Profile : Elfen
Released late in 2016, folk trio Elfen's debut album, March Glas, has two striking characteristics. First it has a sheer, mood altering joy and animation to it. Second, from its first notes the level of musicianship makes the album distinctive; the sound is quite unique.
Their virtuosity has not gone unmarked. For only the second time it has been achieved by a Welsh band (co-incidentally Calan won last year), Elfen were in this year's final of the Trophée de Musique Celtique Loïc Raison, at the annual Festival Interceltique de Lorient held in Brittany.
To explain their success March Glas offered the best place to start. A chance to talk on the phone with the band's fiddle player, Helina Rees - first about the origins of the group, then Lorient, and finally Elfen's plans for the future - completed the picture.
Elfen started as a duo in 2011, with Helina and Stacey Blythe coming to folk music from similar backgrounds. Helina started by mapping out their hinterlands, and how the duo became a trio:
"Stacey and I are both classically trained - she went to The Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff, and her main instrument then was the piano - but she is a proper multi-instrumentalist now! You give her any instrument and she can express herself so easily, musically. Stacey has also learnt Welsh from scratch - she comes from Birmingham; but her knowledge of the language now is fantastic. She can sing in three, four different languages. I am honoured to be part of her world!"
"I went to the Royal Academy in London for four years - it was a very classically focused education. I didn't discover folk music until I met my husband - he was a guitarist/singer in a folk band, which I joined - at first just for fun. It was quite an initiation - I had to learn to play on stage, to memorise all the music; not to have a music stand, to express myself without the sheet music in front of me, and to learn to improvise."
"We met Jordan four years ago. We were looking for a bass player, even though Stacey's accordion does cover some bass, we felt it would be really good to add a bass line to what we were doing for the mellow depth that it brings. We wanted a double bass - it adds the right, rootsy sound. Jordan was recommended to both of us - he came to a rehearsal, and we knew as soon as he started playing that we wanted him to join. He allowed gaps in the music, he did not try to fill all the space or be over clever with what he did - he just complimented the music perfectly. He is also classically trained - on the cello then the bass, he went to The Welsh College too."
With all this education you might think Elfen started with a very clear plan of where they were headed, but that is not the case:
"It all just happened organically - our musical stamp has just evolved over the years - it is just what the three of us have created; but you get to a stage, and I think we are there now, where people know after just a few bars that it is Elfen they are listening to."
That is certainly true.
The jazz influence manifest in Stacey's life-affirming scat singing, has evolved from past experience too:
"She is a vocal coach - but her previous band Fynnon did work in that area, they had a very jazz period - especially their second album. That is something she has brought to Elfen."
All this background was superbly integrated to produce March Glas.
Recorded live, the sense of three musicians in a room, lost in the flow of playing, has been perfectly captured by engineer Dylan Fowler. When Stacey sings - especially the scat sung sections of Bwlch Llanberis, March Glas and America, where her voice delivers the melody ecstatically and wordlessly - there is a rapture to it that probably needed them all sat close together in concentration to sustain fully.
There is only one track where anything was added to what was recorded first off, as Helina explained:
"Only A La Court has additional instrumentation added after we played it - percussion from Dylan Fowler himself, and Jordan plays the whistle over the live recording."
You are moments into the record when Helina's fiddle playing on the instrumental Adar Mân y Mynydd should be enough to melt your heart. The tempo and instrumentation varies (Jordan Williams playing whistle as well as fluid double bass, Stacey Blythe's harp plangent when replacing the flux and flow of her accordion) but the intensity remains the same for the whole set. The musical precision March Glas presents was hard won beforehand:
"Before we went into the studio we spent a long time rehearsing - and were very used to each other. We had done the hard graft. Only one track seemed new, the last one - the set of tunes Morgawr, Rîl Glan Llyn, y Fasged Wyau - had some lines written whilst we were in the studio. All the rest had been gigged, and so we felt very comfortable recording them live."
The album, and their reputation as performers, has already taken them to the prestigious Interceltic Festival in Lorient, which is a huge annual folk event held in Brittany every year. Lorient attracts three quarters of a million spectators, providing a platform for musicians, singers and dancers from all over the Celtic world. As Helina explained:
"We have been three times - the first as a duo, then with Jordan - and the third time this year, we got to the final of the Trophée de Musique Celtique Loïc Raison. It is a massive event, ten days long, all folk. Each country has a pavilion - Brittany, Eire, Scotland, Cornwall, The Isle of Man and Wales. We were playing in front of audiences of thousands .... it is overwhelming and the listeners are so supportive. They love new, fresh music. Next year it is in the same place as always, but Wales is acting as the host nation. It is hard not to be excited about that."
Aside from Elfen, all three musicians have other projects - which does limit their live dates, Stacey Blythe particularly is musically busy, she composes and performs across a range of genres and settings. Jordan has a number of other productive musical relationships, and Helina runs the Cambria String Quartet. She also does session and collaborative work on her own - and has notably (from this site's perspective at least) worked with both Climbing Trees and alt. country duo, The Minerals.
On Climbing Trees' Borders album, Helina had an important hand arranging the strings that subtly elevate and colour the songs, a connection that came about through meeting Climbing Trees' Colenso Jones socially. Her work with his side project, The Minerals, came first:
"I have known Colenso for years, we used to drink in his bar! I had done three Minerals tracks with him before he asked the quartet to record with Climbing Trees. For Borders, I ended up arranging the string parts with Matthew Frederick, elaborating on what was initially intended - it was really enjoyable. I didn't play on the tracks - I wanted to step back and work with Matthew & Colenso rather than play."
"With The Minerals, I contributed to one of their EP's and recently played on their Road to Ruin single, where I got to play in country/bluegrass style. I have often performed with singer/songwriter Ryland Teifi in the past, and co-produced an album of his. Ryland has a definite country influence in his music."
Helina has an intelligence, enthusiasm and affability that means talking to her throws up more tangents than you might be able to follow in one phone call - so, pulling all the parts of the conversation together like herding errant sheep into a pen, we ended by looking forward to Elfen's new album, due early next year:
"We have just all brought our ideas together, and the first rehearsal has just happened. It'll be a bit darker than the first one, edgier in the themes and steeped in Welsh history. For example the song The Little Collier is about a very young child working in a mine, and the words describe the hardship of it, and I have written a Welsh language song about Aberfan. For the first album we took a traditional melody and worked around that, or we took traditional words as starting point - this time there will be a lot more original compositions."
"It is darker, as we are more used to each other. We are all passionate people about similar things and are more fearless after one album about what we want to do. We felt we needed a different mood and more coherence between the songs' themes this time - although it's not a concept album!" (she broke up laughing at the thought of this)
Elfen's second album should be much anticipated, as the first, March Glas, was a flawlessly formed wonder. The trio bring passion, élan and vibrancy to Welsh folk music, which is very much where it belongs.