Norwich Arts Centre
51 St Benedicts St
Norwich NR2 4PG
Let Ida Mae take you on a joyride across the vast American expanse. Be introduced toall manner of eccentric characters along the way – drunken poets, fallen oligarchs,heartbroken country music stars – and revel in the chaos and carnage of a world on thebrink. This is the British folk-rock duo’s spectacular third album, Thunder Above You.
Recorded in just seven days, Thunder Above You marks the most significant creative period in Ida Mae’s astounding career to date. It followed months of touring the stateswith legendary artists including Willie Nelson and Lucinda Williams, driving from clubsto arena shows and, all the while, being inspired by the dramatic landscapes thatsurrounded them.
Ida Mae are husband and wife duo Chris Turpin and Stephanie Jean Ward. They metwhile studying at university, quickly bonding over their mutual passion for music and later forming their first band, Kill It Kid. Penning three critically acclaimed records theyspent their early twenties touring extensively across Europe.
As Ida Mae, Turpin and Ward have garnered further acclaim with their bold sound thattraverses classic English folk, sprawling Americana and scuzzy, frenetic rock. Moving to Nashville in 2019 led to the release of their debut Chasing Lights, produced by Ethan Johns (producer of Laura Marling, Kings of Leon, Ray Lamontagne). Praised bynational publications including The Independent and Rolling Stone, Ida Mae set out on the road on a tour that would serve as the backdrop for their second album, the self-produced Click Click Domino, Recorded in the strange isolation of lockdown, therecord melded familiar country blues and folk tones with more synthetic sounds. On the swing and grind of the title track, Turpin duels with guitar hero Marcus King; thefoot-stompin’ riff is reminiscent of Howlin’ Wolf or Jack White.
Thunder Above You was born out of the most dramatic of circumstances. While out ontour with Willie Nelson and Lucinda Williams, the couple learnt that Stephanie waspregnant. It was then, in San Francisco, caught up in a bomb cyclone, that they decided to return to the English countryside. “We wanted this album to be more of a live thing,”Turpin explains. He’d recalled a friend’s family home in Norwich: “The most unbelievable mansion I’d ever seen.” After bonding with the friend’s father over music, Turpin convinced him to let the band record there, ensconced among the mahogany pannelling and warm acoustics with all the vintage equipment they’d collected over the years.
We cut the record in under a week, pretty much all live including the vocals,” he remembers. “We wanted it to be an immersive experience – for listeners to feel like theywere joining us at this house, recording in the glow of lamps at night. And there was no pre-production, there were no rehearsals. What you hear on the record is what went down in the room.” He and Ward were delighted, too, by the opportunity to get back toplaying with their longtime collaborators Ethan Johns, who contributed drums on the album, and bassist Nick Pini (Laura Marling, Nick Mulvey). “There are so many artists now who’ll work from home to a click track, samples, beats, autotune...” Turpin says,“which is an incredible thing in that it democratises recording. But you also lose the communication of musicians working together in a space, who are really competent enough to play to one another.”
This explains the gorgeous intricacies on Thunder Above You. On the startling second track, “Into Your River”, Turpin and Ward’s voices intertwine over soft-shimmering percussion and the subtle meandering of the piano. It’s an incredibly tender performance, enhanced by the extraordinarily intimate recording set-up and dextrous musicianship of each artist. “Soon my heart will be fearless and I’ll say your name ‘til it rings like silver, let me dive into your river” Turpin sings in his velvet croon. Ida Mae would stick to just two or three takes of a song: “You’re not thinking – your subconscious is there, but everything you’re doing is on instinct,” he explains. “The result is that you can dive into this record and live within it.”
Around the time the band were beginning to think about recording their third album, Turpin had found himself drawn towards the English folk music of his childhood. “Much of my teenage years were spent obsessing over what bands like Free and Led Zeppelin were listening to, and as a teenager I’d go to my local arts centre and see people like Martin Simpson and Bert Jansch perform,” he recalls. “As I’ve got older I’ve begun to rediscover them, Nick Drake, and John Martyn. So I began to lean more into the British folk world, and that’s definitely expressed itself on the album.”.
The alluring “Doing It For Badness” was one such song where Turpin found himself drawing on those folk influences. Its unusual title and refrain come from an expressionused by Ward’s mother, who grew up on a dairy farm in Northern Ireland. “It means doing something just to be cheeky,” Turpin says with a grin. Ida Mae certainly toy with that notion on the track, with their sultry delivery and silky harmonies. “My heart’sscared to feel like this,” Ward sings. “Did you think that I would step a little closer?/ Three days, we’ve gone too far/ Now we’re swimming in secrets/ Deep as a reservoir.”
Thunder Above You is particularly striking for the dynamic the band have crafted. This is an album that trips you up and leads you down unexpected paths. Before the intimacy of “Into Your River” you have album opener “My Whispers are Wildfire”, a slice of surrealism coasting on a Cuban-style rhythm and creeping, pervasive beats from John’s Moog drum machine. “I have no idea how that came about,” Turpin admits with a laugh. “Sometimes I feel my lyrical inspiration is somewhere between Lucinda Williams and Lennon & McCartney, playing with ideas and images and the juxtaposition of oddphrases and words.”
He realised he was experiencing a visceral reaction to US politics and the fraught nature of social media. “I flirted with some of the images I’d seen and the headlines that flare up in the news,” he says. “And mental health issues. I really feel for younger artists coming up today, the barrage of TikTok and social media. It’s a very different experience to when we were breaking through.” He speaks to the fickle nature of fame as Wards ings, “I’m gonna love you ‘til the money runs out.” Then the sharp sting of realisation:“Got a job just to get paid/ My beating heart like a bright red cage/ Now nothing evertastes good/ And rock and roll doesn’t roll like it should.”
Ida Mae are more playful here with their influences: traditional-sounding tracks such asthe Woodie Guthrie-indebted “Wild Flying Dove” sit alongside “Hold You Like Fading Light”, the album’s sprawling, fathomless closer. Other songs, like “Landslide”, are justas memorable for their graceful simplicity. There’s a timeless quality to the simplechords, redolent of Nick Drake or Towns van Zandt; Turpin and Ward’s harmonies arestark yet soothing. “I really wanted something that could stand on its own, that feltclassic, in a way,” Turpin says. “It was written for a family member whose partner wasgoing through a particularly tough time – the chorus speaks for itself. ‘As difficult as thismoment seems, I’ll love you through all of it.’”
The golden thread woven through Thunder Above You is the album’s innate humanity.In the middle of the storm, surrounded by fear, chaos and confusion, are the peoplewho’ll take care of each other. The ones who’ll stand firm even as they’re faced withdarkness and despair. Those who can find moments of joy and humour when thingsseem at their bleakest. It’s fitting, then, that Turpin wrote the title track while thinkingabout the needs of someone else. “I think with everything going on in the world, the sense of impending doom but also having a baby on the way, I wanted to write something that could be sung when I’m not around anymore,” he says.
“Thunder Above You”, then, is about the impression we leave behind. Delicate acousticguitar picking unfurls like ripples across a still pool, as Turpin conjures an evocativeimage of the infinitesimal moments where memories can be found. “Spit our names tothe wind once more/ Take my hand until it’s sure/ Oh we’re just shadows, heart andbone/ and I’ve loved you more than I could ever have shown.” The guitar picks up inintensity towards the close, a flurry of life, not going quietly but rage, raging...“We’ve loved our life in music,” Turpin says “The fact that we’re still doing this now, having played with most of the artists I admire, travelling across 46 states... It’s really been anastonishing journey.”