Cat Clyde - Ivory Castanets

By Chloe Sjuberg

Many people say walking in the woods and feeling the earth under your feet can provide mental health benefits, giving us energy and making us feel calm and grounded. That feeling is certainly real for me, and Stratford, Ontario artist Cat Clyde channels it on her debut album, Ivory Castanets.

She plays folk, blues and soul in an authentic, timeless style, exploring different elements of those genres and nailing every one. Rather than sounding deliberately vintage in order to evoke another time and place, this feels totally natural and universal. She sings of nature and its transformative power throughout the album, which is obvious from some of the song titles (“The Meadow,” “Like a Wave,” “Running Water”), but it’s reflected in every song’s lyrics too. This further adds to the agelessness and vitality that she’s managed to bring out of her take on the classic folk and blues traditions.

The first slide guitar notes of the opener, “Sheets of Green,” are rich and confident, as is her gorgeous and unusual voice. She enunciates carefully, she crows clearly. She establishes a mood right away – her narrator is “looking for, craving for” something, and she finds it in the ground and in green things. This idea of searching for something through or alongside the natural world threads through the rest of the album.

Her view of nature is literally not all sunshine and rainbows. It’s the wind, the rain, the rushing water, the unyielding rocks. There’s a tension in her relationship with the natural world — it’s freeing and full of energy, but so much so that it can be overwhelming. On the haunting, quick-moving “The Meadow,” she sings: “You were born in a river that was made to take you under/The rocks made jagged just to cut you up”. On “Heavy Weight,” which has a southern gothic rock feel, that weight is a living thing, like wild, tangled greenery, “growing over everything.

Water, in particular, plays many different roles throughout the album. On “Running Water,” its unstoppable motion can help her calm down and accept the unexpected: “Maybe it will flood and submerge all the uneasiness I feel.” While the first two tracks have the most contemporary feel, it’s on this third track that Cat’s jazz, soul and blues chops really come into play, incorporating smoky scat, stand-up bass and horns.

“Like a Wave” combines a bass-laden swing rhythm with modern introspection. Here water can be overpowering; she compares the emotional weight she places on a loved one to the ocean’s undertow. “My thoughts are colossal/I can see they weigh you down” was a line I was especially taken with in this one.

The first five songs of Ivory Castanets are amazing. As a unit, I could listen to them over and over. There are a lot of delightful elements on the second half, but it’s a bit less cohesive and some songs feel just a bit unfinished. They just didn’t hold my attention in quite the same way. (An exception is “The Man I Loved Blues,” which is wonderful in the way it embraces classic blues rhythm and structure, telling a powerful story through repeated lines and rhymes. Once again, the narrator of this song goes her own way, searching for peace and letting the wild ease her heartbreak:

When I find that mountain breeze I know I will find peace

When I find that mountain breeze I know I will find peace

Gonna unload my burdens, let the salty sea set me free

I’ll keep searching ’til I find it, I won’t rest until I do

I’ll keep searching ’til I find it, I won’t rest until I do

I’ve got the rest of my days to get over you.)

That said, every song is most definitely worth listening to. Cat’s songwriting and vocal talent are impossible to pass up — as is the quietly empowering idea I took away from Ivory Castanets. We can’t control nature any more than we can other people, but if we let it, our relationship with our environment can help us find calm and understanding. Cat’s music will remind me of that while I lie in the grass and dip my toes in the water this summer.