays she plays bouzouki, Indian harmonium, bodhran and guitar , but her main ‘instrument’ is her beautiful voice. The first band she joined was called The Dutch Lemmings, a Celtic Folk band, inspired by traditional Folk music ánd the energy of the, then quite new, fantasy folk scene. (you can see a photo of them playing at the Midwinter Fair in 2012 on the right) At the moment Gwendolyn is one of the main vocalists of the Celtic Folk band Finvarra. With this band being a bit less active and Gwendolyn having a bit more time on her hands, the idea grew to record a first solo album. One person to encourage her was Omnia frontman Steve ´Sic´ Evans-van Harten. Two and a half years ago Gwendolyn started collecting songs she loved for her album. With her father being Dutch and her mother being half English/half Irish, she had the idea to explore her own roots through music and that is how the concept for Three Strand Braid was born. Four English songs, four Dutch and four Irish, braided together to form one Folk CD. You can see that concept come back in the cover art of the album as well. A lovely painting made by Lisa Falzon. During the recording of Three Strand Braid she worked closely with sound engineer and producer David Groeneveld. He was also responsible for the recording and production of Finvarra’s first CD. Finvarra bandmates Patrick Broekema and Corné van Woerdekom were quite willing to help out with guitar, tin whistle, mandolin and violin parts. Other musical friends to help out were Kelten zonder Grenzen / Datura / Ball Noir‘s hurdy-gurdy player Lies Sommer, Perkelt‘s recorder player Paya Lehane, David’s brother Melchior Groeneveld on guitar and of course former The Dutch Lemmings member and long time ‘partner in crime’ Coca Román (now Kelten zonder Grenzen) on harp. The first song on Three Strand Braid really sets the mood. It is a beautiful interpretation of Sandy Denny´s The North Star Grassman and the Ravens. Sandy Denny is the late singer of the English 70’s folk band Fairport Convention. Gwendolyn tells in the informative booklet that she adores Sandy’s music. She thinks this is one of Sandy’s most beautiful songs. While researching The North Star Grassman and the Ravens on the internet I found a moving version of it on YouTube with Sandy Denny herself on piano. I don’t know íf Gwendolyn and David saw this specific performance, but if they did, it could well have been the starting point for their version. It starts really small with David accompanying Gwendolyn on piano. The warm blanket I mentioned at the start. But it builds up to a powerful ballad with violin, drums, strong backing vocals and of course Gwendolyn’s own voice in all it’s glory. A wonderful tribute to her musical hero. The second song is a Dutch one called Te Haarlem in den Houte. It’s a medieval song that tells the story of a boy who wants to spend the night with a ‘naughty girl’. Gwendolyn introduces her first guest soloist: Datura / Kelten zonder grenzen / Bal Noir‘s Lies Sommer on hurdy-gurdy. The start is definitely medieval. The clean classical vocals, the drum rhythm, the hurdy-gurdy sound of Lies are all things I know well from the Dutch medieval band Datura. But as the song builds up it suddenly goes Celtic. Especially the hurdy-gurdy solo pulls it right into the Celtic Folk sound. Nolwenn Leroy‘s version of Tri Martolod comes to my mind while listening. Indeed a braid of two strands in one song. Logically the third song then has to be Irish. Gwendolyn picked another musical hero of hers: Irish Folk singer Christy Moore. From his huge repertoire she choose I wish I was in England, an up-tempo ballad about a love found and lost again. Gwendolyn and David kept this as a pure Celtic Folk song driven by a catchy mandolin melody played by Finvarra’s Patrick Broekema. You just can not get it out of your head after you heard it. For a short moment the name Amy MacDonald flashes by when I hear the guitar intro, but that soon passes. Gwendolyn has her own singing style. A style that comes closest to Sandy Denny. With that addictive mandolin hook this is a fun, cheerful song with a melancholic story. Pure folk. Johnny Rau is a song by the Dutch band Törf, sung in local dialect. It’s followed by Little Duke Arthur’s Nurse. This traditional, originally recorded by English 50’s/60’s Folk singer Frankie Armstrong, tells about a young man who wanted to get ‘naughty’ with a nurse… and what then happened that night. A medieval story at it’s best.
By now it’s clear that Gwendolyn is a storyteller. The songs that she selected have two things in common. They had to have a beautiful composition… and a good story to tell. Needless to say that Gwendolyn is a good storyteller. And she has a wonderful partner in producer David Groeneveld. With his Pop music background he manages to give every song that something special it needs to get the story across. This particular song starts with a keyboard intro as Clannad or Enya could play it. You feel the mist flow over the English hillside, while young Johnny is travelling out on this fair May morning. But where Clannad would keep this mystical sound going, David pulls the sound right back to the pure singer/songwriter Folk that is the core of this album. Adding splashes of backing vocals left and right to keep the music fun and interesting. Lovely on the Water and Willow’s Song are two more beautiful ballads. Willow’s Song has a wonderful, almost creepy violin rhythm in there, that reminds me a wee bit of how Kate Bush uses it in her music. The original song is part of the soundtrack of the British horror movie the Wickerman. Gwendolyn and David, in their arrangement, managed to give the music an eerie, ghostly feel. Gwendolyn’s versatile voice easily flows into a eerie melody line as well. Her voice here is a mix of Gwendolyn herself (she just has her own style that is instantly recognisable) and Loreena McKennitt. My personal favourite on the album. One day before the official CD release, Gwendolyn was the guest in a CeltCast ‘Living room session‘. Hearing her talk about how important the friendships she made are to her, it was obvious there couldn’t be a first solo album without the help of Coca Román. And here she is on De Harpspeelster. Gwendolyn found this song in an old Dutch songbook and Coca composed a beautiful harp tune to accompany it. The harp melody sounds a wee bit Eastern, especially with the choir coming in at the end. Gwendolyn’s music really manages to trigger my imagination. Here it is making me drift into a Chinese landscape, on a hill with golden rice fields below me in the sunset as the music fades out. (Although it being a Dutch song, it should probably have been a Sawa in Indonesia.) But not for long. Clean guitar chords pull me right back to the bright green fields of Eire. Quiet Land of Erin is a song full of longing, the longing of the Irish people abroad for their homeland, the emerald green Isle of Erin. Gwendolyn is at her very best in this former CeltCast ‘Monthly Marker’. You feel the longing, the sadness and melancholy of this story. Again, David Groeneveld surrounds her voice with just the right sound. Clannad meets Gwendolyn Snowdon. Another firm favourite on the album. On The Next Market Day the last of Gwendolyn’s guests appear. Perkelt’s Paya Lehane plays the beautiful lead melody and solo on recorder, a type of flute. The song itself is a medieval love story. In most versions it ends with a marriage, but Gwendolyn leaves it with an open end. The arrangement itself reminds me of Omnia’s version of The Well. Especially with the solo that Paya composed. A beautiful magical tune that would capture any traveller’s heart. The Parting Glass is a fitting end to Three Strands Braid. Gwendolyn, with the help of her friends, has made a beautiful CD. Well rooted in the Celtic Folk traditions, but with the surprising Dutch songs, the Pop influences of David Groeneveld and the cool variation in song choice on the whole, it also is a really fresh album that keeps on giving. Having said that, what makes this CD really stand out in the crowd is Gwendolyn Snowdon herself. Her voice is amazing and she has the skills to use it to its full potential. Sometimes it´s crystal clear, like a modern Joan Baez, sometimes eerie and mystical like a Dutch Loreena McKennitt. But most of the time she uses that melodic Irish accent as a female Christy Moore. I know I compare Gwendolyn with some big names here, but I really feel her voice has that quality. But, the biggest compliment I can give Gwendolyn is that she sounds like herself! All the names mentioned in this review are pure references to help explain the music. In the end Three Strand Braid is a 100% pure Gwendolyn Snowdon. And I love it!!!! – Cliff Fotocredits: – Picture of ‘The Dutch Lemmings’ during the 2012 Midwinter Fair and – Pictures taken during the ‘Calling in Spring’ festival 2018 courtesy of Kees Stravers – Gwendolyn Snowdon promotional picture courtesy of Wen Versteeg Fotografie