Artist: Tanya Gallagher
Our Verdict: 9/10
Release date: Out now
Find it at: iTunes
Review by: Graeme Blackwell
2 years in the making, Tanya Gallagher’s new album is a paean to travel, love and life’s journey
Themes of journeying, time and place loom large over singer and songwriter Tanya Gallagher’s new album, Virginia. The title track, “Monterey”, “The Ship”, “3002 Miles”; these intimate explorations of psychogeography are all perfectly fitting when you consider the gestation of this poignant collection of songs.
Born and raised near the Florida-Alabama state line, Gallagher spent her formative years studying environmental science, working odd jobs along the Gulf Coast and developing her vocal and songwriting skills in the local scene to help pay for school. A stint as a summer intern for NASA in 2009 gave her an introduction to Virginia, a place that she visited numerous times in the following years.
In 2013 Gallagher released her album Oh My Love, before up-rooting and driving across the continent to Vancouver to study for a PHD in forestry. She recalls of that time: “I know few folks in Canada, so most nights I sit in my room writing songs about heartache and home. My first friend in this new country is Brandon Hoffman, the musical wizard who mastered my last album. We spend nights in those early months recording the songs for the album in his living room.”
During a visit to her parents’ house that Christmas, Gallagher wrote and recorded Virginia’s title track using a Martin guitar that belonged to her late friend, Dave Schlender. “I swear he whispered the tune into my ear,” she says. But as research for her PHD ramped up, Gallagher found herself writing and recording less and less, and the songs went unreleased for more than two years. Until now.
A touching, country-inflected collection of melodic folk, the spare instrumentation and arrangements across Virginia beautifully showcase Gallagher’s strong and supple voice, an elegant and graceful instrument in itself. Often accompanied only by acoustic guitar, Gallagher sings in deep, warm and intimate tones, invoking the spirit of Joni Mitchell and, periodically, the insistent rhythms of Ryan Adams’ more uptempo solo work. Occasionally breaking into a conversational style and augmented by brushed drums and intermittent electric guitar licks, Gallagher’s vocals serve her insightful and poetic lyrics extraordinarily well.
And what poetry. Consider “A Farewell To Arms”, a song that holds up a mirror to a relationship between two lovers, and in doing so traverses the tensions between not just personalities, but world views, faiths and philosophies. “Like Moses down the river // I wanted nothing more than to be found by the King // But you with your antics // String theories and romantics // Have other philosophies”, sings Gallagher, seemingly skewering the binary rift that all too often characterises debates around science and religion. “He said it’s him or me and me not him // Now don’t you see it’s all pretend // It’s time that you laid down your arms // But I refuse to give in // Forgive me Father for these sins // And darling, don’t act so alarmed.” Sublime.
As a song, “Virginia” reinforces notions of the passing of time, how a place can influence a person, and how the past can be brought to life even when parsed through a contemporary filter. Beginning with the sound of crackling vinyl, Gallagher’s voice initially sounds decayed and distant, as if broadcasting from an earlier time and place (and in many ways it is). The early-folk style is soon underpinned, however, by lush, contemporaneous vocal harmonies, and the combination is enthralling. The juxtaposition of the modern and the vintage creates the perfect backdrop for Gallagher to illustrate parts of her personal journey and her strong sense of place: “And Raleigh, we were lovers // Richmond, we were friends // By the time we came down from that Blue Ridge town // Florida, we were lovers again… Virginia, my friend // I have fallen again // Oh, Virginia you’ve stolen my heart.”
If things are beginning to sound a little saccharine for you, fear not. These songs don’t shy away from the stinging realities of life as it is lived. The warmth of home is often tempered with the ache of heartbreak, and even acerbic epistles from a wry and angry place. If it isn’t the unfaithful lover at the heart of “The Ship” who “…will take any old port in a storm”, it’s the biting message for the departed paramour of “3002 Miles”: “Are you happy now? // You are happy now // I hope your happiness is true // Now that you’ve gotten all you wanted // I just wanna’ say, fuck you.”
Emotionally authentic snapshots of a thoughtful earthly life; a paean to family, friends and lovers and to a ‘southern’ way of life; Tanya Gallagher’s Virginia is, at its core, a collection of soulful hymns written by – and for – a questing heart; contemporary psalms rendered in Laurel Canyon-esque Americana.
“Virginia taught me love, it taught me heartache, but most importantly it taught me that a home away from home can exist,” says Gallagher reflecting on the album now. “I’m grateful to the friends who encouraged me along the way – and of course, to Virginia. These songs are just as much for those people and that place, as they are for me.”