under the trad/arr of folk and acoustic music
October 3, 2016 by markdishman

Sweet Liberties

These ‘song project’ albums are very definitely a thing now. Throwing together a group of folkies to write about a certain subject has previously yielded rich returns on the likes of Charles Darwin, Cecil Sharp, the reign of Elizabeth I and the concept of separation. But Sweet Liberties – commissioned this time by the EFDSS and the Folk by the Oak festival – represents perhaps the burgeoning genre’s most ambitious tilt yet. sweet liberties

Can you imagine a trickier subject to address than 800 years of democratic freedom? Let alone in the context of the tumultuous 2016 we’re having?

Well, the project is built on solid foundations, namely its cast. Sweet Liberties – an album conceived as part of an educational drive called ‘Parliament in the Making’ – features an exciting line-up. Sam Carter, Maz O’Connor, Nancy Kerr (an Elizabethan Sessions player) and Martyn Joseph are all prolific, on-form songwriters, while Nick Cooke and Patsy Reid (a veteran of the Cecil Sharp Project) are seasoned and talented accompanists.

And as you’d expect they’ve come up with plenty of material – 14 tracks that mark historic people, laws and moments in our history, but which also go deeper into what parliament and democracy means in real terms, today and in the future. As Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow points out in the album’s sleeve notes: “Folk music has long been a tool of political protest, as well as a channel through which individuals and groups have commented on and influenced social change.”

No pressure then, gang. But the artists’ responses meet the brief. This is serious stuff, with songs about slavery, multiculturalism, women’s suffrage, miscarriages of justice and the decline of trade unionism. And fans of Carter, Kerr, Joseph and O’Connor won’t be surprised to learn that Bercow’s notes are pretty much the only Conservative thing here. This is a decidedly lefty record, though what it lacks in balance it makes up for in harmony.

Kerr’s Kingdom – a bansitar-laced version of which features on her new album Instar – is an appropriately majestic start. Conceived as a meditation on Magna Carta, the song goes on to remind us of an original law – that of the land – which human rules somewhat ironically violate. It’s a complex, nuanced song – which is a good guide for what’s to follow. Later, Kerr experiments with form in Seven Notes, examining colonialism and race relations via a metaphorical cuckoo, and demonstrates on the quirky Lila her eye for a great story.

Maz O’Connor too demonstrates some deft songwriting outside the box, with the likes of the gorgeous Rich Man’s Hill and This Old House, both of which address housing. The former is written (with clever ambiguity) from the perspective of a homeless man potentially empowered by the Poor Law of 1601, while the latter is a clever and tuneful illustration of the art of compromise – something equally key to politics and life.

Joseph is perhaps the most obvious firebrand here, but he’s a canny composer. His Nye – a tribute to (the pretty straightforwardly admirable) NHS founder Aneurin Bevan – is warm and witty, its chorus referencing Bevan’s ‘this is my truth tell me yours’ line that also inspired a Manic Street Preachers album. Joseph dodges straight-up hero-worship by paying tribute to those still helping people via the NHS today. His song Dic Penderyn, meanwhile, pays tribute to another Welshman – a labourer who was involved in the 1831 Merthyr Rising attempt to establish workers’ rights, and who paid a heavy price. If it sounds like hard work, the story is told masterfully, and the balance between Joseph’s earthy voice and Reid’s delightful descending fiddle line is lovely; it’s one of the catchiest things here.

Joseph is also the pen behind Twelve Years Old, a beautiful, duet with Sam Carter. Again, it brings a potentially dry subject – the Factory Act of 1833 – to life via an ingenious approach, imagining a conversation between two children taking place a hundred years apart. Both singers sound remarkably vulnerable as the song comes to what might be an unexpected conclusion.

Carter’s sleeve note for the angry Dark Days coyly reads that it ‘voices a sense of frustration with the political process in recent times’ – but on the road he’s been pretty vocal about linking it to the results of certain votes. This version kicks less ass than the stomping take on his How the City Sings album, but O’Connor’s backing vocal and a sharp fiddle line give it a certain elegant bite.

Carter twice broaches the topic of slavery. Often passed off as an American shame, Am I Not a Man relays the story of a slave named Olaudah Equiano and reminds us “England you need to know all I’ve suffered and seen”. One More River to Cross – inspired by the Slavery Abolition Act Equiano helped achieve – gives the album a cautiously rousing closing anthem.

Thoughtful, lyrical and bursting with ideas, Sweet Liberties has inspired some excellent songwriting, offering more with each listen. Let’s keep these song projects coming!

Sweet Liberties is out on October 7 on Quercus Records

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September 11, 2016 by markdishman

The Shee’s Amy Thatcher on new album Continuum, ten years of the band and the ‘musical journey’

When you’ve been married for ten years, tradition dictates the anniversary gift should be made of tin. Being in a band isn’t quite like being married, admittedly – and the members of The Shee may well have celebrated their decade together with an exchange of tinned goods (we’re thinking some kind of beans on toast party) – but they’ve come up with a more original and exciting concept for an album to mark the milestone.

the shee continuum

Continuum, conceived by the band in tandem with the Celtic Connections festival, sees each of the group’s six members commission a favourite songwriter or tunesmith to create a piece for them to interpret. It’s a measure of the high esteem they are held in that folk heavyweights like Andy Cutting, Karine Polwart, Chris Wood and Kathryn Tickell all said ‘yes’.

The result is an impressive, intelligent album that touches on a range of subjects, but which is united by the group’s innovative arrangements. As a snapshot of human thought and emotion it’s a treasure – Polwart’s Song for Mary seems to exemplify the project, looking back with its inclusion of Mary Brooksbank singing The Jute Mill Song, and forward with the ultimately hopeful telling of her story. It’s sensitively sung by Rachel Newton, with a lovely interplay of flute, accordion and guitar behind her voice.

Highlights are many. Laura-Beth Salter movingly delivers Martin Simpson’s extraordinary examination of his mother’s unhappiness, while Chris Wood delivers one of his wonderful Hugh Lupton collaborations – a meditative and moving lullaby that’s sung from what sounds like the bottom of Olivia Ross’ heart. Tunes variously evoke junior school (Cutting), Indian sunsets (Brian Finnegan) and, in Shona Mooney’s own composition, a ‘Vampire Rabbit of Newcastle’.

Mixed in with the commissions are four original pieces – the stormy, defiant From the Shadows and the reflective Precious Tears among them. These – along with some devastatingly well-played tune sets – make great reminders that although Continuum is built on the work of some gifted collaborators, it’s the inspiration and hard work of The Shee themselves that make it such a special album. Much better than tin, that’s for sure.

We spoke to The Shee’s Amy Thatcher – accordionist and clog dancer extraordinaire – about the album, the commissioning process and crisp sandwiches.

Folk Witness: Happy anniversary! Where did the idea to mark your first decade together with a special project come from – and how did you arrive at the idea of commissioning songs?

Amy Thatcher: Well, we’ve done three albums so far which have taken a pretty similar path so we wanted to do something different. It made sense to combine a ten-year ‘do’ in there somewhere, too. I think we were on tour in Germany talking about what we could do; I can’t remember exactly whose idea it was to commission new music – the sign of a good idea, I suppose. We wanted it to be a snapshot of one of the ways in which traditional music is learnt and passed on nowadays. We’ve been inspired by musicians like the ones we’ve chosen and we also hope to inspire younger musicians in the same way. Not everyone is born into traditional music, but it is for everyone. It was also a bit of treat for us to play a brand new original piece of music from our favourite composers, like an anniversary present!

What made you choose Andy Cutting?

For me, Andy is one of those musicians I feel I’ve grown up with, ceilidhing to Blowzabella at Redcar and Chippenham, seeing him play with Karen Tweed at Folkbeat, The Two Duos Quartet coming to do workshops in Stockport, and spending my work experience with Karen Tweed when he and Karen lived in Derby, and… he writes just awesome music.

Were you surprised by what came back? Could you understand why the writers decided it was right for The Shee?

I think we were all thrilled by what came back – although that’s when all the hard work begins, so it also felt like we were miles from being ready at that point. It soon became apparent, as we were getting all the compositions back, that they had written something that meant a lot to them and they didn’t necessarily try and write something out of their comfort zone just because we were the ones going to be playing it for the first time. I felt like it was genuine writing.

Did you have much interaction with the composers as to how you arranged the pieces?

We got many different formats actually. Sometimes it was scored, sometimes it was played solo on an mp3 with notes on how they would like the arrangement to fill out. It took a lot of hard work by us to get it played through. We like to surprise ourselves, too, so it took a lot of trying out the tune on different instruments, swapping who plays chords. The most difficult thing – and most interesting thing – about our band is that every single instrument we have can play tune or accompaniment, so it could be completely different given another day. The things we made sure to set in stone were the lyrics, the core melodies and anything the composers specifically mentioned in their notes. You have to remember that they are trusting you with something precious. It must’ve felt strange to pass the responsibility on like that.

What was the Celtic Connections album launch [in Glasgow, in January] gig like?

One of those amazing gigs – they can’t all be like that, sometimes it just goes right! I can’t be that surprised to be honest; we had some of the most experienced, fantastic performers on stage with us that night, it was always going to be good!

How do the four pieces composed by you fit into the album? Did you need to knit the ‘guest songs’ together to produce something that felt like a whole, finished piece?

It’s funny, we always expected to have to knit those pieces into the rest of them, but it actually felt like a cohesive collection of music. I guess they are all connected and support each other in the fact that they are all totally brand new. Yeah, we always knew we’d need more pieces to get a good album’s worth of stuff I suppose, but also, for us, writing our own music has always been part of what we do and although we were taking a step away from that this time, it always needed some of our own music there for it to feel like The Shee.

What’s your favourite sandwich?

Errm… anything, then I add crisps. You’ve got to make dinner from a garage interesting somehow!

I had a good stare at the definition of the word continuum – ‘a continuous sequence in which adjacent elements are not perceptibly different from each other, but the extremes are quite distinct’ – and the more I do the more complex and appropriate a title it seems. Why did you choose it?

Haha, yes we did the same thing. The more we looked at that the more it seemed to define some part of this larger musical journey we feel part of. We had the idea first and the name came second; it just seemed perfect. We hoped that it would describe to the composers what it was we were hoping to achieve without pinning them down to a theme or someone else’s definition of traditional music.

Do you feel a weight of responsibility in telling other people’s stories – so personal and, in the case of Martin Simpson’s Dance With Me, so tragic? Does it feel different to doing traditional songs where the writer isn’t known to you?

When we asked the composers whether they’d like to be involved in this project, I guess we were announcing that we were ready for the weight of that responsibility. We were honoured that the pieces they gave us were so personal; they could’ve kept more personal compositions to premier themselves. And it would have a been difficult to cover Martin’s song, for example, if he’d recorded it first, so I think it gave us the opportunity to work on songs we would normally have shied away from.

What’s been the highlight of your ten years together as a group? And what’s next for you?

It’s so hard to pin down a moment – I mean, this project has been pretty fantastic. It’s a long game being in a band. You don’t ever think, right, you’ve made it. Gigs go well and you never know if it made any difference. It’s hard, but so worth it. It’s also difficult to position yourself on ‘the fame scale’, and indeed whether it’s really important to be on it at all.  We all just love making the music we love and if people like it, even better.

Continuum is out on September 23. Order it through the group’s Bandcamp page to receive a free download of Song For Mary – the first single from the album. The Shee will also be on tour in September and October – click here for dates

Don’t forget, you can keep up with what’s on the site by following Folk Witness on Twitter or liking us on Facebook

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August 1, 2016 by markdishman

Low Culture Podcast & Sidmouth Folk Week 2016

Hello! Just a little check-in, as there have been no updates for a while! In case you missed it, I was asked to interview Jim Moray for the final episode of the first series of the Low Culture Podcast. Jim and I talked about his excellent new album, Upcetera, which is out on September 30 – though if you order it now you can download and enjoy it straight away while you wait for the CD to arrive. Anyway, you can listen to the podcast here, or if you want to subscribe (the whole series is great, featuring chats with the likes of Jon Boden, Nancy Kerr and Lynched), here’s an iTunes link.

low culture podcast

Also, I’ve just got back from a little visit to Sidmouth Folk Week. I didn’t make to any gigs as, sadly, I won’t be there for the whole week. However, there’s much more Sidmouth than the ticketed concerts, with the front, streets and pubs full of singing, dancing, fiery street theatre and people generally having a good time. It was very busy, with more stalls and things to do and see than usual, I think. Great to see the town buzzing! Here’s a photo from my flying visit – there’s a full gallery over on the Folk Witness Facebook page, if you’d like to see a few more. Give us a like while you’re there!

sid 16 dancers 2

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June 19, 2016 by markdishman

Martin & Eliza Carthy: West End Centre, Aldershot, June 17 2016

They’re a bit late to arrive, but all it takes is a charming apology and a beautiful song, and the West End Centre crowd instantly forgive Martin and Eliza Carthy. How could we not? The duo are remarkably fresh despite having spent who knows how many hours in a car, and when they play something as sweet, sad and perfect as their arrangement of Molly Drake’s Happiness, it’s hard to imagine them in something as prosaic as a traffic jam.

Martin & Eliza Carthy

Martin & Eliza Carthy. Photo: Mark Dishman

Folkies will be well used to seeing Martin and Eliza playing together, but this is my first experience of seeing them as a duo, and there’s much joy to be had in simply witnessing their musical chemistry. Their innate understanding is conveyed with a complex series of nods, smiles, frowns and quizzical liftings of eyebrows, each with its own specific meaning.

And the result is beautiful. Opening with Her Servant Man, which shows off Martin’s distinctive, deliberate guitar playing and singing before Eliza adds her characterful fiddle, the pair go on to play all but one of the songs from The Moral of the Elephant (FW’s album of the year 2014).

Each song is introduced with thoughtful explanation, adding extra colour to pieces like Blackwell Merry Night, about a legendary lock-in, and Queen Caraboo, which tells the remarkable true story of an adventurous Devonian’s holiday to Bristol.

Following a week in which the news – dominated by senseless murder and the increasingly divisive and nasty referendum campaign – has made for a grim atmosphere, these upbeat songs offer a simple pleasure. But there is a real profundity to tonight’s show, too.

Grand Conversation on Napoleon – a song mourning Boney’s defeat, exile and death – and The Elephant – which tells of the blind men who have each touched a different part of the animal – initially seem like odd companion pieces. But as Eliza explains, they are united by the way they highlight nuance and the need to see the bigger picture. Popular perception is that Napoleon was hated by the British, but the catalogue of traditional song suggests ordinary working people may well have thought otherwise. And blind men arguing over something they don’t understand… well, you don’t need me to spell the resonance out for you.

You don’t need me to tell you what great players and singers Martin and Eliza Carthy are either, but it bears underlining. A couple of solo spots illustrate it perfectly: Martin’s The Bedmaking is sparky, sharp and inimitable, while Eliza’s take on Stephen Foster’s Nelly was a Lady is deeply moving. Concerning the death of a much-loved woman, it’s impossible not to think of Jo Cox, and Eliza’s intelligent, emotional delivery will stay with me for a long time.

Her vocals are brilliant too on the duo’s gorgeous Monkey Hair, written (with considerable insight) by Michael Marra, and on Waking Dream, a perfectly paced version of Awake Awake. Her fiddle playing is extraordinary, too, especially as an accompaniment to her dad’s masterful fretwork on the twisty-turny Bonny Moorhen. The duo end on a tune, a final flourish that allows us to once again marvel at that chemistry.

I’ve rarely felt so thankful for a gig; it felt important, even necessary. A bit of much-needed thoughtfulness in a world of obfuscation and agenda; some beauty with which to end an ugly week.

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May 22, 2016 by markdishman

Sam Carter, West End Centre, Aldershot: May 19 2016

Folkie, rocker, singer-songwriter and False Light: Sam Carter has a lot of strings to his bow. After a false start while a lead in his recently dropped acoustic guitar (is it the same one recently left on a train? Oh dear) is reattached, Carter kicks off with Yellow Sign – a smart introduction, as it showcases his considerable skills in both storytelling (concise, evocative) and guitar playing (just ridiculously dextrous). Dreams Are Made of Money is more direct, catchy, angry and equally smart. Then it’s on to Taxi – a whimsical, jazzy swing piece, inspired by a chatty cabbie.

Matt Ridley (l) and Sam Carter. Photo: Emma Goymer

Matt Ridley (l) and Sam Carter. Photo: Emma Goymer

And if the first three songs show off a talent for variety, Carter – together with bass player Matt Ridley and drummer Evan Jenkins – soon reveals even more. His new album, How The City Sings, is an exploration of his now-native London. Entirely self-penned, it features gentle gems like its warm title track and Our Kind of Harmony, a charmer written for a pair of married pals. One Last Clue is another upbeat album highlight: inspired by “flirting over a crossword”, it is given pep by Jenkins’ jazzy drumming and Ridley’s somewhat saucy bass.

There is time for a couple of traditional tracks. Carter deconstructs False Lights’ complex arrangement of The Wife of Usher’s Well to reveal a Nic Jones-esque guitar line (when will acoustic traditional music catch on?), while he picks up his gorgeous electric guitar for an arse-kicking pre-interval Oh Dear Rue The Day.

It readies the (“unnervingly attentive”) audience for a noisier second half, kicked off by Dark Days – an immediate and less-than-delighted response to the re-election of the Tories last year. Carter clearly relishes the opportunity to give it some welly, furnishing the song with a brilliant, OK Computer-y solo. Counting the Cost turns into quite the soulful racket, while Taunting the Dog turns up the rock even further.

There’s still plenty of variation, though. The masterful The One is a brilliant post-divorce pen-portrait, given emotional heft by Ridley’s bowed bass. We Never Made It To The Lakes is witty and weary (“the most middle-class break-up song ever”), and Jack Hall is another visit to trad territory – a grim tale made oddly hilarious by its upbeat telling.

But it’s the powerful end to the set that makes the biggest impression. Drop the Bomb is all brawny chords and fantastic soloing – proving Carter is a master plugged in as well as acoustically. And an encore of Waves & Tremors adds a swampy bluesy sound to the evening’s palette of musical styles.

Perhaps what’s most impressive is that he nails all of them. Put simply: all killer, no filler.

Sam Carter’s tour continues: check here for dates. And see more of Emma Goymer’s pics from the night on our Facebook page. Give us a like while you’re there!

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May 1, 2016 by markdishman

Bellowhead say bye-bye: 13 things we’ll miss about Britain’s biggest folk band

Bellowhead – the 11-piece folk colossus conceived by Jon Boden and John Spiers in a traffic jam in 2004 – are playing their last gig tonight. The long sold-out show at the Oxford Town Hall, where they played their first concert, will doubtless see them sign off in style. At heart, they’re a party band, so it’s going to be a hell of a night.


Bellowhead – black tie big noise (photo: Tom Barnes)

To bid Bellowhead farewell, here’s what we’ll miss about the band. *Sobs*

1. Jon Boden’s fashion sense. While he’s a great team player, Boden made the step up to frontman with panache. His bold stage presence come partly from his love of waving his arms around, but also some genre-defying fashion. The whole band has regularly indulged a passion for fancy dress – witness the Hedonism and Broadside covers, as well as those decadent New Year’s Eve gigs. But Boden deserves special mention for glamming up on stage too. His silver and pink suits made the most impact, but we also liked the sparkly silver waistcoat sported on the farewell tour, as well as the classy white jacket in the video for 10,000 Miles Away. Suit you, sir.

2. The stagecraft. Whether it was Jon Boden crooning atop an amp at the back of the stage, a big reveal of Sam Sweeney playing the bagpipes, Brendan Kelly’s double-sax showoffery, or Andy Mellon pulling pints and handing them out to the crowd, you could always rely on Bellowhead to keep things visually, as well as aurally, entertaining. Plus Benji Kirkpatrick’s heroic disregard for his knees, as he jumped off something really high in full-on rock posture mode, was always a sight to behold.

3. The tunes. It’s arguably harder to sell tunes to a broad modern audience, many of whom expect singing in everything apart from film scores and Tubular Bells. But Bellowhead sold them hard. The roars of approval whenever they announced they were going to play the Sloe Gin set, Frog’s Legs & Dragon’s Teeth, or Hudson’s Hornpipe/Parson’s Farewell, are testament to this.

4. The songs. The world of traditional song is packed with gems, and Bellowhead unearthed many weird and wonderful examples. You can take your pick, but the stratospheric Jordan, the sweet Fakenham Fair and the super-gross Black Beetle Pies were among the treasures. And subject matter was as salty as any folkie could reasonably hope for: booze, murder, theft, disease, shipwrecks: at one time the band finished their shows with a prostitute-themed two-song encore – London Town and New York Girls. You don’t get that with Coldplay.

5. The noise! You could leave a Bellowhead show with your ears ringing. There are a few groups on the scene capable of this (False Lights, farewell tour-support Mawkin) and though it’s probably damaging to your long-term health (here speaks a tinnitus sufferer: wear earplugs, kids) there’s a valuable adrenaline thrill to having your innards reverberated by a helicon. (PS: we also always enjoyed the slightly perverse insistence on playing Little Sally Racket, apparently bemusing large sections of the audience. Very much in the punk spirit of the arrangement.)

6. The energy. It’s hard to get people up and dancing on the arts centre circuit. But Bellowhead’s necessarily big venues combined with their irresistible spirit got folk dancing up and down the land. And I mean really dancing: Bellowhead audiences actually broke festival dance floors three times with their passionate polkas.

7. That they knew when to be quiet. Volume is all very well, but Bellowhead knew the value of light and shade, too – with the sublime Captain Wedderburn being perhaps the best example of this. Shh.

8. The arrangements. Where to start? The versatility of Bellowhead’s players was the key to the band’s genius. They brought in a huge range of influences, not least an inventive jazz sensibility. Among many examples there’s Fine Sally, which at points sounds like a particularly funky 1970s cop show theme. The band’s take on Bruton Town has a bit of reggae about it, while there are classical influences on the likes of Won’t You go My Way and the John Williams-esque Trip to Bucharest/Flight of the Folk Mutants. Their version of The Wife of Usher’s Well is operatic, Little Sally Racket pure punk, while Pete Flood’s progressive arrangements, for example the weird and woozy Moon Kittens, were always album highlights. And folk! There was a bit of folk music in there as well.

9. The exposure. In the modern era, it’s hard to overstate Bellowhead’s contribution to English traditional music. They helped bring a flourishing scene to a huge audience, winning places on Radio 2 playlists and earning silver discs for both Hedonism and Broadside. And the demographic was different: it was always heartening to see actual teenagers getting down to the jigs at the band’s shows. Surely many of them will have gone on to explore folk music further, and perhaps even to play and sing themselves.

10. That they didn’t take themselves too seriously. The band were proper musicians whose records deserve serious respect. But the success never went to their, er, Bellowheads. The group indulged in the fun festive tradition of the Christmas single, but were never less po-faced than when they were arsing about on stage: whether it was morris dancing, choreographing the actions to London Town, pulling pints or passing round the sunglasses to look cool for a solo, the focus was always on the fun. It made for some great gigs.

11. A Bus Song A Day. Okay, this probably belongs in the ‘not taking themselves too seriously’ category. But we loved the bus songs: conceived as a silly version of Boden’s A Folk Song A Day project in 2011, ABSAD ended up proving what top musicians (and comedians) the group were. Composing, recording and filming a video every day for more than a fortnight is no mean feat, especially when you’re on a bus. They’re all good, but we loved the Ipswich intro, the toastie-based hallucinations on the road to Manchester, and the strangely moving Rachael-Benji duet in Lincoln. Butter my parsnips, indeed.

12. The band! It’s unfair to pick individuals out, but as the Umbrellowhead compilation album of 2009 showed, Bellowhead was jam-packed full of some of the finest musicians around (and that’s not to forget former members). That their solo projects, other groups and collaborations might now get some more attention now it’s all over for the band is one of the split’s few consolations.

13. The music. I know, duh. But what a back catalogue. Inventive, diverse, thrilling, joyous, sinister and complex, songs and tunes like Cold Blows the Wind, Betsy Baker, Gosport Nancy, Cross-Eyed & Chinless, Copshawholme Fair, Fire Marengo, Widow’s Curse, Rochdale Coconut Dance, Kafoozalum… you get the idea. Yes, it is hard to pick a favourite.

So what of the future? The band’s members have too much talent not to come up with some interesting and delightful stuff in the coming months and years. The band’s success has been good for the trad scene, and hopefully they will have helped pave the way for some other acts to enjoy some big mainstream airtime too. And – though it’ll be difficult to corral 11 musicians – surely the band’s members can’t live without the adoration they get from audiences for too long? We could be looking at a hell of a comeback tour in a few years…

On a personal note – Bellowhead’s rise roughly coincided with my discovery of – and wholehearted conversion to – the world of folk music. I’ve been fortunate enough to see them nine times, and I loved every show, from the sweaty set at Brighton’s Concorde 2 where the power failed and Boden entertained with an a capella version of The Maid of Australia, to the epic Broadside launch show, to their gig at Kew Gardens in 2013 when FW photographer Simon and I necked too much wine and danced with beautiful strangers. Their songs and tunes remind me of wonderful people and experiences, and I’ll miss them. I love you, Bellowhead.

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March 26, 2016 by markdishman

The Furrow Collective: The Greys, Brighton, March 23 2016

Folk songs are full of death, deception and devastation. Yet a good folk gig is often a heart-warming thing: ideally you’ll leave full of cheer (and perhaps beer), having enjoyed a good laugh and perhaps a singalong or two. The subject matter might be chilling, but your heart is warmed.

furrow collective

The Furrow Collective – Lucy Farrell, Rachel Newton, Emily Portman and Alasdair Roberts – exemplify this paradox perfectly. Much of their material is grim stuff indeed: there are tales of ghosts, deception, murder, dangerous pigs and hanging – plus the odd heartbroken lament. But the packed-to-the-gills Greys pub is full of people having a great time, on-stage and off.

The quartet, comprised of talented and singular songwriters, focus for the most part on traditional material. This perhaps makes it more difficult for them (any group that does traditional stuff, in fact) to form an identity – as opposed, to, say, a band who exclusively write their own songs, and whose members don’t routinely collaborate with others. ‘Trad bands’ must express themselves through the songs they choose, the way they arrange them, and finally the way they perform them.

And if gloom is a folk song staple anyway, what makes the Furrows special? One thing is the way they excavate and celebrate a certain weirdness in the canon’s murk.

King Henry, for example, is flat-out bizarre. It’s the story of an ogress who demands that the titular monarch feeds her a barnful of livestock and a horseful of wine, before coaxing him into bed. The tale is already leavened somewhat by Farrell’s suggestion that we picture Fiona from Shrek, but the song’s strangeness is accentuated by the group’s arrangement, which turns the disturbing call for “more meat!” into a chirpy refrain. They pull off the same trick later on Wild Hog in the Woods, in which the cry of “kill him if you can!” becomes a darkly cheerful exclamation.

There’s more to it than the sheepish ‘here’s another song about death, chuckle” intro you hear at a lot of gigs, too. Much of the set – such as the farcical Queen Eleanor’s Confession – is shot through with a perverse humour. It’s even evident on the flyer for the show, which depicts a landscape full of frightening cartoon creatures, one of which is being ‘collected’ by a brave field recordist with a microphone.

Not that the show ever lacks sincerity and gravitas. Skippin’ Barfit Through The Heather, led by Newton, is a seemingly simple tale of a gentleman’s attempt to woo a country lass. Roberts’ highly-strung guitar and Portman’s whistling concertina fill it with tension – the music adding a sinister subtext that might otherwise be absent. Which is both deliciously clever and, well, exactly the point.

Elsewhere, the brilliant Willie’s Fatal Visit is icy cold, and The Unquiet Grave is given a woozy ghostliness by Farrell’s musical saw. The Blantyre Explosion tells soberly of nineteenth-century mining disaster in Lanarkshire. Roberts takes the lead, and his colleagues add heavenly harmonies.

But it would be disingenuous to suggest the entire set is made up of horror stories. On I’d Rather Be Tending My Sheep, a shepherd’s uplifting celebration of the simple life, the whole pub follows Farrell in chorus. Later, she can barely get through Poor Old Horse, which is sung (wildly inappropriately) in celebration of a couple of audience members’ birthdays. Fits of giggles envelop band and audience alike as each incongruous line is sung.

The ‘collective’ element of the Furrows means the set is brilliantly balanced, and full of variety. Not only can you enjoy each member’s lead vocals – and they’re all different, all great – but in terms of pooled resources you also get a wide selection of English, Scottish and Irish songs, and various instrumental talents, as well as the aforementioned beautiful harmonies.

Roberts’ spidery guitar forms the backbone of many of the songs, with subtle augmentation coming from banjo, concertina, harp and fiddle – Farrell’s percussive playing really gives something extra to the already sprightly Hind Horn, for example.

It’s hard to imagine a fan of any of the foursome’s work elsewhere not liking The Furrow Collective. It’s a group that plays to the strengths of its members, allowing them to shine individually, but with a cohesive sound and dynamic: more than the sum of its parts, full of ideas, fun, melancholy, cleverness and weirdness. And all this in a pub that hands out free Easter eggs during the interval. Heart warmed, truly.

I wrote a (shorter) review of this gig for The Argus in Brighton – I’ll put up a link if they upload it, but it might turn out to be a print-only thing…

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February 28, 2016 by markdishman

Maz O’Connor interview part two: new album The Longing Kind, ‘the big bad world’ and Jim Moray

We recently spoke to Maz O’Connor about her new album, The Longing Kind – and, as she had lots of interesting things to say, we decided to make our editing job easier by splitting her interview into two parts. Click here (or scroll down) to read part one of our interview with Maz, in which she discussed songwriting, Sondheim and her search for identity. Part two of – which covers ‘first world problems’, what it’s like being young under the current government, and how she likes her whisky – is below…

Maz O'Connor

Folk Witness: The album touches on youth and your experience in “trying to figure out the difference between mistakes and regrets: to enjoy being young without being stupid”. What’s it like as a songwriter to address that – do you have to distance yourself from those experiences in order to write about them? Is the album’s final act a result of having had to ‘grow up’?

Maz O’Connor: Yes I think that’s exactly right. I know it’s a first world problem, but coming out of education and into the big bad world is tough for everyone. Add to that a couple of failed romances and traumatic housemate experiences, moving house three times in one year as I did, and re-negotiating familial relationships as a so-called adult, plus having real responsibility for the first time, and you’ve got a lot to figure out. And then there’s trying to make a living, of course, and in the worst economic climate for young people there’s been since I was born… and an unfathomable student debt. It’s tempting to regress to childish behaviour, stay out too late and drink too much. I knew my friends were going through the same thing so I wanted to give voice to that.

It wasn’t hard to address it because it’s all that was happening; it would have been hard not to address it. But it is hard to share it sometimes, particularly given the accusations of ‘navel-gazing’ that are levied by some people when you write anything vaguely personal. The way I see it, we are living with a government that is systematically destroying opportunities for young people, so it’s really important that we tell our stories as they truly are.

You worked with Jim Moray on This Willowed Light. Was it always the plan to get him to produce this album too? What’s he like to work with?

I think it’s really important for me to work with someone I know really well, because, especially this time around, the songs I write are very close to my heart, and I wouldn’t trust just anyone to bring them to life. I really liked what he did on the last album so he was the obvious choice when it came to this one. Jim and I know each other well enough now to be able to be honest with each other, trust each other’s wacky ideas and take risks. We recorded the basic tracks really quickly, maybe in two or three days. He brings lots of things that would take too long to list, but he also plays, like, everything, so that helps.

Musically, there some new things – I’m thinking of the pedal steel on Crook of his Arm, and the electric guitar ‘rocking out’ bits on Greenwood Side. Were you looking to change your sound and add these elements, or did you add this as you went along?

I knew I wanted to try out new things as I’ve grown in confidence as a musician since the last album, but there weren’t any more concrete plans than that as we started out. We took each song at a time and thought about what would suit it, and we were lucky enough to be able to achieve the sound we were after. The core group of musicians is the same as last time (me and Jim, Beth Porter on cello, Matt Downer on bass and Nick Malcolm on trumpet) but we’ve added some extra. It really felt like building on what we created with This Willowed Light, which is creatively very exciting.

Did your work on the Sweet Liberties project have any influence on the album?

I had written this album before getting the Sweet Liberties commission. I could have included some of those songs time-wise, as I wrote a couple of them quite early in 2015, but I felt that they wouldn’t fit on this album, which was always supposed to be more personal and intimate. They might expand into an album of their own one day!

FW tradition dictates that we’d ask what your favourite sandwich is, but seeing as you’ve clocked up two albums on the trot that reference whisky [Awake Awake on This Willowed Light, When The Whisky Runs Dry here], let’s find out about that instead. So… what’s your favourite whisky, and what’s the best way to serve it?

JD and Coke doesn’t count does it?!

The Longing Kind is out now on Restless Head. Maz O’Connor is on tour – check out her dates here. Don’t forget, you can follow Folk Witness on Twitter or like us on Facebook

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February 21, 2016 by markdishman

Maz O’Connor interview part one: new album The Longing Kind, the writing process and folk heroines

Following the success of 2014’s This Willowed Light, Maz O’Connor is back with a new album, The Longing Kind. It’s a more personal affair, and her first LP comprised of entirely self-penned songs. “I’m not going to pretend not to be young,” says Maz. “For this album I didn’t want to hide behind historical disasters and mythological beasts at the expense of my own experience.”

maz o'connor 2

Youth is a key theme, and the album’s literary three-act structure – broadly: songs of uncertainty, songs inspired by works of art, often with a ‘tragic heroine’ theme, and songs of resolution and clarity – gives Maz a framework to explore her subject with a wisdom beyond her years, as well as the immediacy and insight that comes from actually being 25.

So, for example, we get the joyful Mother Make My Bed (“when you’re young and when you’re poor, the only thing you want is more”), a thoughtful examination of the story of Lady Jane Grey, and the self-assured, reassuring closer When the Whisky Runs Dry. And a whole lot more.

There’s a little of early period Bob Dylan about Maz’s guitar style, and her honest, smart and insightful lyrics. It’s easy to see her having a lengthy, Dylanesque career, with The Longing Kind providing what will come to be seen as an ‘early’ indication of a prodigious songwriting talent.

The Longing Kind is complicated, thought-provoking stuff – and Maz puts it better than we can… She had lots of interesting things to say, so we’ve decided to split our interview with her into two parts. Here’s the first, in which Maz gives us an insight into the album, tells us about the songwriting process, and discusses getting inspiration from the National Portrait Gallery.

Folk Witness: For this album you’ve moved away from traditional material. Was that a deliberate move, a way to make a record that was more personal to you?

Maz O’Connor: It wasn’t a deliberate move not to include traditional material, I’ve just written a lot of songs since my last album came out. In early drafts there was a Child ballad on the album, but it became clear listening to the finished thing that it didn’t make sense to have just one traditional track on there, and an album of fully original material felt more consistent. I’m certainly not done with traditional material, though, and it still heavily informs my writing in lots of ways. I just wanted to ride the writing wave while it was there, because you never know when it will disappear from underneath you…

At what point did you decide on the album’s three-act structure, and why?

That came quite early, before getting into the studio to record, although the exact order of the songs within the acts was decided after they were all mastered. It was, though, a realised concept at the start of the recording process.

I felt that the songs I had written over the past year or so all connected in themes of youth, longing and identity, and so it made sense to me to try and draw together some sense of narrative, or development, over the album. Given there are many references to seasons and times of year, it would have irked me to have the album jumping from winter to spring and back again, so I arranged it chronologically. They’re also pretty much arranged in the order in which I wrote them.

The middle act, which is composed of songs inspired by paintings of various people, sits there to break up the narrative, interrupt and therefore emphasise the passing of that time, and hopefully provide interesting counterpoints for the songs in the other two, more personal acts.
I heard an interview with Stephen Sondheim in which he said that he needs his characters to have learned or figured something out between the beginning and end of a song. That’s what I hope happens over the course of the album.

How did the process of writing songs on this album compare with something like Derby Day, which is (ostensibly) less personal? How long does it take you to write a song?

Derby Day was a commission. I enjoy commissions because they lead you to people and events that you weren’t necessarily aware of before, and the challenge given to you is to tell an old story in a new and idiosyncratic way. But when I’m writing for a brief it inevitably changes where the song goes, because you have a commissioner to please and certain details to honour. I think it’s fair to say that the pressure of presenting and performing the work sits in my head from the moment I start to write the song. Whereas with songs I write off my own bat, there’s no pressure, no necessity for it to be performed or even heard by anyone else. That means, I think, that there’s a freedom and intimacy in that writing. The personal investment is there either way, you’d hope, but with songs that just push themselves to the front of my head, there are no points I have to hit other than those the song itself demands. That makes it easier, in a way, but there’s also nothing to hide behind, of course.

How did you come across Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey and Millais’ Ophelia? What about them inspired you to compose songs?

Ah well the painting behind the song is in fact her portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, and I’m afraid I don’t know who the artist is. Though I have seen the Delaroche on one of my National Gallery wanderings. The portrait is fascinating because her name has been scratched out from beside her face; that’s what inspired the song – who removed the name and why? What if she did it before she was arrested, so that people would see her for herself, and not the hysterical rumours surrounding her?

Millais’ Ophelia was on temporary display at the NPG, too. In fact, it was my plan to develop a songwriting project inspired by portraits of women in the NPG, but I couldn’t get the funding together, so I included a couple I had written on this album. With Ophelia I liked the idea of linking the painting’s muse Lizzie Siddal and her own tragic story, with that of the character she was depicting. And linking that to the many anonymous folk song heroines undone ‘by the greenwood side’. And I felt that both of these young women (Jane Grey and Lizzie Siddall, as well as the muse in Emma) were searching for meaning and identity in ways I could relate to. How other people can shape your identity through love, control, rumour, cruelty, and it’s hard to tell when it’s true, or when it’s helpful, hard to tell what’s you and what’s them. I wanted to give a voice to those women as a way of counter-acting the identity fixed to them by the men that painted them.

The Longing Kind is out on February 26 on Restless Head. Maz O’Connor is on tour now – check out her dates here.

Click here for part two of the interview. Don’t forget you can follow us on Twitter and Facebook for updates.

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February 14, 2016 by markdishman

Jim Causley: Forgotten Kingdom

He’s always had it in him. Jim Causley’s first solo album, 2005’s Fruits of the Earth, featured a few of his own songs. And there was the outstanding Summer’s End, which Jackie Oates recorded for her Violet Hour album of 2007. But Causley has, for the most part, stuck to interpreting the songs and poems of other folk, whether solo or with his Devil’s Interval and Mawkin:Causley projects. Perhaps he was gathering inspiration. For Forgotten Kingdom, his new LP of entirely original material (with one or two traddy borrowings, of course), delivers a weighty 15 tracks over 70 minutes. Jim Causley FK

Remarkably for such a proud Devonian, it’s the first album Causley has recorded in his home county. He’s certainly been inspired by it. Scholarly liner notes detail the area’s history (and make an eloquent case for a more flexible local history curriculum in schools), but the songs reflect a literary lyricism that really brings it to life.

The characteristically jolly Gabbro Bowl/Peninsula Prayer kicks things off in the Neolithic era, bringing us through Saxon times with a touch of Blow the Windy Morning and a reminder that the kingdom of Dumnonia united the people of what we now call Devon and Cornwall. “The land does not recognise the lines that humans draw,” sings Causley – a line that has plenty of resonance today, of course.

But it’s not a history lesson. The catchy Home stylishly bemoans “period living shabby-chic stuck-up town folk replacing old characters who’ll never return”, while The Pastoria is a powerful ode to the countryside. Seasick, the album’s closer, is a curious ‘anti-shanty’ that references Disneyland and ends with Causley pleading to be buried under the red soil of home, far from the water.

As well as the Westcountry themes, Forgotten Kingdom shares something else with Causley’s Dumnonia album of 2011. Where Cyprus Hill – his album of Charles Causley’s poems set to music, released in 2013 – was a stripped-back, piano-led affair, this is a full-sounding, warmly orchestrated and richly textured record. There are guests aplenty, with Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin adding chaturangui guitar and fiddle to Causley’s cheerful accordion on Back in the Day. Kathryn Roberts lends her voice and piano-playing skills to Reigning Men, which has a fun title but is in fact an accomplished, melancholy duet about the abuse of power. Show of Hands’ Phil Beer and Steve Knightley both make contributions, while James Dumbelton’s melancholy acoustic guitar adds a sophisticated accompaniment to several songs, including the lonesome Banks of the Tale.

Nick Wyke & Becki Driscoll – now part of Causley’s trio – make a particularly strong contribution. Their fiddle playing on Pride of the Moor, for example, is lively and imaginative. The song itself is one of the album’s strongest: an anthemic ode to the tin that brought prosperity to many towns across the Westcountry. Causley sings from the point of view of the metal at one point, to hail “the church bells of Dartmoor that sing with my voice”. It’s a canny, romantic observation, and the quintessentially Devonian Causley has a reasonable claim (and I say this as a Devonian myself) to be a modern-day voice of the county. (Check out his Behold! session performance of it, below.)

And what a voice it is. Rich and warm, it’s often described in terms of which delicious foodstuff it evokes – honey, nectar, chocolate, fruity ale… All seem appropriate, but what’s really impressive is his ability to turn it to something as mournful as Goodnight Ballad, or as upbeat and light-footed as the warm and witty Man You Know, which cheerfully celebrates the single life and rejects “marriage clink”.

A couple of songs will be familiar to Causley’s fans. The reflective Rewind – a song of sunshine and cider that featured on Fruits of the Earth – is given an elegiac reworking, with Dumbelton’s lilting guitar again providing a subtle backdrop to Causley’s accordion. Jackie Oates provides fiddle for Causley’s own take on Summer’s End, which also features Lukas Drinkwater on guitar. It’s gorgeous: a superbly sung, bittersweet look back at a doomed relationship with a crisp kiss-off at its conclusion.

So, those 15 tracks cover a lot of ground. Forgotten Kingdom features powerful odes to “old Domnonée”, mournful laments, cheery whimsy, smart storytelling, explorations of relationships… It’s serious, intelligent stuff; personal, political, historical – but listening never feels like hard work. Causley has the charm and ability to – as he does on Road to Combebow – make a fun singalong chorus from what is essentially a list of Saints. With so many guest stars, lesser performers might get lost, but Causley’s personality and songwriting talent sees him shine through. Keep writing, Jim.

Forgotten Kingdom is out on February 19 on Hands On Music

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