Along with Vashti Bunyan’s Just Another Diamond Day and Comus’s First Utterance, Swaddling Songs by Mellow Candle was one of those lost, cult LPs whose slow rediscovery helped to spark a renewed interest in the British and Irish psychedelic folk, around 25 years ago. While its potion of meadows, myth and magic still presses plenty of the right folk-rock buttons today, the band avoided too many overt Celtic tinges. It’s an album that can come out swinging capably hard as well as veiling itself with the odd dusky ballad. Anyone familiar with albums by Sandy Denny, Fotheringay and John & Beverley Martyn from the same era will find themselves on safe ground in its 12 tracks.
1971, when most of these songs were written, is the zenith of this bulge in folk music, the year when some of the best music was made in the British Isles, but also when the glut began to pile up and wither in a declining economy. Many of the bands you might associate with the pagan pastoralia of Mellow Candle – Comus, Trees, Forest, The Woods Band, Spirogyra, Heron and others – came and went at the same time with few albums left among the mulch.
The title, Swaddling Songs, promises a music to wrap yourself in. Or perhaps it was a music that the two women at the group’s centre, Clodagh Simonds and Alison O’Donnell, desired to be swaddled in. Because if the album has a story, it’s a typical one for the period and the generation, of wanting to move away from the stifling city and find freedom, enlightenment and escape out in the countryside, in a natural realm that is not free of strangeness and danger: wandering brigands, birds of ill omen, faery creatures, coffins and crows.
But at what point does protective swaddling tip over into overprotective suffocation? “Reverend Sisters”, slower, brooding and reflective, stands apart from the other tracks. It harks back to the girls’ younger days at the Holy Child Convent School in Dublin, where they met and began making music. The nuns who taught them, they recall, summoned them to their office to educate them that life is not a dream, and wisdom will come with the years. The song’s retort to the sisters is that wisdom did come, but not the kind they had in mind. “Now the veils are lifted from my eyes and I can see,” it concludes. The inclusion of this backstory gives the album a mature footing, their childhood a yardstick by which to measure the broader horizons they now aim at.
Simonds and O’Donnell stated making music together in 1963, at the age of 10, and took the name Mellow Candle a couple of years later. 1967 found the duo recording a demo which made its way – after receiving airplay on Radio Luxembourg – to the ears of a talent scout for the actor David Hemmings, who was then looking to break into music production. He invited them to London, where they recorded two songs with an orchestra. Simon Napier-Bell put them out as a single in August 1968, but it didn’t make much of a dent and the friends parted company. Three years on, in the kernel of Britain’s psych-folk Indian summer, they gave it another go. The girlish whimsy had given way to a more windswept vibe. O’Donnell brought David Williams, the guitarist in another band she’d been playing with. Initial rehearsals and writing sessions happened in the suitably rural stables at the home of Simonds’s parents’ house. John Peel hosted the Wexford Festival of Living Music, where the Candle were on the bill, and A&R man/future Chiswick/Ace Records founder Ted Carroll, then managing Thin Lizzy, among others, took them under his wing. (He arranged for Simonds to play keyboards and Mellotron on Lizzy’s second album, Shades Of A Blue Orphanage.) Eventually after a few false starts, including a demo recorded with Caravan’s drummer Richard Coughlan, new members Frank Boylan (bass) and William Murray (drums) were hired. December 1971 found them at Tollington Park Studios in North London, where they recorded Swaddling Songs in a few days. It was released on Deram, the experimental/progressive arm of Decca Records.
The rest of the scenarios are set out in the fields and moors, the perennial landscape of legend in these isles. “Heaven Heath” opens the record with a harpsichord waltz and a romantic vignette, in an Emily Bronte/Christine Rossetti mode, of a woman, a gravestone and a dead child. “Sheep Season” plays out the age-old enmity between shepherd and wolf, while the swaggering, Jefferson Airplane-ish “The Poet And The Witch” opens with an atmospheric snatch of taped tide and gulls. Like many of Mellow Candle’s songs, it’s a stream-of-consciousness mulch of folk-myth archetypes, watered by a diet of romantic lyrical ballads and the visionary-pastoral idealism of WB Yeats. It’s also a great example of the two women’s powerful combined vocals. The next, “Messenger Birds”, showcases O’Donnell’s soaring solo voice in a song that sails a similar course to where Sandy Denny was heading at exactly the same time on The North Star Grassman and the Ravens.
Elsewhere, on “Vile Excesses” and the heavy “Lonely Man”, the Candle lock into their most appealing rhythmic grooves and suggest – in the absence of live tapes – their potential as a jam band, with some strong striding piano from Simonds and twanging electric guitar performance from Williams.
For Mellow Candle, the wilderness offered an enchanted antidote to the crushing boredom of city life. The last track contains just two lines of text, as well as wordless chants: “I know the Dublin pavements/Will be boulders on my grave”. Neither one of Candle’s founders allowed the rocks to gather, even though the band, broke and unnoticed, couldn’t struggle on much longer after the album’s release. They have each enjoyed fascinating, self-driven musical careers in the decades since. Clodagh Simonds was employed as Richard Branson’s PA at Virgin Records, and made guest vocal appearances on Mike Oldfield’s organic ambient LPs Hergest Ridge and Ommadawn. After residing in South Africa for many years she returned and in 2005 formed experimental folk band Fovea Hex. For Alison O’Donnell the 1970s involved being a member of folk band Flibbertigibbett, but in more recent times she has joined forces with Steven Collins’s alternative folk collective The Owl Service, formed her own unit United Bible Studies, and in 2022 released a solo folk album Hark The Voice That Sings For All. If anything remains of the Mellow Candle era in Fovea Hex and UBS, it’s the sense of openness to the moment, the musical fluidity and the focus on atmospheric texture. Above all, they have finally affirmed that it is possible to thrive on making an uncompromised music far away from anything perceived as the mainstream.