Bella Union is thrilled to release Will Stratton’s album Rosewood Almanac, the American’s debut for the label. It’s a work of fragile magic, a hypnotic combination of beautifully breathy voice and exquisite lyrical imagery, gorgeous melodies and similarly soft-spun instrumentation, centred on his thrumming acoustic guitar and the verdant presence of velvet strings.
Stratton’s arrival ends what Bella Union boss Simon Raymonde calls, “a very long search.” Inspired by the female songwriters he’d signed, such as Holly Macve, Sumie and Marissa Nadler, he’d “struggled to find a male artist that I could truly be excited about, that was at least the equal of the above… Someone of the calibre of Robin Pecknold, of Elliott Smith, of Cass McCombs, Nick Drake and Justin Vernon.” Then, on a restless, sleepless night, Raymonde went online, “like a rabbit hole when you're trawling at that time of night. All of a sudden, I found Will’s last album Gray Lodge Wisdom, and then it was 4am and I was listening to an earlier record of his, Post Empire. I finally slept at 6am, extremely tired but also euphoric.”
Stratton had found evangelists before. About Gray Lodge Wisdom, the Guardian said “There are some familiar troubadour flavours here, but Stratton transforms them into something more unexpected and quite magical,” while Wondering Sound heard “a deeply assured and ambitious collection of prismatic folk tunes that should possess emotional weight even for listeners who don’t know Stratton’s backstory… The best album of his career.” About Post Empire, La Blogotheque said, “A classically trained virtuosity, an incontestable erudition and remarkable precocity.”
Yet this very special talent has largely flown under the radar… How come?
First, he’s only done two very low-key tours of Europe and one in the American mid-west. And second, he explains. “I get profound pleasure from composing, working out how pieces fit together, or don’t, much more than self-promotion, and by that time, I’ve moved on to the next thing. Even when my music doesn’t find an audience, I’m happy to just have a personal statement to reflect back on. But then Simon emailed out of the blue. And it’s great to put a record out on a label I love.”
Born in California, mostly raised in New Jersey and currently an upstate New Yorker, this great-grandson of a travelling preacher started songwriting and recording while at high school, before going on to study philosophy and music composition. He’s self-released work, and via a couple of tiny indies (one being Talitres in France) but extended treatment for cancer put everything on hold. After his successful recovery, Stratton decided to leave New York City for the Hudson Valley. Teaching (music, art, video) at a local boarding school, while living on campus as a dorm ‘parent’, left little time for musical ambition, though he had never stopped making music. But having left teaching, everything’s come together for the finest record of his life. Bella Union’s timing was impeccable.
Rosewood Almanac was named after Stratton’s current pride and joy: his acoustic guitar. “The guitars I love most tend to be rosewood, they have a crystalline tone, but also a really dark heft. When Bob Dylan was obsessed with his ‘wild thin mercury sound’, that’s the sound of rosewood to me. It’s almost menacing in its precision.”
He developed an intimate relationship with guitar after discovering Nick Drake, whose “fluid, effortlessly beautiful style,” led on to similarly cherished Britfolk icons – Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson, Anne Briggs, Bert Jansch. But Stratton’s studies led to chamber music, and minimalists Steve Reich and Terry Riley, which equally influenced his simultaneously complex and direct sound. His love of composition shines through when he talks of how a specific guitar tuning – “like learning a new language, with its own rules to obey”- can influence the writing of a song, “just as how you set up the stanzas and metres can dictate what you end up saying in your lyrics.” Yet there’s no trace of dry academia or virtuosity here, only a fluid, effortless beauty, with a matching emotional heft.
The album’s spell weaves over a contained ten songs and 34 minutes, from the extra crystalline sparkle from the addition of electric guitar and rhythm section in the opening ‘Light Blue’ through the string quartet’s gilding of the lily, to the pared back voice-and-rosewood effect of the closing ‘Ribbons’.
Having listened intently to Leonard Cohen and Hank Williams, “singers who try to wring as much meaning out of every sound they’re making, in correspondence to every other sound,” Stratton has focused more on singing and lyric-writing than ever before. “Some words are political, some are imagistic, some are personal,” he vouches.
And some overlap. “Light Blue’ and ‘Thick Skin’ articulate “the weird detached existence” of dorm-master life, though ‘Light Blue’ has an ecological bent while ‘Thick Skin’ addresses “alienation, ageing and feeling the freshness of human feeling is being dulled over the course of a life.” Leaving teaching, “lifted a weight, which let me focus on the bigger picture,” he says, naming ‘Manzanita’, which also addresses age, “and seeing yourself, and your family and friends, all changing. There’s beauty in those changes, but existential dread too!”
The dread returns for ‘Vanishing Class’, imagining “the alienation of people in the run up to the US election.” The closing pair, ‘This Is What We Do’ and ‘Ribbons’, address Stratton’s cancer battles while “veering into an apocalyptic vein,” he says. “I wrote the record before Trump was elected, but with hindsight, a lot of these songs come from a feeling that something is deeply wrong.”
If Rosewood Almanac ends on notes of fundamental unease, Stratton’s own story is an uplifting counterpoint: a clean bill of health, his first record to have both US and European distribution, his first nationwide US tour as well as a return to Europe, backed by a record label that believes, “Rosewood Almanac will be a record that will remembered for a long time and will resonate with so many of us.”