THERE is no time like the present for Joshua Burnell’s new album: the place where a retro past meets a bold other-worldly future.
Newly released through Proper Music, Flowers Where The Horses Sleep finds the York multi-instrumentalist returning to writing his own songs.
“The last two records, 2018’s Songs From The Seasons and last year’s The Road To Horn Fair, were traditional, so that was cheating!” says Joshua, winner of the Rising Star accolade in the 2020 Folking Awards.
“Certainly it’s been a big liberation to go back to my own song-writing for the first time since Into The Green [his 2016 fantasy epic].”
His website introduces his work as “folk-fused baroque’n’roll”. Some call it prog-folk with leanings to contemporary classical and vintage pop-rock too. His press release talks of Joshua “seemingly having his own musical time machine”, giving him the ability to teleport listeners between music’s yesterdays and tomorrows.
Or no more tomorrows, given his concern for our future. “On this album, I’m tapping into that terrible looming dread of what could go on in the future. There’s a doomsday feeling to some of the songs,” says Joshua.
“What’s going on now, with the pandemic, is a taster. What we’re going through is nature’s way of saying this is what you deserve, you horrible lot. But climate change ultimately is the bigger concern.”
In the transportation ballad Look At Us Now, Joshua imagines a future where we live on Mars in a tale combining folklore, climate change and space travel dreamer Elon Musk. “Definitely science fiction, yes, but science fiction is only science fiction until someone invents it for real,” he says.
“An uninhabitable Earth is something we can foresee, so while that song is sci-fi, with elements of doom and gloom thrown in, this is the moment for us to ask questions.
“What are we doing? Where are we going…when we take pleasure from all the delights of the 21st century that are a wonderful distraction from what’s happening?
“The problem comes down to economic greed. With all these advances, we wouldn’t be going there unless there was something to be made from it.”
Does Joshua consider himself to be a soothsayer? “There’s a romantic aspect to it, but folk singers have often talked about now and warned about the future; folk musicians are almost like political activists,” he says.
“But unlike politicians, folk musicians have the advantage of sitting on the sidelines, being able to be more daring in what they say, which fulfils the same role as punk music did.”
Equally adept on Hammond organ, acoustic guitar, accordion, mellotron, synths and a Steinway grand piano, Joshua’s boundary-pushing musicianship spans layered theatrical soundscapes and starker arrangements.
“What I’m trying to do is tell stories and take people somewhere else, taking them from the here and now, sometimes with a moral tale,” says Joshua, who was born in the Haute-Savoie in France but now lives, writes music and teaches in York.
“A lot of that comes from Tolkien…because so much of his work includes his own folk songs. Those stories are not fantasy rubbish. They’re giving people messages, but he didn’t want them to be allegorical. You can take something into the real world from them, or you can see them just as stories.
“From my teenage years, I adopted that as my ethos as a storyteller, where there’s something deeper there if you want to find it.”
Finished only two days before lockdown, Flowers Where The Horses Sleep is timely…and NOT all doom and gloom. “The songs were all inspired by people, past and present, and explore humankind’s remarkable ability to find beauty, even in the hardest of times,” he says.
Should you be wondering, the album title came from a story on the Family Ghosts podcast wherein a Japanese-American woman, interned in an American concentration camp during the Second World War, recalled how the prisoners, forced to live in stables, grew flowers to bring beauty into the ugly reality of their days.
Beauty extends to the papercut album cover by Mumbai husband-and-wife artists Hari & Deepti, whose imagery plays out in the song Run To Me, recounting a surreal experience when Joshua and partner Fe [vocalist Frances Sladen] explored a ruined fortress near Harewood House, only to be approached by men carrying guns.
They took to their heels. “As we were running, a deer leapt out of the undergrowth and for one gloriously fairy-tale moment locked eyes with me and ran alongside us,” says Joshua.
Flowers Where The Horses Sleep is broad-ranging. Joan Of The Greenwood is a traditional folk song pastiche so authentic, you would swear it must come from a dusty old folk songbook.
Let Me Fall Down evokes Berlin’s decadent Kit Kat Club in its burlesque account of greed, while the Steinway on the album-closing Two Stars recalls the cabaret piano on David Bowie’s Hunky Dory album.
Yet Flowers Where The Horses Sleep also marks a progression in Joshua not over-elaborating in any of his song structures. “I used to throw everything into the mix, but now, knowing when a song is finished has been a case of deciding what is enough,” he says.
“I’ve been trying to do a lot more of stripping it back for a song to have more space…though I still love those prog-rock elements with multiple textures!”
Combining artwork from Mumbai with recording in England and mastering at Stirling Sound in New York, not to mention the video for stand-out track Le Fay being made in New York too, the creation of the album spans three continents, such are the possibilities of our technological age. “I must go for four continents next time!” says Joshua.
The promotional imagery carries a closer-to-home Yorkshire stamp: the Sixties polo neck and make-up were fashioned by photographer Elly Lucas at Light Space Leeds. “We’ve gone for a folky Bowie look, a folky, darker Aladdin Sane,” says Joshua. “She works in a very hipster space and has become the go-to photographer of the folk scene, working with The Unthanks, Eliza Carthy and Martin Carthy, and I loved how she used black curtains, yellow light and dividing panels and did all the make-up herself.”
Inevitably his autumn tour with his six-piece band has been postponed until the spring, when Pocklington Arts Centre, among others, awaits. In the meantime, invest in Flowers Where The Horses Sleep: Joshua Burnell in full bloom.