under the trad/arr of folk and acoustic music
March 10, 2015 by markdishman

Sam Lee on Friends, folk and The Fade in Time: ‘Enjoy it, but don’t inhale!’

He seemed to spring from nowhere, but Sam Lee’s debut album Ground of Its Own was an unqualified success. Lee’s sincere, passionate and no-guitars-allowed approach to songs learned first-hand from gypsy singers saw him pick up a host of awards within the folk world, and even land a nomination for the high-profile Mercury Prize.

sam lee photo

So, how do you follow that? Lee’s answer is to get his mates involved. His second album, The Fade in Time, is recorded in collaboration with his band of ‘Friends’ – Francesca Ter-Berg (cello), Jonah Brody (koto and ukulele), Steve Chadwick (trumpet), Josh Green (percussion), Flora Curzon (violin) and Jon Whitten (dulcimer). The group have added further depth and texture to Lee’s still-distinctive sound.

The Fade in Time is a touch funkier than its predecessor, without losing any of the first album’s finely crafted feel. Percussion plays a greater part, as is immediately evident from pulsing, exotic opener Johnny O’ the Brine, a magical hunting song augmented by brassy rasps and birdsong (the latter a recurring motif). Drums add uncertainty and mystery to Bonny Bunch of Roses, and cymbals a certain jazzy adventure to the magnificently urgent Blackbird (see video, below).

But it’s not all hands-in-the-air stuff. Airdog captures the strangely moving atmosphere of Ground of Its Own’s Tan Yard Side, but instead of a love song, it’s applied to the story of a man hunting with his dog, forcing a hare to “squeal murder”. There’s a similar peace and stillness to The Moon Shone on my Bed Last Night, the last song taught to Lee by his mentor, Stanley Robertson.

Elsewhere, the strings are exceptional – witness the tumult of Mourlough Maggie or the ebb, flow and astonishing climax of Willie-O. Lee’s voice remains wonderfully engaged: every phrase considered but not overthought, as his sensitive performance on album finale The Moss House proves. And that’s before you mention the mini choir adding a quietly beautiful outro to Lord Gregory (and a noisily beautiful one to Lovely Molly).

In between tracks, meanwhile, singers discuss and sing snatches of songs, adding context and a feeling of timelessness. It all adds up to something quite magical: familiar songs thoughtfully, wildly, lovingly arranged. If Ground of Its Own was a success, The Fade in Time deserves to go stratospheric…

Folk Witness spoke to Sam Lee about reinterpreting, workshopping and returning songs… And his favourite sandwich.

Folk Witness: The new album has ‘and Friends’ on the cover – it’s not just ‘Sam Lee’ any more! How have the Friends influenced your sound?
Sam Lee: Very much so… the Friends are the live band I’ve been working with since around the time Ground of Its Own came out, and who I have been collaborating with a lot, so many of the songs were made in workshopping the songs together.

Before you made Ground of its Own, you spent a lot of time on research: living with gypsy singers and learning songs directly – do you still do this or have these songs come from new influences and places?

Absolutely. Probably more field work has been done since the first album. As you will read in the album notes each song has a great story, passed on from the people I learned them from. Also the Songcollectors.org website is great for showing all the field work I’ve been doing in the last three years and hearing the voices and films of those I’ve been collecting from.

Given how many you must have learned, what is it about a song that makes you want to arrange and record it?

You never know, they just leak out! A song will be wonderful to sing in the old style without instruments but just doesn’t want to be with a band, other songs leap out when a sound or an instrument appears. It’s an alchemy really, and it’s unpredictable what will work and where the matching is needed until you are working with them.

How are your interpretations received by the singers you learned them from?

They love it. I have made a film that can be seen on my Pledge Music crowdfunding page where I return the song Bonny Bunch of Roses to the old gypsy lady Freda Black. It’s really emotional for her and her whole family loved it.

Was it important to you to include the voices of the people you learned the songs from? Who’s speaking at the start of Lord Gregory, for example?

Yes it’s very important. I wouldn’t have done so otherwise. They are just wonderful voices so needed hearing. The voice on Lord Gregory is Charlotte Higgins, the Scots traveller who is family to Stanley [Robertson] my teacher. It’s a 1950s recording that captures the poetic style of speaking you once heard.

Ground of its Own did really well – what effect did the Mercury nomination and all those album of the year prizes have?

The Mercury effect was amazing. It helped my career unbelievably, however all that attention for me: my rule is enjoy it, but don’t inhale! It’s been great for getting the music out there and internationally too. I have had the pleasure of playing all around the world and taking the music to all sorts of wonderful places through it.

I’ll end with the FW traditional final question. What’s your favourite sandwich?

I’m an egg and cress kinda guy.

The Fade in Time is released on March 16. See Sam Lee’s website for details

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February 8, 2015 by markdishman

False Lights: West End Centre, Aldershot, February 6 2015

The West End Centre doesn’t feel like it usually does when you go to a folk gig there. For a start, there aren’t any chairs. And rather than the usual two sets, a support band (the able, versatile Flight Brigade) warms up the crowd. While you can buy real ale at the bar, Folk Witness feels oddly compelled to drink lager from a plastic glass: it’s an indie-rock kind of a night.

Sam Carter and Sam Nadel. Photo: Emma Goymer

Sam Carter and Sam Nadel. Photo: Emma Goymer

“We’re False Lights and we play traditional music”, says co-frontman Jim Moray, after the six-piece have taken the stage. Drummer Sam Nadel strikes up a beat and the band kick off with probably their heaviest song, Skewbold. It’s quite the statement of intent: fast and furious, dominated by growly rock guitar and coming to a sudden stop a whisker over the three-minute mark. It’s a bit tricky to make out the words, but judging by the massive grins sported by everyone in sight, no-one cares.

In fact, the loud (and it is, gloriously so) rock element of the False Lights folk-rock idea never again drowns out the folk bit. Perhaps as a result of having tuned in during the opening number, it’s easy to follow the lyrics for the rest of the night. This is a credit to the singing of Moray and Sam Carter, who alternate vocal duties and joyfully indulge their passion for a selection of beautiful electric guitars (though Moray frequently moves over to a complicated-looking keyboard/laptop/Kaoss pad set-up, too). Melodeon player Nick Cooke, bassist Barn Stradling and fiddler Tom Moore feature strongly in the well-balanced mix, adding body and depth to the sound.

A rock club setting suits a bawdy singalong perfectly, and Carter takes the group through the salty Maid of Australia with glee. Equally cheerful are the Moray-led Banks of Newfoundland and Tyne of Harrow (about a highwayman called, a little unromantically, Alan). Carter and Moray prove excellent foils for each other – their voices work nicely in harmony and Carter’s penchant for shapenote and gospel provides the group with a wealth of material to rework. Moray’s technical wizardry is evident, too – on the innovatively arranged Wife of Ushers Well, for example.

The crowd play their part. Carter rather sweetly says he hopes the show “hasn’t been too punishing”, but tutting purists have stayed away, leaving the room full of people willing to whoop and holler – essential for this music to work in a live setting. Having said that, as with most folk crowds, a reverent silence falls before the next song begins. The perfect combination!

Another a folk tradition is the inclusion of a song on the subject of death, drolly introduced by Carter. The bluntly titled Oh Death, strangely enough, turns out to be rather a funky affair – another expectation confounded. The final three songs exemplify False Lights’ versatility: the main set ends with the lovely, funereal-yet-uplifting Crossing the Bar, before the band invade the audience for the first part of an inclusive encore – a warm-hearted singalong then a return to the stage for what Moray calls “your last chance to rock out”. The resultant hornpipe neatly balances balls-out rock with dextrous musicianship – as much of the set has.

Outside, people are drawing comparisons with groups including The Wonder Stuff, Radiohead and The Decemberists. But whoever you’re reminded of, it doesn’t sound like traditional music ever has before. Modern, relevant and skilfully executed: this is music to get gigantically excited about.

The False Lights tour continues. Click here for the full list of dates. (And then go to the gig nearest you.) To see more of Emma Goymer’s photos of the show, check out the Folk Witness Facebook page. Give us a like while you’re there, and don’t forget you can follow us on Twitter, too

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December 30, 2014 by markdishman

Martin & Eliza Carthy: The Moral of the Elephant – Folk Witness album of the year 2014

It’s remarkable to think that, for all their work together in family band Waterson:Carthy, Martin and Eliza Carthy had never before released an album together. They addressed this in 2014 with The Moral of the Elephant – an LP assembled in intense ‘hothouse’ sessions – two songs a day, arranged, practiced, recorded: done. Layout 1

It’s a confident approach: two voices, one guitar, one fiddle, no special guests and a quick-fire approach to getting the songs done, in order that they might retain their freshness. And there’s something about the no-frills, purist approach that invites the listener to lean in a little. It’s a warm (thanks in no small part to Oliver Knight’s production) and engaging record.

Opener Her Servant Man sets the tone: Martin’s distinctive, deliberate-yet-delicate guitar picking and earthy voice kick off a tale of forbidden love. Eliza’s vivacious fiddle soon joins the mix, adding notes of charm and romance that build the song into more than the sum of its parts. And the simple formula never gets dull. Guitar and fiddle seem to dance during the introduction to the cheery Blackwell Merry Night, before the duo stop playing and allow their voices to do the same thing.

Most of the songs are traditional, and while many will sound familiar, versions and arrangements are new. Waking Dreams – a thoughtful take on Awake Awake that intriguingly addresses the song’s subject as a “traitor” (instead of “sleeper”) is one highlight, while The Queen of Hearts – shot through with dramatic guitar and harmony – is another. The masterful Grand Conversation on Napoleon ebbs and flows absorbingly, addressing Boney’s broken heart as much as his political failure. Martin’s spoken outro is loaded with gravitas.

The album’s non-traditional songs are excellent, too. Monkey Hair, written by Michael Marra, and Happiness, an apparently lost classic from the pen of Molly Drake, are both simply (that word again) stunning. Has Eliza’s voice ever sounded better? You can listen for yourself, below…

Indeed, both father and daughter are on top form with voice and instrument. Martin’s vocal performance on Queen Caraboo is top class, while Eliza’s fiddling is assured and inventive. On Bonny Moorhen it is light, bright and exquisitely divergent, while on The Elephant it is deep and mournful, as if she is sawing into the very soul of the instrument.

Talk of ‘folk royalty’ or ‘folk’s first family’ has always seemed antithetical to the genre to me (and Martin will modestly point in the direction of the Coppers if the matter is raised), but the epithet exists for a reason: Martin and Eliza Carthy (not to mention Norma Waterson, whose collaboration with her daughter on 2010’s Gift album is another must-hear) are outstandingly talented. The Moral of the Elephant is both deeply complex and uncomplicatedly beautiful – and it’s the Folk Witness album of the year 2014.

Album of the year 2013 – The Full English

Album of the year 2012 – Fay Hield: Orfeo

Album of the year 2011 – Mary Hampton: Folly

Don’t forget, you can follow Folk Witness on Twitter or like it on Facebook, if you’re so inclined. Happy New Year!

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November 8, 2014 by markdishman

Songs for the Voiceless: Kings Place, London, November 6 2014

The first night of a mini-series of London gigs curated by Eliza Carthy “celebrating the power and expressiveness of the human voice”, was devoted to those who cannot sing for themselves. The Songs for the Voiceless project has already produced an album of songs inspired by the First World War (see the video below for a behind-the-scenes look), and the visit to Kings Place was the second night of a tour not only recreating it, but with a broader remit of songs and tunes related more generally to war.

songs for the voiceless

From left to right: Katriona Gilmore, Matt Downer, The Young’uns (David Eagle, Michael Hughes, Sean Cooney), Michael J Tinker, Tom Oakes, Jackie Oates, Bella Hardy, Jamie Roberts. Photo: Simon Rogers

Carthy wasn’t performing, but she introduced Jackie Oates, Bella Hardy, The Young’uns, Katriona Gilmore & Jamie Roberts, Tom Oakes, Matt Downer and Michael J Tinker. The group frequently accompanied one another – with Oakes, Downer and Tinker proving capably versatile on a mixture of flute, guitar, bass and harmonium – but each had their own solo moments, too.

As you’d expect, the tone was predominately sober: Trenches, written by Ian Stephenson, glumly explored reality and culpability, with lines like “it took his face clean off”, while Tinker’s Charles Ball told of a dying man whose prayers were with others. Oakes played a breathy, bassy and melancholy flute piece, and Hardy led the line on a heartfelt version of Bonny Light Horseman.

But there were, perhaps surprisingly, some more upbeat moments. Gilmore’s Trojan Tree alluded to the stranger-than-fiction tale of a fake steel tree stump constructed to allow allied soldiers to spy on the enemy, while The Young’uns somehow managed to conjure an uproarious thigh-slapping music hall number based on three tales from the trenches. “We’ve unwisely decided to do it in cockney accents”, they mused, throwing in clipped officer-class tones, cartoonish German voices – and the odd theatrical “blimey” – for good measure.

In John Hill, from their Never Forget album (which they talked to Folk Witness about here), The Young’uns already have a profoundly affecting song about World War I, but such is Sean Cooney’s work rate (“ridiculous – just stop it”, joked Bella Hardy) that they produced another one – between the recording of the album and the gig. Private Hughes movingly told the tale of a simple note put inside a bottle in 1915, not to be discovered for nearly 100 years.

The best was saved for last. Jackie Oates isn’t on the album, and is taking the place of Josienne Clarke for part of the tour. This made her performance of Clarke’s stunning As The Dust Settles In – inspired by Clarke’s great-grandfather’s terrible experiences in the trenches – all the more impressive. Both are excellent singers, of course, but to take on such a personal, melancholy song is no mean feat. Oates did it with perfectly judged sensitivity, bringing it a different vulnerability.

And Hardy provided the pre-encore finale, with a typically smart song. Jolly Good Luck to the Girl That Loves a Soldier – also the name of the music hall piece it is a response to – attempted to resolve her feelings at seeing a poster that read ‘Women of Britain say Go!’, and considering everyone from “the sweethearts of the Tommies” to Russian soldier “Maria Bochkareva and her Death Battalion”. Performed with nothing but Hardy’s strummed fiddle and jaw-dropping voice, it ended the show on a thoughtful, open note – it (and the short and bittersweet encore) left the audience wondering at the incredible scale of war’s impact.

Songs for the Voiceless is at the Brook Theatre in Chatham tonight (November 8) and the Salisbury Arts Centre tomorrow (November 9). To see more of Simon Rogers’ photos of the show, check out the Folk Witness Facebook page. Give us a like while you’re there, and don’t forget you can follow us on Twitter, too

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October 8, 2014 by markdishman

Kate Young on new album Swimmings of the Head, crowdfunding and the power of listening

Swimmings of the Head, as Kate Young reveals in our interview, below, is a phrase taken from herbalist Nicholas Culpeper, which describes an attack of the vapours of some kind. It is, as she suggests, an appropriate title for the Scottish fiddle-singer’s dreamy-dizzy new album. The record, which Kate recorded with an additional four musicians as Kate in the Kettle, was funded via Indiegogo and is digitally released on Friday. (CDs are available too.)

Kate Young launches Swimmings of the Head at the Union Chapel

Kate Young launches Swimmings of the Head at the Union Chapel

“I am the fairy fiddler”, she boldly announces on the opening track, which is based in part on a Nora Hopper poem. And so it proves – she’s an intense, imaginative and percussive player. The tune, which morphs into Sab Jon’s Polska, also features tabla, mandola and some frankly stunning singing – not just in Kate’s native tongue, but also in Swedish (apparently it’s called ‘cow-calling). It’s a lot to take in – and we’re still on track one…

Kate came to the attention of many (of us folkies, at least) through her work with fiddle-singing quartet Carthy Hardy Farrell Young (she stars on their kickass calling card Greasy Coat), and this album certainly reflects her strong influence there. As we already know, she’s a smart collaborator as well as a strong musician, here working out varied and inventive string, percussion and clarinet arrangements with her four fellow players.

Highlights include the swaggering Green and Gold, (inspired by Slovenian figs) the cool, mysterious Paper Rose, the gentle Lullaby for an Infant Chief, and the dramatic finale Grow Down. It’s a well-travelled and lovingly assembled album, still capable of conjuring surprises after a dozen listens.

We talked to Kate this week about Swimmings in the Head, crowdfunding and – obviously – sandwiches.

FW: How did you find the crowdfunding experience?

Kate Young: I found it a great tool for connecting with people who were interested in supporting my music, and although it was a lot of work, it felt more rewarding to be able to share the whole experience with people rather then if I had slaved over a funding application for months on end with no certain result at the end of it! The campaign has an element of urgency ­– it has a time limit, which I think is a good thing, so it was stressful and although I didn’t actually reach the goal, I still raised just enough to make the album and tour happen. And without this there would be no album, so I’m am eternally grateful to all those who pledged!

Why are you called Kate in the Kettle? What’s your favourite kettle-related refreshment? Tea? Coffee? Pot Noodle?

I brew my musical ideas in a pot, let it stew for a bit. There’s quite a range of different teas that get poured out from day-to-day. Actually today [we did the interview on October 7] I’m looking forward to playing in Glasgow’s Tchai-Ovna (Chai House) – they have an amazing selection of teas from all over the world!

Similarly, where did ‘Swimmings of the Head’ come from?

It’s a quote from the 17th century British herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper. His ‘Complete Herbal’ has a lot of crazy remedies and potions for things, many of which I find hilarious. One plant he was talking about cured the ‘swimmings of the head’ and I thought this felt quite fitting to the music on this album.

How has working with Eliza Carthy, Bella Hardy and Lucy Farrell affected your music?

We have different styles, but I think it is interesting and fun for us to play within that dynamic of what works together and what is distinct about each of us. I have always thought of this music as quite separate to the Kate in the Kettle/solo work that I do, and that ‘folk’s finest firm of solicitors’ Carthy, Hardy, Farrell & Young is all about the live performance.

Your singing style and range is very broad – tell us where you learned to sing like you do in Fairy Fiddler, for example! 

As a singer, I am constantly exploring different techniques and forever have been fascinated by the different traditions of singing from all over the world, which therefore feeds into the music I create. In Fairy Fiddler I was perhaps more focusing on the exploration of connecting voice with fiddle as a second, or sometimes third instrument in harmony, as well as some Swedish ‘cow-calling’ at the end of the track.

Lullaby for an Infant Chief is just as stunning, but it feels different – softer. Where did you come across the poem and what made you decide to set it to music?

This text is by Sir Walter Scott – I found this song in a book of lullabies. It already had the Gaelic refrain in the song – whether Scott added that in himself or not, I don’t know. I’m not sure if he was a Gaelic speaker! I actually composed the melody for it because there was none to be found in the book! The tune following it is a slängpolska of Swedish origin.

Who are your fiddle-playing influences? There is sometimes quite an attacking, percussive feel…

When I was studying in Newcastle years ago, the lovely Laura Cortese visited from the States and brought with her this amazing concept to me of singing and playing the fiddle together! She taught us the ‘chop technique’ ­– that’s the percussive thing you are talking about, which allows you to accompany yourself with rhythm on the fiddle. Since then, I spent my days practicing, composing, experimenting with many of the different ways of combining the voice with the fiddle. I have taught classes in fiddle-singing and performed in UK and across Europe, including Estonia and Austria, where later emerged the likes of fiddle-singers Maarja Nuut and Claudia Schwab. Claudia and I now play in a duo together combining Austrian yodelling, Indian violin, Bulgarian songs and more!

Kate Young snow

Frozen fiddling: Kate warms up

Tell us about your collaborators and the instruments they play – the låt-mandola is a new one on us… And there’s lots of tabla, too

Marit Fält and I met whilst studying folk music in Newcastle and she plays the Ale Möller-designed låt-mandola. It is a bass-drone mandola (or kind of octave mandolin so to speak) with frets which enables her to play some of the micro-tone intervals that are used in Swedish traditional music. Victor Solana was also studying music in Newcastle at the time and is a great percussionist, and I knew he had been studying Indian tabla. When we were putting the material together, sometimes it was just fiddle and tabla and we have a great time actually playing the tunes together on both instruments as tabla is tuned percussion and very sensitive to melody.

How easy is it to combine your ‘world’ influences with the Scottish ones? Do you find they just work together – I’m thinking of the two tunes in Salmon, as an example…

Hmm, good question! I guess that’s a question with a never-ending or multi-faceted answer because in traditional music and in our current climate of endless possibilities of accessing all kinds of musical influences and communication brings us to the question of balance, or equilibrium between what should stay preserved as pure tradition and history, and what we can play with now. I have always been more of the experimental type, fascinated by the multitude of sounds there are in the world. However, studying on the folk degree brought me closer in my understanding of how our own tradition across Britain has come about, and how rich it is, without anything added on, of course. What is really interesting is along all our differences, there are so many similarities between traditions ­– you can always find incredible parallels between one country’s tradition and another, and sometimes its not about thinking but just listening.

The Salmon track was a bit of coincidence because these were two tunes that Marit and I enjoyed playing at the time, and decided that they perhaps fitted quite well in a set together. Turned out later, that the first one, written by Taklax (Finnish/Swedish) – the composer’s name directly translates as ‘roof salmon'; the following tune is sourced from a salmon fishing pool in Spey, Scotland. It was only right to call the set by the fish common to all involved!

Finally – the traditional FW final question – what’s your favourite sandwich?

If it weren’t for the mercury content in tuna, I’d say tuna mayo, so I’d go for halloumi with olives and avocado and pine nuts. Oh my god I’m hungry now!

Swimmings in the Head is released digitally on October 10, and you can probably get hold of a CD too – either through Kate’s website, here, or by catching her on tour – the dates of which are here. Thanks to Debbie Hill for her help with this blog – and don’t forget to check out FW on Facebook or Twitter!

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September 7, 2014 by markdishman

Sam Sweeney’s Fiddle: Made in the Great War: West End Centre, Aldershot, September 4 2014

One hundred years on from the start of the First World War, and still the numbers defy comprehension. With the death count well into the tens of millions, and no remaining veterans to speak of the conflict, the task of preserving and telling the human stories of World War I has now been passed on to those with connections to it.

Sam Sweeney and his fiddle. Photo: Emma Goymer

Sam Sweeney and his fiddle. Photo: Emma Goymer

Sam Sweeney’s connection is an unusual one. In 2008, the Bellowhead violinist purchased a new fiddle, which when examined closely was found to contain a label bearing its maker’s name – Richard S Howard – the year of its construction (1915), and the legend ‘Made in the Great War’. Sweeney and his father got to work on researching Howard’s story and ‘Sam Sweeney’s Fiddle: Made in the Great War’ tells it with verve, humour and sensitivity.

The show is divided into two parts. The first, as Sweeney explains, is dedicated to showing off what the instrument can do. So he plays sets of tunes, at first by himself, and then with “my favourite musician in the world” Rob Harbron on concertina. Bellowhead accomplice Paul Sartin and storyteller Hugh Lupton (known for his collaborations with Chris Wood) soon take the stage, too – the former to join in the lovely Scarlet & the Blue, and the latter to tell apparently random, deeply engaging stories that have their origins in Greece and Africa. Sartin takes lead vocals on Cicely Fox-Smith’s mournful Home Lad Home (which he has of course recorded with Belshazzar’s Feast), and there’s a lovely original tune named Rose Howard, included here simply because there wasn’t space for it in the second half.

As promised, the quartet, dressed in shirts and braces (with the exception of the belted Lupton) bound back after a brief interval to tell Richard Howard’s story. It’s done with a neat lightness of touch – acting, video projection and music, all glued together by Lupton’s story. “It’s my job to put flesh on the bones,” he tells us, in the first of many clever references to the stories he told in the first half (which, it turns out, weren’t so random after all).

So we learn about Richard, his home life with his wife Martha and daughter Rose, sharing chats at the kitchen table, beavering away in his workshop and preparing for work, as a musician. Lupton’s language is captivating; he humanises the fiddle, telling us “it demanded to be played”, and referencing its back, belly and teeth. Sweeney, Harbron and Sartin’s accompaniment comes either through subtle musical additions, or through movement. Again subtlety is key: there are no OTT shows of acting or mime, just subtle movements that suggest, for example, how the group might prepare for a variety performance.

Sartin, Sweeney, Harbron and Lupton. Photo: Emma Goymer

And that performance is the show’s first big set piece. Deftly staged, it conveys musical numbers, magic acts and an amusing ‘romantic’ segment (in which Sartin bats his eyes at a discomfited Harbron) with frenetic pace. At one point, Sweeney takes on the unfamiliar role of a terrible fiddle player. Seeing him wince as he saws away at the screeching fiddle is perhaps the last thing the audience expected – and as a result it’s laugh-out-loud funny.

When he gets home, however, Richard learns that he has been conscripted, and the tone becomes more serious as he bids his family – and his fiddle – farewell, and heads off to the trenches. The video element becomes more important here – we see men marching, smiling, smoking, digging and resting. Particularly awe-inspiring are the huge explosions, throwing dirt high into the air in slow motion as the story of the Battle of Messines is told. Lupton is in his element here, adding flashes of detail – unknowable but believable – about Richard’s thoughts as he attempts to press forward.

The story’s conclusion is beautifully judged – sensitive and moving, but not mawkish. Sweeney’s Ballad of Richard Howard is poignant and direct, while the finale – in which he leads the musical trio in a beautiful, sombre composition – accompanies a video backdrop that is as perfect a tribute as you could imagine. The audience doesn’t know whether to sob or applaud… so it does both.

It’s a simple story, really, and one of millions. But in helping us to remember (and re-member) Richard Howard, Sweeney and co have come up with something rather special. If you are able to make it to any of the remaining dates, I unreservedly recommend that you do so.

Sam Sweeney’s Fiddle: Made in the Great War is on tour until the end of September. To see more of Emma Goymer’s photos of the show, check out the Folk Witness Facebook page. Give us a like while you’re there, and don’t forget you can follow us on Twtter, too

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August 28, 2014 by markdishman

Rachel Newton talks about her new album Changeling, collaborations and the metaphor of song

You’ve probably seen Rachel Newton play. The Scots harpist, viola player, pianist and singer is regularly to be spotted on tour with The Shee and Emily Portman, while more recently she’s joined up with The Furrow Collective and the Elizabethan Session song project, giving that album’s opener its killer harp introduction. changeling

So it’s a wonder she manages to find the time for solo work. And while Changeling, her second album, is relatively short at 35 minutes long, it packs in an impressive range of ideas and styles. The subject matter (which Newton explains in our interview, below) is explored diligently: the tragedies, mysteries and eccentricities of changeling stories made both absorbing and approachable. Simply put, it’s one of those albums that, once it has ended, compels you to press play again.

On the instrumental side, The Changeling Reel is frantic and joyful, led by Newton’s bright, clear harp and given a pulse by Mattie Foulds’ inventive percussion, while the beautiful Three Days is a soulful string piece conjured from a simple image – of three women gathered around a bed. The upbeat Up The Lum (inspired by rather a funny method of detecting changelings) and a more contemplative closing air further confirm Newton’s ear for a satisfying melody.

That’s not to mention The Fairy Man, a creepy tale of an unwanted intruder, sung captivatingly by the caramel-voiced Adam Holmes, and given dramatic, ghostly backing vocals from Newton and spooky musical saw from Su-a Lee. There’s the relatively simple, bluesy When I’m Gone, and Mo Chubhracan, a melancholy lullaby that Newton sings with heartbreaking sensitivity. You’re never quite sure what’s coming next…

Rachel took the time to speak to us about the album, her love of collaborating and – this is a Folk Witness interview, after all – her favourite sandwich.

FW: Hi Rachel! Could you tell us what a changeling is, and what made you decide to put together an album inspired by them?

Rachel Newton: A changeling is a creature believed to be left in the place of a human baby by the fairies. Having always been intrigued by these beliefs in the supernatural and the stories, songs and music that surrounds them in the folk tradition, I wanted to focus in on a particular aspect and the changelings stood out for me. The word itself was appealing as an album title and the more I read, the more complex and interesting the subject became.

A lot of the subject matter is quite dark – there are themes of abduction, loss and deception – is it hard to compose and arrange music for such troubling topics?

As a singer whose main interest is in traditional folk songs, I definitely wouldn’t be one to shy away from the darker, more troubling topics! I’m of the belief that music is and always has been a way of reflecting on the darker aspects of life and death by conveying emotions that might not be easily put into words or dealt with outside the metaphor of song.

Are a lot of changeling stories Scottish or did you seek out Scots songs and tunes in particular? And how does singing in Gaelic feel different – or make the music feel different – to singing in English?

When I first started out on my research for the album, I had planned to use stories and songs from all over the world. There was so much material from Scotland alone, however, so I decided to focus in on that. There are many similar stories to be found across the globe. Perhaps that could be the next project! Singing in Gaelic was what I started out doing as a child, and so it was singing in English that took a while to get used to. It took some time for me to realise the obvious truth that no matter what song I’m singing in whatever language, as long as I feel I’m singing in my own voice and understand my own feeling towards the subject, I’ll be at home.

You’re a busy collaborator. How does working with so many groups affect your solo output? It must be refreshing that you get to call all the shots on this one!

I love to collaborate! I love learning from others and being forced out of my comfort zone to try something new. It’s a bit of an internal struggle in a way, as I am really enjoying being in full control of my solo material and feeling like I’m finding my own musical voice, but I get so much out of all the collaborations and have realised I couldn’t just do my own material all the time. Every musician I have played with has informed my playing and singing and approach to music in some way or another. It just means I have a bit of a hectic schedule!

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Rachel Newton – and her harps – enjoy the Scottish summer

Tell us about Adam Holmes – where did you find him and why did you choose to have him sing the lead on The Fairy Man?

I’ve known Adam for years. He is from Edinburgh like me, and I asked him to be involved in the New Voices piece at Celtic Connections that the album is based on. I’d always liked the idea of having another contrasting voice on the record and I felt that the poem I set to music was perfect for his beautiful, melancholic voice.

What’s it like being a harpist on the folk scene? You don’t see harps very often, but on Changeling you demonstrate the instrument’s versatility. Is that important to you?

On the album I play both the acoustic and electric harps. I love to use the electric harp to provide a driving bass line to the acoustic harp’s melodies. I started using the electric in this way playing in The Shee, as we don’t have guitars or drums and had to find a new angle. I think people often see the harp as being a nice soothing sound and I hope to help show that there’s more to it than that!

Changeling seems to cover a lot of ground and pack in a lot of instruments and influences. What inspired the decision to use horns and musical saw, for example?

I have been a fan of the saw ever since hearing my long-time collaborator and pal Lucy Farrell play it when we were at university. The cellist on Changeling, Su-a, is also brilliant at the saw and I felt it would be perfect for The Fairy Man as I wanted to really go for it in terms of creepiness on that one. I also wanted to work with an instrument I’d never used before and the horn is such a beautiful sound that I imagined it would blend really well with the other instruments I had in mind. Alec Frank-Gemmill is a stunning player and I’m so glad I made that decision.

And finally… what’s your favourite sandwich?

I think about this a lot. In an ideal sandwich scenario for me, there would be goat’s cheese, chorizo, rocket, sun-dried tomatoes and basil. Failing that, I’ll happily go for peanut butter.

Changeling is out on Shadowside Records on September 1 – to see when Rachel’s on tour, check out her gig page

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July 5, 2014 by markdishman

Steve Elston: Dear Em

Steve Elston is a Brighton-based Devonian singer-songwriter and guitarist with a modest collection of EPs and a fluent, original and mind-bendingly dextrous acoustic fingerpicking style. dear em

His newest offering, Dear Em, is a collection of songs assembled over the past two years. And in contrast to his previous EPs, there’s more to it than one man and his guitar. The fresh, airy feel of Elston’s previous work has been retained, but be warned! Here be synthesisers, drones, percussion and, yes, even backing vocals.

It’s all applied with great subtlety, mind. Opener Climb Cloud Nine is warm, wistful and woozy, while the gentle patter of drums and handclaps add a certain panic to the gentle-frantic Marbles – “I don’t want to drink any more” sings Elston, in the troubled manner of someone who realises that it won’t make much difference now.

Elston, whose debut collection was entitled Reveries for Lost Dogs, has always had an affinity with our canine pals (which goes down well with the Folk Witness pups). Here he revisits the subject with Small Dogs, which at first appears to be a simple celebration of chihuahuas, but turns into something more oblique and contemplative. It also shows off Elston’s appealingly mournful, youthful croon.

There’s more of that to be had on the more upbeat, nostalgic title track, which features lyrics written by Sam Reader. The song features what might be Elston’s first-ever electric guitar solo; a smartly executed surprise. There’s a certain simple humanity to Call Centre – another Reader collaboration – which uncomplicatedly mourns the misery of the tedious day job.

Planxty Davis is a tune most closely associated with Nic Jones, and Elston has clearly been studying the master. Wisely, however, he chooses his own path, playing with a light touch that is inimitably his own, confidently allowing the tempo to fade and swell as he sees fit. Jones would surely approve.

The final track is a take on Cyril Tawney’s In the Sidings, learned from fellow Devonian Jim Causley. The song, written from the point of view of a railwayman victim of Dr Beeching’s regime, suits Elston’s peculiar blend of youthful nostalgia perfectly.

Elston’s is a rare talent: this is honest, modest and quietly moving music. And apart from anything else, it’s free! Download Dear Em at the Steve Elston Bandcamp page here.

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May 24, 2014 by markdishman

So. Farewell then Spiers & Boden

Last week, Folk Witness snapper Simon and I went to the Ropetackle Centre to see Spiers & Boden on their farewell tour. For a goodbye, it was a pretty cheerful affair. Jon Boden introduced the gig as “our first farewell tour”, which immediately dispelled any notion that we weren’t going to see him perform with John Spiers again.Of course, we’ll be seeing (probably quite a lot of) them as part of Bellowhead – their 22-legged big band – who are aiming for big things with their new album, Revival, this year.

Spiers Boden farewell

Spiers & Boden say their farewells at the Ropetackle Centre. Photo: Simon Rogers

The gig featured a reasonably heavy bias towards stuff the boys have arranged for Bellowhead – which (promisingly) went down a treat with the crowd, and perhaps reflected their necessary devotion to that project. We’ll miss the duo’s surprising loudness, fine solo spots and the raucous singalongs to Bold Sir Rylas – but we’ll also look forward to the reunion – and perhaps, one day, a second farewell tour.

I wrote a proper review of the Ropetackle gig for The Argus, here. You can see a full gallery of Simon Rogers’ excellent photos of the show here, at the Folk Witness Facebook page. Give us a like while you’re there, and don’t forget you can follow us on Twitter, too.

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May 10, 2014 by markdishman

Megson: In a Box

Megson’s new album In a Box starts off on a sombre note. It’s a canny move Debbie and Stu Hanna have made before – they kicked off 2010’s The Longshot with the heart-rending Two Match Lads. It establishes a thread of melancholy necessary to an album that makes every effort to cover most of life’s milestones and major events in just ten tracks. In a Box

Clifton Hill Mine, then, is about the tragic events of 18 June 1885, when 178 men and boys were killed by an explosion at a pit near Salford. The Hannas have the confidence and nous to let the grim tale take centre stage – their accompaniment is sparse and occasional, though when they come the piano trills are appropriately heavy and dramatic.

Bet Beesley & Her Wooden Man is more upbeat – a farcical tale of the marriage between a sailor’s widow and a (literally) legless nabob – with a jolly delivery perhaps informed by the duo’s children’s album, When I Was a Lad, released in 2012. Seth Lakeman adds his trademark vibrant fiddle-playing – a welcome addition to the Megson sound.

Stu’s brawny mandola and guitar playing forms the backbone of the album, but the duo smartly augment the sound, with a pleasing twang of banjo and crisp whistle playing on Charlie the Newsmonger, for example.

Old Folks Tea – a setting of a work by ‘Pitman Poet’ (and Megson fave) Tommy Armstrong is a light-hearted take on what sounded like quite a feast and a party at an old folks’ home in County Durham, with a memorable, twiddly mandolin solo from Stu. On a more serious note, the traditional Still I Love Him – which features a stunning vocal from Debbie, and sweet backing from Jess Morgan – is a sobering, grown-up declaration of love to a less-than-ideal man.

The stories aren’t all so personal. The excellent River Never Dies is a document of the Tees, taking the Nazi bombing campaign of the 1940s as its start point. Driving guitar and an infectious chorus make it one of the album’s singalong highlights. A more unusual Teeside tale is story of Moses Carpenter, a Native American Mohawk who came to Middlesbrough as part of a travelling medicine show. Sadly, he died shortly afterwards. The bright and breezy song laments his being buried “far far away from his home o’er the billow”, but posthumously welcomes him to the town – it is said 15,000 people lined the streets for his funeral procession.

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Boxing clever: Debbie & Stu Hanna

Songs to Soothe a Tired Heart celebrates the bond between parent and child. It’s moving without being sappy. The Willows pop up to lend vocals, gentle dobro and mournful fiddle to an appropriately dreamy appreciation of lullabies. It’s original and affecting, its subject matter a distance relative of The Smiths’ Rubber Ring and its “songs that saved your life”.

The sentimental Dirty Clothes explores memories of childhood and growing up. It verges on the twee, but is rescued by a smart line that rhymes “Febreze ‘em” and “sees ‘em”. The nostalgia trip is done better on the album’s closing title track. It’s an acutely observed look through the memories we attach to the objects we collect – “all those memories stored in a box”. In the Hannas case, there’s a collection of photographs, a Friends box set and an old bike. The song is moving, told with humour and sincerity, with a chorus beautifully sung in harmony – something you wish they’d do more often.

Perhaps it’s a reaction to the fun and games of When I Was a Lad, but In a Box is a curiously reflective album for such a young, cheerful duo to produce. That said, the duo have pulled it off with a wisdom and eloquence beyond their years. That Megson able to inhabit the characters and moods of such a varied set of songs so wholeheartedly is testament to their considerable abilities as songwriters, arrangers and performers.

In a Box is out on EDJ Records on May 12

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