During the pandemonium of the past year, many of us yearned to get away from it all for rest, reflection and replenishment. Sophie Hutchings, whom we usually associate with the sea, found refuge in a quiet corner of the Byron Hinterland mountains. One can feel the sense of serenity simply by staring at the cover of her new album: the warm glow rising or setting over the craggy silhouette.
In a way, Echoes in the Valley is a return to Hutchings’ roots as a solo musician. The simplicity of the sound ~ ivories and inner creaks ~ is part of the appeal. But the album is also a spiritual return from a period of turmoil. Dislodged by COVID, politics, wildfires and daily disappointment, we have yearned to return to a state of grace, or at the very least, peace. Hutchings embodies this in her soft set. Singles have already been released, each of them lovely, yet for the first time a Hutchings album requests just to be heard and experienced. The tone of these pieces is more important than the composition; the piano is a character in dialogue with the pianist. It’s as if Hutchings is asking her old friend for help: for answers if they are available, for empathy if not, for comfort either way. And the piano responds. Over the years, the two have formed a symbiotic relationship, that must only have been strengthened in their time alone in the mountains.
The titles are occasionally melancholic (“Empty City,” “I Used to Live Here”) but continue to embrace a modicum of hope, especially “Promise of Sun.” It’s entirely plausible that Hutchings composed these pieces first, then added titles based on personal associations. She saves the most poignant title for last: “Hold My Hand.” After so much time in voluntary isolation, she yearns for human contact. The piano may be her best friend, but not her only friend, and others miss her as well. The title sums up the year’s most universal longing: to touch our loved ones without fear.
By the end, although one has been listening, one also feels heard. These notes were meant to be shared. They echo in the valley like missives from a messenger, waiting to be read, the love more important than the words, escaping from the envelope like outstretched hands. (Richard Allen)