Imagine it. You’re lying on a summer beach, Covid a vanishing memory, the sea lapping at your feet and the two greatest sounds on earth trickling through your earbuds… The music of an angel and a cafe cooking bacon sandwiches.
This perfect duet between beauty and butty is captured on the debut album by Welsh harpist Bethan Nia, Ffiniau, an end-to-end bilingual masterpiece produced by REM’s studio whizz Charlie Francis.
“I used to busk in Pontypridd then sit in The Prince’s cafe writing songs,” says Bethan. “The place is an institution, all Art Deco and a wonderful old copper boiler. I’d listen to the sounds around me – the chat, the laughter, the sound of a kitchen making bacon sandwiches, the hiss of frothy coffee…and I knew I wanted that on my album. It’s every sound we’ve missed in lockdown.”
“I played some Welsh tunes and What we got was perfect”
“So, I took in my harp and we set up some recording equipment, I played some Welsh tunes and we hoped for the best. What we got was perfect. The cafe sounds are a soft murmur behind the harp…the rhythm of a life we long to return to.”
The debut LP Ffiniau (translates from Welsh as Borders) is finally released today (21st June 2021) and is a bilingual tour-de-force exploring the boundaries that exist between people, languages and worlds. The songs are deeply rooted in the Welsh tradition, but with subtle beats and atmospheric strings underpinning Bethan’s sparkly harp and vocals.
The album, and it’s 13 tracks, represent almost ten years of Bethan’s writing and is already attracting rave reviews. “She delivers a superb mixture of the traditional and contemporary,” says BBC Radio’s Frank Hennessy, the undisputed godfather of Welsh folk music. “Her harp playing perfectly matching a gorgeous voice.”
Bethan, herself, is a little more modest. “This album has been a labour of love for several years,” she says, “and I’m just pleased it’s finally come to fruition. The musicians who I have supporting me are the cream of Welsh folk musicians, and I’m so happy to have them play on the album.
A chance meeting on a train with Glastonbury Festival organiser Michael Eavis led to one of the highlights of Bethan’s musical journey, to date, appearing at the Festival in 2007.
“Michael Eavis was sitting in my seat on a train,” she grins. “He moved as soon as he realised, sat opposite me and we got talking. To be honest, it’s hard not to recognise him! After he discovered I played the harp for a living, he asked me to play at the opening of his village hall, which he had given money to for its renovations, which led to a gig on the Avalon Stage at Glastonbury Festival. I couldn’t believe my luck, that such a giant gig had fallen into my lap.”
Bethan entranced the crowds with songs and tunes, some of which now appear on the Ffiniau album. And they’d already received a seal of approval from The Levellers’ singer and guitarist Mark Chadwick.
“I was in a yurt at the performers’ area at Glastonbury when I had to move because Katie Melua needed the space,” Bethan recalls. “I found another tent, and I was tuning up my harp when Mark Chadwick walked in. He seemed really interested, so I played him a Welsh song and he said ‘Wow, that was amazing!’
“I asked him if he’d like a go and taught him a Welsh folk tune. I had trouble getting my harp back from him! That’s when he asked me to join The Levellers on stage that night. It was sensational. What an incredible experience!
“This was the same year I won the Danny Kyle Award at Celtic Connections, and that, together with playing at Glastonbury, was where it all began really. I then started a family and things went quiet for several years, until I met Charlie and got excited about music again.
“The world needs music right now. I hope that Ffiniau will relax, soothe and enchant listeners and be the perfect accompaniment to that day on a summer beach that we all hope and pray is coming.”
Along, of course, with HP Sauce, it should be the perfect accompaniment to a bacon sarnie.
“I want to go back to The Prince’s cafe and play a free gig just to say thank you,” Bethan smiles. “And they do a lovely pot of tea!”
Bethan Nia, Ffiniau was released on 21 June. For more information, please visit Bethan’s Official Website