July 6, 2020 | by Danny Neill
Zara Phillips – Meditation and KitKats
Independent – Out Now
Zara Phillips has been quietly developing a music career for more than thirty years now, alongside pursuing many other creative and artistic endeavours. Her entry point musically was very much through the mainstream arena, working as a backing vocalist first for Bob Geldof as he launched a solo career before joining names like Matt Bianco, Nick Kamen and David Essex.
But it was surely her exposure to an artist like Dire Straits’ John Illsley that inspired Zara to make music of her own; she has readily admitted that she would lean on the likes of Geldof and Illsley to teach her chords on the guitar. Joining a band, she played gigs around her hometown of London before relocating to Los Angeles where, in 2005, she released her first album ‘When The Rain Stops’. Produced by Ted Perlman, this was a collaboration Zara would return to six years later for her second release, ‘You Me And Us’ (a title which contained a subtle clue towards her future).
Until now, Zara’s output as an author has arguably eclipsed her musical work. She is an acclaimed writer of books that dig deep into the personal debris of motherhood and adoption. She’s also won notable plaudits for her one-woman show ‘Beneath My Father’s Sky’ and has put herself forward within adoption/addiction workshops alongside adopted families and mental health professionals. But for all her ongoing projects and outlets, it is a safe bet that music is going to dominate her time and energies going forward. Indeed, many readers of Folk Radio will have already seen or heard Zara over the past 18 months even if they cannot quite place her.
Back in late 2018, I wrote about Richard Thompson’s tour in support of his album ‘13 Rivers‘. It was a troubled collection in places, Richard had referred to a “dark personal period” prior to its release. No further insight emerged at the time but as 2019 unfolded, an engaging and personable female harmony singer began to join Thompson on stage and word slowly filtered through that the pair were linked by more than just a musical connection. So, the dots in this little personal saga began to join to the point where today, particularly during lockdown, Richard has rarely been seen without Zara Phillips by his side. She has been a delightful foil to his studious demeanour too, coaxing out the lighter side of Thompson during lockdown home broadcasts with visual gags around haircuts and toilet rolls.
With an album title like ‘Mediation And KitKats’, it is obvious Zara Phillips is not going to take herself too seriously any time soon. In fact, the album cover depicts her sat cross-legged, buddha style, opened chocolate rappers raining down and a KitKat in each hand. The look on her face says yum! But don’t let the front cover mislead you about the contents within, this is an entirely self-penned record on which Phillips continues to mine inner thoughts and feelings as she does in the best of her literature. From the opening lines of ‘Perfect Stranger’, a pensive and lilting curtain-raiser, Zara is ploughing through the weeds and roughage of life. Here she ponders feelings of belonging, of “feeling like a perfect stranger in your oh so perfect world, pretending to be that girl”. David Mansfield accompanies the basic acoustic framework with wonderfully mournful violin, and so the tone is set for a classy set of traditional singer-songwriter fare.
There are enough shades of darkness and light to give the whole album a wide range of emotional clout. A title like ‘Heartache’ may suggest sadness, but this is, in fact, a rather breezy tune where lively mandolin and fiddle take the lead, and the percussion is uplifting. I really can’t go on without expressing my delight at the sound across this whole album, the musicianship is absolutely top drawer, and a quick glance at the credits shows the reason. ‘Meditation & Kitkats’ is produced and arranged by Richard Thompson and the backing band are essentially the same as his ’13 Rivers’ ensemble. Namely, Michael Jerome on percussion and Taras Prodaniuk on bass alongside Richard’s multifaceted string wizardry. He turns up prominently with backing vocals on the chorus of ‘Just Enough’ too, a sharp-edged piece about being thrown just enough scraps to keep a loose connection alive, you keep me hanging on with roots showing through perhaps. ‘Love Is The Wheel’ projects rays of hope around a sunny shuffle of a tune with typically lush acoustic guitar work, it should be noted that Thompson has really thrown his heart into this album. ‘This Me And You’ is a poised meditation on a relationship that has long passed a point of no return while ‘Gravity’ pushes and pulls with a rather heavy load. ‘I’m Not Ready To Fall Apart’, like many a classic closer on the producers own records, sounds like a reflection played out deep in the middle of the night, the acoustic guitar and lyrics echoing off the dark silent walls.
Rising high among the highlights is ‘The Waves’, a gorgeous tune which floats under an open sky of accordion and exquisitely weightless acoustic guitar. Elsewhere, the muted electric guitar on ‘Thank You’ hints at the ironic bite at the core of the lyric. Furthermore, the electric jangle of the intro on ‘You Won’t Catch Me’ throws a nod to Rubber Soul era Beatles. I mention all this merely to highlight what a deep musical palette is being worked from here. All these touches are manna to an enthusiast for melodic popular song writing like me, topped off with lyrics that reward a close examination thanks to their real-life content (at least that is how they sound). It’s not quite a laid bare confessional, but there’s certainly a lived-in quality to the detail. In many ways this could be seen as a companion piece to ’13 Rivers’; it’s an album that should find a home amongst any music collection belonging to lovers of rich, melodic, song composition.
Out now on all streaming platforms. Download via Amazon
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