Jim Moray celebrated his tenth year in the music industry with a tour earlier this year, but he wasn’t the only major folk talent to emerge in 2003. Initially named The Ghost of Meg after a departed family dog, Megson – the now-married Debbie and Stu Hanna – played their first gig, too.
In the intervening years, they’ve grown into one of the folk scene’s most interesting and well-respected duos, releasing five studio albums along the way. Now they’re marking their decade in music with a live album. It’s called, appropriately, Live, and it sees the Hannas in relaxed and confident form.
I’ve written a full review of the album over at Bright Young Folk, but in short, Live demonstrates an impressive back-catalogue and an energetic, wholehearted live performance. Stu’s jagged, driving guitar or mandola provides the backdrop to distinctively sung, heartfelt harmonies, while Debs adds further texture with whistle and accordion. Particular highlights are the beautifully written and subtly performed The Longshot, the soulful, bluesy Everynight When the Sun Goes in, and the pair’s strangely moving children’s songs – Debs’ remarkable voice is particularly clear and strong on The Riddle Song, for example.
As an unusual ‘best of’, it’s a great introduction to Megson, while long-time fans will enjoy it as a reminder of great gigs past (plus, finally a recorded version of Tally-I-O the Grinder!). But why make a live album at all? Which songs do they enjoy playing the most? And do they get sandwiches on their rider? Debbie and Stu talked to Folk Witness about the album, rowdy gigs and Birmingham…
What made you decide to mark your tenth year of being Megson with a live album? Did you have any fears or reservations?
Stu Hanna: A live CD is something people have been asking for for a while, but we never thought we were an ‘old’ enough act for it – but a 10-year anniversary seemed about right! I don’t think we had many fears about the performance, but I was very nervous about getting the sound right, having done some live recording before I knew that a few technical mistakes could ruin the whole enterprise – thankfully it didn’t!
How did you decide the set? Did you do anything different or is the album a snapshot of a ‘usual’ Megson show?
Debbie Hanna: It is a bit of a snapshot of a Megson gig. We have a core of songs we have to do at gigs (or we get in trouble with the fans!) so they had to be in there but we also wanted to make sure that there was something from every album. We don’t do a lot from our first album but Just Stay was the first song Bob Harris played of ours and it gets requested a lot so we thought it was about time we put that one back in. Then there are the favourites from the rest of the albums. However, I think the order of the set we played that night isn’t the order the songs appear on the album. Not sure why… Ask Stu!
Why did you choose Hitchin Folk Club as the place to record?
Stu: We had played there a few times before and been a lot as punters, we knew the space and audience pretty well, and the organisers are the nicest people – they tolerate our eccentricities like bringing our Cavalier King Charles Spaniel with us to our shows.
Other than that, do you have a favourite venue to play at?
Debs: I always like it when we do gigs in churches. I think the acoustics tend to suit what we do and we can really play around with dynamics there – especially the slow songs. They do tend to be a bit cold though, so I need to think carefully about what outfit to wear! Other than that, we have played so many great venues over the years. I think a favourite of mine this year though was The Glee Club in Birmingham.
Is there a song you particularly enjoy playing live?
Stu: I enjoy singing Longshot – there is plenty of story to get your teeth into. And I like playing Working Life Out and Fourpence A Day as the guitar parts are tricky, fast and with Debs doing the lead I get some time to think about the playing.
Tally I O The Grinder always works as a great set closer – why have you never recorded it in the studio?
Debs: It was just a good, singalong song which we found and decided to have as our encore song. I think we never thought about putting it on an album as it never seemed to fit with the material we were using at the time. It is a firm favourite at gigs though and every time we have tried a different song as an encore it makes its way back in. We were really pleased to include it on the Live album though as we get asked if people can get hold of it all the time. Now we can say YES!
You did a tour of children’s gigs earlier this year. Did you enjoy it? Did they?
Stu: The Family Folk Show gigs were the most rowdy gigs we’ve ever done; there were moshpits and stage invasions! Under-fives can be loud and lively… I think they liked it, judging by the singing along – and their parents seemed to. I wish someone else would do something similar so we could take our toddler – it’s got to be better than a trip to the Soft Play!
And how do those songs go down at the gigs for grown-ups?
Debs: People love them. Everyone loves a chance to be child for a while don’t they?! Some of the songs we do are ones people remember from their childhood or singing them to their children so there is a certain amount of nostalgia there too. Also, as with kids TV and so on, there are several levels to the songs so while the kids just enjoy dancing along and enjoying funny words, the adults can hear the stories and humour that is there as well.
Have you been surprised by people’s reactions to certain songs?
Stu: Our audience seem to be pretty polite, so we’ve never had a particularly bad reaction… its always surprising though, how many northerners come out of the closet when we perform down south.
Looking back over your ten years – have you had a favourite gig or festival experience?
Debs: We had a great gig at Birmingham Symphony Hall supporting Seth Lakeman. It is an amazing building and HUGE and it was so exciting to be standing on that stage playing to a massive auditorium. I trained as a classical singer so for me to be there but singing folk music was pretty cool. We always love Cambridge Folk Festival too. It is our local festival and we always have a great time there.
Have there been any disasters?
Stu: We once got stuck in a flooded Blackwall Tunnel on the way to a gig – the promoters didn’t seem to believe us when we told them we weren’t going to make it!
What do you ask for on your rider?
Debs: You know – we don’t ask for much. We are far too polite! We usually ask for a couple of sandwiches and a beer! We did a festival once in Germany and they really go to town looking after you. Anyway as part of our rider were two magnum bottles of their local champagne. We had flown in just for the night so there was no way we were going to drink them – we had to wrap them up in towels in our luggage (which were just soft bags) and hope they made the flight back intact. We were very nervous as they dropped on to the luggage belt in the airport but they survived – AND were very nice too!
What’s next for Megson – what have you got lined up for the next ten years?
Stu: More songs, more records, more tours…. And maybe in ten years’ time another live record!
Megson Live is out now – buy it through megsonmusic.co.uk