You cast a spell on me

WITCHY WOMEN: There's a crew of young female rock stars who worship at the altars of Kate Bush, Björk and Siouxsie Sioux, and…

WITCHY WOMEN:There's a crew of young female rock stars who worship at the altars of Kate Bush, Björk and Siouxsie Sioux, and are just dying to get in touch with their inner witch. Could it be magic?

IF YOU GO DOWN to the gig tonight you might be in for a big surprise. In fact, you might think you'd stumbled into some strange, magical ritual instead of a regular music concert. The stage is decorated with ancient symbols, the lights are an eerie red, and ghostly figures dressed in long, colourful robes emerge through a cloud of dry ice. Presiding over it all is a singing sorceress, dressed in diaphanous shift, like a vestal virgin, and sporting a tribal headdress that looks like a giant dreamcatcher. She raises her henna-tattooed arms above her head, and something in her hand glints in the strobe lights - is it a sacrificial knife? And are her dark, piercing eyes staring right at you?

Relax, you've probably just arrived a little early for the Radiohead gig, and you are catching their support act, Bat For Lashes. This is British-Pakistani singer Natasha Khan, and she is the high priestess of rock's new wave of witchy women. Unlike their fey, guitar-strumming, singer-songwriting sisters, the witchy women like to put a little moondust into their music, and are not afraid to explore the dark, animalistic side of their muse. They are musical alchemists, blending folk and ethnic styles with contemporary rock and electronica. Their heroines are Laura Nyro, Sandy Denny, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Siouxsie Sioux, Kate Bush and Björk, and their fashion sense ranges from medieval pastoral to 1960s hippy chic to retro-futuristic. When they're not communing with the spirits at Stonehenge, they're most likely to be spotted at Glastonbury or the Burning Man Festival. And when they put their musical spell on you, you will be forever in their power.

'Tis indeed the season of the witch, and the rock and folk world is being taken over by women in touch with their inner Wicca. But who are these Gaia girls, these female shamen who have music fans' souls all sewn up like a voodoo doll? Besides Bat For Lashes, you could include Rachel Unthank, whose earthy, raw folk sound has mesmerised critics and sent fans swooning in an ecstasy of aural pleasure.


No witchy woman is complete without her coven, and Unthank has gathered a group of the like-minded together, including her sister Becky, to form Rachel Unthank and the Winterset. Think Kate Bush meets Kate Rusby, and you might get close to the Winterset's deeply telepathic harmonies and virtuosic playing. Rachel plays cello and sings in her own big, Geordie voice; Becky shares lead vocal duties. Pianist Belinda O'Hooley provides eclectic accompaniment, while second-generation Irishwoman Niopha Keegan adds some fiery fiddle to the concoction. Intriguingly, both Rachel and Becky are credited in their line notes as "voice and feet", so primal dancing and wild, possessed abandon seem to be the order of the day round Rachel's way.

The group launched their debut album, Cruel Sister, at Holmfirth Folk Festival, but the rock world quickly caught on to this bewitching group from Northumberland. Converts to the cult of Unthank included Phil Jupitus, Stuart Maconie and Joan As Policewoman. It helped that, while walking their own folk pathways, the Winterset also did charming covers of songs by Antony and the Johnsons and Bonnie "Prince" Billy.

The Unthank sisters launched their second album, The Bairns, at Cambridge Folk Festival last month, and will be taking their glacial, gritty folk sound around the world. They played a rollicking gig in Whelan's on Wexford Street earlier this month, and expect their feet - or their broomsticks - to carry them back this way real soon.

Meanwhile, there's no shortage of spellbinding chanteuses on this side of the Irish sea. Jenny Lindfors is a 20-something Dubliner who sounds like she's landed here from the West Coast circa 1968. Her dad is a veteran guitar player, and his extensive vinyl collection provided the magic ingredients for young Jenny to put in her musical cauldron. While Lindfors soaked up albums by Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Gram Parsons, she kept coming back to records by cult 1960s singer-songwriter Laura Nyro. Perhaps it was Nyro's authenticity that attracted the young apprentice sorceress.

"I've always been aware of the difference between whiny self-indulgence and touching, melancholic music," she says. "I've never been very good at being contrived. People know when something is a genuine expression from the heart or a crock of shit."

Lindfors's debut album, When the Night Time Comes, is definitely the former - what Lindfors is really good at is evoking the spirit of sun-soaked bliss and full-moon fever. With the help of guitarist Ben Kritikos, and armed with self-written songs such as 2x1, Lovestage and Voodoo, Lindfors weaves a warm, fuzzy folk-rock sound that conjures up the spirit of the great albums of the past, everything from The Hissing of Summer Lawns to Led Zeppelin III.

Lindfors's close friend Alyanya is another modern woman touched by ancient forces. Check out her biog on her MySpace site - it consists of just two words: "I am." But there's a lot more to the Alyanya story than this simple statement of fact. Born and raised in Dublin, Alyanya started playing piano at the age of seven, and studied jazz at Newpark College of Music. It's not just music that floats Alyanya's boat - painting is also her passion, and when she's not showcasing her own songs in far-flung locations such as Goa, Australia, Rajasthan and the Womad festival, she's showing her not inconsiderable talents with the brushes and easel.

You'll very likely find both Lindfors and Alyanya performing together in a local venue; as part of a loose group known as the Happy Gang, the girls get together regularly with other musicians to whip up some impromptu vibes. Stumble on a Happy Gang session, and you'll truly believe there's magic in the air.

When Bat For Lashes open for Radiohead at Malahide Castle on June 6th and 7th, there'll be more than magic in the air - there'll be an eerie feeling of having been transported to an alternative world, somewhere that might have been conjured up by the pen of Ursula Le Guin. Natasha Khan grew up in Pakistan and now lives in Brighton, but her music and visual image comes from some exotic realm beyond the senses. Dressing in gear that seems to have come from ethnic bazaars from Peru to Peshawar, Khan and her Bat-girls, Ginger, Abi and Lizzy, look like extras from some horror B movie of the 1960s. The music is similarly otherworldly, like what Björk might sound like if she came from Mars.

Khan's acclaimed album, Fur and Gold, which was nominated for this year's Mercury Music Prize, features songs formed by ghostly dreams and fevered imaginings. In Horse & I, inspired by Joan of Arc, Khan is carried off on a quest by a black horse. Loaded with mystic symbolism and mysterious imagery, Khan's music is truly a thing of witchcraft and wonder.

Jenny Lindfors is currently locked away in her lair, working on songs for her next album, while Alyanya is about to release her debut album. When these witchy women cast their spell over you, you might as well surrender.

Alyanya's debut album, Spirit, will be released in July, with a launch gig planned for Crawdaddy in Dublin. Jenny Lindfors's album, When the Night Time Comes, is being re-released in Ireland and the UK in June

Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney is an Irish Times journalist