There's something of the sea in the songs of Cindy Kallet: something of the honesty and intimacy of water and stones and the wild shorebirds, something of the tight-knit communities and strong, silent families of the New England coast she loves so much. It’s there in her lyrics, which speak of the small moments of hope and love and laughter that make life rich and worth celebrating. It’s there in her craft, which combines simple, heartfelt, unadorned elements -- a crisp, pure alto, an almost classical guitar sound, the rich harmonies of friends – in skillful, effective ways. And it’s there in her style, which echoes the older folkways of the sea shanty, the Celtic folk ballad, and post-Puritan shape note singing.
Cindy Kallet’s music is folk in a traditional sense, unpretentious, unproduced, grounded in place and nature and community, celebrating a simpler life. It is of a particularly New England coastal school of music, of a mind with the work of Gordon Bok and a few select others who spend as much time building boats and serving community as they do performing and crafting songs of simple praise. As a product of and for that place, it contains elements of traditional rural folk ballads and sea shanties, combining them with Appalachian instruments and the trope and formal phrasing of Quaker plainsong. And it sounds older than it is, as if it skipped over the major transformation that folks like Dylan, Guthrie and Seeger brought to the table of American "modern" folk, to pull instead from a strong and uninterrupted tradition of simple music "of the folk" played earnestly and without pretense.
In a world which considers such rough-edged confessional poets as Dylan and Guthrie the forefathers of modern American folk music, the “classical sensibility” and delicate phrasing Cindy Kallet brings to her craft can seems like an anomaly. But for all its grounding in the folk sounds, imagery, and culture of the northern American coast, there is also something both more intimately familiar and more elusively original about Cindy Kallet.
Kallet is a truly talented and innovative songwriter and performer, one who brings her own uniquely skilled touch to her craft. Her first album Working on Wings to Fly, released way back in 1981, was named one of the Top 100 Folk Albums of the Millenium by Boston folk radio station WUMB. She has earned high praise and admiration from many folk musicians more typically identified with the “mainstream” singer-songwriter folk movement, such as Christine Lavin, Dar Williams, and Patty Larkin, who cites Kallet’s Dreaming Down a Quiet Line as one of her favorite albums. In turn, Kallet cites James Taylor and Joni Mitchell among her influences, and indeed, there is something of James Taylor's finger styling in her own, something of the phrasing of Joni's sparser dulcimer tunes in the way Kallet pushes her pure legato voice soaring over her crisp stringwork. But the way she combines traditional and modern elements is truly her own. And the honest, intelligent eye she brings to bear on these elements is incomparable.
More than anything else, Cindy Kallet’s music is an overwhelmingly intimate and open experience. But though her music is extraordinarily unadorned, it is anything but simplistic. Kallet’s songs are simultaneously a celebration of the world, and a communion with it. Her way with language, and with emotional delivery, is deliberate and intelligent, carefully wrought to serve what comes across as an almost holy reverence for the small details that make life worth living well.
This is serious folk music, the core of the genre. It is simple, without being sparse. It is simultaneously delicate and complete. Every note counts, and seems carefully chosen. It feels like home, somewhere by the sea, on a warm Spring afternoon. I have never heard music that makes me want to listen so carefully.
Kallet’s skillful ability to bring together the elements of modern and traditional folk to revere and recreate a particular place and time is paralleled by an ability to bring together others, both as lyricists and as collaborators, to reach an equally powerful communion. As her own songwriting is celebratory, and rich in gentle purpose, the artists and songs she chooses to cover are equally authentic, in tune with the sea and the joy of life lived simply in every moment. This has often meant reaching towards traditional songs of the Irish and British Isles, as in her most recent album Cross the Water, a collection of originals and Irish reels produced with multi-instrumentalist Grey Larsen; it has also meant covering the work of other contemporary musicians, like Gordon Bok and Dougie MacLean, who share her sense of place. And her collaborative work with compatriots Michael Cicone and Ellen Epstein, which produced two incredible albums over a decade apart and will produce a third in May, ranges farther, finding that same sensibility in the working-class community portrait of Bruce Springsteen's My Hometown, and a gorgeous three-part a capella delivery of Dylan's When The Ship Comes In.
For all its evident craft, Cindy Kallet’s music comes across as egoless and effortless. Even as her songs celebrate the world she loves, she delivers them as if the point of performance were to invest every bit of her energy into helping each song become that which it is trying to be. This is far rarer than many of us would like to admit. Combine this with that sweet, rich alto, a powerful sense of phrasing in service to praise, and that skilled ability to use not only guitars, but the rarer instruments -- dulcimer, harmonium -- to support her sound, and the end result is an artist who is worthy of the highest praise and celebration.
So let us celebrate Cindy Kallet, as she helps us to celebrate the simple things. For all of us need more laughter and joy in honest work and play, more sea and spray in our lives. And this, more than anything, is the soundtrack to that life we dream of.
(from Dreaming Down a Quiet Line)
(from This Way Home)
(from Only Human)
(from Cross the Water)
If you're interested in purchasing Cindy Kallet's work, the AllMusic Guide recommends starting with Cindy Kallet 2, and both Patty Larkin and I highly recommend Dreaming Down a Quiet Line, though all three of her early solo albums are worthy additions to any folk collection. Parents may also be interested in Kallet’s wonderful children’s CD Leave the Cake in the Mailbox, which won a Parent Choice Gold Award in 2004.
Cindy Kallet's collaborative work comes highly recommended, too. Kallet still tours with Grey Larsen in support of their 2007 release Cross The Water, which I have been enjoying very much. And the trio of Kallet, Epstein and Cicone will release their third CD in May; in the meanwhile, their previous two albums, which are chock full of cover songs, come highly recommended.
Previously on Cover Lay Down: Ann Percival covers Cindy Kallet's Tide and the River Rising