THE mystery of a Seventies folk singer who “vanished off the face of the earth” for more than 30 years is the inspiration for the new single by York musician Joshua Burnell.
The genre-hopping singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist – and teacher to boot – became intrigued by the story of Scottish singer-songwriter Shelagh McDonald, who numbered Sandy Denny and Nick Drake among her friends and peers.
“I wonder where she goes; she never says, you see/Rarer than a fallen star, stronger than gravity/She says, ‘thank you all but I’ll be on my way’,” sings Joshua on Shelagh’s Song, surely sure to be aired this evening in his acoustic set, supported by East Yorkshire singer-songwriter Katie Spencer in the Songs Under Skies double bill in the National Centre for Early Music churchyard gardens at St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate, York.
Recorded on guitar, keys and percussion by Burnell at home during lockdown, the song was mixed by Burnell and Edward Simpson at Moon Glue Studios for initial release on Spotify and other streaming platforms from May 21.
It will now form part of an EP, joined by Chase The Storm and The Den on Storm Cogs, available from July 9, the day when the Joshua Burnell Band is booked to play Ely Folk Festival’s main stage in Cambridgeshire.
Edinburgh-born Shelagh had found folk-rock stardom in 1970 but disappeared abruptly and mysteriously in 1971 after a bad LSD trip…for three decades, presumed dead.
In reality, she was living a low-profile, nomadic existence, only breaking her silence in November 2005 when she contacted the Scottish Daily Mail to tell the story of her “missing years” under the headline “Back from the wilderness”.
Burnell, winner of the Rising Star accolade in the 2020 Folking Awards, stumbled across Shelagh’s music on a trip to the Bronte heartland of Haworth, West Yorkshire. In an old record shop, he made some folk album purchases and noted down the titles of a few others out of financial reach.
Among those was McDonald’s second album, 1971’s Stargazer, priced at £80. Once back home, Burnell scoured the internet for a copy and found only one, available at…300 dollars!
“I listened to some of the tracks on YouTube and it was beautiful,” says Joshua. “I’d made a terrible mistake and knew I had to drop all plans and get the bus to the shop the next day to buy the record.
“For a brief and surreal moment, I found myself standing outside the home of the Brontes, holding a rare relic of the legendary singer. It felt like I was on the trail of some kind of secret folky cult!”
Burnell listened to the recording while unwell. “Even without feverish dreams, it’s a very trippy album, so I felt like I’d been transported back to the hazy days of the late ’60s and early ’70s. It’s a deeply enchanting album; one of my favourites of all time.”
McDonald’s rendition of the Scottish border ballad Dowie Dens Of Yarrow particularly caught Burnell’s attention, so much so that he ended up doing a cover on his Songs From The Seasonsalbum in 2018 as a tribute.
In a 2013 interview in the Guardian, McDonald explained her disappearance: “It wasn’t my intention to walk out of my own life and vanish, especially when things were going so well.
“I was an ambitious 24-year-old folk singer and had just started work on my third album. The second had been a critical success and had really started to get me noticed. But a bad trip was the catalyst for unexpected change. From my perspective, I was never really lost: I was just living a very different kind of life.”
Leaving London and recuperating back in Scotland, McDonald had encountered a bookshop owner and, as recession hit, they decided to “jack it all in and live in a tent”.
They ended up carrying everything they owned on their backs, setting up camp in woods, making money by selling drawings or academic essays. “Some days it got so cold I genuinely thought we were going to die,” McDonald recalled.
They moved between flats and homeless shelters and then, one day, they saw a newspaper story. “What I saw stunned me: a photo of myself in my 20s. The article talked about how I had disappeared, and no-one knew if I was dead or alive. My records were being re-released; it felt like reading my own obit.”
The box set No Man Steal Your Thyme emerged on Sanctuary Records in 2005, and then, more than 40 years after her second album, McDonald made her third, Parnassus Revisited, in 2013.
She started to rekindle her career with tentative performing too. Out of the blue, in 2017, Burnell discovered McDonald would be playing in a little room at the Dumfries Theatre Royal. “I watched in awe as this small, humble lady proceeded to blow us away with remarkable finger-picking and a voice just as strong and hauntingly beautiful as the one which had cut the grooves of my dusty vinyl record from 1971,” he says.
At a second concert in 2018, he was able to meet her and hand her a copy of Songs From The Seasons, Dowie Dens Of Yarrow cover et al. “She may be a legend but she’s also a very down-to-earth person,” says Joshua.
Consequently, after his chance discovery of her music and of McDonald herself, he was inspired to write a song in her name. “After all the music and inspiration Shelagh has given us, I thought she deserved a song of her own.
“I’ve written Shelagh’s Song in the same style as some of her own songs on Stargazer, which were about the lives of musicians she knew who had taken off on their own travels, such as Rod’s Song and Liz’s Song.”
The evocative, retro-sounding Shelagh’s Song encapsulates her life in savvy lyrics and an upbeat, optimistic tune, topped off by cows mooing at the finale to underline its quirkiness.
“The cows are there on purpose,” says Joshua. “When Shelagh picked up a guitar after 30 years, she played to fields of cows as a tester audience. If they stayed, she figured it was a good song; if they wandered off, she did some more practice. She might have been on to something we are all missing!”
For Burnell’s full, intriguing tale of how Shelagh’s Song came to be, go to his Instagram channel at: Instagram.com/joshuaburnellmusic/
After tracking down McDonald, now 73, to send her the single, he was delighted when she wrote to say it was “sheer perfection”. Her letter concluded: “No artist could ask for a better tribute from a fellow artist such as this gem of a song”.
Look out for a video of Shelagh’s Song, filmed by Hinterland Creative at Young Thugs Studios, York, at youtube.com/watch?v=hUOcKc-RYIM. Meanwhile, Burnell’s lyrics can be read at joshuaburnell.co.uk/music and the Storm Cogs EP can be pre-ordered at joshuaburnell.bandcamp.com/albums/storm-cogs-ep.
Tonight, gates open at 6.30pm at the socially distanced, Covid-secure NCEM gardens for Katie Spencer at 7pm, followed by Burnell’s 8pm set on guitar, accompanied by Oliver Whitehouse on keyboards. And, yes, he has just tweeted to confirm he will be performing Shelagh’s Song. The last few tickets in pods are available at ncem.co.uk.
To hear Rod’s Song from Shelagh McDonald’s Stargazer, go to: youtube.com/watch?v=cFrD2tVikTo.