Sarah Jane Scouten ends her recording hiatus with a deceptively uplifting new album.
Two of the many joys of being asked to review albums in your favourite music genre is finding artists you have hardly heard of and then getting the gut-punch of an unexpectedly excellent album. So it is with Sarah Jane Scouten and her new, fourth, album ‘Turned to Gold’. From the beginning of the opening track you just know you are going to love it – the reason in this case is Scouten’s powerful but really expressive and quite distinctive voice. And once you get into the third and fourth tracks, it is also the lyrics and the sensitive backing from the band. And then you have finished the album and all you want to do is play it again.
Sarah Jane Scouten hails from Bowen Island in West Vancouver and has been a musician for many years, appearing at many folk roots festivals, touring consistently and collecting nominations for Canadian and International Folk Music awards. The constant touring was taking its toll when, during a European tour in 2019, she met a half-Belgian, half-Briton, who became her husband. She was in Scotland living and touring when the COVID pandemic hit, curtailing her concert tour and leaving her somewhat bereft, away from her natural home, family and friends. So she studied herbal medicine, got married and took time out from writing…until she felt the time was right to start again. And has stayed in a little village in south-west Scotland (population 520), where she has a herbal medicine practice.
And the result is this glorious album, ‘Turned to Gold’, recorded with some stellar musicians on a break in Vancouver, in which she contemplates love and joy, dissects the loss of her birth mother when she was 2 years old, reminisces about her old life on the island and values connections with family and friends. The opening track ‘Wanderlust’ explores the dilemma of travelling, living away and missing family in a jaunty mid-paced opener, and it introduces her versatile and striking voice – “You were never one to stick around, Tell your grandma you love her on the telephone, You’re always welcome but nowhere’s home”.
‘The Great Unknown’, a beautiful song (among many) about assisted dying sounds like Nanci Griffith in part, just one of a number of influences on the album. Emmylou Harris is clearly one, and there are some neat homages throughout. ‘Dragonheart’ is a nice play on Tom Petty’s ‘Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around’ (nice Tom Petty-ish guitar here from Matt Kelly, who plays with empathy and variety throughout), while ‘Roses and Carnations’, a tribute to John Prine, has all the elements of a John Prine song and instrumental arrangement. Later in the album ‘Is it just the whiskey talking’ is a rather delicate contemplation on love, with an instrumental break a la Willie Nelson’s Trigger and Mickey Raphael’s harmonica.
It is good to have Scouten back with us after a hiatus of some years, during which time she contemplated giving up music altogether and concentrating on medical herbalism. Luckily for us she has rediscovered her songwriting mojo with songs ranging from folk to country to soft rock, and there is a consistently high quality of songs on this album. Special mention, though, of the title track, a reminiscence about the death of her birth mother (who actually died when Scouten was very young) and the glorious ballad that ends the album ‘Little Band of Gold’, about the unalloyed joy of love growing after marriage, sung to a delightful piano backing (Matt Kelly again) “There’s a promise we committed to paper But what we didn’t know then Reservoirs we didn’t know we had in us Could flow as ink flows from a pen“.
You should seek out this album – it is, despite some of the darker moments, ultimately a very uplifting experience.