Central And Remote: Hidden Highways
Interview with Hidden Highways.
He came from the sunset
He came from the sea
He came from my sorrow
And can only love me
—‘Come Wander With Me’ (written by Jeff Alexander)
Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry
Hidden Highways is the collaboration between two gifted Irish songwriters, Carol Anne McGowan and Tim V. Smyth. Having started to work together in late 2010, last year saw the release of their debut, self-titled E.P. The four songs are utterly beautiful, encompassing intimate folk and sparse country music. Hidden Highways exude a magical force that can’t help but stop you in your tracks. For me, I feel listening to their songs akin to hearing Ryan Adams’ debut solo record ‘Heartbreaker’ or the music of Gillian Welch for the very first time. A hidden dimension is tapped into here; where haunting harmonies soothe your soul and poetic lyrics transport you to an unknown ether.
‘Come Wander With Me’ is a song Hidden Highways re-interpret beautifully on the E.P. I first heard this haunting song several years ago on a mixtape compiled by the French band Air. As part of the Late Night Tales series, Air were chosen to compile their own compilation of late night ambient sounds for the moonlight hours. The eclectic mix of songs were sequenced immaculately and Jeff Alexander’s ‘Come Wander With Me’ was track seven, in between Scott Walker’s ‘The Old Man’s Back Again’ and ‘Metal Heart’ by Cat Power. This tragic love song is wonderfully re-imagined by McGowan and Smyth. The voice of actress Bonnie Beecher on the original version is the song’s spark and similarly, Carol Anne’s vocals here are sublime. Dream-like guitar notes and delicate piano chords drift beneath the ethereal vocals and harmonies. The fact that something new is discovered in this cover version of ‘Come Wander With Me’ is a testament to the masterful artistry of Hidden Highways.
The opener ‘In Defence Of Magpies’ is a meditative folk hymn containing a heavenly blend of harmonies from McGowan and Smyth. A song that shares the timeless feel and spirit of Gillian Welch and the bare, open lyrics echoes the great Johnny Cash. I feel pain, love, life and death all at once. The second track is ‘Blues Run The Game’, which is a tender country blues with a wonderful inter-change of vocals reminiscent of Nancy & Lee. The tradition of folk music lies at the heart of Hidden Highways but importantly, they make it their own. As is often said of folk songs – they seem to come from the ground – they are of no fixed time and place. Come wander with Hidden Highways and one feels this magical sense of endless exploration and wonder.
‘Burnt Ships’ is the closing song of the debut E.P. and my personal favourite. A crescendo of slide steel guitar notes and glorious harmonies brings the journey to a fitting close. The instrumentation is pristine. The heartfelt harmonies take you to new horizons, recalling Harry Dean Stanton’s lone figure carved out of the desolate desert in Wim Wenders’ ‘Paris Texas’. The cinematic close of slide guitar conjures up the sound of vintage Giant Sand and Gram Parsons. A sacred dimension of divine Americana is arrived upon here. I am excited to hear more songs from this incredible act. A debut album is due to be released later in 2013, on the Limerick-based Out On A Limb Record label. Undoubtedly, the forthcoming Hidden Highways release is one to truly savor.
From the sun-warmed lowland
Each night that betides
To the huts of the snowland
A horseman rides
‘Burnt Ships’ (written by Henrik Ibsen)
Interview with Hidden Highways.
Tell me please about the formation of Hidden Highways and how you both met?
Tim V. Smyth: We recorded a song together about two years ago and got it into our heads to do an album. However, when we got down to doing it we weren’t happy with how it turned out. Around about then we both got involved in a country/folk recording session called “The Sunday School Sessions” and it was about then that Hidden Highways really started to take shape and we started recording again and are two thirds of the way there now.
Your debut self-titled EP is really stunning. The four songs are intimate folk and dark country music that casts a powerful spell on you. Tell me please about these songs and the inspiration behind them.
TVS: “In Defence of Magpies” had been knocking around a while but never really found its feet, so to say, til now. I dunno what to say about it…. Magpies are much maligned! It’s about understanding that even though everyone’s not the same as you, or goes about things the same way, we all want the same things…family, friendship, love, life and so on. Like most situations there’s a more succinct Shakespearean quote -but I can’t think of it now! As for the covers – Carol Anne chose “Blues Run the Game” and I chose “Come Wander” – I really couldn’t think of anyone who’d do it better.
Carol Anne: “Burnt Ships” is actually a reworking of a poem of the same title by Norwegian poet and playwright Henrik Ibsen. I was researching old poems with the intention of reworking them into songs. I liked the dark imagery in the poem so I took a line and created a chorus and melody around it. I guess all the songs have quite dark themes behind them.
Discuss please your love of harmony and melody. Listening to Hidden Highways brings you back in time, with the duets of Nancy and Lee, Sandy Denny and Dave Cousins, and Gillian Welch among so many others.
CA: I’m a bit obsessed with harmonies and vocal layering. I love the soundscapes you can create with just voice alone. We’re both into stripped back old time country and folk music. We try not to overly adorn the songs with instrumentation or studio effects and we try to keep the two voices the main component in the songs. We tend to track live as often as we can, so that a certain warmth doesn’t get lost in the process.
TVS: Yeah I’m big into Nancy and Lee and we are both big Gillian Welch fans so it’s funny you should mention those in particular. But I also love old Scott Walker stuff, Harry Nilsson and Elliott Smith. I learned a lot listening to Elliott Smith in particular-he didn’t (for the most part) have a big string section behind him and managed to make all those odd chord suspensions and key changes on a beat up old Yamaha. I came late to music so I’ve a lot of catching up to do!
My favourite song is ‘Burnt Ships’. The heavenly blend of slide guitar and harmonies is for me, the transcendent moment of the E.P. Will these songs be on your forthcoming debut album? Please tell me about this soon-to-be-released debut album?
CA: We’re not sure whether we’ll carry some songs over from the EP to the album yet but the album will contain at least 8-10 new songs. We are in the studio at the moment and hope to have the album completed by late Spring 2013, to be released on Limerick based label Out On A Limb Records. The album will have a little bit more instrumentation but still in keeping with the sparse atmosphere of the EP.
‘Come Wander With Me’ is a really mesmerizing cover version. It fits very nicely between your own songs. What is it about this song that led you to interpret and rework it?
TVS: I found it on You Tube one day and my blood went cold. Thought it was perfect for Hidden Highways and Carol Anne to cover. It’s kinda scary and compelling like Twin Peaks; might unsettle you but you’re going to watch it right the way through.
CA: Bonnie Beecher recorded the song in 1964 for an episode of The Twilight Zone. Its such a beautiful and haunting song, reminiscent of the minimalist melancholic feel of “Bang, Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)”, of the same era. You cant beat a dark tragic love song.. I wasn’t sure if I could really lend anything new to it, but I think it fitted in well as part of this project.
Hidden Highways showcase great song-writing. Discuss please the songwriters that inspire you the most? Are there certain records that have had a major effect on you?
TVS: There’s so many! As regards records then I can narrow that down…. Neil Young’s “After The Goldrush”, Mercury Rev’s “Deserter Songs”, Mazzy Star’s “So Tonight That I May See”, Cowboy Junkies “Trinity Sessions”, Beck’s “Seachange”….
CA: As Tim mentioned we’re both big fans of Gillian Welch & David Rawlings. There’s a timeless quality to their songs and a darkly evocative mood to their songwriting. I couldn’t really name a favourite as there are so many beautiful moments on each of their records, particularly their newest one, “The Harrow & the Harvest”. I love a lot of film scores, old western instrumentals and songs. I’m a big fan of David Lynch and the way he uses music in his films. Twin Peaks soundtrack was the first music I ever bought and still has a strange unsettling hold over me.
Hidden Highways’ debut self-titled EP is out now on Out On A Limb Records.