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