Fans of Emily Portman will be used to seeing and hearing her work with long-time trio partners Lucy Farrell and Rachel Newton by now – both on her own albums and in partnership with Alasdair Roberts in The Furrow Collective. But for this tour – her last for the foreseeable future with Newton, who is to focus more on her solo career and The Shee (though they’ll still work together as Furrows) – Portman has expanded her live line-up to create The Coracle Band.
Emily Portman & Matthew Boulter. Photo: Simon Rogers
Joining the trio are fiddler Sam Sweeney, percussionist Pete Flood and guitarist Matthew Boulter. A deeper, richer sound is immediately evident on opener Darkening Bell, on which Sweeney and Farrell conjure a brooding backdrop for Newton’s harp to skitter over, while Boulter’s pedal steel provides dramatic wails and Portman sings, inspired by a cave in North Wales, of aching eye sockets and jagged rocks. It’s a persuasive and intriguing start.
Seed Stitch is perhaps a little hesitant, but the band brush off any jitters with Nightjar. From its arresting opening image – “how your hair came away in my daughter’s dimpled hand” – it is completely captivating: woozy and lush. You can hear Sweeney’s personality in his fiddle playing on Brink of June, and the band click further as Portman announces of a trio of songs related to the woods. Flood gives Eye of Tree a pulsing beat, while Borrowed and Blue is a thought-provoking response to The Cruel Mother. Perhaps it’s the link with nature that inspiring them, but magic is happening!
The band kicks up another gear after the interval. Flood and Boulter give it some welly on Sunken Bells, which feels slightly trippy, before Tongue-Tied lurches deliriously into 1970s psychedelia. The nightmarish red light the band find themselves bathed in feels weirdly appropriate.
Coracle’s title track is astonishing, and it’s tonight’s showstopper. Portman is great on the subject of motherhood, and there’s an emotional vulnerability in even sharing the song’s subject matter – that her baby was placed in an incubator for three days following her birth. The performance is beautiful. Sweeney, Farrell and Newton turn it into a heartbreaking string piece, which adds poignancy to Portman’s sorrowful lament of “empty cradle arms” and “lungs filled up with ocean brine”. It’s an honest, revealing high point.
Portman’s voice sometimes has a childlike quality, and as such is ideally suited to a creepy fairytale. Stick Stock, with its horrible “neat meat pies with crusts of gold” is a classic of the genre. Newton and Farrell’s harmonies – not for the first or last time in the evening – are pitch perfect. Portman and Newton’s version of The Two Sisters, for example, is sensitive and constantly changing, though it still provides the requisite chill demanded by the story.
The show picks up pace towards its conclusion, with the bright banjo-led Hatchlings and the trippy, jazzy Bones and Feathers going at quite a clip, before High Tide – inspired by a story about ‘the Mersey Mermaid’ – brings matters to a majestic close.
Portman is a terrifically literate songwriter – introductions to songs are littered with references to books, poems, mythology and magical realism. Things will undoubtedly sound different without Newton on board, but this bigger band is certainly a success. You can be sure that whatever Portman does next, it will make fascinating listening.
I drove back to Brighton from Devon on Monday, and immediately headed to The Greys, where the singing of Jim Causley made me feel, rather reassuringly, like I was still in the Westcountry.
Causley’s support came from Yorkshire’s Laura Hockenhull – now Brighton-based and a member of The Long Hill Ramblers. She sang a mostly unaccompanied, mostly traditional set with confidence and style. Chloe Overton of local group Hatful of Rain provided harmonies for a couple of songs and Jim joined them for a lovely version of The Constant Lovers (which is when I took the picture, above).
Since I last saw him play, Causley has been busy, with an album of his own songs as well as one based on poems by Jack Clemo released in the past year. Add to this his repertoire of traditional songs, covers, and of course his settings of pieces by another poet, Charles Causley, and there’s plenty of material with which he can compose a set.
We got a good selection, mostly backed by accordion, with which Causley lends texture and meaning to his songs. So ode to cider Old Uncle Whiteway was jolly and bouncy, a version of Ralph McTell’s Summer Girls woozy and warm, while Cyril Tawney’s biting In The Sidings – a post-Beeching lament – was suffused with bitter melancholy.
Causley gave the songs context with entertaining and knowledgeable introductions, educating the audience in the history and etymology of Launceston, the eccentric traditions of the Whimple Wassail, and the time he trod on John Craven’s glasses. The latter was by way of introduction to Pride of the Moor, which takes the perhaps unlikely subject of tin mining and turns it into a glorious, engrossing celebration.
A piano accompaniment gave some songs a sparser backing, most effectively on the haunting Eagle One, Eagle Two – based on a Charles Causley poem – which tells of the nocturnal stirrings of two avian statues. But, with his voice like molten caramel, Causley doesn’t really need any backing at all, as he proved with a couple of a capella numbers, including one in Welsh.
Sadly, the night was curtailed by the curfew, but Causley’s playing several shows and festivals this year – click here for dates – so there’ll be plenty of chances to hear more. A heartening thought.
Its first performance took place in 1977, but rarely has it felt more relevant than today. This adaptation of The Transports, Peter Bellamy’s folk opera about the first fleet of convicts transported to Australia in 1787/88, comes to Exeter on the day of protests across the country at Donald Trump’s executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. The cast – and some of the audience – are in attendance, which makes sense, for The Transports is a story of emigration and denial of freedom.
The Transports at Exeter Phoenix. Photo: Amy Eden
It tells of Henry Cabell and Susannah Holmes, both sentenced to death for petty crimes (stealing spoons, in Susannah’s case), but who had their sentences commuted to transportation to Australia. In prison, they fell in love and conceived a child, but were threatened with separation before a heroic turnkey saw that they were at least deported as a family.
This take dispenses with Bellamy’s sung narration, a role which is instead filled by historian and storyteller Matthew Crampton. His spoken introductions are confident and lyrical, making the piece immediately more approachable. He highlights the importance of the story without overselling it, playing up crucial, stinging details – the absurdity of the sentences initially handed down, for example, or the average age of the people in the ‘Jungle’ migrant camp (just 27). And though the history is important, he reminds us, it’s the love story that makes it so relatable.
Having said that, the love story is a rather underwritten element of The Transports, probably because there was little evidence of the sweet nothings Susannah and Henry must have shared. As the leads, Sean Cooney (of The Young’uns) and Rachael McShane (formerly of Bellowhead) have little time to convince us of their devotion, and their duet – Sweet Loving Friendship – isn’t the most passionate composition. It’s sweetly performed, however, and Cooney and cast later deliver the heartaching Black and Bitter Night with conviction, too.
The musical roles are what’s important here, but McShane in particular also has an actor’s instinct, while elsewhere David Eagle makes an excellent, enthusiastically roguish Abe Carman, and Greg Russell provides some much-needed comic relief, most notably as the baby-carrying turnkey.
Wisely, the sets don’t attempt to recreate life in prison or aboard ship too closely. Instead, clever use of boxes and chairs allows the members of the audience to use their imagination. Especially smart is the recreation of the Plymouth Mail carriage, which seems both fragile and fast as it’s urged to London by Michael Hughes.
Bellamy’s careful use of period instrumentation is set to one side. Here, the musical engine room comes from Faustus – Saul Rose, Paul Sartin and Benji Kirkpatrick – with able accompaniment from the rest of the cast. With The Young’uns brawny choruses to call on, there’s a nice balance to be had with the sweet violins and Nancy Kerr’s ever-beautiful soprano. She sings most of The Leaves in the Woodland together with McShane and – as usual in this opera – it’s one of the standout musical moments.
As a version of Bellamy’s original, The Transports is a triumph – a reminder of his genius as both a songwriter and storyteller. What really lifts it, though, is its consistent – but never nagging – insistence in relating the story to other parts of history, and indeed to the present day. Crampton adds local context, telling of the Polish squadron of Spitfire pilots – known as the Night Owls – that fought for the Allies during the Second World War. I knew they existed, but I had no idea their task was to protect the south west and my home town – and to learn so is moving. Many Poles settled in the area, and the next day my dad tells me about descendants of theirs who he has met, now fully part of the community.
Cooney’s own (stunning) composition, Dark Water, is slotted in at the start of the second half, and doesn’t feel out of place. A chilling story about refugees attempting to swim to freedom, it again makes its point without falling into the trap of didacticism.
The story of The Transports may be one of exile and denial, but it’s also one of hope. Perhaps it should be on the school curriculum. Or, if you’ll allow me a flight of fancy, I’d love to see a movie version, perhaps in the mould of Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables, with Hollywood sets and production values, and the romantic aspect of the story fleshed out further.
An essential tale, then. On the walk home, a tedious loudmouth student rants about what he (tediously) calls the “snowflakes” on the Trump protest. These are dark times, and at that moment the message of The Transports feels crucially important. Spread the word.
Jim Moray’s last album, Skulk, was undoubtedly a fine achievement. It showed a refinement of his talent for giving traditional songs a new setting, his eye for a clever cover, and his skills as an arranger. The only thing more astonishing than the epic, beautiful Lord Douglas – to pick the obvious (but not only) highlight – is that it doesn’t overwhelm the tracks around it.
But, believe it or not, that was four years ago. It doesn’t feel like Moray has really been away: he’s been gigging regularly, producing, popped up on the Elizabethan Session project, and most notably teamed up with Sam Carter to form folk rockers False Lights, whose Salvor album was FW’s joint favourite last year.
But what impact has all this had on his solo career? Well, Upcetera, which was released in September, takes the Skulk template and builds on it. With False Lights satisfying Moray’s foot-on-monitor urges, he’s produced an album of intelligent, grown-up folk-pop. Galloping opener Fair Margaret and Sweet William recalls the thrilling Lord Willoughby from his eponymous 2006 album, and also underlines his storytelling skill. And his talent for delivering drama – particularly tragedy – remains undiminished. The soulful Another Man’s Wedding positively aches with tension and woe, while The Flying Cloud’s unfolding disaster is as compelling as it is laden with bad choices and a creeping sense of doom.
Musically, Moray has worked hard to find sounds that suit him (and serve the songs) well – with a classical sensibility infusing the album. Michael Nyman is an obvious reference point, but there’s also something of the grandeur of a Divine Comedy or a Rufus Wainwright in many of his orchestral arrangements, and also his willingness to embrace different musical styles. The slinky (sexy, even) Foggy Dew is my favourite, marrying fado with a yearning string backdrop, while Eppie Moray shimmies in on an outrageously enjoyable jazz-funk shuffle. This confidence carries over into his singing, too – expressive and emotional without ever going over the top.
The most obvious new string to Moray’s bow is in the songwriting department: two original pieces make a big impact on Upcetera. The Straight Line and the Curve – an enigmatic song about the equally enigmatic mathematician/astronomer/occult philosopher John Dee – was conceived for the Elizabethan Session but feels just right here, while the acoustic-driven Sounds of Earth – ambitiously attempting to convey a moving romance as well as a complex, fascinating historical tale – does so with elegance and intelligence. But alongside the originals and little-known trad songs there’s room for a ‘classic’, too: finale Lord Franklin is a chilly story warmly told.
His Low Culture podcasts – a must-listen for folkies, regardless of the guest – have given great insight into Moray’s interest in process, and how every note and syllable is carefully considered. In this album it shows, but beyond the craft and consideration there’s a serious serving of heart and soul, too. As catchy as it is clever, Upcetera is simply essential listening.
This couldn’t be much further away from my last gig – Alasdair Roberts and an acoustic guitar – but it proves the genre’s flexibility. And this is one of the things I love about folk. At times it’s dense, thoughtful and quiet, but it can just as easily be noisy, extrovert and fun. And there’s plenty in between, of course.
Taking the stage to a squalling intro tape, Blackbeard’s Tea Party waste no time getting up to speed. Opener Steam Arm Man – about a cursed, violent prosthetic limb – is forceful, gory and thrillingly preposterous. Choppy electric guitar, powerful drumming and singer Stuart Giddens’ booming voice (the volume of which makes a few audience members jump back from the speaker) convey the band’s enthusiasm and energy.
And it simply doesn’t let up: they barely pause for breath between songs and tunes. Laura Boston-Barber’s violin duels with Giddens’ melodeon on a frantic Devil in the Kitchen, which rocks so hard that bassist Martin Coumbe and guitarist Tim Yates soon have their feet on the monitors.
Jack Ketch is a morbid rocker, Giddens cheerfully reminding us by way of an introduction that “certain people in the news” won’t be able to escape the reaper. The Ballad of William Kidd is a groovy piratical story it’s impossible not to sing along with, while Stand Up Now delivers a rousing message with a smile.
The customary interval feels a little incongruous, but BTP soon have the momentum going again. Newie Dense Little Funk Nuggets sounds like its title, while The Slave Chase marries mighty riffing with a powerful pro-freedom sentiment.
The band work hard to make things entertaining – there are synchronised dance moves, Benny Hill-style chases around the stage (and into the audience), and even acrobatic jumps. Giddens has some particularly impressive moves – gigging must have been good preparation for the marathon he recently completed. But while this is undoubtedly fun, it’s all held together by the group’s musical talent and understanding.
There’s little in the way of ‘slower’ songs – Dave Boston’s conga gives the sinuous Loose Shoulder a foreboding intro, before the tempo is turned up and Liam Hardy’s more disco-y beat becomes more prominent. The band really cuts loose for the brilliant instrumental Moonshiner, before finishing off with another you can’t help but sing along with: a demented take on Cyril Tawney’s Chicken on a Raft.
I haven’t had this much fun at a show since my last Bellowhead gig. And, as with that band, I reckon they’re a great jumping in point for non-folkies – I’ll be bringing friends with me next time.
I have to commend Alasdair Roberts’ commitment to finding and playing at new venues. I’ve seen him several times in Brighton – solo and as part of The Furrow Collective – but never in the same venue twice.
The last time was on a sweaty spring evening at The Hope & Ruin, when Roberts’ intensity was amplified by a tightly packed crowd and an airless room. Tonight at the Albert it couldn’t feel much colder outside, and this room is rather better ventilated. But there’s something about Roberts’ focus that seems to heat the air – so great is it that he barely touches his beer despite an obvious expenditure of energy and seeming rise in temperature (which he wryly attributes to “stasis”).
He opens with the plaintive Coral & Tar, before taking us on a tour of what is now an impressive back catalogue of his own songs, with plenty of traditional numbers thrown in. Fair Flower of Northumberland is a satisfying example of the latter – a song about two Scots and two English people which, he diplomatically notes, doesn’t necessarily paint the Scottish cast in a favourable light.
Roberts’ accented vocals, slightly hunched stance and string-threatening, bony guitar plucks give his performance a certain austerity. But while you sometimes want to get him to play songs back so you can fully digest the words, there’s a mordant sense of fun, too. My Geordie O My Geordie O has a melody reminiscent of the Furrows’ super-catchy Hind Horn, No Dawn Song is lovely and light, while False Lover John – an Irish ballad – is funny and delivered with a glint in the eye.
Roberts treats the crowd to some previews of songs from his upcoming album, Pangs, and makes his set even more absorbing with a few instrumental flourishes – he delivers a surprisingly kick-ass guitar solo on the biting Farewell Sorrow, and uses his voice as an instrument to powerful effect on Fusion of Horizons, suddenly creating quite the wall of sound. Set concluder Riddle Me This feels like an appropriate ending to a night of intelligent, enigmatic music.
The complexity of the songs and the density of his language makes Roberts’ set quite a different from the preceding one from Mary Hampton. The Brighton singer returned to the stage after some time away to deliver a set of mostly traditional songs. She began with a witty a capella number that demonstrated her beautiful singing technique and ability to becalm a chatty room, before picking up her guitar for several songs originally from France, including the winning Orange Tree. These, she said, appealed to her because they were understated – and within the thoughtful arrangements there was certainly a sparseness and room for interpretation that made me want to hear them again soon.
Hampton had a new guitar with a beautiful bass sound to show off, but I enjoyed a tune played on her older instrument – a piece inspired by the tarantella folk dances of Italy. The clanging, often buzzy drone made a fine backdrop for the more frantic, high-up-the-neck stuff you’d expect to accompany the shaking off of poisonous spiders.
She ended with a song played at her first-ever gig – a setting of WB Yeats’ Long-Legged Fly. As with everything else in the set, I’d never heard it before but was utterly captivated. What a pleasure to have her back.
The Knights Project are led by Lucy Day, who sets up shop side-on, staring out her fellow guitarist (of whose name I’m not sure) in the name of – she assured us – the pair being able to concentrate on what they were playing. The group played some interesting original material over some busy guitar playing. A third member provided some lovely, subtle harmonies, and I loved their take on The False Bride, too.
I loved the quiet, beautiful harmony singing with which Ian and Daragh Lynch began the set’s opener, Henry My Son. And I loved the delicate, pretty fiddle work of Cormac Mac Diarmada that started to build the sound of that song. I loved the strange, attacking sound of Ian’s pipes, and Radie Peat’s tatty, blaring melodeon, but also the lightness and deftness all of the band played with. That they understand the value of light and shade was illustrated perfectly by The Old Man From Over the Sea: a grotesque tale told for the most part in an amusingly studied fashion, it became a raucous knees-up in just a few instants.
Lynched (from left: Ian, Cormac, Radie, Daragh). Photo: Brian Flanagan
I liked the way Ian sat with his shoes and socks off and his jeans rolled up like he was about to go for a paddle. (I’m not sure where one can paddle in Aldershot, but as far as I could tell there was no practical reason for it.) I liked the way Radie (another from the Sandie Shaw school of footwear) unstarrily clambered down on to the floor to crouch over the harmonium (it may have been a shruti box) for a couple of songs. When you can sing like that, you’ve no need to stand and ‘project’ – her voice made the chairs in the back row rock even when their occupants couldn’t see her.
And it wasn’t just Radie’s voice that I loved. Everyone could sing. And though I hate to be the guy who says “I love your accent”… those lovely Dublin brogues felt made to be wrapped around songs both reserved and robust, including one I didn’t know that had “at least a million” words. How everyone stayed on the same script for that one is beyond me.
I loved that Lynched are fans of the long, quiet and drone-y songs that a lot of bands wouldn’t be brave enough to play live. Everyone loved shouting out “fresh fish!” during Sweet Daffodil Mulligan, but the band’s willingness to whisper through a lengthy, engrossing Turkish Revelry as well really made my heart sing.
I liked the group’s easy manner. They seemed to be having fun, chatting gamely about the negative Twitter response they got for their appearance on Jools Holland’s show (“The Corrs have let themselves go”), pondering the role of Manchester as a ‘natural enemy’ city and relating the stories behind their songs. Speaking of which, these were great. I liked the wisdom of Cold Old Fire, the somehow cheerful desperation of Salonika and the bizarreness of Father Had a Knife.
I liked support act Thom Ashworth’s take on Tyne of Harrow, too. He did some tuneful and percussive looping with his electric double bass (and some Flea-esque funky shenanigans with his acoustic) and sang lustily over the top. He was a bit nervous – but apparently it was his first solo gig, so you can’t blame him for that. Tom forgot to introduce himself on stage, and afterwards lots of people were asking him, so I think it’s safe to say you were a hit, Tom.
Can you imagine a trickier subject to address than 800 years of democratic freedom? Let alone in the context of the tumultuous 2016 we’re having?
Well, the project is built on solid foundations, namely its cast. Sweet Liberties – an album conceived as part of an educational drive called ‘Parliament in the Making’ – features an exciting line-up. Sam Carter, Maz O’Connor, Nancy Kerr (an Elizabethan Sessions player) and Martyn Joseph are all prolific, on-form songwriters, while Nick Cooke and Patsy Reid (a veteran of the Cecil Sharp Project) are seasoned and talented accompanists.
And as you’d expect they’ve come up with plenty of material – 14 tracks that mark historic people, laws and moments in our history, but which also go deeper into what parliament and democracy means in real terms, today and in the future. As Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow points out in the album’s sleeve notes: “Folk music has long been a tool of political protest, as well as a channel through which individuals and groups have commented on and influenced social change.”
No pressure then, gang. But the artists’ responses meet the brief. This is serious stuff, with songs about slavery, multiculturalism, women’s suffrage, miscarriages of justice and the decline of trade unionism. And fans of Carter, Kerr, Joseph and O’Connor won’t be surprised to learn that Bercow’s notes are pretty much the only Conservative thing here. This is a decidedly lefty record, though what it lacks in balance it makes up for in harmony.
Kerr’s Kingdom – a bansitar-laced version of which features on her new album Instar – is an appropriately majestic start. Conceived as a meditation on Magna Carta, the song goes on to remind us of an original law – that of the land – which human rules somewhat ironically violate. It’s a complex, nuanced song – which is a good guide for what’s to follow. Later, Kerr experiments with form in Seven Notes, examining colonialism and race relations via a metaphorical cuckoo, and demonstrates on the quirky Lila her eye for a great story.
Maz O’Connor too demonstrates some deft songwriting outside the box, with the likes of the gorgeous Rich Man’s Hill and This Old House, both of which address housing. The former is written (with clever ambiguity) from the perspective of a homeless man potentially empowered by the Poor Law of 1601, while the latter is a clever and tuneful illustration of the art of compromise – something equally key to politics and life.
Joseph is perhaps the most obvious firebrand here, but he’s a canny composer. His Nye – a tribute to (the pretty straightforwardly admirable) NHS founder Aneurin Bevan – is warm and witty, its chorus referencing Bevan’s ‘this is my truth tell me yours’ line that also inspired a Manic Street Preachers album. Joseph dodges straight-up hero-worship by paying tribute to those still helping people via the NHS today. His song Dic Penderyn, meanwhile, pays tribute to another Welshman – a labourer who was involved in the 1831 Merthyr Rising attempt to establish workers’ rights, and who paid a heavy price. If it sounds like hard work, the story is told masterfully, and the balance between Joseph’s earthy voice and Reid’s delightful descending fiddle line is lovely; it’s one of the catchiest things here.
Joseph is also the pen behind Twelve Years Old, a beautiful, duet with Sam Carter. Again, it brings a potentially dry subject – the Factory Act of 1833 – to life via an ingenious approach, imagining a conversation between two children taking place a hundred years apart. Both singers sound remarkably vulnerable as the song comes to what might be an unexpected conclusion.
Carter’s sleeve note for the angry Dark Days coyly reads that it ‘voices a sense of frustration with the political process in recent times’ – but on the road he’s been pretty vocal about linking it to the results of certain votes. This version kicks less ass than the stomping take on his How the City Sings album, but O’Connor’s backing vocal and a sharp fiddle line give it a certain elegant bite.
Carter twice broaches the topic of slavery. Often passed off as an American shame, Am I Not a Man relays the story of a slave named Olaudah Equiano and reminds us “England you need to know all I’ve suffered and seen”. One More River to Cross – inspired by the Slavery Abolition Act Equiano helped achieve – gives the album a cautiously rousing closing anthem.
Thoughtful, lyrical and bursting with ideas, Sweet Liberties has inspired some excellent songwriting, offering more with each listen. Let’s keep these song projects coming!
When you’ve been married for ten years, tradition dictates the anniversary gift should be made of tin. Being in a band isn’t quite like being married, admittedly – and the members of The Shee may well have celebrated their decade together with an exchange of tinned goods (we’re thinking some kind of beans on toast party) – but they’ve come up with a more original and exciting concept for an album to mark the milestone.
Continuum, conceived by the band in tandem with the Celtic Connections festival, sees each of the group’s six members commission a favourite songwriter or tunesmith to create a piece for them to interpret. It’s a measure of the high esteem they are held in that folk heavyweights like Andy Cutting, Karine Polwart, Chris Wood and Kathryn Tickell all said ‘yes’.
The result is an impressive, intelligent album that touches on a range of subjects, but which is united by the group’s innovative arrangements. As a snapshot of human thought and emotion it’s a treasure – Polwart’s Song for Mary seems to exemplify the project, looking back with its inclusion of Mary Brooksbank singing The Jute Mill Song, and forward with the ultimately hopeful telling of her story. It’s sensitively sung by Rachel Newton, with a lovely interplay of flute, accordion and guitar behind her voice.
Highlights are many. Laura-Beth Salter movingly delivers Martin Simpson’s extraordinary examination of his mother’s unhappiness, while Chris Wood delivers one of his wonderful Hugh Lupton collaborations – a meditative and moving lullaby that’s sung from what sounds like the bottom of Olivia Ross’ heart. Tunes variously evoke junior school (Cutting), Indian sunsets (Brian Finnegan) and, in Shona Mooney’s own composition, a ‘Vampire Rabbit of Newcastle’.
Mixed in with the commissions are four original pieces – the stormy, defiant From the Shadows and the reflective Precious Tears among them. These – along with some devastatingly well-played tune sets – make great reminders that although Continuum is built on the work of some gifted collaborators, it’s the inspiration and hard work of The Shee themselves that make it such a special album. Much better than tin, that’s for sure.
We spoke to The Shee’s Amy Thatcher – accordionist and clog dancer extraordinaire – about the album, the commissioning process and crisp sandwiches.
Folk Witness: Happy anniversary! Where did the idea to mark your first decade together with a special project come from – and how did you arrive at the idea of commissioning songs?
Amy Thatcher: Well, we’ve done three albums so far which have taken a pretty similar path so we wanted to do something different. It made sense to combine a ten-year ‘do’ in there somewhere, too. I think we were on tour in Germany talking about what we could do; I can’t remember exactly whose idea it was to commission new music – the sign of a good idea, I suppose. We wanted it to be a snapshot of one of the ways in which traditional music is learnt and passed on nowadays. We’ve been inspired by musicians like the ones we’ve chosen and we also hope to inspire younger musicians in the same way. Not everyone is born into traditional music, but it is for everyone. It was also a bit of treat for us to play a brand new original piece of music from our favourite composers, like an anniversary present!
What made you choose Andy Cutting?
For me, Andy is one of those musicians I feel I’ve grown up with, ceilidhing to Blowzabella at Redcar and Chippenham, seeing him play with Karen Tweed at Folkbeat, The Two Duos Quartet coming to do workshops in Stockport, and spending my work experience with Karen Tweed when he and Karen lived in Derby, and… he writes just awesome music.
Were you surprised by what came back? Could you understand why the writers decided it was right for The Shee?
I think we were all thrilled by what came back – although that’s when all the hard work begins, so it also felt like we were miles from being ready at that point. It soon became apparent, as we were getting all the compositions back, that they had written something that meant a lot to them and they didn’t necessarily try and write something out of their comfort zone just because we were the ones going to be playing it for the first time. I felt like it was genuine writing.
Did you have much interaction with the composers as to how you arranged the pieces?
We got many different formats actually. Sometimes it was scored, sometimes it was played solo on an mp3 with notes on how they would like the arrangement to fill out. It took a lot of hard work by us to get it played through. We like to surprise ourselves, too, so it took a lot of trying out the tune on different instruments, swapping who plays chords. The most difficult thing – and most interesting thing – about our band is that every single instrument we have can play tune or accompaniment, so it could be completely different given another day. The things we made sure to set in stone were the lyrics, the core melodies and anything the composers specifically mentioned in their notes. You have to remember that they are trusting you with something precious. It must’ve felt strange to pass the responsibility on like that.
What was the Celtic Connections album launch [in Glasgow, in January] gig like?
One of those amazing gigs – they can’t all be like that, sometimes it just goes right! I can’t be that surprised to be honest; we had some of the most experienced, fantastic performers on stage with us that night, it was always going to be good!
How do the four pieces composed by you fit into the album? Did you need to knit the ‘guest songs’ together to produce something that felt like a whole, finished piece?
It’s funny, we always expected to have to knit those pieces into the rest of them, but it actually felt like a cohesive collection of music. I guess they are all connected and support each other in the fact that they are all totally brand new. Yeah, we always knew we’d need more pieces to get a good album’s worth of stuff I suppose, but also, for us, writing our own music has always been part of what we do and although we were taking a step away from that this time, it always needed some of our own music there for it to feel like The Shee.
What’s your favourite sandwich?
Errm… anything, then I add crisps. You’ve got to make dinner from a garage interesting somehow!
I had a good stare at the definition of the word continuum – ‘a continuous sequence in which adjacent elements are not perceptibly different from each other, but the extremes are quite distinct’ – and the more I do the more complex and appropriate a title it seems. Why did you choose it?
Haha, yes we did the same thing. The more we looked at that the more it seemed to define some part of this larger musical journey we feel part of. We had the idea first and the name came second; it just seemed perfect. We hoped that it would describe to the composers what it was we were hoping to achieve without pinning them down to a theme or someone else’s definition of traditional music.
Do you feel a weight of responsibility in telling other people’s stories – so personal and, in the case of Martin Simpson’s Dance With Me, so tragic? Does it feel different to doing traditional songs where the writer isn’t known to you?
When we asked the composers whether they’d like to be involved in this project, I guess we were announcing that we were ready for the weight of that responsibility. We were honoured that the pieces they gave us were so personal; they could’ve kept more personal compositions to premier themselves. And it would have a been difficult to cover Martin’s song, for example, if he’d recorded it first, so I think it gave us the opportunity to work on songs we would normally have shied away from.
What’s been the highlight of your ten years together as a group? And what’s next for you?
It’s so hard to pin down a moment – I mean, this project has been pretty fantastic. It’s a long game being in a band. You don’t ever think, right, you’ve made it. Gigs go well and you never know if it made any difference. It’s hard, but so worth it. It’s also difficult to position yourself on ‘the fame scale’, and indeed whether it’s really important to be on it at all. We all just love making the music we love and if people like it, even better.
Hello! Just a little check-in, as there have been no updates for a while! In case you missed it, I was asked to interview Jim Moray for the final episode of the first series of the Low Culture Podcast. Jim and I talked about his excellent new album, Upcetera, which is out on September 30 – though if you order it now you can download and enjoy it straight away while you wait for the CD to arrive. Anyway, you can listen to the podcast here, or if you want to subscribe (the whole series is great, featuring chats with the likes of Jon Boden, Nancy Kerr and Lynched), here’s an iTunes link.
Also, I’ve just got back from a little visit to Sidmouth Folk Week. I didn’t make to any gigs as, sadly, I won’t be there for the whole week. However, there’s much more Sidmouth than the ticketed concerts, with the front, streets and pubs full of singing, dancing, fiery street theatre and people generally having a good time. It was very busy, with more stalls and things to do and see than usual, I think. Great to see the town buzzing! Here’s a photo from my flying visit – there’s a full gallery over on the Folk Witness Facebook page, if you’d like to see a few more. Give us a like while you’re there!