24 Feb 2019

Magic Mystery - the whimsical charm of Josephine Foster

From New Horizons, 5:00 pm on 24 February 2019

William Dart enters the magical, mystical world of American folk musician Josephine Foster and is captivated by her most recent release, Faithful Fairy Harmony.

Josephine Foster

Josephine Foster Photo: Dani Cantó CC2.0

I first featured Josephine Foster on New Horizons back in 2012, with her then current album. The American songwriter had come a long way from the ukulele days of this 2001 song, a whimsical charmer written by a teacher for her pupils, and rescued from its archival slumber a year too late to feature in that first programme of mine.

Josephine Foster has a singular soprano voice. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but I find myself hanging upon every tremor and slide. Not only in her own songs but in those of others.

Who, having heard it, could forget her 2005 album Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, in which she Fosterised German lieder by the likes of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Wolf? Or, four years after this, the 26 Emily Dickinson songs that made up Graphic as a Star.

Josephine Foster’s rendering of the poem, "Heart, We Will Forget Him" is one of the more approachable from her Dickinson set — many of which are cast in stark a cappella.

Here, with guitar, in just under a minute-and-a-half, she injects its two short verses with her own sense of rapture.

Josephine Foster’s next two albums, in 2010 and 2012, were Spanish language affairs.

The singer, in the company of the Victor Herrero Band, had searched out traditional ballads and other songs associated with the Spanish Civil War. And these were a few degrees less artified than her earlier music.

For me, much of the enjoyment, in a song like Miguel Machado’s "Peregrino", (from the album Perlas) came from Foster weaving that extraordinary voice through a visceral instrument mélange of charango, ukulele, harp, and Portuguese 12 string guitar.

I find myself regularly revisiting the quartet of albums that Josephine Foster released between 2012 and 2016. And each time I do, new songs deliver fresh frissons.

You’ll find 2012’s Blood Rushing described on the singer’s website as “a rock-ballet chanté, its music set to a Pueblo drum metapulsing a Pan-American heartbeat.” 

Foster likes to stir her music up and it’s not every band that has a musician like Heather Trost, who can pick up a violin, an Indian violin and a jew’s harp on call. 

She plays all three on the song, Waterfall. This is a number that makes playful flirtation with everything from Creedence Clearwater Revival to Velvet Underground. Even if I found myself compulsively trying to source the numerous 60s pop songs that seep out of it, rather proud to identify a few roving bars from Little Peggy March.

Josephine Foster’s new album Faithful Fairy Harmony has a title designed to tilt some souls into a state of thrall. Each of its three words resonates in its own golden glow, but “fairy” is special for those of us who still have a place in our hearts for Peter Pan.

The singer herself has always harboured and dealt in mysteries. Listening to an hour-long radio interview with Frosty on Dublab’s Celsius Drop programme, I found Foster could be somewhat evasive talking about her music.

The programme opened with the new album’s "Shepherd Moon on Starry Height". Foster outlined her ideal of spaciousness, on wanting to be a shepherd herself and walking in spacious surrounds.  All of which is gorgeously caught here, a her voice floats over a sea of the lushest pluck and twang.

There are few songwriters more conceptually attuned than Josephine Foster.

Last year she described Faithful Fairy Harmony as being less tightly organized than some of her earlier work. It was a disc of orphan songs, as she put it, different things jumbled from different moments. If there was a central theme to it all, it was the spiritual crisis of faith but, in the end, it was a fairly disparate collection.

Unlike those old travelers to Loch Lomond, Foster is happy with both the high and low roads, rhapsodizing on the jewel-like perfection of a Schubert song and the earthy grunt of her Spanish musical adventures. She likes high art and complexity but also likes to mix them with roots.

She happily confesses to dipping into the collective consciousness for inspiration, a cauldron that both inspires you and absords you when you have done what you have had to do; a mystery that permeates the glorious tangle of her new album’s title song.

Listening to, and following in the trail of Josephine Foster’s Faithful Fairy Harmony, you’re inevitably caught by her own piano, leading the band in its wayward journey, threatening, or perhaps promising, any moment, to tumble into Tumbling Tumbleweeds.

Foster, at the piano and organ, has the studio to herself in the anthem-like "I was glad".

The exultancy of the purest rapture was never more potent, as she lays out a harmonic pathway that, I suspect, would even have cast the great Richard Strauss caught in a state of minor astonishment.

Listen to these songs and several more by clicking 'Listen' above.

Music Details

'Song title' (Composer) – Performers
Album title
(Label)

'Little Life' (Foster) – Josephine Foster
Little Life
(Fire)

'Heart, we will forget him' (Copland) – Sanford Sylvan
Beloved That Pilgrimage
(Nonesuch)

'Heart, we will forget him' (Foster) – Josephine Foster
Graphic As a Star
(Fire)

'Peregrino' (Foster/ Machado) – Josephine Foster, Victor Herrero Band
Perlas
(Fire)

'Waterfall' (Foster) – Josephine Foster
Blood Rushing
(Fire)

'Cabin in the Sky' (Duke/ Latouche) – Josephine Foster
I’m a Dreamer
(Fire)

'Amuse a Muse' (Foster) – Josephine Foster
I’m a Dreamer
(Fire)

'Magenta' (Foster) – Josephine Foster
No More Lamps in the Morning
(Fire)

'XIV (My Dove, My Beautiful One)' (Mason) – Willy Mason
Chamber Music: James Joyce
(Fire)

'My Dove, My Beautiful One' (Foster) – Josephine Foster
No More Lamps in the Morning
(Fire)

'Shepherd Moon of Starry Height' (Foster) – Josephine Foster
Faithful Fairy Harmony
(Fire)

'Soothsayer Song' (Foster) – Josephine Foster
Faithful Fairy Harmony
(Fire)

'Faithful Fairy Harmony' (Foster) – Josephine Foster
Faithful Fairy Harmony
(Fire)

'I Was Glad' (Foster) – Josephine Foster
Faithful Fairy Harmony
(Fire)