It feels like a lifetime ago that we watched a young Hannah McPhillimy play her first gig in the Empire. Under her own name, she released a collection of critically acclaimed EPs and sold out gigs across Ireland and further afield. A period of self-reflection and assessment encouraged Hannah to re-brand as Ferna (pronounced Fear-na) in 2017. The release of her debut album, Understudy marks an exciting new chapter in her career.
The musical palette is quite striking across the album. Producer Stuart Reid was reportedly unflinching in his assessments of Hannah’s previous releases and has evidently helped meld a revamped sound to go with the new name. Sonically they haven’t been afraid to move the dial towards pop with more of a reliance on synths and drum beats.
The first track, ‘Open Up’ delivers on this reinvention with a soft opening before the closing minute and half goes all trippy and synthesised. While ‘New City’ is the alt pop banger about starting over somewhere new, you didn’t know you needed.
‘Wasting’ is the song that leaves the biggest mark. Already an award winner on its own, it is a bruising encounter, laced with pessimism. “When did it start the disconnect, the misdirecting. When did it stick, when did it cleave, the sickly sweetening?” The prominence and strength of the vocals fused with the bass leave no room for misinterpreting the self-doubt on show.
There are quieter moments on Understudy, most notably on ‘Watchman’ and ‘River’ with simple acoustic guitar and Hannah’s vocals leading the line. All while she contemplates the challenges of finding herself on foreign shores.
‘Morning After’ falls into the softer moment’s category too but the duet with alt-folk troubadour Joshua Burnside is deceptive. On the face it is a straightforward acoustic number but the lyrical undertone tells a different story. “And just when I thought I might not be a complete disaster, the sunlight, it gave my bones a chill.” The unravelling of a long term relationship and all the contrasting emotions are laid bare for all to see.
‘Bleed’ spins things off in a direction with the drum beat at the fore and interesting vocal collaborations with some of NI’s leading females. With Candice Cathers (Girl for Sale), Gillian Brown, Naomi Hamilton (Jealous of the Birds), Cheylene Murphy (Beauty Sleep), Fiona O’Kane, Brigid O’Neill, & Katie Richardson (Hex Hue) all appearing, there’s no shortage of star power.
‘Go Quietly’ feels like a journey out into the cosmos. Bold and expansive, its use of spacey effects, poppy synths and naturally those distinctive North Coast vocals make it a real highlight on the record.
While she has some memorable releases in her back catalogue, Understudy marks the high point of her career so far. The record is full of interesting perspectives that cross history, literary fiction and naturally her own personal circumstances, relationships & lived experiences.
It’s a record of subtleties, a contemplation of those tiny yet important moments that everyone experiences throughout their lifetime. A record full of tender moments, big choruses, lyrical intellect and perhaps most importantly, heart.