Mark Constantine of ECC Records on psych-folk collaboration The Self Preservation Society

Although ‘psych-folk’ contains the magical four-letter f-word, the late 1960s and early 1970s period of experimental psychedelia doesn’t have very much in common with the trad folk you’re accustomed to reading about here at Folk Witness. So it was a bit of a surprise to learn of an album of those songs performed by the likes of Teddy Thompson, Eliza Carthy, Marry Waterson and The Mighty Doonans.

Still, folkies seem willing and able turn their hand to anything – witness the Folk Fever album of disco songs performed by Jim Causley, Edgelarks, Patsy Reid and more (out on Island Records last week). And this record, titled The Self Preservation Society, successfully reflects an era of intense musical experimentalism and innovation. It will be available on triple vinyl, with the idea being to encourage all-the-way-through listens. It’s been carefully curated by Mark Constantine, the folk-loving CEO of Lush cosmetics who also co-founded ECC Records.

The collection has something to satisfy all tastes (as you’d hope from a 34-track release) – and though that means you’re unlikely to love every track, I found I enjoyed the majority, despite not having had much interest in the source material. Man Diamond’s version of Hocus Pocus (originally by Focus) is full-on crazy, though with less screaming than the original. Doonan, Oates and Manga’s As You Said (Cream) is similarly spirited, and Beagle & Amathea’s take on The Doors’ Hello I Love You has a relaxed, trip-hop vibe.

Speaking of relaxed, so drenched in California sun is Rosie Doonan & Ben Murray’s take on The Byrds’ Gunga Din that you practically get a tan listening to it. Jackie Oates lends a gorgeous vocal to a slinky version of the Zombies’ Time of the Season; Kami Thompson does something similar to Buffalo Springfield’s For What It’s Worth.

There’s power too: for example in the clattering drums of The Dhol Foundation’s Riders on the Storm (The Doors) and The Imagined Village’s version of Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir (a perfect vehicle for Eliza Carthy’s magnificent voice), Sunshine of Your Love (Cream again), with its meaty riff chopped out on Barney Morse-Brown’s cello, is similarly irresistible – as is Teddy Thompson’s funky, fun She’s Not There (The Zombies). And there’s room for some quieter and more contemplative stuff, too, for example Marry Waterson’s gorgeous Leonard Cohen cover, Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye – one of those in which you can ‘hear the air’.

Folk Witness spoke to Mark Constantine about psych-folk, collaboration and curation.

Folk Witness: How did your record label come about? Is there much crossover with soap and folk?

Mark Constantine: The record label came about after working with Simon Emmerson on the Lush Spa soundtracks. I’d found out that he was a fellow birdwatcher and seen his band The Imagined Village performing, and we managed to meet and start talking about music. We wanted a bespoke soundtrack for the spa, so Simon and his bandmates and colleagues collaborated and made all the Lush Spa music. We wanted original soundtracks for each different treatment. Most people on the soundtracks helped to write or perform the music, it seemed like a natural progression to form a record label.

And what prompted you to put together such an ambitious project in the form of The Self Preservation Society? What is the role you play as a ‘curator’?

They were really just a collection of songs that I especially liked! I thought others would like it too, and it was just so much fun to re-interpret them. Barney Morse-Brown is a cellist who is a very gentle chap and he took on Sunshine of your Love by Led Zeppelin. When performed with looped cello it’s slightly more mellow. Riders in the Storm by The Doors, we passed on to The Dhol Foundation who made the track their own. All the artists that we invited to cover specific songs interpreted them all so well.

Were you confident the artists you were working with would take to the material?

It’s pretty impressive; they all came up with goods. We did try to match the voices to the originals. There are plenty of stunning vocal performances. but we did ask people to do things they were comfortable with.

Why so many tracks – was the huge scale of the project always part of the plan?

We got carried away. It was so nice, we never wanted to stop. We’ve started another one now… focusing on the 1970s. I just received the first track!

How did you go about selecting songs and artists for the project? I’m wondering how you ended up with two versions of Get a Bloomin’ Move On!

The lead producer on the record was Rhodri Marsden who is in a band called Dream Themes who play TV theme tunes. The first time you hear Get A Bloomin’ Move On it is a 30-second performance by The Pickled Walnuts (aka Simon Emmerson & Simon ‘Palmskin’ Richmond) having a bit of fun. The second version is by Dream Themes who give a complete rendition of this classic (which most people recognise from The Italian Job) in all its madcap glory.

Were there any particular songs that just had to be on the album?

All of them. I was the final arbiter on what would be on. I’m a real music fan and I chose them. There were a lot of conversations that took place with my friends Jackie Hull and Ian Lewis at my house; they listened and made suggestions. I keep finding tracks from that period of time but I’m very happy with what we’ve got.

Why is it a vinyl-only release?

We like the idea of people picking up a complete package of carefully curated, performed and produced gems. The whole point of the vinyl is that it’s a quality item that you get to take home and treasure. We also took lots of time and care over the tracklisting so you get a natural flow if you listen to it all in order.

It does also come with a companion USB stick, which you can plug into your computer and has all the tracks on there as high-quality .wav files, but if we just sold those on their own, it wouldn’t be the same. The whole thing is about the quality and the experience.

Are there any plans for a live show? I’d imagine this might be a bit of a logistical nightmare…

No plans though that would be lovely! We have had individual artists doing live Nest Sessions at our London studio in Beak Street, Soho. We’ve had three of them and they come to perform the track they played on our album and then the rest of the gig is their material. This is livestreamed on our Facebook channels so anyone in the world can tune in and enjoy.

Finally, what is your favourite sandwich?

I like avocado, tomato and some lettuce on brown bread.

The Self Preservation Society is out on ECC Records on 19 February

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