Artist: Brooks Williams & Aaron Catlow
Album: Ghost Owl
Label: Red Guitar Blue Music
Year Of Release: 2021
Quality: FLAC (tracks)
01. Night Shift (4:14)
02. Hoolet (4:15)
03. Ghost Owl (4:33)
04. Billy Wix (4:03)
05. Rene’s Garden (5:19)
06. Tipper’s Field (4:09)
07. First Dusk (5:12)
08. Weary of the Moon (4:42)
09. Fenland Flyer (3:45)
10. Johnny’s Farewell (4:23)
Invited by the filmmaker Simon Hurwitz midway through 2020 and in the middle of lockdown, Brooks Williams undertook a project to write some music with the barn owl as his theme. The Wildlife Conservationist and Photographer Hurwitz, who also runs a Barn Owl Project, was working on a collection of films with Billy Wix, the traditional name for the barn owl, as his focus and thought Williams’ guitar would be the perfect accompaniment.
Inspired by Hurwitz’s films and work, Williams quickly enlisted violinist Aaron Catlow to contribute to the project. They bounced ideas between Williams’ home in Cambridge and Catlow’s home in Bristol before sending it to sound engineer Mark Freegard to complete the recordings in Glasgow.
Born in Statesboro, Georgia, Williams brings a sensitive and atmospheric American sound to the story of the barn owl. A talented and sensitive guitarist, he is well known for his work with Boo Hewerdine, Rab Noakes, Findlay Napier, amongst many others. The equally talented Catlow is perhaps better known as one half of Hawes and Catlow, with guitarist Kit Hawes, but has long played with Williams and the duo make a very impressive double act on Ghost Owl.
The resulting duet, ten tracks of sublime folk and roots guitar and violin, is a mellow, graceful and evocative soundscape to the world of these stunning and rarely seen birds.
The title of the album, Ghost Owl, comes from another name for the remarkable bird. Legend has it that the traditional image we have of a ghost, the white-sheeted figure flying towards us, is actually inspired by the paleness of the barn owl caught in moonlight. Anyone who has seen such birds flitting through the dark trees will certainly recognise how such an idea emerged. It’s a special moment when you catch sight of a barn owl in the wild, and Williams’ and Catlow’s album beautifully captures that excitement.
As Williams observes in his sleeve notes, the presence of the ‘Ghost Owl’ can tell us much about how healthy and diverse the habitat is. Simply put, it’s a good sign for the land if such owls are present, and it’s a good sign for the ear for the presence of Williams’ and Catlow’s recording.
The record is completely instrumental, with flashes of folk, roots and blues peppered throughout. ‘Hoolet’, named after the old Scottish word for owl, has a playful, jazz-inspired vibe, the violin and guitar teasing each other as they bounce along with a lively rhythm. This same vibe is felt in ‘Billy Wix’, a sprightly little tune.
The title track has a more mature, reflective air, which swiftly shifts into a sweeping, majestic duet. Williams’ delicate, precise guitar perfectly flirting with Catlow’s swooping violin. ‘Fenland Flyer’ also explores the flight of the bird, sweeping between Williams’ guitar and Catlow’s violin.
For inspiration, Williams visited friends’ gardens, watched film and sourced photographs, but it was a chance encounter near his home that bore unlikely fruit. As Williams notes: “…. A mere few hundred yards from my house – the last place I would expect – a Ghost Owl, as they are known, catches my eye at First Dusk. On silent wings, my very own Fenland Flyer, my very own Hoolet, with its tell-tale, heart-shaped face, banks left and drops to the ground, only to take flight again seconds later. I follow its course until I lose it in the winter twilight.”
The sense of chance, as well as contemplation and reflection, is also felt in ‘Rene’s Garden,’ whilst ‘First Dusk’ begins with an almost sleepy duet, whilst ‘Weary of the Moon’ continues the story with a feisty little tune which picks up the pace in the mid-section for a quick piece of jazzy, almost gypsy guitar.
The final track on the album, ‘Johnny’s Farewell,’ starts with some bluegrass-inspired guitar before heading into a toe-tapping little dance. It works well and helps to conclude the album on the upbeat.
Throughout Ghost Owl, there is the palpable sense that Williams and Catlow have fallen in love with the stories surrounding the majestic barn owl. It’s not hard to see why.
Ghost Owl is a joyous, stimulating, and thoroughly beguiling listen. It is, in many ways, the perfect soundtrack to a warm summer’s night. Calm, reflective, and thoroughly entrancing, the duet of guitar and violin washes pleasantly over you. It’s impossible not to be swept away by Williams’ and Catlow’s beautiful musicianship. The joy inherent in the duet of guitar and violin is infectious.
The idea behind the composition of Ghost Owl may have been relatively simple, but as with the best ideas, the magic lies in its execution. With such experts on hand, the barn owl has the perfect soundtrack to its twilight habits. Ghost Owl, like its inspiration, is a thing of beauty.