Rising folk duo The Rails may have only been making music together for two years (initially as Dead Flamingoes) and only just released their debut album, Fair Warning, but they have a strong pedigree. Kami Thompson is the youngest scion of folk-rock royalty Richard and Linda Thompson and sister of singer-songwriter Teddy Thompson (Richard has previously joked ‘It’s a battle with the Wainwright-McGarrigles who can produce the most musical offspring!’). She has made appearances at the Wainwright Family’s Christmas shows as well as on tours with Bonnie Prince Billy and Sean Lennon before she released her solo album, Love Lies, in 2011. Meanwhile, James Walbourne’s impressively long CV as a hire guitarist touts such diverse names as Ray Davies, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Pogues, Son Volt and The Pretenders, while making his debut as a solo musician on 2011’s The Hill. In each other, though, they found the perfect musical foil, with Walbourne’s earthy bark playing off Thompson’s sweetly soaring vocals on tales of rootless vagabonds and fatal trysts.
This partnership has been a long time in the making though. The pair first met when author and music fanatic Nick Hornby gave Walbourne a call out of the blue to assist in the recording of Linda Thompson’s 2007 album Versatile Heart, on which Kami was assisting her mother. Both admit they were too wrapped up in their own projects to pay much attention to the other, and so years went by with chance meetings at odd gigs and events. It was only during the early sessions for Linda Thompson’s following album, 2013’s stunning Won’t Be Long Now, that the two started writing music together and found that they could effortlessly harmonise and trade vocals.
Recording sessions for an album naturally followed, which took place at the home studio of Edwyn Collins (who also co-produced the album) with their direct, pared down arrangements occasionally filled out by fiddle duties from Eliza Carthy and deft drumming from Cody Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars). It was also during this period that Thompson and Walbourne forged a relationship and decided to get married. Although this means there is little to no separation between their personal and work life, in an interview with Secret Sounds Thompson said she does not see this as a problem: “You feel that you have a shared goal, I think, which maybe you wouldn’t have if you didn’t work together as much.”
Focusing on a direct and authentic English folk sound, they headed up to legendary folk archive Cecil Sharp House for inspiration and gleaned two songs which appear on Fair Warning, ‘William Taylor’ and ‘Bonnie Portmore‘. The latter was released as a lead single, for which their label, Island Records, saw it appropriate to resurrect the iconic ‘pink’ label which adorned releases from such folk luminaries as John Martyn, Nick Drake, Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson’s own Fairport Convention. While this stamp of quality might ostensibly serve to draw further comparisons to the work of Thompson’s parents, Richard and Linda (a married couple with harmonising vocals releasing folk-rock on the Island pink label), ultimately they carve out their own distinctive brand of contemporary folk with one eye cast back to traditional English lyricism, as they do on ‘Breakneck Speed’.
An upbeat modern ballad of extricating yourself from a relationship turned sour, ‘Breakneck Speed’ rolls along with the energy of Thompson’s driving acoustic rhythm and Carthy’s fiery fiddling. Thompson takes lead vocal duties while Walbourne’s electric noodling buoys the song up before joining in for those effortless harmonies in the chorus. With effusive and gloriously catchy tunes as this, The Rails are sure to be a highlight of the folk club and festival circuits they tour this summer and prove that Thompson and Walbourne make a handsome pair.
Fair Warning is available now through Island Records. If you enjoyed this article, why not check out my review of Richard Thompson’s Electric?