Catch The Sparrow is the music project of Dutch-born and now England-based composer, singer-songwriter and arranger Suze Terwisscha van Scheltinga. I learned about her when her mother reached out to me after reading my review of the song “Mayfly” by British singer-songwriter Callum Pitt, whom Suze has performed with. Her mother alerted me to Catch The Sparrow’s new EP Winter Flowers that was released on December 2nd of last year, which I’m finally getting around to writing about.
According to her bio, as a child Suze loved writing stories and making music, and upon realizing it was possible to combine both passions, she began writing songs. By the time she was 16, she started performing her own original songs while accompanying herself on piano. She studied at the Utrecht Conservatoire, majoring in Jazz & Pop vocals, and during her time there, she started playing with a band as a way to fully explore new sounds and rhythms. After graduating in 2019, she made the bold decision to relocate to the UK, to study Folk and Traditional music at Newcastle University under the guidance of Emily Portman and Imogen Gunner. Influenced by the likes of Joni Mitchell, Lisa Knapp, Joanna Newsom and Fiona Apple, her compositions transcend boundaries of style and genre in a compelling blend of folk, jazz and pop.
She’s already making a name for herself in the British music scene. Under her artistic moniker Catch The Sparrow (which was inspired by a lyric in the Crosby, Stills & Nash classic “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”), she released her debut single “Painting the Roses Red” in December 2020. She followed in February 2021 with the similarly-titled album Painting the Roses Red, a collection of eight beautiful jazz-infused tracks. Shortly after earning her Master’s degree at Newcastle University in 2021, she saw her song ‘Winnowing’ chosen as one of the highly recommended entries of 2021’s Tune Into Nature Music Prize, and in April 2022 she was selected as one of ten emerging female composers to write for Issie Barratt’s jazz ensemble INTERCHANGE.
As she immersed herself in the culture of Northeast England, Catch The Sparrow discovered the charms of Northumbrian small-pipes (bellows-blown bagpipes from North East England that have been an important factor in the local musical culture for more than 250 years). Inspired by them, along with the traditional folk music she’d studied at Newcastle University, she wrote five songs for Winter Flowers that, in her own words, “reflect the ever present gloom and uncertainty without losing its glimmer of hope.” The EP was produced by David de la Haye, and features contributions of local musicians Ceitidh Mac on cello, Andy May on Northumbrian small-pipes and harmonium, and Mera Royle on harp.
Catch The Sparrow has the voice of an angel, and she layers her enchanting vocals to great effect, especially on the opening track “Farewell/Here’s The Tender Coming“, where she addresses a rather dark subject with beauty and grace. Like several tracks on Winter Flowers, this is actually a combination of two tunes that are are deeply rooted in the Northumbrian folk tradition. She explains: “The first tune ‘Farewell’ was lifted from the The Northumbrian Pipers’ Third Tune Book. The lyrics I wrote for this plaintive little melody, simply described as ‘a slow highland air’, depict the moment of parting and its aftermath. ‘Here’s The Tender Coming’ is a traditional Northumbrian song that recalls the practices of the notorious pressgangs that used to frequent the port of Newcastle during the Napoleonic wars.” (Press gangs were groups of soldiers or sailors used by the British Royal Navy as a harsh means of recruiting able bodied men into naval service, often against their will and by violent coercion. The practice of impressment – also known as Shanghai-ing or crimping – was common in all the world’s ports until about 1820, and was widely used, as recruiting sailors voluntarily was difficult due to the poor conditions on board ships, not to mention the dangers of serving in the navy, especially in times of war.)
“Farewell”, a wistful tune featuring layered a capella vocals accompanied by ambient sounds of gently crashing waves, is sung from the perspective of a newly-impressed sailor bidding goodbye to his loved one “Fare thee well, my sweet lassie. Fare thee well, I must depart.” “Here’s The Tender Coming” is sung from the perspective of the woman being left behind, lamenting the taking of her man, and warning other men to hide from the impressors: “See the tender lying, off at Shield’s Bar. With her colours flying, anchor at the bow. They took my bonny laddie, best of all the crew. Hide, canny laddie, hide theeself away. Hide till the frigate makes for Druridge Bay. If they take ye hinny, who’s to win our bread? Me and little Jackie better off be dead.”
The video for the song shows Catch The Sparrow singing the song in St Andrew’s Church in Newcastle, accompanied by Ceitidh MacLeod on cello and Mera Royle on harp. Instead of sounds of crashing waves, we hear Catch the Sparrow playing the gently droning shruti box (an instrument similar to the harmonium that originated in India).
“Game of Chance” is a melancholy but lovely song, with delicate harp, harmonium and shruti box accompanying Catch The Sparrow’s bewitching vocals. She explains her inspiration for writing this song: “While working on this project, I stumbled by chance on Tish Murtha’s photo series Youth Unemployment, in which she portrays Newcastle’s youth during the Thatcher years. I was struck by the desolation and raw beauty of the pictures. The photo of ‘Cuddles playing cards’ became the inspiration for this particular song. The traditional Northumbrian tune ‘Small Coals an’ Little Money’ serves as a base layer for the song.”
Using card game metaphors, the lyrics seem to speak to the contrasting notions of privilege and luck, and dealing with the hands we’re dealt in life: “I have a lump of coal. It’s the only treasure I own. Daddy says I cannot go, but someday I’ll join him below. Down below, down below. Go ask the devil, ‘cause the devil might know. Deal a hand, deal a hand. We all play a game of chance. I have a deck of cards. Queen of flowers, one-eyed jack. Lucky, he who deals the hands. Took the red ace, left the black.“
Halfway into the EP, we’re treated to “Interlude“, a one-minute long tune consisting of Catch The Sparrow’s layered a capella blend of humming and scat vocals, accompanied by jaunty hand claps. This is followed by “Border Spirit/Before the Flood“, another traditional folk couplet. “Border Spirit” is an instrumental-only tune, comprised of Northumbrian small-pipes and what sounds like shruti box and lasting just under two minutes, which then segues into “Before the Flood”, a beautiful piano-driven song highlighted by melancholy Northumbrian small-pipes and Catch The Sparrow’s soothing layered vocals. I’m struck by how much she sounds British or possibly Scottish, rather than Dutch.
The final track is the third couplet on the EP, featuring the title song “Winter Flowers“, a delicate piano ballad extolling the resilience of flowers able to survive the harsh conditions of winter: “See these flowers grow undeterred by the frost and snow. Hardy little souls, the cold does not faze. Beautiful and bright how they bask in the bleak winter’s light, unafraid of life’s changes.” The second part of the track is “Liberty For The Sailors“, a traditional song celebrating the return of the sailors. Catch The Sparrow’s lilting a capella vocals are accompanied by crashing waves, bringing this charming little EP full circle.
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