Earth Song, Ocean Song
Earth Song / Ocean Song is the coming-of-age voice of Mary Hopkin. Recorded as Mary turned twenty one, it is a sophisticated, elegant collection, sung most beautifully and from the heart. Not that these are love songs. Rather, they speak of reflection, of deliberation and of questions. Mary Hopkin says today: “This is what I would have written had I been writing songs at the time — well, I wish I could have.”
She adds: “I was writing down lyrics and ideas, but not actually completing anything. Due to my concert commitments, I just never found the time. It was a confidence thing, as well.” But self expression doesn’t always have to be self-written, and Mary’s choice of songs speaks so well of her intent. She says: “Other writers were saying what I was feeling.”
Mary did have confidence — in her singing — and it’s the strength and purpose in her voice that’s most telling on Earth Song / Ocean Song. The album remains important to her. “This is dear to my heart,” she says. “If I’d recorded it today I would be very proud.”
Released by Apple Records in October 1971, Earth Song / Ocean Song draws upon Mary’s love of traditional folk music both American and British. This is not a traditional record, however, but an exploration of contemporary folk, with modern string arrangements and subtle musical experiments.
The sessions for Earth Song / Ocean Song began in May 1971 at George Martin’s AIR Studios, in central London. The producer was Tony Visconti, who had produced The Iveys for Apple, but was best known at this point for his work with David Bowie and Marc Bolan’s Tyrannosaurus Rex and T. Rex.
Following on from 1969’s Post Card, Earth Song / Ocean Song is Mary’s second Apple album. She took control from the artwork onwards. She was pleased to be working with Tony Visconti; for the second time, it turned out, as they had recorded together before, although Mary didn’t realize it until their re-acquaintance.
In 1969, Tony had been put forward as a producer for Mary, and his audition was to record a version of Gallagher & Lyle’s ‘Sparrow’ in Welsh (following the earlier English version). Somehow, she wasn’t informed that it was a try-out for Tony. “I didn’t know who he was,” she recalls. “So after the session I just said goodbye. And because I didn’t mention him to Apple, they put me with Mickie Most, thinking ‘She can’t have liked Visconti’. It was two years before he came back on the scene.”
By this time, Mary had grown tired of singing the pop material for which she was famous, and she was eager for a new musical expression. “Stan, my brother-in-law and manager at the time, played me the Strawbs’ album Dragonfly,” she remembers, “and it was so understated, the production was so sparse and beautiful that I thought, that’s the guy I want as my producer.” That guy was Tony Visconti.
For his part, Tony was also delighted to be working with Mary again. “I thought her voice was that of a fairy princess,” he says today. “So unique, so special. Every time I heard her sing it made me think of Lord Of The Rings. If you could hear the characters in Tolkien’s book singing, they would sound like Mary.”
Together, Mary and Tony decided to create a different type of record. Mary remembers, “I was so keen to experiment.” Tony adds: “We didn’t make a straight up, honest, organic folk album. We wanted to use modern techniques and evocative sounds to make it a super-folk sounding album.”
For the musicians, Tony recruited Terry Weil and Clive Antree on cellos, and for the strings, the Pop Art String Quartet. On acoustic guitars he brought in Dave Cousins, the main creative force behind The Strawbs, and folk singer Ralph McTell; and on upright bass, Danny Thompson. Ralph had released three highly regarded folk albums by this point — and Mary chose songs from two of them — while Danny Thompson had earned his reputation in the folk-rock group Pentangle, while also becoming the most in-demand stand-up bassist around.
“These were my drinking buddies,” says Tony of Ralph, Dave and Danny. “I’d produce records with them and then we spend long evenings in the pub together.” Mary was delighted with her ad hoc backing band: “I had the best musicians in the world on this album,” she says. “It’s got this lovely rounded sound throughout. Tony wrote beautiful string arrangements and played recorder on some songs too.”
The relationship between singer and producer soon blossomed. “We were getting to know each other and falling in love on this album,” says Mary. “It was such a special time.” Before the record was completed, Mary and Tony were a couple, and towards the end of 1971, they were married.
Each track on Earth Song / Ocean Song was originally published by Westminster Music, which held the biggest catalogue of folk songs in the UK at that time. Westminster was part of the production group Tony worked for, and from there he sourced more than a hundred songs, mostly demos on open reel tapes, from which Mary made her selection.
The one exception was the opening track, ‘International’, which Tony interprets as “a need for countries without borders, for us to open up to other cultures”. This was recorded before the rest of the album, with classical guitars by Kevin Peek and Brian Daly. It was written by Mary’s friends Benny Gallagher and Graham Lyle, then signed to Apple Publishing. “I love the message of that song,” says Mary. “It was something I wanted to pass on to people. I’ve always loved Benny and Graham’s songs, everything they’ve written.”
‘There’s Got To Be More’ is by British folk singer Harvey Andrews. “I love the gutsiness of that,” says Mary. “It’s rather profound; when we picked these songs we noticed they all seemed to have a message. This one is ‘Think deeper’. This is the underlying theme of the songs I write now.”
“This is Ralph’s magic,” Mary says of ‘Silver Birch’, by Ralph McTell. “It’s about the landscape being more important than the relationship. Waiting for someone, and she doesn’t care if he turns up or not when there’s this amazing sunset to watch. It’s a haunting melody.” Ralph plays acoustic guitar to Dave Cousins’ banjo, to which Tony added a delicate delay effect. “It really made the banjo sparkle,” he says.
Tom Paxton and David Horowitz’s ‘How Come The Sun’ is “one of the outstanding tracks for me,” says Mary. The song led to what would become Mary’s farewell concerts, after which she would retire from live performance. “Tom Paxton heard Mary’s version and was besotted,” recounts Tony. “He invited her to tour Australia and New Zealand with him. She sang ‘How Come The Sun’ every night and he’d listen in the wings.”
Both ‘Earth Song’, which closed Side One of the vinyl LP, and ‘Ocean Song’, which was the album finale, were written by American writer Liz Thorsen. “We couldn’t believe that she wasn’t as big as Joni Mitchell,” says Tony. “But she was very low profile. We never heard an album by her, just isolated tracks.” For Mary, the two Liz Thorsen songs became personal. “Tony played me her demos and I was blown away,” she says. “I very much identified with her sensitive style.”
Just as it would later fade out, Side Two of the album faded in, with ‘Martha’, another Harvey Andrews song, one that he cut himself on his Writer Of Songs LP in 1972. “That was fun to do, quite spooky,” says Mary. “I’m a great fan of discordant music. I love musical seconds, and weird sounds coming in — the chance to get something dark or creepy in there. It can change a mood completely.”
“Danny’s bass part is amazing,” adds Mary. “It continues a thread that runs through the whole album.” Says Tony: “The bass fiddle doesn’t often go up in that register, playing lead. But Danny does it so well.”
Mary: ‘Martha’ is about a sad lady spying on everyone; lonely people.” Tony: “It’s like a more cruel ‘Eleanor Rigby’. Mary had all this inside her that she wanted to get out.”
‘Streets Of London’ is the quintessential song about Britain’s capital and it remains the social anthem of the Seventies and beyond. It’s also Ralph McTell’s signature tune. “It was a joy to be in the studio singing while Ralph was playing guitar on his own songs,” admits Mary. For this track, Mary also added her own acoustic guitar accompaniment too.
“I let my music take me where my heart wants to go,” sang Mary on ‘The Wind’, by Cat Stevens, from his 1970 Tea For The Tillerman LP. “I am a great Cat Stevens fan,” she says. “And I loved Tony’s arrangement for this.” Tony: “For me as an arranger, ‘The Wind’ was a wonderful opportunity to stretch out. A lot of work went into it. We’re very proud of the results.”
‘Water, Paper And Clay’, written by Reina and Mike Sutcliffe, was the penultimate track on the LP and it became Mary’s last single for Apple Records, issued in December 1971. “I was so enchanted by that,” she says. “It has the quality of an anthem. I liked the fact that I didn’t quite understand the lyrics. I liked the mystery.” The recording was fun too: “I played the harmonium. I couldn’t play and pump the pedals at the same time, so Danny and Ralph are on their knees pumping the pedals while I played the keyboard. Then we all went off to the pub and the guys had a few beers and then we did the slightly inebriated, very loud and free backing vocals. Dave Lambert from the Strawbs joined us for that, and he was the only one who could hit the high notes.”
‘Ocean Song’, the second from Liz Thorsen, is the album’s finale. Mary sings with composure yet her vocals are heartfelt, while Tony’s subtle phased strings combine with the unbeatable bespoke trio that was Dave Cousins, Ralph McTell and Danny Thompson to create a masterpiece of contemporary music making. Tony: ‘Earth Song’ and ‘Ocean Song’ were bookends. They were so perfect. We were overwhelmed with the beauty and the expanse of those songs. They were very precious to us.” Adds Mary: “I felt as if they’d been written for me. That’s why we named the album after them. Soulful, and hiraeth as we say in Welsh, the longing. It’s what moves you, it’s like a passion. Songs like this have always appealed to me.”
As ‘Ocean Song’ and Earth Song / Ocean Song closes, Mary hums soothing ad-libs and then withdraws, bowing out with style and grace. She turns her back on her three years of fame and heads towards domesticity and a brand new family life. Mary had made the album she had always wanted to make and felt she had little left to prove. To herself or to others. This would be her last album for many years. She concludes: “I’m very black and white, and I thought I don’t want to compromise any more, as I had done in the past, and this coincided with getting married, and so I decided to stop, and more or less leave the business.”
‘Kew Gardens’ “It’s a beautiful little narrative,” says Mary of this Ralph McTell song cut during the album sessions and issued as the B-side to ‘Let My Name Be Sorrow’. “I loved recording the harmonies for this. We replicated the ones that we had heard on the demo version.”
‘When I Am Old One Day’
Also from the album sessions. Written by Harvey Andrews, and found on his Writer Of Songs LP. “I thought this was adorable,” said Mary. “The quirkiness of it, and the poignancy.”
‘Let My Name Be Sorrow’
Mary’s penultimate single for Apple Records, issued in June 1971 and written by Martine Habib & Bernard Estardy. Tony: “We were trying out this big full, orchestral sound (with Richard Hewson as arranger). But for Earth Song / Ocean Song we adopted a simpler approach.” Says Mary about her choice of ‘Let My Name Be Sorrow’: “That’s the Welsh in me. There’s something rather lovely about dark tones, and minor keys.”
- Tony Visconti
- Recorded at
- AIR / Advision
- Released (UK)
- Released (US)