A Voice from the Void

Wed, 21st October 2020

Words: Kieran Sim

Header Photo: Lauren Forde

A Voice from the Void: The Comforting Loneliness of Anne Briggs

 

Kieran Sim explores the comforting loneliness of the enigmatic Anne Briggs on a ritual walk through Glasgow.

It was mid-April, and keen to make the most of my Government prescribed one-walk-a-day, I had left my flat with a vague intention to wander somewhere green-ish. I had grown sick of the endless procession of bookies and barbers on Duke Street. Cooped up in my flat and starved of nature, I glared longingly at my girlfriend’s basil plant. I hadn’t seen a tree in three days. I vowed to surround myself with living things for at least an hour. Somewhat ironically, the first place I could think of was the Necropolis. As became my ritual on these walks, I carefully selected an LP to listen to, front to back, that I had never heard before.

After some browsing and deliberation, I settled on the enigmatic Anne Briggs, downloading her self-titled 1971 LP. Not being particularly well versed in folk music, I knew very little of her, my knowledge was based on a cursory glance at her Wikipedia page and a quick look through her back catalogue on Spotify.

So far, so millennial. I noticed that her releases were sudden and sparse. One 1964 EP, a couple of compilations and two 1971 LPs, followed by a lone 1991 re-release. Three hours of music and four solo releases. Upon first impression, I thought for certain that she must be dead. This says a lot more about my own assumptions of what makes an artist successful than it does about Anne Briggs. As it turns out, she is alive and well. Not concerned with fame, fortune or any recognition whatsoever, she simply decided that she was finished making music. In 1973, Anne Briggs abruptly walked away from the industry and moved to Scotland, before enveloping her singing career in nearly 50 years of silence.

 

Her albums are considered by many to fall within the remit of the ‘lost classic’, as up until fairly recently, copies of her music have been hard to acquire and eye-wateringly expensive (a 1971 press of her self-titled LP is currently priced at upwards of £600 on eBay). Despite, and perhaps because of, her back catalogue’s relative scarcity, Briggs is held in fervent esteem by those ‘in the know’. The picture painted by the misty-eyed, bearded men that frequent online folk music forums is one of near mythic reverence. Briggs is talked about in hushed tones as if she is a delicate, half-fairie troubadour, casting incantations to music and living in some undisclosed forest dwelling.

'As was proven upon first listen, there is far more to Briggs than mere mythology. Her voice contains a myriad of riches; the first and most obvious impression is one of stark, otherworldly beauty.'

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The album artwork does little to dispel the sense of magic. Briggs appears, face turned from the camera, cast in stark white against a solid brown background. She takes a step towards the periphery, a lurcher following a few paces behind. The idea that she is walking along the ridge of a moor or through some bog-addled field is practically impossible to dismiss. The cover is symbolic of Briggs’ reputation; she is an artist in wild, perpetual motion, casting perfect, fleeting shadows before slinking just out of sight.

However, as was proven upon first listen, there is far more to Briggs than mere mythology. Her voice contains a myriad of riches; the first and most obvious impression is one of stark, otherworldly beauty. The album's opener, Blackwater Side, is tentatively plucked into existence as if trying to coax some ethereal response out of the silence. The voice that answered is entirely and utterly unique. Most of the tracks are sung without accompaniment and she employs the empty spaces like an instrument, allowing her voice to soak into the silence. It carries an uncanny ability to create an illusion of space, she could perform in a phonebooth and it would sound like St Pauls. The Cuckoo best portrays Briggs’ staggering control and range. Her tone rings like a clear bell as she lilts effortlessly from one note to the next. When the song draws to a conclusion, the emptiness left behind sounds deafening.

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Not content to rely entirely on the pure, hymnal beauty of many traditional ballads, Briggs reaches far and wide in her song selection, practically swilling the salt of the earth on Thorneymoor Woods and Maa Bonny Lad. She can resurrect songs that have been stagnating in pubs and taverns for generations, breathing new life into forgotten stories. More impressive still, as a songwriter, she is able to weave her own compositions seamlessly into the fabric of the folk tradition. Go Your Way and Living by the Water sit comfortably amongst the cobwebbed songs of centuries past.

As the album plays, I am struck by the idea that 5 or 6 generations have lived, breathed and died since some of the melodies were written. Surrounded by gravestones carved with sombre reflections, the haunting tones of Willie O Winsbury, dating back at least 226 years, sounds elegiac and yet somehow utterly life-affirming. Briggs’ vocal is saturated with grief, but reflective of the lyrics, there is a beauty and honesty amidst the sadness that elevates the song towards something profound. It struck me as the most powerful rendition on the album, and remains a personal favourite whenever things seem bleak. The performance acts as an example of Briggs’ ability to transcend time in her music; no matter the era, no matter the song, they sound as if they belong to her, and as if they always have.

This seems to be a tangible aspect of Briggs’ hard-to-pin-down genius - everything she touches sounds timeless. Not timeless in the sense of merely retaining cultural relevance, but timeless in that her music feels permanent, as if it has always been, as if each recording was dredged up from under moss and gorse fully formed and unblemished, preserved like a feather in amber. Though we can only guess at the depth of riches a storied 50-year career may have left us, what can be clearly determined is that her musical output is completely undiluted, it is as rich and as pure as any discography you are likely to hear. The fact that her entire back catalogue clocks in at just under three hours further accentuates the idea that her music is precious in a way that none of her contemporaries can match.  Though wholly undependable in terms of the volume of her releases, the unrivalled quality of Briggs’ voice is the one constant of her career that can be set in stone.

In the current musical landscape, it has become too easy to grow disillusioned by the sterilised, convenient repackaging of throw-away, social media friendly music, where all it takes for a musician to instantly qualify as ‘authentic’ is an arran jumper and a stripped back, acoustic version of any song ever written. It is refreshing to stumble on an artist so intrinsically rooted and dedicated to the troubadour spirit of folk music that they actually refuse to record or play in a way that could be deemed commercially viable. Her attitude towards the process of making music is aptly summarised in the sleeve notes of her self-titled album, “Getting Anne Briggs into a recording studio is like enticing a wild bird into a cage.”

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In the few interviews Briggs has given since the 70’s, a number of frank anecdotes make it clear that even the smallest compromises of integrity have never appealed. Unhappy with the quality of her 3rd LP ‘Sing a Song for You’, she refused to let the label release it on the basis that she wasn’t content with the recording and was subsequently dropped, Briggs cites the reason for the dismissal as “complete exasperation” on the part of the label. She promptly moved to the Scottish Highlands and severed all ties with the music industry. Briggs did eventually yield, and the album, much to the relief of her fans and contemporaries, was released. Though, fittingly, it took her 24 years to relent.

After the LP had finished and I had walked back from the Necropolis, I was left thinking about Briggs and her legacy. Holed up in my flat for months, restless and anxious, it’s easy to consider isolation as a punishment, to envision the way things were before lockdown as the pinnacle of individual freedom. But Briggs’ music makes me view the world differently; Here is an artist who wilfully meandered into decades of musical isolation, unwilling to compromise her own idea of personal freedom for any price. In her songs, there are centuries of sorrow and loneliness, stories of failure and heartache and isolation. Yet, in spite of the gloom, there is an abundance of light. There is contentment and beauty and silence. The album rings with truth and sincerity. It is a work of perfect balance, gracefully treading the line between the tragic and the triumphant. The album crystallises this duality and presents it in perfect symmetry, reminding us that isolation needn’t equate to loneliness, that it can provide a certain freedom. As Anne Briggs casts her solitary voice into the silence, it suddenly feels comforting to be alone.

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