“It’s an unusual name, and with Launceston just over the border from Devon, I thought ‘we’ve got to be related somehow’.” Folk singer Jim Causley is talking about the late poet Charles Causley, of whose work he has just completed an album of musical settings. Although Jim had grown up reading Charles’ poetry, for a long time he had no idea whether or not they were members of the same family.
“I thought we might be, but no-one had particularly pursued it,” says Jim. “Apparently he went to visit one of my great uncles, who also lived in Launceston. They had tea together and tried to work out how they might be related, but couldn’t come up with any conclusions. And it wasn’t until my day and age, when I discovered ancestry.com, that I was able to look it up and figure it out.”
It would be easy to assume a link between Jim and Charles anyway – the poet was a keen musician with an interest in traditional verse, and both share an obvious passion for the Westcountry. It’s a bond that was strengthened by the writing and recording of Cyprus Well, which takes its name from Charles’ house – where Jim recorded the album with a varied supporting ensemble.
The result is a delightful album – a varied, sincere and beautifully delivered tribute to Charles Causley and his poetry, which explores themes of home, family, death, the Navy and religion. It is restrained and subtle – as the sober Dom Cooper artwork suggests – but also full of heart and memory, so much of which is conveyed by Jim’s warm, beautiful baritone.
Jim has had the project in mind for a long time. Inspired partly by a substandard performance of Charles’ poem Timothy Winters in a folk club (“They were singing it to the tune of Girls and Boys Go Out To Play, and it sounded really bad”), and then by an invitation to perform at the Charles Causley Festival, Jim started arranging the poems shortly after he finished his folk music studies at Newcastle University. “Because lots of other projects came along, like working with Mawkin, I never actually got around to doing anything with it. Apart from one song – The Mystery of St Mylor, which I wrote this year – it has been sat around for seven years or so.”
While previous records have revolved around Jim’s accordion playing, Cyprus Well does not (although the squeezebox does make an appearance). “I wanted a different sound,” he says. “And basing everything around the piano meant that was inevitably going to happen. I thought more in terms of the people I wanted on the album, rather than what they played.” Those people turned out to be Fernhill’s Julie Murphy (who tutored Jim at Newcastle) and Ceri Owen-Jones, as well as Hilary Coleman and Neil Davey from Cornish group Dalla; the Pete Berryman trio, and fiddler Carl Allerfeldt.
“It was really nice to work with a lot of people I’d met while living in Cornwall,” says Jim, “musicians that I really wanted to do some stuff with like Neil and Hilary from Dalla, because I love their music, and Pete Berryman and his trio. And Julie and Ceri are from the Welsh tradition, which adds to the Celtic line-up.”
Opener On All Soul’s Day sets out the album’s reflective nature – Charles’ own piano provides a stately, calm backdrop for a sprinkling of harp and beautifully sung, beautiful poetry relating to the end of life and the ‘Day of the Dead’ festival. “It’s a positive celebration of souls that have died,” says Jim. It’s a dreamy start to an album that’s rich on peaceful, meditative studies, for example Eagle One, Eagle Two, which investigates the nocturnal habits of the two stone eagles that guard Launceston’s Eagle House Hotel, and Night Before a Journey, which explores home and “the house-ghost”. Jim counts A Song of Truth – sung as a duet with Murphy – as his favourite on the album. “It’s almost like Julie’s playing the character of Mary. Ceri’s trombone gives it a really Christmassy feel, and it turned out like a very dark carol.”
Not that all is quiet and calm. My Young Man’s a Cornishman is a delight: smiley clarinet, parping trombone and Murphy’s joyous whoops augment Charles’s charming verse, which takes in everything Cornish – from rugby to pasties and Dolcoath tin. Meanwhile, Timothy Winters is given an intriguing, jazzy shuffle, thanks in large part to Bob Holland’s piano. “I was a bit worried with that track,” says Jim. “I thought ‘that’s going to stick out like a sore thumb compared to the rest of the album’. And it does stick out a bit, but I don’t think in a bad way. I think recording in the same room with the same out-of-tune piano ties it all together.”
The slightly wonky-sounding piano belonged to Charles, and hadn’t been played since his death in 2003. “It was about a semitone flat,” says Jim. “We had to tune instruments down to match it, but I wouldn’t have wanted to tune it – I like that it was untouched.”
The same is true of the recording space – Charles’ home is small and humble (“unassuming – it’s Charles all over,” says Jim), and barely changed since his mother died. But the house and its surrounding environs packed much in the way of atmospheric punch: “It was a very moving experience – quite spine-tingly,” says Jim. “The first line of Trusham is ‘In this blown house my grandfather was born / And here his father first unshook his bones’. And then it talks about walking through the churchyard… It’s quite spooky there because every other gravestone seems to be a Causley – it’s strange seeing your name everywhere.
“We knew the energy in the house was going to change, and we thought we ought to get in there and capture that feeling it had of having him in the house. Everyone commented that perhaps maybe he was there keeping an eye on us, but that was quite a reassuring thought really. It was magical.”
As a composer, Jim has a strong ear for a tune, but his arrangements are careful to allow Charles’ words to be clearly heard. There was room for a bit of trial and error during recording though, for example on Who?, on which he, Murphy and Owen-Jones sing a strong three-part harmony. “That choral setting happened completely by accident,” he says. I intended it to be a gentle piano-and-singing song, but because we were having trouble figuring out the harmonies we tried it without instruments. And we liked it so much we left it as it was”.
Some poems felt like they weren’t meant to be sung, adds Jim. Indeed, he chooses to read Rattler Morgan and Sibard’s Well over a minimal piano backing. “Charles had music in mind for a lot of the poems,” he says. “Some of them reference traditional songs – in My Young Man’s a Cornishman there’s a very obvious nod to the song Camborne Hill. And for a lot of the poems he actually suggested traditional tunes. So I think that’s a pretty clear indication that he did have music in mind!”
The experience certainly seems to have invigorated Jim, who is full of plans for what to do next. “I’m still quite scared of my own songs, so that’s the next hurdle to get over,” he says. “I’ve got a lot that I’ve written myself that haven’t seen the light of day yet.” For anyone who’s heard the wonderful, mournful Summer’s End – which he wrote for Jackie Oates – this is an exciting prospect indeed.
Cyprus Well might even inspire another album of poems yet. “A Song of Truth is translated from a German song,” he explains. “There’s an amazing German book called Das Knaben Wunderhorn, which is a collection of German folk songs. Charles was very close friends with a German writer, and when he died he left the rights to his poems, his estate, to this chap in Germany, who I’ve been in touch with. Now I’m thinking: ‘cor, I want to do more from that book now…’”
But for now there are live shows to play. Jim will be playing gigs in the summer and autumn with Murphy and Owen-Jones (the set-up that launched the album, see video, above), including spots at Sidmouth Folk Week. Touring seems particularly important for this record – for Jim it’s not only an opportunity to share his music, but also to spread the word about Charles’ poetry.
“A few people have said to me ‘Charles wouldn’t have liked his poetry being set to music, he’d have hated it’,” he says. “That worried me a lot, but since then I’ve met people in the Charles Causley Trust – and people that actually knew him – and they’ve said the opposite: that he was quite keen on the idea, and that as a musician he’d have been really up for it – so I’m going to go with what they say.”
Cyprus Well is out on July 8 on Folk Police Recordings