Upon photographing “The Lost Words - Spell Songs”…

Where do I even begin?

In the decade that I’ve been working as a photographer, I’ve had the absolute privilege of documenting all kinds of wonderful people and projects and places. I’ve lost count of the number of occasions I’ve had cause to stop and go “oh, my goodness, this is my JOB” and I will forever be grateful for that. With all of that firmly in mind, I’m still not sure anything could have prepared me for just how deeply this new project, The Lost Words – Spell Songs, would resonate with me.

For those of you unfamiliar with The Lost Words book, it’s an absolutely beautiful, important piece of work by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris which “began as a response to the removal of everyday nature words from a widely used children’s dictionary, but then grew to become a much broader protest at the loss of the natural world around us, as well as a celebration of the creatures and plants with which we share our lives, in all their characterful glory”. As someone who was essentially raised as a little wildling by her parents, who was taught about the wonders of the natural world from the get-go (apparently I knew the words “starfish; stickleback; dragonfly; blenny; mullet; hermit crab” and more before the age of two) and who still finds such joy and comfort in them today, the idea that these words were disappearing from the vocabulary of children was especially devastating.

The original Lost Words book, along with some beautiful otters and a gilded stone kindly gifted to me by Jackie Morris after our meeting in the Lake District.

Considering all of the above, I was 100% on board before the brilliant Adam, Caroline and Neil had even told me which wonderful musical folk they’d asked to be involved. And then I had to go sit down for a bit. As Robert said in a piece for The Guardian, “it felt like the folk music equivalent of Avengers Assemble”. (I’ll not lie, this might well be my all-time favourite line that any of my images have ever appeared alongside.)

Documenting this project and working with these people has been a genuine honour and privilege. They are the most thoughtful, generous characters and what has been created is truly a thing of powerful, moving magic. I don’t mind telling you that I had a right old happy cry when I saw my photos appearing alongside (and combined with) Jackie’s incredible new artwork, Robert’s thought-provoking new spells and, of course, the astonishing new music and additional words by Julie Fowlis, Kris Drever, Karine Polwart, Rachel Newton, Bethany PorterSeckou Keita, Jim Molyneux and Kerry Andrew. Without wanting to give too much away, the final product looks a little like this…

The Lost Words - Spell Songs album/book/book/album.

…but here’s where it all started, back in September 2018 at Greta Hall in the picturesque Lake District. This was the first meeting of what would turn out to be an absolute dream-team. Jackie mesmerised us all with her conjuring of otters, Caroline plied us with spectacular cake, I carted approximately 10kgs of camera gear up Cat Bells, ideas and songs were shared and the beginnings of the most incredible creative connections were forged.

Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane with Adam & Caroline Slough at Greta Hall.

And then January rolled around. We all crossed our fingers and toes that the weather would hold as we travelled to Monnington House for the writing residential and I arrived to the utterly joyous sound of Kris and Seckou playing with some ideas for “Heron”. Being a fly on the wall during that seemingly never-ending flow of creative processes - observing the thoughtful way that each musician approached the material and allowed space for each other within each piece, watching Jackie watching the musicians as she began her sketches and the first paintings of them - was quite something. You couldn’t help but feel, almost overwhelmingly, inspired. I left with a full heart and equally full memory cards.

I’m fairly certain that Jackie Morris might actually be magic.

The first of Jackie’s beautiful paintings: Rachel Newton became the egret’s spirit human.

A couple of days later I returned to the fold, this time joining the team at the infamous Rockfield Studios in Monmouthshire. I’ve always been fascinated by the recording process and the layering of sound and texture, so getting to watch my ever-brilliant pal Andy Bell (the man behind the outstanding sound engineering and production on this project) working with such incredible musicians was a real treat.  

The Kris Drever guitar fort.

Rachel Newton, Beth Porter, Karine Polwart and Julie Fowlis laying down some group vocals.

Andy Bell, resident sound wizard.

Jim Molyneux at THE piano.

Upon my return home from this week of being around such beautiful, emotive music, I found myself very much needing to write about it. (***Gentle content warning before you read further: the next section touches upon grief and bereavement. If you’re not in a space where you feel able to read about that right now, please be kind to yourself and feel free to scroll down to the next photos.***)

Just under three years ago, quite out of the blue, I lost my Mum. It was pain beyond anything I’d ever felt; a pain so ferocious that my brain still occasionally slams the door shut and refuses to allow it in. Every now and again, though, I stumble across something which somehow manages to unlock it again - to gently coax a few emotions out for a brew and a bit of a heart to heart. The grief can still be very intense, but the beauty of the music or art in question sits with me like an old friend. “Little Astronaut”, with Robert’s words and the Spell Songs musicians’ perfectly sympathetic setting of them, immediately became such a companion. Here’s what I wrote a short while after hearing this song being conjured into existence:  

“Right now I need you, for my sadness has come again and my heart grows flatter - so I’m coming to find you by following your song” - Lark, by Robert Macfarlane.

As I begin this post, the clock has just chimed 11.30pm on a somewhat blustery Saturday night in Derby. I’m currently curled up in a little ball of tiredness; clutching a camomile tea and attempting to persuade my brain to shuffle words into some kind of readable order, like sparrows on a washing line. I’ve just returned from documenting a week in the company of the most incredible, inspiring people who have been working on the most incredible, inspiring project. The music which has come out of it has both broken and mended my heart repeatedly - and believe me when I tell you I mean that in the most powerfully positive way.

I think I was always going to fall pretty hard for the Spell Songs project. Music, nature and art have played a huge part in maintaining my emotional well-being throughout my entire life so far and, importantly, they are things I shared a great love of with both of my parents - and continue to share with my lovely Dad - even through the most trying of times. Believe me again, there have been a few of those too.

There are two birds which I associate strongly with my Mum: the wren and the lark. The wren as her favourite bird (and one she may have shared a characteristic or two with), and the lark as the feature of one of her favourite pieces of music: “The Lark Ascending” by Ralph Vaughan Williams, which we played as we said goodbye at her funeral. Hearing a lark singing still stops me in my tracks every time - it’s the most perfect reminder to just pause and reflect for a moment on everything. To remember how much beauty there is yet in the world, and how fortunate I am to still be here to witness it. I don’t mind telling you that I had to step away and take
a minute after hearing the Lost Words Spell Songs’ rendition of “Lark” - but please don’t think this was a reaction comprised solely of sadness. Much as that was present, there was so, so much beauty and hope in there too. “Sing your heart out at all dark matter.” 

I think we can quite safely establish that I was somewhat affected by what I’d heard, read and witnessed, and I know I’m far from being alone in this reaction. Jackie and Robert’s book has had, and continues to have, the most profound and beautiful impact. The combination of this with the new music, however, is something you’re going to have to experience for yourself because I currently find that I am - somewhat fittingly - a little too lost for words. So, let’s move onto the tour!

I joined the crew in Manchester at the RNCM, curious beyond imagining as to how the audiences would react to the music and sentiment that I’d so fallen for. As it stands, I ended up being oh-so-very-glad that I had a camera in front of my face for most of the gig. And the following gig in London. Annnd a bit of the time between. The sold-out gigs both received standing ovations, tears were shed over The Blessing and, as the audiences filed out of the auditoriums with collectively dazed and dreamy expressions, the most overheard comment went something along the lines of “oh my, oh my God…”

Our lovely pal Ben Dave joined the crew for this tour to handle the live visuals element of the show and has done some beautiful video work for the project too!

The amazing team at STAG (Sheffield Tree Action Groups) were kind enough to send each of the LWSS crew a Heartwood charm!

Jackie and Robert in conversation with Jo Frost from Songlines Magazine.

Jackie Morris, conjuring otters live on stage.

L to R: Kris Drever, Karine Polwart, Seckou Keita, Rachel Newton, Jackie Morris, Robert Macfarlane, Julie Fowlis, Beth Porter and Jim Molyneux at the end of their sold-out show at the Southbank Centre, London.

Once again, I found myself back in the real world and needing to attempt to articulate the after effects of spending time in this incredible creative microcosm:

I’ve had so many of the Lost Words Spell Songs tunes playing on loop in my head since getting back home from the tour on Wednesday. I think I’ve felt pretty much every emotion going too; everything from dancing around the kitchen with joy, right the way through to feeling a mighty urge to just curl up and hug my knees as I contemplate the loss demonstrated by this most beautiful of protests.”

…and suddenly three months had passed and it was Hay Festival time! Hay Festival with the added giddy excitement of now having the physical copies of the brand new Spell Songs album/book of dreams. Here’s Julie and Karine seeing it for the first time:

I can confirm that the paper is as gorgeous as Julie’s expression suggests it is.

Rachel and I had far too much fun taking over the Hay Festival Instagram account for the day, interviews and live sessions were done, another standing ovation was gifted and everyone was BEAMING.

Jackie Morris and Rachel Newton being interviewed by Nathaniel Hardy for Songlines Magazine.

Neil Pearson, project manager, on merch duty!

Beth Porter, charming goldfinch.

Spell Songs at Hay Festival 2019. L to R: Jim Molyneux, Kris Drever, Seckou Keita, Julie Fowlis, Beth Porter, Karine Polwart and Rachel Newton.

Last for now but by no means least, it would feel ten kinds of remiss not to direct you towards / show a bit of extra love to the awesome team behind the scenes. So, to Caroline & Adam Slough of Folk By The Oak, Neil Pearson, Andy Bell, Ben Dave, Robin Stenham and everyone at JSL Productions - thank you, it’s been a total joy working with you all. The beautiful design work throughout the project is by Alison O’Tool, and Harriet Simms of Glass Ceiling PR has been doing an amazing job helping to tell the world about it. 

If you’ve scrolled this far and still fancy absorbing a bit more Spell Songs magic, you can watch the video for The Blessing below, check out the Lost Words Spell Songs YouTube channel and/or head on over to Spotify to discover even more of the artists’ music! There are some excellent reviews and interviews by David Weir over on Folk Radio UK too.

And if you’ve made it right to the end here, huge thanks to you too - I hope you’ve enjoyed your visit.

All the very best,

Elly x

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