Lisa Knapp,
Wild & Undaunted
(Ear to the Ground, 2007)

Every year, it seems as if there's yet another up-and-coming young English folk performer to rave about, someone to cling to and hope will preserve the tradition for years to come. I don't mean to sound negative. It's good that there still are younger performers interested in preserving traditional English music. It just is sad there seem to be so few of them from year to year.

However, early this year we're off to a tremendous treat with Lisa Knapp's debut album, Wild & Undaunted. All but three of the 11 tracks are traditional songs, and the other three are originals either written completely by Knapp or contain her co-writing credit. She sings and performs as a multi-instrumentalist (fiddle, guitar, hammered dulcimer, banjo, autoharp and percussion), making her an up-and-coming performer to watch, admire and respect.

Starting with "The Blacksmith," Knapp picks up on territory charted years ago by Maddy Prior and numerous other possible influences, with a voice that sounds slightly reminiscent of folk stalwart Shirley Collins, but with more control and a stronger soulfulness. "There u r," co-written with fellow multi-instrumentalist and band member Gerry Diver, with its text-talk mobile phone spelling, takes her into more wild and undaunted territory, with the feeling of flying in her voice and staccato rhythms from both her and Diver's fiddles. But then she returns to traditional material for "Beggar Beggar," and her hammered dulcimer produces a fusion of English folk tinged with Appalachia.

Initially, I thought that the album's title track, a variant of the traditional song also known as "Adieu, Adieu" and "The Newry Highwayman," was going to disappoint me. It seemed far too slow. However, after that momentary speculation regarding where she was going with this number -- and was it just going to be a bit too "nu-folk" for my likes -- the fiddle picked up the pace and the beat quickened. "Lavender" takes the modernist "nu-folk" feeling and blends it with tradition. A hammered dulcimer in the background provides the only instrumentation besides Knapp's voice echoing itself and becoming its own harmonious accompaniment. It's a bewitching juxtaposition of a 19th-century Covent Garden cry and a more atmospheric ambient piece. The modernist approach works well on this number and on "Bitter Withy" and "Salisbury Plain," but it seems a mite disconcerting at first on "Ride Along." However, the fiddle and sparsely arranged guitar on that latter original number help hold the piece together and keep it whole.

She's not merely a female Jim Moray in terms of adding technology to old folk songs; however, she doesn't appear afraid to implement technology to achieve appropriate effects. In this case, modern technology generally is meant to take us back in time.

Although Knapp can sing out strongly and the originality of her voice is filled with earnest conviction, its vibrato and occasional coarseness may seem a trifle unsettling to some listeners at first. If that's the case, do give her a second try. Let the timelessness of "Dew is on the Grass" (apparently a "Lovely Joan" variant) take you back centuries. Her voice renders the sound older, making it sound more primitive, more traditional, rather than grating.

So early in the year, it's a particular pleasure to be introduced to a relatively young performer who works so well with older songs. Knapp certainly is wild and undaunted in terms of choice of musical arrangements, and I am grateful for her skills.

by Ellen Rawson
12 May 2007

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