under the trad/arr of folk and acoustic music
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!

rachel newton

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.

megson 2014

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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March 30, 2014 by markdishman

Lisa Knapp: Ropetackle Arts Centre, Shoreham, March 28 2014

Although she describes herself and her band as “a bunch of London scruffs”, there’s nothing everyday about Lisa Knapp and her coterie. There’s an element of salt-of-the-earth folk singer about her, sure, but also something rather more otherworldly. Knapp delivers traditional opener The Blacksmith with a simmering intensity. Initially, she’s accompanied only Gerry Diver’s quiet banjo, but then percussionist Pete Flood subtly joins in, tickling his drums with his brushes. The song swells, with bass and dulcimer also chiming in, but the focus remains on Knapp, still and focused as she relates the story of the deceitful smith.

Flood Knapp Diver

Pete Flood, Lisa Knapp and Gerry Diver. Photo: Simon Rogers

And that’s just the first song! What follows is that Knapp and co – Kate Arnold on dulcimer and bassist Fred Thomas make it five – play their considerable collection of instruments in a considerable number of ways to produce an dazzingly eclectic, frequently magical-sounding set. Refreshingly (excitingly, even), it’s not unusual for songs not to sound like their recorded versions.

Knapp has a particular interest in May Carols, even going so far as to record an EP of them in 2012 (a follow-up this year has been postponed, she tells us, because she’s undergoing the stress of moving house instead). Pleasant Month of May – learned from the relatively local Copper family – is propelled by an excitable pizzicato bass and fiddle line. Knapp’s delivery is full of the joys of the season, at one point tipping over into an excited shout. She switches to a harp for Hunt the Hare pt 1 – about “the merry month of May” – which ends in whispers, blurring into its second movement in a beautiful, dreamlike fashion. There are bursts of ice cream van music and birdsong, brilliantly and unobtrusively evoking the coming of the summer.

They might not be scruffs, but there’s a certain rough-and-ready element to the group’s playing. Diver saws meaningfully at his fiddle, switching to add the occasional heavy piano chord when necessary. Behind the kit, meanwhile, Flood has his work cut out cycling through his collection of chimes, blocks of wood, shells and what look like pebbles. It’s quite a different job to keeping time for the far noisier Bellowhead, and he’s excellent at finding the right texture for each song.

Knapp puts Shipping Song, from last year’s acclaimed Hidden Seam album, into context by simply mentioning her interest in place names. She sings the words so familiar from the shipping forecast – Fitzroy, Trafalgar, Forties – with palpable relish, playing with the words as if tasting them for the first time.

After an interval, the show recommences with a compelling solo performance of May murder ballad Lily White Hand, illustrating that for all its fragile quaver, Knapp’s voice has considerable depth and volume. Two Ravens – which she modestly chooses not to mention won the Radio 2 Folk Award for best original song – is enchanting. Stripped of Martin Carthy’s spiky guitar (indeed, any guitar), the song is softer and slower, but no less exotic-sounding.

Generally, however, the second half is somewhat louder than the first. Seagiver sees Flood start to thump the drums for the first time, which elicits an enthusiastic response from the crowd. Wild and Undaunted – a tale of robbery in London Town – has a stop-start swagger, with Knapp’s vocals soaring towards the conclusion. The momentum continues on the blurry, woozy Black Horse. Diver uses his box of electronic tricks to loop and sample Knapp’s voice, so it seems as if she’s harmonising with herself, before wondering off on a soaring vocal tangent. It’s thrilling to listen to, and there’s a delicious payoff when (almost) everything suddenly stops and we’re left with a solitary, haunting vocal line.

The night’s final song (Knapp has no truck with walking offstage and returning for an encore) is another solo piece, learned from Lizzie Higgins. “It’s a slightly magical song, this one,” says Knapp. “I suppose most songs are slightly magical, really”. The ones she sings most certainly are.

Folk Witness thanks to the Ropetackle Arts Centre. See what’s coming up at the Ropetackle here.

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March 23, 2014 by markdishman

The Elizabethan Session: Cecil Sharp House, London, March 22 2014

It must have been quite a week. The Elizabethan Session follows similar song projects – about Charles Darwin and Cecil Sharp – so though we know it’s possible to conjure a gig’s worth of top-notch original material by sticking eight musicians in a house for seven days, the effect is no less impressive (and perhaps even better) upon repetition.

Rachel Newton and Martin Simpson go Elizabethan. Photo: Simon Rogers

Rachel Newton and Martin Simpson go Elizabethan. Photo: Simon Rogers

While some of the musicians in question – those musicians being Jim Moray, Rachel Newton, Martin Simpson, Nancy Kerr, John Smith, Bella Hardy, Hannah James and Emily Askew – have worked together before, many had never met. But you wouldn’t know it. At Cecil Sharp House, the scene of their second-ever gig together, the octet kick off as a full band with Shores of Hispaniola, an ominous, rumbling rumination on what Kerr calls “a cruel time to be, for most people”. For song that Simpson tells us she wrote “before breakfast” on the first morning, it’s deeply impressive.

The bleak theme is continued by John Smith’s brooding London, written from the point of view of a “terrified peasant” (which, according to Smith, is a self-description). Martin Simpson’s slide guitar adds menace, as Smith sings of Her Majesty: “she shines all over England/though we’ve never seen the light”. The Elizabethan period is the broadest topic yet covered by these song projects, and you can sense the musicians’ delight at having so much to mine (in particular, so much misery) – historian and author Ian Mortimer is given much credit for his input to the project.

The show is a democratic affair, with every player given a chance to shine, and the group thoughtfully recognising that’s there’s no need for everyone to play on every song – making it all the more effective and raucous when they do come together. So Rachel Newton’s beautiful setting of Christopher Marlowe’s The Passionate Shepherd to His Love is accompanied at first only by her delicate harp playing, before Emily Askew’s row of bells chime in, and Smith and Simpson blend in a shimmering mix of acoustic and electric guitars (Marlowe is returned to later, in Simpson’s simple, touching lament for the “playwright, poet, spy, brawler and gay atheist”).

Askew’s specialist interest in early music – and collection of unusual instruments – adds an intriguing point of difference to the show. Her bagpipes and wide, flat vielle set a 16th-century tone for a jig in the style of the era. And though Hannah James admits there wasn’t much clog dancing in Elizabethan times, her energetic springing and stepping adds a thrilling burst of energy to the performance. Askew impresses again with an Italian-style piece featuring the utterly brilliant shawm – a huge proto-oboe that was a feature of what Askew tells us were called “loud bands”. You can hear why.

Elizabeth herself is referenced several times. Bella Hardy’s Hatfield (where, legend has it, the young princess learned of her imminent coronation) considers heroism and memory. Simpson cuts to the quick of Elizabeth’s human relationships in a first-person song inspired by her signature, while Moray’s I Guess That I’m Over It Now and Kerr’s Lady Lizzie take a lighter look at her personal life, the former consoling her crestfallen admirer Robert Dudley, the latter musing on the ageing monarch’s make-up regime. Askew’s sprightly pavane/ground-bass piece, meanwhile, one could easily imagine being played to entertain the Queen and her courtiers.

But the musicians have explored far more than just the queen’s reign. There are settings of poems by John Donne and Aemilia Lanyer, a “feminist shanty” inspired by ‘sea queen’ Grace O’Malley, and Shakespeare gets a mention through Hardy’s Midsummer Night’s Dream-inspired Love in Idleness. A particular highlight is Jim Moray’s superb The Straight Line and the Curve, about philosopher-occultist John Dee and, among other things, his ‘scrying mirror’. Moray’s fellow musicians provide an elegant orchestra to accompany his stark piano and intriguing lyrics – demonstrating that, for talents such at these, it’s possible to get rather a lot done in a week.

The Sessioneers had spent most of their day recording – so there is a CD to come – but currently the only chance to see them live together again is at the Folk by the Oak festival (which co-commissioned the project with the EFDSS) on July 20. It’s an opportunity worth taking.

For more of Simon Rogers’ photos of the event, check out the gallery on the Folk Witness Facebook page! Give us a like while you’re there, or you can find us on Twitter, here

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March 20, 2014 by markdishman

The Young’uns David Eagle on new album Never Forget, anti-fascism, dodgy reviews and biscuits

One third of The Young’uns – alongside Sean Cooney and Michael Hughes – David Eagle last spoke to us in 2012. He shed light on the trio’s album, When Our Grandfathers Said No, as well as telling us about Hartlepool, Stu Hanna, why we shouldn’t allow him to look after whales, and – crucially – the group’s favourite sandwiches. never forget

So when we heard about the new Young’uns album, Never Forget, we were keen to speak to him again. The record revisits some of the previous album’s themes – anti-fascism, war, rollicking sea shanties, love songs and stories inspired by local history among them.

The Young’uns are in as fine a voice as before. But the new album also features more complex instrumentation (a hearty dose of brass and a children’s choir both pop up); songs by Sydney Carter, Graeme Miles and Jez Lowe; more stunning Cooney compositions – Altar rivals Jenny Waits For Me in terms of sheer weight of emotion; and, in its final track, an audacious, Noël Coward-esque take on how five members of the English Defence League were positively engaged with over A Lovely Cup of Tea.

In the year we mark a century since the beginning of World War I, Never Forget feels as timely as it does accomplished, and as sincere as it is entertaining. Thankfully, David was willing to talk to us once again – about untold stories, dodgy reviews and biscuits…

Folk Witness: Journalists often ask you about being called The Young’uns. Did you call this album Never Forget in order to get them to ask questions about whether or not you were inspired by Take That? And, um… were you inspired by Take That?

David Eagle: I hope you won’t be too disappointed when I say that the answer to that question is no. Sorry if you were hoping for it to be otherwise and were holding out for other Take That-inspired Young’uns projects to follow, such as teaming up with Lulu (although, actually, I wouldn’t necessarily rule that idea out completely).

The Take That song Never Forget (which ironically we actually did forget about when we chose to give our album that name, otherwise we may have picked something else) has the chorus, “never forget where you’re coming from”, which is very relevant to folk music as that is one of its defining purposes. But no, the album is not Take That-inspired.

The album is called Never Forget because that is its core theme. This year is the centenary of the beginning of World War I, and there are many projects taking place which seek to unearth and maintain stories relating to that time. What interests us are the largely untold, more localised and personal stories. For instance, Sean’s research into his family tree has revealed that his great grandmother had been married before his granddad to a soldier who died in action in 1914. This startling revelation and its obvious consequences led Sean to write the song John Hill (the name of the soldier), which sees Sean philosophising about how his own life was only brought into being because of the death of John Hill.

FW: The Biscuits of Bull Lane addresses the anti-fascist battle of Cable Street – a similar tale to the Battle of Stockton, which you addressed on your last album. Why did you feel the need to chronicle this story too?

David: The song is about anti-fascism on a more general scale and is inspired by an event that happened in York. In May last year, members of the English Defence League planned a protest outside Bull Lane Mosque. Only five EDL members actually turned up and they were surprised to find themselves met not by anger, fear or hostility, but with a tray of biscuits and cups of tea. News reports claim that some of the protesters engaged in conversation with Muslims outside the mosque and went away with altered views. Our song The Biscuits of Bull Lane juxtaposes this story with other anti-fascist acts, and while we are not denouncing or belittling the events of Cable Street, and the Battle of Stockton, we are showing the contrast between those kinds of well-documented and violent events and this small-scale yet pertinent, peaceful and compassionate incident.

This is another example of a story we seek to preserve and remember. We sing about these things because they inspire us and we feel that they will inspire others.

FW: The sleeve notes are very enigmatic on the subject of Long Way Home (“a northern love story that began with a blue scarf in Newcastle train station”). Is it important for you to balance the ‘political’ songs with more tender, ‘personal’ ones like this?

David: If you’ve not heard the song before then rest assured that the object of love is not the scarf but the person wearing it. We are not going down the route of singing about lusting after inanimate objects. I think Madness covered that perfectly adequately with their song about an infatuation with a lamppost. I think Sean feared that it might seem a bit twee to state that this is a song about his girlfriend and so went for the more enigmatic description.

I think it’s nice to have contrast. If the album was a constant barrage of political or overtly serious songs then perhaps people may become exhausted after the first few tracks. Plus we are not a political or overtly serious band. If you see us live we sing about war, social injustice, inspirational events and stories, our local history, and we also sing sea shanties and traditional songs with big choruses. We are inspired by many things. A big part about what we do is also about the banter and anecdotes we share on stage. Therefore the album simply tries to reflect the range of things we do and who we are. I know that a few reviewers have stated in the past that our albums lack cohesion, because we mix self-written “political” songs with shanties, but personally I think it works and it is cohesive in terms of who The Young’uns are.

FW: Where did you get the idea to merge Blood Red Roses and Shallow Brown? It really melds the tough and tender aspects of seafaring songs.

David: I’m glad you think so, because we came across someone’s blog recently that featured a terribly constructed review of our album, and they thought very differently about this. They wrote: “Like all folky albums, it features a version of Blood Red Roses … it is also bundled together with Shallow Brown as one track for no obvious reason.”

Firstly, I think it’s more than a bit of a wild exaggeration to claim that all folk albums have a version of Blood Red Roses. The reason we “bundled” these two songs together is because when we sing shanties live, we often go down the line and sing three shanties back-to-back. We decided one time to put together an arrangement of three shanties that could flow into one another without interruption, instead of stopping after each song. So on the album we feature this technique with Shallow Brown and Blood Red Roses. Obviously, one of the songs had to be Blood Red Roses given that (as our blogger friend points out) it is mandatory for all folky albums to feature that song.

Incidentally, if you’d like to read this album review, which has to be the most woefully written review I’ve ever seen, you can find it [by clicking] here.

The Young'uns live

The Young’uns, from left: David Eagle, Michael Hughes, Sean Cooney

FW: Where did the idea for the brass – on The Biscuits of Bull Lane and John Hill – come from? 

David: We thought that given that the Biscuits of Bull Lane is a celebration of a Yorkshire event, a brass band would be very fitting. The trumpet is also an instrument associated with war and remembrance, so it’s an instrument that helps evoke a certain mood. In the Biscuits of Bull Lane, there is a military brass accompaniment to the lines: “we’ve fought their kind many a time and now we fight again, but not with sticks, not with bricks, not with guns or men.” So the idea is that this is kind of like a call to arms to fight fascism, but not to fight with weapons but with love and gestures of peace. The other reason we opted to use brass was simply because we thought it would sound good, which I think it does. I love the end of John Hill when the church organ and the brass come in. I think it evokes strong emotions.

FW: How did the idea of getting kids to record vocal parts on Hands Feet come up? What was it like recording them?

David: This fantastic song from Jez Lowe is a statement about how we should use our resources for good and not ill. The final verse is a cry of hope for our future generations – it therefore seemed appropriate to feature children singing the chorus of the song with us: “we’ve got hands to make folks happy, we’ve got feet so we can be free, and the mouths of the mob can mutter, but they’re not speaking for me.” The children are also clapping and stamping along, using their hands, feet and voices to sing this positive message of peace and freedom. We do a lot of work with children. We’re currently working on a World War I project in primary and secondary schools. You can find out more on the education page of our website.

Primary school children love it whenever we go into schools and do creative projects, and they get especially excited whenever you bring in electronic recording equipment. Plus, we were asking them to clap their hands, stamp their feet and generally make lots of noise, which kids really love. So they had a great time. It’s great to see children being inspired by the music and stories that inspire us.

FW: Congratulations on your finale, Lovely Cup of Tea – particularly on the inspired hatred/caffeinated rhyme. Is this your first composition for The Young’uns? And what inspired you to write it from the perspective of an EDL member?

David: Thank you. Yes, it is my first song for The Young’uns. I don’t have any plans to write any more. I didn’t really plan to write Lovely Cup of Tea. It was just one of those things that seemed to come out of nowhere. When we heard about this story in the news we were all inspired and we said that we must write a song about it. A week later, Sean and I both announced that we had done so. Fortunately, the two songs are very contrasting in terms of tone, and so we started performing both in our gigs, and both went down really well. I’m not really well-suited to writing serious songs, and so it seemed more natural to me to write a comical depiction of the scene from the perspective of an EDL member. I haven’t been attacked yet, and we’ve only had one complaint about it at a gig.

FW: We’ve already asked you about the crucial issue of sandwiches. Seeing as this album refers often to tea and biscuits, it seems germane to ask – what’s your favourite biscuit?

David: Last time when you asked me the sandwich question, I decided to tease your readers by announcing that we would reveal the information on our podcast. This tactic obviously worked because on the day you posted our interview on your site, our website crashed due to the number of people trying to access The Young’uns Podcast in a bid to seek clarity on our sandwich preferences. This time round we have prepared for such an event and so we are ready and waiting for the onslaught of readers to flock to the Young’uns website where we shall release a Young’uns Podcast that uncovers our favourite biscuits.

Last time, however, not only did we provide you with our three favourite sandwiches but also the favourite sandwich of Becky Unthank. I can assure you that listeners to the next Young’uns Podcast will not be disappointed, for we shall not only unearth our own biscuit preferences but also the biscuit preferences of other renowned folk singers. Perhaps Becky Unthank will return. Perhaps we can call the feature Bicky Unthank. James Fagan is due to make an appearance, and so we’ll discover his and Nancy’s favourite biscuit. I have a feeling that Nancy’s will be the Kerrstard Cream. Anyway, before this descends into cringeworthy biscuit-based folk singer pun meltdown. I will bid you adieu.

The Young’uns Podcast can be found here. Never Forget is out now on Hereteu Records

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February 16, 2014 by markdishman

O’Hooley & Tidow: The Hum

What is the hum? Well, it’s the sound of people, bees, factories, beer filling a glass, drilling, horses, foxes, prison doors, babies, bombs and birds. Life, basically. Only… it’s a bit more complicated than that. The Hum, the new album from Yorkshire duo Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow, explores this ambitious range of topics – and a whole lot more – with heartening ambition and sincerity. The Hum

The opening (title) track sets things up smartly. Inspired by the story of a house sale that fell through because of the humming of a local factory, the song extrapolates the tale into an ominous warning about the fragility of community. The duo’s voices chime in insistently as producer Gerry Diver’s howling background strings add further tension to the driving refrain. It’s deeply impressive and – surprisingly, perhaps – really catchy.

The album is shot through with intelligence and empathy. Two Mothers explores the British-Australian child migration scheme with moving sensitivity, while Coil & Spring praises the “spanner in the works” political protests of Russian punk-feminists Pussy Riot to a background of clattering, confident drums.

The duo cover past and present, personal and political, with aplomb. Come Down from the Moor explores Ireland’s history of poverty, and concludes with a poignant poem read by O’Hooley’s father. Peculiar Brood looks at suicide bombing through the life of birds, and haunting finale Kitsune continues the animal theme via the Japanese folk tale of a fox that becomes a human woman. It’s as thought-provoking as it is musically adventurous; a swirl of piano, cymbals and electronic strangeness that calls compellingly for a world with more acceptance.

The album features two covers – Ewan MacColl’s Just a Note (which, in another canny move from Diver, features pneumatic drill percussion), and Nic Jones’ Ruins by the Shore. O’Hooley is a member of Jones’ touring trio, but rather than recreate his version, the duo instead present a dreamier take on the song, filled with space, woozy harmonies and a majestic swell.

O’Hooley & Tidow, you’ll have gathered, don’t do predictable. Even Summat’s Brewin’, an ode to the pleasures of real ale, sidesteps the straight-up drinking song angle and instead peers through the bottom of the glass at revolution, community and the place of the pub. Mind you, it works as a great pint-raiser, too – and is surely a live favourite by now.

Though the duo employ additional instruments carefully (the slide guitar and autoharp on Two Mothers and the squeezebox on the title track are particularly nice touches), centre stage is wisely given to O’Hooley’s inventive piano playing, and the pair’s clear, strong voices. This is their third album together and, as you might expect, their musical understanding is seemingly instinctive.

The Hum’s cover depicts O’Hooley and Tidow in a focused calmness – apparently listening closely to something. This optimistic, thoughtful album deserves the same treatment. The hum is everywhere…

The Hum is out on No Master on February 17

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February 1, 2014 by markdishman

Maz O’Connor & friends: Cecil Sharp House, London, January 30 2014

Marking the end of her BBC Performing Arts/EFDSS fellowship, Maz O’Connor has the perfect venue – in the shape of Cecil Sharp House – to showcase her year of researching, songwriting, collaborating and learning. And a full complement of guests are on hand to help out.

Matthew Jones and Maz O'Connor at Cecil Sharp House. Photo: Simon Rogers

Matthew Jones and Maz O’Connor at Cecil Sharp House. Photo: Simon Rogers

It’s clear that O’Connor has made good use of her fellowship – she’s certainly got stuck into the books, anyway. Her set, which comprises mostly new material, includes songs inspired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (“there’s not that much cholera”, she points out, disappointedly), Greek mythology (My Persephone, full of longing) and the creation story, a heartfelt alternative version of which comes in the form of Mississippi Woman.

It’s high-minded stuff (appropriately, for a room that currently houses a Danish giraffe for no obvious reason). But crucially, O’Connor’s songwriting is good enough to match the scale of her ambition. Derby Day, for example (see the video, below), revisits Epsom in 1913, when suffragette Emily Wilding Davison was struck by King George’s horse. The story is told from the perspective of a small boy attending the race – an unexpected move, but a masterstroke: it’s a humane and compelling song, smartly delivered.

Indeed, O’Connor’s delivery is consistently impressive. She’s a gentle guitarist, layering her songs with delicate arpeggios, and a fine singer, with a warm and versatile voice. And she keeps things mixed up with an impressive supporting cast. John Parker and Rowan Rheingans add funky bass and banjo respectively to a take on Little Birds, while Joe O’Connor (melodeon) and Matthew Jones (guitar) also help create a fuller sound when necessary. Later, Rheingans fires up the bansitar, which provides an excellently brash introduction to The Grey Selkie.

Elly Lucas, whose photographs currently adorn the venue’s walls (click here for our interview with Elly about that), also pops up, to add fiddle plucks and backing vocals to the “softly sleeping” song that introduces the second half of the set. And Jim Moray, the producer of O’Connor’s forthcoming album, also makes an appearance: taking to the piano for a tension-filled version of The Cruel Mother (one of many songs with “contemporary resonance”).

Impressive as her ensemble are, O’Connor seems content and confident as a solo perfomer. She cracks open the shruti box for a quietly devastating version of Awake Awake (from The Full English archive, she tells us), and moves to the piano herself for London Lights, an equally moving slice of melancholy.

It’s not all downbeat, though – a reworked version of The Bold Undaunted Youth, with a full band, is involved, resplendent and joyful, and there’s even some chirpy trumpet from Colin Danskin on the set’s closing track. “There’s a place for chirpy,” she says, though you sense she means in small doses.

There’s just time for a bittersweet suckerpunch of an encore: a strum through Bob Dylan’s It Ain’t Me Babe. The crowd wants more, but it seems O’Connor is – for now – out of songs. Let’s be patient: her second album is out in a few weeks, but if she keeps working at this level, we’ve got a lengthy career’s worth of material to look forward to.

For more of Simon Rogers’ photos of the event, check out the gallery on the Folk Witness Facebook page! Give us a like while you’re there, or you can find us on Twitter, here

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January 29, 2014 by markdishman

Elly Lucas on stereotypes, community and her new exhibition at Cecil Sharp House: Folktography

If you’re a British folkie, the chances are Elly Lucas’s work features somewhere in your record collection. You might be familiar with her musical duo – David Gibb & Elly Lucas’s 2013 album Up Through The Woods is a gem (and they spoke to FW about it here) – but even if you aren’t, Elly’s photography work has been a key part of the scene’s image overhaul in the past few years.

Cupola:Ward

Cupola:Ward – one of Elly Lucas’s many photography clients – get messy

Elly’s photos have appeared on the albums and/or press material of the likes of Lucy Ward, Blair Dunlop, The Full English, Bellowhead, Gavin Davenport, Jackie Oates, Eliza Carthy, Cupola:Ward (above), Jim Moray… you get the idea.

This work has led to something slightly different – an exhibition at English Folk HQ, no less. Entitled Folktography: a decon/reconstruction, the exhibition currently showing at Cecil Sharp House began when Elly asked the public what visual images sprang to mind when they thought about the word ‘folk’. The end result is a fascinating, diverse collection of photographs, realised with affection and professionalism. Folky stereotypes are incorporated, yes, but the sometimes surprising answers Elly received has meant the exhibition depicts a scene that’s vibrant, self-aware and bursting with ideas.

Elly was kind enough to talk to Folk Witness about Folktography, beards, and the balancing act between being a musician and a photographer…

Folk Witness: What came first for you – playing folk music or taking photos? When did the two worlds collide?

Elly Lucas: Technically speaking, the music came first. I first picked up a violin aged eight years old having spent my first few years listening to my mum playing in an orchestra and – more importantly – the Captain Pugwash theme tune. I was classically trained for about five years but found that the playing style was one that never really spoke to me, so finding the folk tradition around the age of 13 was a hugely liberating thing. I’d grown up listening to the likes of Duncan Chisholm and Eileen Ivers, but now I was becoming interested in actually learning the tunes and discovering more about the scene they revolved in.

The photography didn’t really kick in until a couple of years later when I was encouraged to create my own source material for my GCSE art coursework. I’d always enjoyed taking holiday snaps previously, but until that point it was never something I’d considered from an artistic viewpoint. I started taking lots of conceptual images and portraits at every available opportunity and was hooked from thereon-in! I spent quite a lot of time on tour and gigging sporadically in my late teens, taking photography jobs whenever I could, so it probably wasn’t until I hit 20 that I seriously began to view it as something I could have a decent career in. I’d obviously dreamed about being able to make a living out it (who doesn’t want to do something they love?!) but it wasn’t until my client list began to expand in the way it did that it seemed like a possible reality. It was probably around this time that the two jobs really began to twine together.

How does being a musician affect your work as a photographer?

I love working in both capacities! It can be fairly exhausting working both the day and the night shift, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. I love that just by chatting to other artists and audience members at gigs I can make new contacts for both aspects. I’m also hugely lucky that I get to work with my friends and a plethora of incredibly talented, fascinating people!

What do the artists you work with request when you photograph them? Do they ask for conspicuously ‘folk’ photographs, or is that something that you bring?

Every now and again I find myself having to tone down ideas or am asked to think of something in a very short space of time or shoot in a not particularly inspiring environment, but generally I’m given quite a free rein by my clients. I never consciously think “I’m going to make something really obviously folk today”, but I’m glad the scene seems to like what I do!

How did the Folktography exhibition come about?

The exhibition came about thanks to an exceedingly lovely email out of the blue from those nice folk over at Cecil Sharp House. Two prominent members of EFDSS were kind enough to bring my work to the attention of the overseer of visual exhibitions for the house and how fitting it would be for the venue, and the next thing I knew I was having a meeting about creating some new pieces for them! It’s been a genuine pleasure working with the whole team.

Nature meets the city: an Elly Lucas self-portrait from the exhibition

Nature meets the city: an Elly Lucas self-portrait from the exhibition

For the exhibition you asked people about the visual images they associated with ‘folk’. What was the response like?

The response was absolutely amazing. It was very interesting indeed to see the difference in the way that people outside the scene perceived ‘folk’ in comparison to those within the scene. Almost infallibly (and expectedly), those outside the scene would come out with the usual “beard, banjo, folk dancing, ale, socks and sandals, hippy women with mad hair and clashing clothes, singing with a finger in one ear, rural things” but when I took that question to a range of ages within the scene, the answers suddenly became quite thought provoking and beautiful.

Some of my favourite quotes from the messages I received from within the scene ran along the lines of “acceptance of eccentricity… community… people of all ages singing together… people talking together and enjoying the company of others”. When I actually sat down and thought about it, these were all things that suddenly seemed obvious and that I’d actually always loved but had never thought to process before, so it was great to hear them vocalised. I think we sometimes take for granted just how lovely this crowd is! There was also, of course, some affectionate pointing of fingers at some of the recurring visuals that are very well known within the folk scene but perhaps not so much outside of it, including the likes of: horrible woolly jumpers/endless ballads/old folkies in dingy pub rooms clutching folders of songs/lying in a field/“dancing in a wet, empty pub car park for the entertainment of a stray dog”… You get the picture.

Was there a keenness to dispel the stereotypes? Or do people want to ‘own’ these signifiers?

I’d say there’s a bit of a balancing act. Whilst some parties are actively trying to get rid of these images, the general impression I got was that people either a) didn’t necessarily want to encourage the socks-sandals-beards stereotype but were kind of affectionately aware of it or b) were too busy being gloriously comfortable in who they were to actually give a monkey’s.

How have you incorporated people’s ideas into the exhibition?

I was bombarded with so many brilliant ideas that I unfortunately couldn’t visualise all of them this time round, but the pieces created for the exhibition stretch from depicting a few of our classic stereotypes in a simple, obvious form through to taking a regular theme and applying one of the ways our scene has changed, through to actively smashing a look or two. A couple of notes on feminism and urbanisation may also have sneaked their way in. You’re just gonna have to head over to Cecil Sharp House for the full details here!

Elly Eliza

No beards or sandals here, folks: another self-portrait from the exhibition

How do you think the exhibition will affect your future work as a photographer?

Oh heck, I have no idea. Hopefully I won’t have mortally offended/startled too many visitors to the house… It’s been a brilliant experience either way and has been a fascinating project to research and work on. I’ve had some lovely feedback about it so far but have no doubt that there will be a few grumbles too. One thing I can definitely say is that after seeing my images printed at that kind of scale I’ll absolutely be planning a new concept or two for the future! I can’t lie, I did squeak and dance round in circles a bit when the prints arrived. It’s all been terribly exciting.

Folktography: A decon/reconstruction is open to view (for free) at Cecil Sharp House from 9.30am to 5.30pm daily. Prints are available from Elly’s online shop, here

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