Misty River overcome adversity to deliver strong debut record.
From the opening sequence of ‘Rain’ – the first track on Misty River’s debut album, ‘Promises’, – it’s clear this is no ordinary record. Bittersweet pedal steel collides with dream-pop guitar set to an intricate drum pattern, but it’s Carmen Phelan’s vocal delivery that really sets this record apart. Sitting somewhere between Alison Krauss, Katie Toupin – especially on the early Houndmouth records – and Janis Joplin, hers is a uniquely powerful voice that you sense can move through the gears at ease. It has a timeless quality which evokes both past and present, infused by a wide range of influences.
The story behind ‘Promises’ is a moving one. Phelan is a London-based singer-songwriter, whose parents hails from Dublin and Trinidad. She spent her childhood between London and the US, her musical upbringing spanning classical to ceilidh and bluegrass to pop. A sought-after fiddle player in her own right, she’s performed with a range of artists including The Corrs, The Kooks, Serj Tnkien and Sinead O’Connor. But in her early 30s she was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a rare condition that causes joint pain and a loss of mobility.
Uncertain as to whether she’d ever be able to play violin again, she began writing and found her own voice – quite literally – having only started singing around that time. As Phelan herself says, “one of the reasons my voice is so unusual is that my condition affects my vocal chords too.” And you sense that a lot of the songs on ‘Promises’ are inspired by personal experience.
Following the opening track ‘Rain’, lead single ‘Walk Me to the River’ is like a song that’s always been there, but has only just been discovered. Its distinctly folk-esque chorus sounds like a campfire singalong with a melody reminiscent of John Prime’s ‘Spanish Pipedream’. ‘With You Around’ features a bouncy guitar riff reminiscent of Alabama Shakes accompanied with a round of circular harmonies which echo and foreshadow the lead vocal to great effect. But the undoubted centrepiece of the album is the title track, which starts softly and builds gradually towards a stirring crescendo of guitar, strings and drums, set to a haunting refrain. “I never make promises”, calls Phelan, each time seemingly with even more conviction. Here’s hoping this debut is only the start of the journey for Misty River.