“Scarborough Fair”, the latest single from singer/songwriter Shauna Burns, isn’t an original composition, but it might as well be considered as such. Burns refashions this folk standard to her own ends with a rare level of artistry that retains much of the song’s original spirit while enveloping it with a highly individual presence we haven’t heard in earlier versions of this classic. Burns is a singer/songwriter who has established a formidable reputation as both a singular creative voice and an often mesmerizing interpreter of traditional material. Her vocal chops are impeccable and never theatrical just for the sake of theatricality alone; she invests a tremendous amount of feeling into what she does and her finesse only gives shape to the vast reservoir of emotion she draws from. It is a gorgeously produced affair, from top to bottom, and the atmospherics created by the production and musicianship are suggestive without ever risking heavy handedness.
The piano is the primary instrument making “Scarborough Fair” work as well as it does. It immediately seizes on a lovely lyrical quality that, with this song, we’d normally associate with guitar. The most popular modern version of the song is, arguably, Simon & Garfunkel’s iconic rendition from early in their run and a key line of the song even serves as the title for that particular album. The timeless melodic qualities of the song are well served here, but it’s refreshing that Burns takes an unexpected approach towards realizing them in her interpretation. Guitar provides some supporting color, but this is a performance largely driven by the keys, Burns’ magnificent voice, and just a lightly applied post production veneer to make things sound more evocative.
Another nice effect in the performance is how Burns’ voice dissipates into breathiness at the end of certain lines, as if the emotional recall is too great for her and her calm façade cracks a little. Much like any memory song, “Scarborough Fair” is framed around a loosely structured narrative and Burns certainly turns her voice towards fulfilling the song’s storytelling demands with satisfying results. The song is cut to an ideal length and that’s a product of the same level of focus you hear Burns bringing to every aspect of her performance. Despite her acclaim as a singer/songwriter, this is a natural song for Shauna Burns to turn herself towards because of its storytelling aspect, the convincing first person point of view in the lyrics, and the melodic excellence that’s sustained the composition’s notoriety for well over a century. As any capable artist should do with a cover, she avoids tribute or imitation and makes the song her own. “Scarborough Fair” will please folk purists, singer/songwriter fans, roots or world music devotees, and anyone who admires genuine musical art. It isn’t flimsy, money-minded pop crap and you’ll be grateful to be touched by Shauna Burns’ musical skill.