It’s a bit late – and a bit different – this year. Folk Witness wasn’t as active in 2015 as it has been in previous years (something we hope to remedy in 2016), but there was still plenty to listen to. When it came to album of the year time, however, two stood out. And, this year, it proved impossible to choose one over the other. And why should we?
Evidently, Chaney was focusing on getting it right. Versions of the already wonderful Imperfections and The King’s Horses from the EP are here, tweaked gently but for the better. Meanwhile, those who had seen her live were at last able to get their hands on recorded versions of Waxwing and Too Social.
There’s just one traditional song on the album – Chaney baulks at the suggestion she is a folk singer – but the opener, a take on the False Bride, shows her to be an elegant interpreter. Its mournfulness and tasteful arrangement sets the tone for an album of wistfulness and sorrow, piano and cello.
Chaney expertly turns her hand to songs by Alasdair Roberts, Violeta Parra and Henry Purcell, but her songwriting, too, is first class. Her classical sophistication lends weight to her crisp, witty insights into everyday life: holidays, relationships, and busy house-shares. It might seem extravagantly absurd to base a song on the ‘in denial/in the Nile’ dad joke, but Swimming in the Longest River is nonetheless soberingly, devastatingly beautiful. She could probably turn the Birdie Song into something moving.
The Longest River combines exquisite sadness with a knowing exoticism. But never is it unapproachable – indeed, it’s an intimate, warm record too. Albums as beautiful as this are worth waiting for.
Both Sam Carter and Jim Moray had shown hunts of a predilection for loud electric guitar in their solo work, but the formation of False Lights (who we saw live back in February) allowed them to really cut loose. The resulting album, Salvor, helped the band add something genuinely new to the folk scene – turning the ‘folk-rock’ genre on its head. If the way to keep traditional songs alive is to make them relevant, then a truly contemporary rock approach was sorely lacking.
A great idea, then – but actually pulling it off was another matter. Salvor does it with the kind of musical eloquence we’ve come to expect from Carter and Moray – not forgetting the contribution of Sam Nadel, Tom Moore, Nick Cooke and Jon Thorne, of course.
So, we have Polly from the Shore sounding a little like OK Computer-era Radiohead, while there are hints of Johnny Marr about The Banks of Newfoundland. The blistering Skewball, meanwhile, has a whip-crack sensibility that is all False Lights’ own. And that’s important – this isn’t ‘folk songs in the style of…’, it’s modern, forward-thinking stuff, best exemplified by the album’s opening and closing tracks – the clever, loop-heavy Wife of Usher’s Well and the euphoric pop of Crossing the Bar.
The ‘rock’ sound doesn’t steamroller the music’s essential folkyness, mind. Moore’s fiddle and Cooke’s melodeon stay prominent in the mix. Witness the dextrous Charlesworth Hornpipe, or the mournful, beautiful Indian’s Petition. Or, for that matter, the essential cheekiness of Tyne of Harrow and the bawdy-yet-classy Maid of Australia. It’s quite an album. Salvor is new, old, traditional, modern… and vital.
So, there you have it – our first joint winners. And while Olivia Chaney and False Lights may not have a great amount in common, it’s genuinely thrilling to note that both The Longest River and Salvor are debut albums. Bring on those follow-ups…
Blackbeard’s Tea Party, the riotous York sextet, have been steadily gaining a reputation as one of the scene’s finest, funnest bands since 2009. Their third full album, Reprobates, blends extraordinary musicianship with a delirious sense of fun, and will surely soundtrack plenty more parties.
The songs positively overflow with blood and guts, seawater and booze. And they’re executed with the group’s trademark fizzing energy and confident swagger. Jack Ketch is a queasy ode to Charles II’s hamfisted executioner with an irresistible chorus, while The Ballad of William Kidd is a typically rambunctious tale of piracy. There’s a dancing-crazy take on Peter Bellamy’s Roll Down, too. And that’s not to mention a glut of tunes, which blend headbanging rock guitar, Latin rhythms, Chili Peppers-esque funk and Laura Boston-Barber’s superb folky fiddling, often at dazzling speed.
And though the album is shot through with a sense of fun, Reprobates also showcases a new side to BTP. Closing track Close the Coalhouse Door – Alex Glasgow’s sensitive and poignant elegy to the Aberfan disaster of 1966 – is pulled off with foreboding, drama and powerful sincerity.
Folk Witness spoke to melodeon player and “sumptuous vocalist” Stuart Giddens about bloody violence, the band’s influences and their fans’ dressing-up and cheesecake habits.
Folk Witness: Blackbeard’s Tea Party’s nifty logo promises “Folk, rock and everything in-between…” Was it always the plan to mix up genres, add electric guitar to trad folk songs and so on?
Stuart Giddens: I don’t think we ever had a plan! We formed as a busking band and our first EP – Heavens to Betsy – reflects this. There’s almost no electric guitar on there, and it’s a much more trad folk-sounding record. But the six members that make up the band have always had musical interests outside of folk. Once we moved to bigger stages and full amplification there was more opportunity to add these to the mix. Our rhythm section in particular brings metal and classic rock influences to the fore.
Our basis is in English folk, but there are elements of funk, dance music, gypsy jazz, bluegrass and old time – plus our drummers bring a lot of African and Cuban rhythms to the mix, so this makes the basis of a lot of our grooves.
What music do you guys listen to? It sounds like your tastes vary quite a bit…
Yes – it’s pretty wide and there isn’t a lot of music that the six of us agree on. On long car journeys we have a few bands in rotation. We love the musicianship on funk and soul records like Stevie Wonder, James Brown and The Meters. We’ve been listening to dub-steppy dance music too like Knife Party and Major Lazer. Plus, since we saw them at Glastonbury and Cropredy respectively, Dolly Parton and Chas & Dave haven’t been far from the car stereo for long.
Do you like The Smiths?
Absolutely! I don’t listen to them much these days, but I spent the summer of 2005 drinking cheap cider, experimenting with magic mushrooms and listening to The Smiths with my best friend in my parents’ back garden (I was 18). I particularly like their first two LPs before, I think, it all went to Morrissey’s head. There’s a naivety and playfulness to lyrics that I think is lost in their later records.
Let’s talk about the new album. Why is it called Reprobates?
The first tracks we arranged for this CD were Jack Ketch and Hangman’s Noose. Jack Ketch was King Charles II’s executioner, and the first tune of Hangman’s Noose (‘The Hangman’s Reel’) was supposedly played on fiddle by convicts on the gallows in the hope of a reprieve. It seemed we were subconsciously following a theme of wrongdoing.
We liked the idea of sticking with the theme and writing/researching songs about immoral or nefarious characters. I was reading a book at the time called ‘Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil Wars’ and that word kept jumping out of me. It not only encapsulates the theme of the album, but reflects the band‘s reputation as the bad boys (and girl) of English folk.
How is it different from your previous stuff?
It’s heavier than our previous output. There’s more certainly more riffs and darker storytelling. I think we show off more of our funk and dance music influences this time, and there are more self-penned songs and tunes than ever.
You wrote the gruesome opening track – what inspired it?
The Steam Arm Man is based on a music hall song that channels fears of new technology during the industrial revolution. It tells the story of a soldier who has his arm blown off at the Battle of Waterloo. He builds himself a prosthetic limb that is powered by steam but, unfortunately, the steam arm is somehow cursed with an evil spirit, and it takes him on a gory killing spree.
It was folk-singer Gavin Davenport who suggested the song to us. I liked the story, the black humour and the steampunk vibe, but the lyrics themselves were a bit crass and pretty misogynistic. So I rewrote the whole thing and gave it a big chorus.
I see it as quite a fun (if gruesome) romp, and the narrative is similar to other popular songs about trouble makers like The Beatles’ Maxwell’s Silver Hammer or Leon Rosselson’s Little Tim Maguire. The central character is pulling in two directions – essentially a good man driven to bad by his instinct to survive – and I found that a compelling story to tell.
There’s another particularly gory one – Jack Ketch – which… I see you wrote as well. So, er, what’s with all the bloody violence?
My songwriting is heavily influenced by Nick Cave, particularly his Murder Ballads and Henry’s Dream albums. I like Cave’s chaotic worlds of excess and violence.
I’m keen to rail against certain modern notions of folk as rather twee – strummed acoustic guitars, flat caps and braces. A lot of folk songs – particularly early ballads like Lambkin – are dark and gutsy melodramas. Even sea-shanties and work songs pulse with dark undercurrents of violence, danger or bawdy humour. All that blood-and-guts stuff fits well with our sound.
Stuart Giddens (right) and the Blackbeard’s Tea Party crew
There’s more to the album than murder and gore though. The subjects of slavery, transports and even the Aberfan disaster are covered. Is it important to you to cover more sober subjects, too?
We’re quite rightly seen as a ‘fun’ party band. That’s certainly how we excel as a live experience, and we’ve worked hard to garner that reputation. But it can sometimes feel limiting too. We were keen on this album to flex our muscles a little in terms of the emotional depth. We want to prove there’s more than one string to our bow.
How did you approach Close the Coalhouse Door? It’s quite a tragic, sensitive song – I wasn’t expecting a group I thought primarily of as a ‘fun’ band to go there…
I wasn’t sure it was right for the band at first. I’m especially conscious that the Aberfan disaster is in living memory. You feel a weightier responsibility to approach the song sensitively and with respect. Once we started arranging the song though, it was obvious that we were hitting the nail on the head. We had an idea to try and create a lot of space in the arrangement while keeping a heart-beat pulse running through the whole song. It’s something very different for us, and I hope it surprises people.
And of course there’s a great helping of tunes, too. Where do you find them, and what’s the arranging process like?
We choose either traditional tunes that we pick up in sessions, or self-penned tunes contributed by Laura or Tim [Yates, bass]. We’ll usually start with the raw material and build a groove around it, then decide which tunes we can pair together, which will fit with songs and which can stand alone. We spend a lot of time figuring out interesting ways to transition between different songs and tunes. In the sessions for Reprobates, we were really interested in replicating the builds and drops in electronic dance music to evoke the energy of our live shows.
You’re about to go on tour – what’s the BTP live experience like?
The live experience can vary because we play a wide range of different venues: grungy rock clubs, arts centres, folk clubs, noodle bars – you name it. Our audience is always a huge mix of ages and types – young children, teenage punks, ageing rockers and folkies all thrown together. We love mixing with the audiences before and after the show and meeting all our fabulously eccentric fans. Our aim is always to create a fun, party atmosphere, to get the crowd moving, singing and sweating along with us.
Like Folk Witness, you seem obsessed with food, in particular cheesecake. Has anyone ever brought one to one of your gigs, as requested on your website?
We’re given cheesecake all the time. It’s a wonder none of us have had a heart attack yet. The cheesecake thing has really resonated with fans, and we’re always being brought weird and wonderful shop-bought or home-made cheesecakes before gigs. Other great gifts we’ve received from fans – a stuffed chicken on a wooden raft; a knitted Blackbeard complete with tea set; and one of our particularly mad fans is planning on coming to our Southport gig with a home-made steam arm.
Finally… what’s your favourite sandwich?
Four fish fingers, mushy peas, a bit of rocket and some ketchup on fluffy brown bread.
It’s six tracks long – more than an EP, not quite a full album – but The Song Crowned King, by Cath & Phil Tyler is a gem. Words like ‘raw’, ‘uncompromising’ and ‘gritty’ often pop up in the pair’s reviews, and it’s easy to see why, with songs stripped to the core and rebuilt around sparse banjo, fiddle and voice (mainly Cath’s, but the pair are distinctive harmony singers, too).
And so it is with their new ‘mini album’. Opener Bonny George Campbell is a story told beautifully: Cath’s unadorned declaration of George’s failure to return with his horse (only a blood-stained saddle comes back) is gently, plainly tragic. On the other hand, Old Lady is kicked off with a holler, its raucous nature accentuated by Phil’s sparse banjo and spikes of menacing feedback. The austere (and magnificently titled) Broad is the Road That Leads to Death would work well on the soundtrack to a Western. As would Puncheon Camps – an addictive banjo workout.
It may be short, but it’s a beautifully presented, well-worked treat, which you can check out (and buy) via Cath & Phil’s Bandcamp page, here. Folk Witness talked to Phil about The Song Crowned King, how he met Cath, and the (very exciting-sounding) Dark Northumberland collaborative project…
Folk Witness: When did you and Cath meet and start playing music together?
Phil Tyler: We met some time in the late ‘90s when I was acting as booking agent/tour manager for the band Cordelia’s Dad, which Cath was a member of. Cath moved over here soon after we got married in 2003. We’d play music together around the house but didn’t set out to be an ‘act’ as such, it kind of just developed over time.
What’s the musical division of labour between you like? How do you work?
In general Cath is the voice and I am the instrument player, but there are various and increasing overlaps. When we come across a song that we’re interested in singing we just keep on at it until it’s in a form that we’re happy with.
Tell us a bit about The Song Crowned King…
The title is from an 1870 shape-note hymnal, we just like the name and borrowed it for the record. It’s different from previous releases mainly in length, being a ‘mini album’. This is because originally it was going to be a 10″ vinyl release, on Lancashire and Somerset records (run by David Hand, who did the cover art). We recorded it with that length in mind but delays with the label meant it hasn’t yet come out on vinyl, though it is still supposed to one day I believe. I got fed up of waiting though and put the CD version out myself. Song choice is generally down to what new things we haven’t recorded yet.
The cover art depicts simple tools and implements in a minimalist fashion. Is it fair to say this reflects something of your approach?
I guess so, David Hand (see above answer) had free rein to design the cover as he liked; we like his work with other band’s covers and trusted him to come up with something good, and he’s familiar with our music. I guess we have a minimalist approach so it kind of fits, but it wasn’t particularly thought out that way.
Where did you come across the non-traditional songs – Garry Harrison’s Boys the Buzzards are Flying and Isaac Watts’ Broad is the Road That Leads to Death – on the album?
I learned Buzzards from fiddler Rani Arbo a few years ago, it just seemed like a good tune for the record. The Isaac Watts text we know from the Sacred Harp, the tune is one of mine that we had actually used on a previous album, but it fitted these words so well that we thought why not borrow our own tune!
You’re part of a great line-up in the Dark Northumbrian project. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Dark Northumbrian is a collective brought together by Northumbrian musician Steve Malley, and featuring Alasdair Roberts, Mary Hampton, Lucy Farrell, Barn Stradling, Seth Bennett, Aby Vulliamy and me and Cath. It’s quite a diverse range of instruments and backgrounds, some folk, some not so folk, all brought together to breathe new life into traditional songs of Northumbria. It’s collective in approach – the pieces are worked at by everyone before they assume their final arrangement. Recording and touring are planned, but one problem of having such a large and geographically diverse group is that it can be pretty hard organising, so don’t hold your breath! There are some live recordings on Soundcloud that can be heard.
Finally… what is your favourite sandwich?
Bombay mix and lettuce.
The Song Crowned King is available now through Bandcamp, on CD or download
I vaguely remember messaging Olivia Chaney on MySpace when I first heard her music, so it must have been a long time ago. Six, seven years? That it’s taken such a long time for so obvious a talent to record a debut album demonstrates a rare patience and self-assurance. The time has been spent honing, crafting, re-working: The Longest River – finally released by Nonesuch last month – is minimal and spare, but strongly felt and rigorously considered.
Olivia Chaney at Kings Place. Photo: Mike Watts
Tonight, Chaney expresses bemusement at being labelled a folk singer – fair enough, given what else she has turned her hand to. She’s been to the Royal Academy of Music, worked with electronica duo Zero 7, sings in a variety of languages and plays classical music as well as her own songs. But though she’s not exactly Steve Knightley, a folk singer she is, opening her album launch gig at Kings Place with her piano-led version of Oxford Girl. There’s much more to her than that, of course…
She is spellbinding. Violinist (fiddler doesn’t feel appropriate, somehow) Jordan Hunt holds the quietest, gentlest note at the end of the song as she moves from the piano to pick up her guitar. It feels disrespectful to move, let alone sully the moment with anything as vulgar as applause. Music is happening! Shh!
The set showcases Chaney’s diverse talents and tastes. As well as songs from the tradition, she interprets pieces by Alasdair Roberts, Henry Purcell, François Villon, Joni Mitchell, Violeta Parra, and what Folk Witness inexpertly thinks might be Johann Sebastian Bach (it might not be). Each piece is treated sensitively, with a proper string quartet used sparingly (it feels like they only play all together about twice, but when they do you know about it) while a bloke with a laptop provides the subtlest of background noises. Chaney occasionally announces that two or three pieces will be played in a row, and at one stage the audience is left holding its breath as two are linked – with magnificent incongruity – by the almost imperceptible sound of children in a playground.
I haven’t mentioned Chaney’s own songs yet. They’re wonderful: performed with intensity and conviction but surprisingly they’re frequently wryly funny, confessional pieces too. Swimming in the Longest River investigates relationships and Freud via a ‘denial’ pun, Too Social details the tribulations of inhabiting an overcrowded house, while Imperfections seems to be an honest, unusual self-appraisal, full of unexpected couplets: “he takes us out for hard boiled eggs/salt beef bagel, oh he’s got good legs”. Holiday, meanwhile, is flat-out heartbreaking – measured anguish and eloquent hurt.
It’s all performed with tender sensitivity. Hunt’s backing vocal on Swimming… is barely-there perfect. Chaney is expressive at the piano, guitar and harmonium, her voice cut-glass and pure with an alluring hint of soul. Towards the end she reveals a frighteningly good operatic quality, too – again, a weapon used selectively, for maximum effect. So when the applause does arrive it comes, deservedly, in raptures.
Jackie Oates is an established member of the folk firmament by now – remarkably, The Spyglass & The Herringbone is her sixth album. It’s a welcome return, with her vocals and fiddle playing somehow familiar and comforting whilst feeling fresh and exciting at the same time. Its springtime release seems particularly apt.
Following her almost-side-project Lullabies album (which we talked to her about here), Spyglass is the first record Oates has recorded while working closely with new band member Chris Sarjeant – a talented guitarist and songwriter in his own right. Nowhere is his influence felt more keenly than on the superb title track – a dreamy, relaxed piece that belies the melancholy nature of its subject matter (classic Jackie Oates, in other words). The song relates to the tokens attached to children abandoned to The London Foundling Hospital – the first home in Britain set up for their care, in 1739. Between them, Sarjeant and Oates ensure the matter is dealt with surely and sensitively.
Oates again proves canny with her choice of collaborators. As well as Sarjeant (whose guitar work on final track Banks of the Bann is simply exquisite), the album is peppered with distinctive banjo from Jack Rutter and Ben Walker (of ‘Josienne Clarke and’ fame) – “domestic ballad” John Blunt makes a sharp opener – plus stirring contributions from Nick Hart on boxes and hammer dulcimer, flute from Calum Stewart, and guitar and piano from Oates’ brother Jim Moray.
Having rearranged The Sugarcubes’ Birthday on her Hyperboreans album of 2009, Oates repeats the modern-ish pop song trick here, this time reconstructing The Sundays’ Can’t Be Sure. It sounds like it was always a folk song, with an appealing homespun honesty to its lyrics: “England my country / the home of the free / such miserable weather”. There’s an orchestral outro courtesy of composer Joe Duddell, surprisingly dense (but not unwelcomely so) on an album that’s otherwise comprised of light touches.
Oates remains a seemingly effortless interpreter of traditional song, and her choice of trad tracks here will delight folkies: There’s a sprightly, confident Doffing Mistress and Cornish song Robbers’ Retreat – one of many from Oates’ beloved Westcountry – comes with a lively handclap backing and an irresistible chorus. It’s surely a future live singalong favourite, and one that makes a life of crime seem strangely appealing. The Halsway Carol runs it close for catchiness, with an almost chant-like quality to its delivery. A raucously joyful version of Hail! Hail! The First of May, by Dave Webber, perhaps makes this, pound-for-pound, Oates’ most cheerful album yet.
And yet… if Oates is at home with traditional material, she’s positively tucked up in bed with melancholia. Spyglass features a beautifully sad, absorbing version of Take This Letter to My Mother, while The Yellow Bittern, based on an Irish poem in which a man is struck with the significance of the death of one of the titular birds, is simply heartbreaking, despite its ostensibly positive message.
Cheerful, melancholy, complex, personal… The Spyglass & The Herringbone is all these things: a multi-layered, thoughtful and beautifully made album. Here’s to the next six!
The Spyglass & The Herringbone is out on April 27 on ECC Records
He seemed to spring from nowhere, but Sam Lee’s debut album Ground of Its Own was an unqualified success. Lee’s sincere, passionate and no-guitars-allowed approach to songs learned first-hand from gypsy singers saw him pick up a host of awards within the folk world, and even land a nomination for the high-profile Mercury Prize.
So, how do you follow that? Lee’s answer is to get his mates involved. His second album, The Fade in Time, is recorded in collaboration with his band of ‘Friends’ – Francesca Ter-Berg (cello), Jonah Brody (koto and ukulele), Steve Chadwick (trumpet), Josh Green (percussion), Flora Curzon (violin) and Jon Whitten (dulcimer). The group have added further depth and texture to Lee’s still-distinctive sound.
The Fade in Time is a touch funkier than its predecessor, without losing any of the first album’s finely crafted feel. Percussion plays a greater part, as is immediately evident from pulsing, exotic opener Johnny O’ the Brine, a magical hunting song augmented by brassy rasps and birdsong (the latter a recurring motif). Drums add uncertainty and mystery to Bonny Bunch of Roses, and cymbals a certain jazzy adventure to the magnificently urgent Blackbird (see video, below).
But it’s not all hands-in-the-air stuff. Airdog captures the strangely moving atmosphere of Ground of Its Own’s Tan Yard Side, but instead of a love song, it’s applied to the story of a man hunting with his dog, forcing a hare to “squeal murder”. There’s a similar peace and stillness to The Moon Shone on my Bed Last Night, the last song taught to Lee by his mentor, Stanley Robertson.
Elsewhere, the strings are exceptional – witness the tumult of Mourlough Maggie or the ebb, flow and astonishing climax of Willie-O. Lee’s voice remains wonderfully engaged: every phrase considered but not overthought, as his sensitive performance on album finale The Moss House proves. And that’s before you mention the mini choir adding a quietly beautiful outro to Lord Gregory (and a noisily beautiful one to Lovely Molly).
In between tracks, meanwhile, singers discuss and sing snatches of songs, adding context and a feeling of timelessness. It all adds up to something quite magical: familiar songs thoughtfully, wildly, lovingly arranged. If Ground of Its Own was a success, The Fade in Time deserves to go stratospheric…
Folk Witness spoke to Sam Lee about reinterpreting, workshopping and returning songs… And his favourite sandwich.
Folk Witness: The new album has ‘and Friends’ on the cover – it’s not just ‘Sam Lee’ any more! How have the Friends influenced your sound? Sam Lee: Very much so… the Friends are the live band I’ve been working with since around the time Ground of Its Own came out, and who I have been collaborating with a lot, so many of the songs were made in workshopping the songs together.
Before you made Ground of its Own, you spent a lot of time on research: living with gypsy singers and learning songs directly – do you still do this or have these songs come from new influences and places?
Absolutely. Probably more field work has been done since the first album. As you will read in the album notes each song has a great story, passed on from the people I learned them from. Also the Songcollectors.org website is great for showing all the field work I’ve been doing in the last three years and hearing the voices and films of those I’ve been collecting from.
Given how many you must have learned, what is it about a song that makes you want to arrange and record it?
You never know, they just leak out! A song will be wonderful to sing in the old style without instruments but just doesn’t want to be with a band, other songs leap out when a sound or an instrument appears. It’s an alchemy really, and it’s unpredictable what will work and where the matching is needed until you are working with them.
How are your interpretations received by the singers you learned them from?
They love it. I have made a film that can be seen on my Pledge Music crowdfunding page where I return the song Bonny Bunch of Roses to the old gypsy lady Freda Black. It’s really emotional for her and her whole family loved it.
Was it important to you to include the voices of the people you learned the songs from? Who’s speaking at the start of Lord Gregory, for example?
Yes it’s very important. I wouldn’t have done so otherwise. They are just wonderful voices so needed hearing. The voice on Lord Gregory is Charlotte Higgins, the Scots traveller who is family to Stanley [Robertson] my teacher. It’s a 1950s recording that captures the poetic style of speaking you once heard.
Ground of its Own did really well – what effect did the Mercury nomination and all those album of the year prizes have?
The Mercury effect was amazing. It helped my career unbelievably, however all that attention for me: my rule is enjoy it, but don’t inhale! It’s been great for getting the music out there and internationally too. I have had the pleasure of playing all around the world and taking the music to all sorts of wonderful places through it.
I’ll end with the FW traditional final question. What’s your favourite sandwich?
The West End Centre doesn’t feel like it usually does when you go to a folk gig there. For a start, there aren’t any chairs. And rather than the usual two sets, a support band (the able, versatile Flight Brigade) warms up the crowd. While you can buy real ale at the bar, Folk Witness feels oddly compelled to drink lager from a plastic glass: it’s an indie-rock kind of a night.
Sam Carter and Sam Nadel. Photo: Emma Goymer
“We’re False Lights and we play traditional music”, says co-frontman Jim Moray, after the six-piece have taken the stage. Drummer Sam Nadel strikes up a beat and the band kick off with probably their heaviest song, Skewbold. It’s quite the statement of intent: fast and furious, dominated by growly rock guitar and coming to a sudden stop a whisker over the three-minute mark. It’s a bit tricky to make out the words, but judging by the massive grins sported by everyone in sight, no-one cares.
In fact, the loud (and it is, gloriously so) rock element of the False Lights folk-rock idea never again drowns out the folk bit. Perhaps as a result of having tuned in during the opening number, it’s easy to follow the lyrics for the rest of the night. This is a credit to the singing of Moray and Sam Carter, who alternate vocal duties and joyfully indulge their passion for a selection of beautiful electric guitars (though Moray frequently moves over to a complicated-looking keyboard/laptop/Kaoss pad set-up, too). Melodeon player Nick Cooke, bassist Barn Stradling and fiddler Tom Moore feature strongly in the well-balanced mix, adding body and depth to the sound.
A rock club setting suits a bawdy singalong perfectly, and Carter takes the group through the salty Maid of Australia with glee. Equally cheerful are the Moray-led Banks of Newfoundland and Tyne of Harrow (about a highwayman called, a little unromantically, Alan). Carter and Moray prove excellent foils for each other – their voices work nicely in harmony and Carter’s penchant for shapenote and gospel provides the group with a wealth of material to rework. Moray’s technical wizardry is evident, too – on the innovatively arranged Wife of Ushers Well, for example.
The crowd play their part. Carter rather sweetly says he hopes the show “hasn’t been too punishing”, but tutting purists have stayed away, leaving the room full of people willing to whoop and holler – essential for this music to work in a live setting. Having said that, as with most folk crowds, a reverent silence falls before the next song begins. The perfect combination!
Another a folk tradition is the inclusion of a song on the subject of death, drolly introduced by Carter. The bluntly titled Oh Death, strangely enough, turns out to be rather a funky affair – another expectation confounded. The final three songs exemplify False Lights’ versatility: the main set ends with the lovely, funereal-yet-uplifting Crossing the Bar, before the band invade the audience for the first part of an inclusive encore – a warm-hearted singalong then a return to the stage for what Moray calls “your last chance to rock out”. The resultant hornpipe neatly balances balls-out rock with dextrous musicianship – as much of the set has.
Outside, people are drawing comparisons with groups including The Wonder Stuff, Radiohead and The Decemberists. But whoever you’re reminded of, it doesn’t sound like traditional music ever has before. Modern, relevant and skilfully executed: this is music to get gigantically excited about.
It’s remarkable to think that, for all their work together in family band Waterson:Carthy, Martin and Eliza Carthy had never before released an album together. They addressed this in 2014 with The Moral of the Elephant – an LP assembled in intense ‘hothouse’ sessions – two songs a day, arranged, practiced, recorded: done.
It’s a confident approach: two voices, one guitar, one fiddle, no special guests and a quick-fire approach to getting the songs done, in order that they might retain their freshness. And there’s something about the no-frills, purist approach that invites the listener to lean in a little. It’s a warm (thanks in no small part to Oliver Knight’s production) and engaging record.
Opener Her Servant Man sets the tone: Martin’s distinctive, deliberate-yet-delicate guitar picking and earthy voice kick off a tale of forbidden love. Eliza’s vivacious fiddle soon joins the mix, adding notes of charm and romance that build the song into more than the sum of its parts. And the simple formula never gets dull. Guitar and fiddle seem to dance during the introduction to the cheery Blackwell Merry Night, before the duo stop playing and allow their voices to do the same thing.
Most of the songs are traditional, and while many will sound familiar, versions and arrangements are new. Waking Dreams – a thoughtful take on Awake Awake that intriguingly addresses the song’s subject as a “traitor” (instead of “sleeper”) is one highlight, while The Queen of Hearts – shot through with dramatic guitar and harmony – is another. The masterful Grand Conversation on Napoleon ebbs and flows absorbingly, addressing Boney’s broken heart as much as his political failure. Martin’s spoken outro is loaded with gravitas.
The album’s non-traditional songs are excellent, too. Monkey Hair, written by Michael Marra, and Happiness, an apparently lost classic from the pen of Molly Drake, are both simply (that word again) stunning. Has Eliza’s voice ever sounded better? You can listen for yourself, below…
Indeed, both father and daughter are on top form with voice and instrument. Martin’s vocal performance on Queen Caraboo is top class, while Eliza’s fiddling is assured and inventive. On Bonny Moorhen it is light, bright and exquisitely divergent, while on The Elephant it is deep and mournful, as if she is sawing into the very soul of the instrument.
Talk of ‘folk royalty’ or ‘folk’s first family’ has always seemed antithetical to the genre to me (and Martin will modestly point in the direction of the Coppers if the matter is raised), but the epithet exists for a reason: Martin and Eliza Carthy (not to mention Norma Waterson, whose collaboration with her daughter on 2010’s Gift album is another must-hear) are outstandingly talented. The Moral of the Elephant is both deeply complex and uncomplicatedly beautiful – and it’s the Folk Witness album of the year 2014.
The first night of a mini-series of London gigs curated by Eliza Carthy “celebrating the power and expressiveness of the human voice”, was devoted to those who cannot sing for themselves. The Songs for the Voiceless project has already produced an album of songs inspired by the First World War (see the video below for a behind-the-scenes look), and the visit to Kings Place was the second night of a tour not only recreating it, but with a broader remit of songs and tunes related more generally to war.
From left to right: Katriona Gilmore, Matt Downer, The Young’uns (David Eagle, Michael Hughes, Sean Cooney), Michael J Tinker, Tom Oakes, Jackie Oates, Bella Hardy, Jamie Roberts. Photo: Simon Rogers
As you’d expect, the tone was predominately sober: Trenches, written by Ian Stephenson, glumly explored reality and culpability, with lines like “it took his face clean off”, while Tinker’s Charles Ball told of a dying man whose prayers were with others. Oakes played a breathy, bassy and melancholy flute piece, and Hardy led the line on a heartfelt version of Bonny Light Horseman.
But there were, perhaps surprisingly, some more upbeat moments. Gilmore’s Trojan Tree alluded to the stranger-than-fiction tale of a fake steel tree stump constructed to allow allied soldiers to spy on the enemy, while The Young’uns somehow managed to conjure an uproarious thigh-slapping music hall number based on three tales from the trenches. “We’ve unwisely decided to do it in cockney accents”, they mused, throwing in clipped officer-class tones, cartoonish German voices – and the odd theatrical “blimey” – for good measure.
In John Hill, from their Never Forget album (which they talked to Folk Witness about here), The Young’uns already have a profoundly affecting song about World War I, but such is Sean Cooney’s work rate (“ridiculous – just stop it”, joked Bella Hardy) that they produced another one – between the recording of the album and the gig. Private Hughes movingly told the tale of a simple note put inside a bottle in 1915, not to be discovered for nearly 100 years.
The best was saved for last. Jackie Oates isn’t on the album, and is taking the place of Josienne Clarke for part of the tour. This made her performance of Clarke’s stunning As The Dust Settles In – inspired by Clarke’s great-grandfather’s terrible experiences in the trenches – all the more impressive. Both are excellent singers, of course, but to take on such a personal, melancholy song is no mean feat. Oates did it with perfectly judged sensitivity, bringing it a different vulnerability.
And Hardy provided the pre-encore finale, with a typically smart song. Jolly Good Luck to the Girl That Loves a Soldier – also the name of the music hall piece it is a response to – attempted to resolve her feelings at seeing a poster that read ‘Women of Britain say Go!’, and considering everyone from “the sweethearts of the Tommies” to Russian soldier “Maria Bochkareva and her Death Battalion”. Performed with nothing but Hardy’s strummed fiddle and jaw-dropping voice, it ended the show on a thoughtful, open note – it (and the short and bittersweet encore) left the audience wondering at the incredible scale of war’s impact.
Songs for the Voiceless is at the Brook Theatre in Chatham tonight (November 8) and the Salisbury Arts Centre tomorrow (November 9). To see more of Simon Rogers’ photos of the show, check out the Folk Witness Facebook page. Give us a like while you’re there, and don’t forget you can follow us on Twitter, too
Swimmings of the Head, as Kate Young reveals in our interview, below, is a phrase taken from herbalist Nicholas Culpeper, which describes an attack of the vapours of some kind. It is, as she suggests, an appropriate title for the Scottish fiddle-singer’s dreamy-dizzy new album. The record, which Kate recorded with an additional four musicians as Kate in the Kettle, was funded via Indiegogo and is digitally released on Friday. (CDs are available too.)
Kate Young launches Swimmings of the Head at the Union Chapel
“I am the fairy fiddler”, she boldly announces on the opening track, which is based in part on a Nora Hopper poem. And so it proves – she’s an intense, imaginative and percussive player. The tune, which morphs into Sab Jon’s Polska, also features tabla, mandola and some frankly stunning singing – not just in Kate’s native tongue, but also in Swedish (apparently it’s called ‘cow-calling). It’s a lot to take in – and we’re still on track one…
Kate came to the attention of many (of us folkies, at least) through her work with fiddle-singing quartet Carthy Hardy Farrell Young (she stars on their kickass calling card Greasy Coat), and this album certainly reflects her strong influence there. As we already know, she’s a smart collaborator as well as a strong musician, here working out varied and inventive string, percussion and clarinet arrangements with her four fellow players.
Highlights include the swaggering Green and Gold, (inspired by Slovenian figs) the cool, mysterious Paper Rose, the gentle Lullaby for an Infant Chief, and the dramatic finale Grow Down. It’s a well-travelled and lovingly assembled album, still capable of conjuring surprises after a dozen listens.
We talked to Kate this week about Swimmings in the Head, crowdfunding and – obviously – sandwiches.
FW: How did you find the crowdfunding experience?
Kate Young: I found it a great tool for connecting with people who were interested in supporting my music, and although it was a lot of work, it felt more rewarding to be able to share the whole experience with people rather then if I had slaved over a funding application for months on end with no certain result at the end of it! The campaign has an element of urgency – it has a time limit, which I think is a good thing, so it was stressful and although I didn’t actually reach the goal, I still raised just enough to make the album and tour happen. And without this there would be no album, so I’m am eternally grateful to all those who pledged!
Why are you called Kate in the Kettle? What’s your favourite kettle-related refreshment? Tea? Coffee? Pot Noodle?
I brew my musical ideas in a pot, let it stew for a bit. There’s quite a range of different teas that get poured out from day-to-day. Actually today [we did the interview on October 7] I’m looking forward to playing in Glasgow’s Tchai-Ovna (Chai House) – they have an amazing selection of teas from all over the world!
Similarly, where did ‘Swimmings of the Head’ come from?
It’s a quote from the 17th century British herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper. His ‘Complete Herbal’ has a lot of crazy remedies and potions for things, many of which I find hilarious. One plant he was talking about cured the ‘swimmings of the head’ and I thought this felt quite fitting to the music on this album.
We have different styles, but I think it is interesting and fun for us to play within that dynamic of what works together and what is distinct about each of us. I have always thought of this music as quite separate to the Kate in the Kettle/solo work that I do, and that ‘folk’s finest firm of solicitors’ Carthy, Hardy, Farrell & Young is all about the live performance.
Your singing style and range is very broad – tell us where you learned to sing like you do in Fairy Fiddler, for example!
As a singer, I am constantly exploring different techniques and forever have been fascinated by the different traditions of singing from all over the world, which therefore feeds into the music I create. In Fairy Fiddler I was perhaps more focusing on the exploration of connecting voice with fiddle as a second, or sometimes third instrument in harmony, as well as some Swedish ‘cow-calling’ at the end of the track.
Lullaby for an Infant Chief is just as stunning, but it feels different – softer. Where did you come across the poem and what made you decide to set it to music?
This text is by Sir Walter Scott – I found this song in a book of lullabies. It already had the Gaelic refrain in the song – whether Scott added that in himself or not, I don’t know. I’m not sure if he was a Gaelic speaker! I actually composed the melody for it because there was none to be found in the book! The tune following it is a slängpolska of Swedish origin.
Who are your fiddle-playing influences? There is sometimes quite an attacking, percussive feel…
When I was studying in Newcastle years ago, the lovely Laura Cortese visited from the States and brought with her this amazing concept to me of singing and playing the fiddle together! She taught us the ‘chop technique’ – that’s the percussive thing you are talking about, which allows you to accompany yourself with rhythm on the fiddle. Since then, I spent my days practicing, composing, experimenting with many of the different ways of combining the voice with the fiddle. I have taught classes in fiddle-singing and performed in UK and across Europe, including Estonia and Austria, where later emerged the likes of fiddle-singers Maarja Nuut and Claudia Schwab. Claudia and I now play in a duo together combining Austrian yodelling, Indian violin, Bulgarian songs and more!
Frozen fiddling: Kate warms up
Tell us about your collaborators and the instruments they play – the låt-mandola is a new one on us… And there’s lots of tabla, too
Marit Fält and I met whilst studying folk music in Newcastle and she plays the Ale Möller-designed låt-mandola. It is a bass-drone mandola (or kind of octave mandolin so to speak) with frets which enables her to play some of the micro-tone intervals that are used in Swedish traditional music. Victor Solana was also studying music in Newcastle at the time and is a great percussionist, and I knew he had been studying Indian tabla. When we were putting the material together, sometimes it was just fiddle and tabla and we have a great time actually playing the tunes together on both instruments as tabla is tuned percussion and very sensitive to melody.
How easy is it to combine your ‘world’ influences with the Scottish ones? Do you find they just work together – I’m thinking of the two tunes in Salmon, as an example…
Hmm, good question! I guess that’s a question with a never-ending or multi-faceted answer because in traditional music and in our current climate of endless possibilities of accessing all kinds of musical influences and communication brings us to the question of balance, or equilibrium between what should stay preserved as pure tradition and history, and what we can play with now. I have always been more of the experimental type, fascinated by the multitude of sounds there are in the world. However, studying on the folk degree brought me closer in my understanding of how our own tradition across Britain has come about, and how rich it is, without anything added on, of course. What is really interesting is along all our differences, there are so many similarities between traditions – you can always find incredible parallels between one country’s tradition and another, and sometimes its not about thinking but just listening.
The Salmon track was a bit of coincidence because these were two tunes that Marit and I enjoyed playing at the time, and decided that they perhaps fitted quite well in a set together. Turned out later, that the first one, written by Taklax (Finnish/Swedish) – the composer’s name directly translates as ‘roof salmon’; the following tune is sourced from a salmon fishing pool in Spey, Scotland. It was only right to call the set by the fish common to all involved!
Finally – the traditional FW final question – what’s your favourite sandwich?
If it weren’t for the mercury content in tuna, I’d say tuna mayo, so I’d go for halloumi with olives and avocado and pine nuts. Oh my god I’m hungry now!