Album review: The Song Club by Felicity Urquhart and Josh Cunningham

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Felicity Urquhart is one of Australia’s most beloved country music artists, for her solo releases as well as for her years of hosting Saturday Night Country on ABC Radio. Urquhart is also a wonderful collaborator: the two Bennett Bowtell & Urquhart albums are testament to that (not to mention how sublime it is to see Urquhart play live with Kevin Bennett and Lyn Bowtell), and she is also a frequent co-writer, whether it’s as a participant at the Dag Sheep Station songwriter retreats or in individual arrangements with other artists.

It is collaboration that brought her together with Josh Cunningham, a member of the also-loved band The Waifs. In January 2020 the pair were invited to participate in The Song Club, whose members had to produce a song each week. Throughout the lockdown of 2020 songs were produced – enough between the two of them to create their new album, appropriately titled The Song Club. The collaboration also brought them together personally, and it is that connection which infuses the album. Urquhart’s late husband, Glen Hannah, was her musical collaborator – playing in her band and producing some of her songs – but The Song Club marks a different sort of collaboration for her, and an experiment of sorts.

It is rare to have a musical couple document the start of their relationship – usually by the time they’ve worked out how to collaborate they’ve been together for a while, as with Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson. But, of course, it is rare to have singer-songwriters as experienced as Urquhart and Cunningham come together to collaborate, let alone as equals – and that is part of what makes this album so delightful. They’re not equal only in air time but in sentiment. We can hear how they share the emotions on these songs, because it’s in their voices. We can absolutely hear how much joy they’ve had making these songs, because that is a dominant tone. And we can hear how much respect for each other in the restraint they show as performers: they’re courteous with each other, neither trying to dominate the other. Cunningham complements Urquhart as a singer without trying to compete with her, and has many of his own lovely vocal moments.

It’s impossible to tell who wrote which songs on this album because it sounds like they belong to each and both at the same time. Fans of Urquhart may think she wrote them all because her hallmarks are there: melodies that showcase her exquisite voice, a bittersweet take on life that reassures her listeners that she has been through the same personal wars they have and is still standing. Yet obviously she didn’t write them all, because the album is half Cunningham’s. This reinforces the notion that she has found her musical match in him, not only because their songwriting styles work so well together but because she remains herself.

If we ignore the context of Urquhart and Cunningham as a partnership and don’t think of The Song Club as a record of their relationship and instead consider it as a collection of songs that the two artists have put together, it’s still a delight. There is nothing more satisfying to a music fan than to listen to the work of an artist who is sublimely accomplished and comfortable in their accomplishment – well, actually, there is, and that’s listening to two of them. The Song Club is a snapshot in time but also a perennial record of two artists who created something beautiful and put it down for others to share. What a great compliment to each other, and to their audience.

Felicity Urquhart and Josh Cunningham are on tour. Tickets available at https://www.felicityurquhart.com/tour-dates/

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