First Impressions: Solely by Natalie Jane Hill

As I’ve noted many times before, my stint in the mid-‘80s deejaying a folk music show on my college radio station played a pivotal role in furthering the ever-evolving eclecticism of my musical interests. By then, I already liked the folk-rock sounds of the 1960s and early ‘70s, and dug their Day-Glo descendants in the Paisley Underground, but folk music in and of itself simply seemed archaic, the domain of silver-haired troubadours. The Fast Folk Musical Magazine changed that perception, however, as it introduced me to a slew of up-and-coming artists who were imbuing the music with new life.

Natalie Jane Hill’s sophomore set, Soley, reminds me of the songs and albums of those Fast Folk artists, many of whom provided cogent insights into the human condition in their songs. Recorded between October 2020 and March 2021, it seemingly reflects on aspects of the pandemic age, such as solitude and loneliness, as well as the larger themes that drive all art, including love, longing and faltering relationships, with well-honed lyrics that—to this layman, at any rate—often stand on their own as poems.

“Euphoria,” the opening track, is a great case in point. Accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, and backed by a small group of likeminded musicians, she wistfully asks, “Remember when you’d drive to distract a nervous mind?/Avoiding the street home till the low fuel light glows/And you’d find an empty lot, park the car, sit with your thoughts/Underneath the magnolia, sweet in euphoria/Where’s my euphoria?”

One of the highlights of the album is “Plants and Flowers That Do Not Grow Here,” which was inspired, she says in the press release, by “a time of addiction while in a disassociated state. I had spent some time trying to distinguish reality from illusion, and I wanted this song to capture the dreamlike quality I was lost in.” She achieves that goal, as she and producer Jason Chronis give the song a gauzy feel that equals the pictures she creates with her lyrics. One line, in particular, says much about the inner workings of the mind: “…it’s funny but strange/How easily we make a memory/Seem better from far away.”

The title track is another confessional, this time about coming to terms with being on one’s own: “It’ll take some time to feel at ease/To trust in knowing I am right where I should be.” That theme plays out in several of the songs, I should mention. The one-verse “To Feel Alone,” for instance, turns each syllable into a brushstroke, while “Orb Weaver” relies on a spider’s web for a poetic metaphor.

As the above clips indicate, strains of melancholia echo throughout the 10 tracks—sometimes it’s strong, sometimes it’s not, but it’s always present. Yet the album is far from a maudlin affair. Like those Fast Folk artists of yore, Hill illuminates a truth about the human condition and, in so doing, makes us feel less alone. Solely is not an album to play during a party, workday or workout, mind you, but when one has the time to actually listen and appreciate its poetic power. It’s a strong album.

(The album is available for preorder via Bandcamp and is slated for release on October 29th.)

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