You’re most likely to have seen Ben Walker, a quiet virtuoso of the finger-style guitar, as part of a duo, with Josienne Clarke. But a look at his website shows he’s also worked with, among others, O’Hooley & Tidow, Jackie Oates, Emily Mae Winters and – slightly more surprisingly, perhaps – the Royal Shakespeare Company and Petula Clark.
Last month Walker took a step into the spotlight with the release of Echo, his debut solo album. On it, Walker has set the words of poets like William Blake and Hilaire Belloc, as well as traditional songs, to his trademark arresting, lyrical guitar – though musically there are a few surprises here, too.
The album is bookended by two optimistic instrumental pieces. Afon – which concerns both a river and ‘river’ (more of which below) – is a guitar piece that’s somehow busy and serene. The finale is a more mournful, measured work, featuring tasteful strings, flute and oboe, though its title, Eostre, suggests the joys of spring.
In between, Walker has assembled an exciting line-up of talent to sing traditional songs and poems set to music. Thom Ashworth gives The Ecchoing Green – one of Blake’s joyful Songs of Innocence – an intriguing hint of gravitas. Hilare Belloc’s Ha’Nacker Mill, sung by Laura Hockenhull, offers a bleak counterpoint.
Rings features a key Sussex voice – that of George ‘Pop’ Maynard, whose (posthumous) introduction is shrouded in gorgeous strings from Basia Bartz, Anna Jenkins and Jo Silverston. The track soars into a direction Maynard would perhaps have found hard to imagine – both classical and dancey.
Humber Bank, sung by Laura Ward, is forceful and righteous, with train-on-track percussion and haunting cello propelling the tragic tale. Jinnwoo achieves a similar effect with a very different vocal approach on wartime broadside How Stands the Glass Around.
The guests just keep coming. Bella Hardy provides a typically sensitive vocal for The Island, a setting of a Dorothy Wordsworth poem. Walker gives her space to do so, with a sparing arrangement. The same is true of the album’s last song, a blend of Blake’s Nurses’ Songs, interestingly blending the related Innocence and Experience poems. Kitty Macfarlane’s lovely, pure-sounding vocal sounds at odds with the green-faced bitterness of the ‘Experience’ verse – but this makes the reading more interesting – as does a final, producorial flourish.
We all knew he was a fine musician and a talented producer, but Echo shows Walker has more to give. You have to congratulate him on his fine taste in poetry, apart from anything else – and for making such a diverse selection of sources, singers and styles cohere into one album.
As Walker says on his website, he’s just getting started. Folk Witness spoke to him about the album, as well as the collaborative process, the songs of Sussex and how to turn a river into a piece of music.
Folk Witness: When did you discover William Blake, and what was it about these poems that made you want to set them to music?
Ben Walker: The ones I’ve used he actually calls songs (of Innocence and of Experience) so perhaps they were already in search of a melody when he wrote them. There’s something very lyrical about a lot of the poetry of his time, but I was most attracted to his work because of his views on Englishness, class, religion, the impact of technology; reflections of his time but also way ahead of it, and certainly echoed in contemporary society.
What was it like working with singers other than Josienne? You seem to have a kind of telepathic musical connection with her – what was it like with guests?
Everyone’s different to work with but that’s the nature of collaboration. Working with the same person for years has its pros and cons. I’ve worked with lots of singers but working with everyone on Echo was a particular joy – for a start they are friends as well as brilliant musicians I’ve admired for ages so we had a lot of fun doing it. Bella [Hardy], for example, was so easy to work with on The Island because we approached the song from the same references musically, and she’d really engaged with the poem, in fact, to the point of writing a response, which we had a go at too.
What made you choose those singers in the first place?
I tried to imagine whose words they were then and who would be able to sing them now – so you end up with things like On Humber Bank, written by an abused woman in 1812 as a suicide note, sung by Laura Ward who works every day with abused women: her anger and passion is real and it comes across.
And while we’re on the subject of choosing, how about the songs? Was it a collaboration with the singers?
I found the words first and then thought about who I could imagine singing them in the way I thought they should be sung. By the time the melody came together I usually had someone in mind, so often I was writing with a voice singing in my head. Then I asked them. I’d put together a range of potential songs for Echo and I thought maybe a couple of people would say yes, but pretty much everyone I suggested a song to wanted to do it! That was really humbling, I hadn’t expected it.
There are lots of Sussex songs – it’s lovely to hear George Maynard pop up. As a Brighton resident do you feel inspired by the local area? Is it the landscape, the people, the songs?
Definitely. It’s far less aggressive than London, where I was living previously, and there’s something about being sandwiched between the sea and the Downs that gives a sense of grounding and has inspired a lot of my own stuff. It’s also rich in cultural heritage and folk tradition which has made for interesting research: Ha’nacker Mill is a great example, which I found on the sussextraditions.org archive, which in turn came from the singing of Bob Copper who learned it from Hilaire Belloc – and of course now sung for me by Laura Hockenhull, who is linked to it in various ways.
The album’s response to geographies in general is interesting. How do you go about writing a piece of music about a river?
Aha, so, that one [Afon] is about a river, but it’s also about the word for river, so the sound for a river as well as the sound of a river if you get what I mean. That one came about after I’d been asked to compose some music for The Verb on Radio 3 based around place names in the Midlands, and being from that part of the world I got sent back to Evesham to do some field recording around a village called Pinvin with an expert on Old English! Pinvin featured in a scary BBC drama in the ‘70s called Penda’s Fen, which is where Pinvin gets its name from, after King Penda, the last pagan king of Mercia.
So I’m sitting there thinking about all these layers of language, of history, recording the sounds of birds and water and light industry, trying not to be charged down by bulls, and thinking about the river, how it was always there, how it got its name, and how would you even try to capture it in music – the undulations, the flow, the continuity of it and so on – and eventually, Afon came out.
As well as being a performer yourself, you’re a prolific producer. How does your experience working with other people inform the production of your own material?
I’ve produced, recorded and played for 50-odd bands and artists I think, and I’ve always taken the philosophy that as a producer, you’re there to take an artist’s song and make it the best it can be. It can be a discussion, and lots of working on ideas to get to that point, but you aren’t trying to rewrite someone else’s material, that’s not the job. So I ended up with lots of ideas pocketed that weren’t right for other productions, but somehow found their way on to the record. Stuff like Rings, which starts with George Maynard and has a synth all the way through it, it’s very nearly trance but it’s a trad: stuff that is more classical in construction like Eostre, that I couldn’t have put on any other record I’ve made.
What’s next for you? Will you and Josienne be working together again?
Ha! That question keeps coming up… no plans to do so, no. I’ve been happier this year than I have been in ages, learning to gig solo (it’s very different), working with the RSC, and most of all making this album; I’m so delighted that people have heard it and that they seem to like it.
I’m about to head off to Europe on a solo tour and there are several irons in the fire for next year. I can’t give the game away just yet, but it includes some double-header tours and collaborations as well as new solo stuff.
What’s your favourite sandwich?
Marmite and cheese 😊
Echo is out now on Folkroom Records