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Bishop’s folk album wins praise from aficionados

20 October 2023

The cover of Evensongs

The cover of Evensongs

A NEW album of folk songs by the Bishop of Ramsbury, Dr Andrew Rumsey, has been praised by critics, including the BBC radio broadcaster Mark Radcliffe.

The eight tracks on Evensongs, released on Gare du Nord Records last month, were recorded over a single day in August last year, in All Saints’, Ham, a 12th-century church in Wiltshire in Dr Rumsey’s episcopal area in Salisbury diocese.

Dr Rumsey’s old friend David Perry, with whom he plays in the band the Effras, provided additional guitars and harmonies. Bob Mackenzie, an engineer from Real World Studios, founded by Peter Gabriel, oversaw the recording, using vintage microphones “to capture something of the beauty and the magic of a country church in summer”, Dr Rumsey said.

The songs were recorded quickly, in part, for practical reasons — like most clergy, Dr Rumsey has only one day off a week, and “I couldn’t afford more than a day” (of recording time) — but also for musical ones. “When you have to do something creatively, it’s really interesting what bubbles up,” he said. “I’ve been to various songwriting and creative-writing workshops, and the fact that you have to write a song to perform in front of your peers that evening is an immense kind of sharpener. . . It focuses the attention.”

The reasons for recording in a church were, again, partly practical: “It’s simpler and cheaper than recording in a studio . . . and, of course, we know that these buildings have . . . great sound.” But there was a deeper reason: “There is folk memory soaked into the walls of these places; they’re the right place for folk music. And they have a soulful quality that is to do with the the life of prayer in a place; it’s to do with the life of a community, the narrative; it’s to do with a lot of dead bodies around. There’s a whole kind of thickness, in terms of its culture, [a] deepness to it that I wanted to pick up somehow. . .

“And we also wanted to capture something of the beauty and the magic of a country church in summer. And so, if the churchwarden wandered in and there was a bit of a jingling of keys or buzzing of bees, that was all to the good, really.”

As one of the co-lead bishops for church buildings and cathedrals, Dr Rumsey also wished “to show off what churches could offer for creative expression, live music, and the like”.

Dr Ramsbury was elevated to Ramsbury in 2019, having held incumbencies in Southwark diocese for nearly two decades. Visiting hundreds of churches in his episcopal area — which he chronicles on his Instagram page — has meant that “my horizons have been opened and the doors have been opened again to me in a new way.”

Some of the songs were composed when Dr Rumsey was writing his book English Grounds: A pastoral journal, which was published last year by SCM Press (Books, 11 March 2022), and are intended to accompany the book.

An example is “Virginia Ash”, which is also the name of a chapter in English Grounds. The song is about the Virginia Ash pub, in the village of Henstridge, “which is where Walter Raleigh reputedly first sparked up his pipe, and it led into a kind of reflection on Raleigh’s role in the idea of England and its relationship to the world. He had local links to Sherborne and Sherborne Abbey, and some of his writings and so on, particularly at the end of his life when he knew the adventure was over, are really poignant, and I wanted to try and capture that in a tiny little vignette in the song.”

Dr Rumsey has been writing songs for more than 35 years, having started to play guitar in bands in his late teens. He believes that each parish church should be creating its own art, as many are. “I like the democratisation of art. I think every every community is artistic.”

Evensongs has been received positively by folk music critics. Clash Magazine praised its “evocative songs”, and said that it had “a heart-melting sense of space at its core”. Shindig magazine described it as “an enchanting, enthralling album”. Dr Rumsey was invited as a guest on Radio 2’s The Folk Show with Mark Radcliffe, after he sent the presenter a copy of the album. Mr Radcliffe described the songs on the album as “lovely”.

Evensongs is available on Spotify, and digital, vinyl, and compact-disc formats can be bought at: andrewrumseymusic.bandcamp.com

Listen to an extended interview with Dr Rumsey and hear a track from Evensongs on the Church Times podcast

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