Every so often I like to review something different from my usual fare of film and theatre. For Ailsa and the Seahorses, my first ever ‘pop-music’ review, I had an easy introit. I have known the eponymous Ailsa for some years, since her first tentative steps onto the Monday night Open Stage at Henry’s Cellar Bar in Edinburgh.
From those early days of trying out songs, and cementing an identity with an elusive name (the ‘seahorses’ were just a couple of shiny stickers on her acoustic guitar) Ailsa has built up a body of songs, drawn a following of fans, and developed her technique with unassuming integrity.
After graduating from Napier, Ailsa had thoughts of pursuing music journalism. Finding herself stuck in ‘daytime jobs’ she decided to throw herself fully into music-making and become an itinerate singer-songwriter.
Playing at first on the streets and in the bars of Edinburgh, she has ventured further afield to Portugal and Croatia. The culmination of this journeying was the release of an EP – The Centre of Everything – which was launched at Leith Depot on July 28th. But this was not the end of the story… at least, it shouldn’t be.
With her dreamy-voiced, guitar-strumming, chilled-out harmonies, Ailsa has created a distinctive style that fits her introspective and sometimes nostalgic lyrics perfectly. In the world of indie, self-produced music, the word ‘lo-fi’ can seem like false – or fake – modesty, but Ailsa has produced an EP of exceptional quality that would knock most DIY music-makers into a cocked hat.
With characteristic humour, she says it was recorded in ‘a wardrobe.’ Besides investing in some pretty decent tech, and pooling upon friends and family to add instrumental and mixing elements, Ailsa and the Seahorses is a one-person project from the mind of a determined and talented young woman.
Ailsa’s songs, and voice, may be unique, yet there is a familiarity and warmth that draws the listener in. ‘Dreamy’ describes her vocal tone, which hovers between breathy and spoken, yet it has depth and support resulting from good technical application. Her harmonies focus largely on added 6th and major 7th chords, and can seem a little samey. Nevertheless, what Ailsa achieves with a limited vocal range and harmonic language is accomplished and mesmerising.
What’s more, for the launch gig of this ambitious EP (ambitious in quality alone) Ailsa and the Seahorses proved to be no small fish in a big pond. By bringing in two exceptionally sensitive instrumentalists, her audience was treated to renditions of her well-known songs, new material, and one cover (homage to one of her chief influences: The Smiths, There is a light that never goes out) in a configuration never heard before.
With Ailsa on acoustic guitar, Evan Hamilton providing a mellifluous backing on electric guitar, while Morven Warren-McArdle added texture and harmony on viola and vocals, the ethereal world of Ailsa became much more than the sum of its parts. The 45-minute set consisted of ten songs, including the four EP tracks, leaving the audience totally spellbound.
This has become a new musical idea: a far bigger fish – or seahorse – than started out in the small pond of open-mic performances; a launch into the ocean of home-spun mediocrity where Ailsa and her seahorses deserve to ride the waves.
For those of us who have followed her rise from a dreamy, elfin waif to a majestic sea-creature, this has been a dream come true. Hopefully, it will be for Ailsa too.