Wiltshire singer Rosie Hood – a third of The Dovetail Trio as well as a solo artist – has looked close to home for inspiration for her first full solo album. The Beautiful & The Actual takes its name from a quote from a folk song collector of Hood’s home county, Alfred Williams, who declared an ambition to communicate both.
The album reflects this aspiration – on top of including eight of Williams’ songs. It explores the ‘big themes’ like love, death, betrayal and war – but also covers some personal and unusual ground. There are versions of familiar traditional songs like William Taylor and The Cruel Mother, but also self-written pieces on subjects such as First World War heroine Dorothy Lawrence and – memorably – an 11th century monk who dreams of flight.
The tone also varies. Opener The Lover’s Ghost is intense and atmospheric, while The Hills of Kandahar is a clear-eyed, close-up look at a soldier’s experience of war in Afghanistan. Elsewhere, there’s a sweetly delivered Lord Lovel, sung with Jefferson Hamer, while Baker’s Oven is a brightly jolly bread-based shaggy dog story. Emma Smith’s driving double bass is an inspired addition, meanwhile: it gives Dorothy Lawrence an edgy, punchy backdrop, and adds a thoroughly funky element to closer Undaunted Female.
It’s almost surprising, then – and a credit to Hood’s skill and sensitivity in putting it all together (her voice suits comedy and tragedy equally well) – that it all fits together so cohesively. She adroitly works the songs into shapes that suit her and utilises guest appearances from the likes of Ollie King and Emily Portman perfectly. The result is an absorbing and accomplished album. Beautiful, actual – and both.
We spoke to Rosie about making the album, her EFDSS fellowship year, her illustrious collaborators, and much more…
Folk Witness: Was it always the plan to go it alone or do you like the balance of being a solo artist and in a band?
Rosie Hood: I actually first started out performing solo and then started The Dovetail Trio with Matt [Quinn] and Jamie [Roberts]. I’d always planned on getting my solo album together (eventually!) but The Dovetail Trio had a lot of momentum behind it and has therefore been my focus for the past few years. Being in the band has really helped me to develop musically so that will have filtered in to my solo material too. I enjoy the balance as it allows me to explore different material or arrangements that might work in one guise but not the other.
How did you come across Alfred Williams, and what made you decide to record the songs he collected?
I discovered Alfred Williams’ work when doing some song research online in my second year of university up in Glasgow. I’d been singing songs learnt from my family, in sessions or from CDs, but wanted to find out if there were any songs that came from the area where I grew up. That’s when I stumbled upon the Wiltshire Community History section of the Wiltshire Council website where there are around 1,100 songs, mostly collected by Alfred Williams and transcribed by Chris Wildridge.
Williams collected hundreds of songs – how did you choose the ones to record here?
These are songs that jumped out to me in one way or another, often for their story, their uniqueness or their collected proximity to my childhood home! I’ve been singing most of these songs for a number of years now and these are the ones that fitted best as an album.
Equally, where on earth do you find stories like those behind A Furlong of Flight and Dorothy Lawrence? Do you immediately know ‘there’s a song in this’?
Well I’ve known the story of Eilmer the Flying Monk (the protagonist in A Furlong of Flight) since I was quite young as he’s a bit of a local legend. I remember my friend’s dad having a t-shirt with him on! I didn’t always think I’d write a song about him but when I was researching all these local songs it seemed to make sense to look at some of the other local stories too, and this one really stood out to me. I was away at a songwriting retreat run by EFDSS and I used this as the starting point for one of the writing exercises. Once I’d done that, I knew I had to keep going until I had a song! I think I first heard about Dorothy Lawrence from a news article on the BBC news site titled ‘Why are so few WW1 heroines remembered?’ There was only a sentence or two about her but it caught my interest and I did some more research. She seemed like such an interesting woman and once I’d found and read her book online I knew I wanted to write her a song.
You worked with Emily Portman on your fellowship year at EFDSS, with her as a songwriting mentor. What did that entail?
Emily has been a wonderfully encouraging mentor. We talked about our songwriting styles and techniques, discussed song themes and writing exercises. The most useful part was helping me to be less self-critical of my songs when they were still in the early stages, which helped me to keep working on them until they became finished pieces. We got on well, and I was delighted when Emily agreed to sing on the album.
How else was the EFDSS fellowship helpful?
In all sorts of ways! I travelled to Folk Alliance International in Kansas City and got to meet musicians, promoters and gig bookers from all over the world, which is where I met Jefferson Hamer, who features on the album. I worked on my songwriting and musical arrangements of traditional songs – attending UK-based events such as AFO and EFEx helped me to meet more UK music professionals; I had access to the library and archives at Cecil Sharp House for further song research; I developed my teaching skills working with the education team at EFDSS and started playing the tenor guitar! Mostly it allowed me the time to develop as an artist and to get to the stage where I was ready to start recording demos for this album.
You’ve rewritten elements of traditional songs – William Taylor, The Red Herring and The Cruel Mother. Did you feel apprehensive about doing this?
Not really to be honest! Folk songs have been learnt through the oral traditional for so long and I’m sure they’ve all changed with each person who’s sung them. Whether that’s been a purposeful change – perhaps the words didn’t fit well or the singer preferred another phrase or tune – or accidental, with the singer remembering the song differently from how they originally heard it, the songs have always evolved and my versions are just their next step in their history. I’ve always adjusted songs to fit my voice, phrasing or even opinion and I think that’s how I feel that each song becomes my own.
You have some great guests. What made you get the likes of Jefferson Hamer, Ollie King and Emma Smith to join you?
Well Ollie King and I have been playing together at some of my live shows for a number of years and I love his expressive playing so it seemed obvious to ask him to come and play the parts that he would play live. I’ve also sung on both of Ollie’s solo albums, we enjoy working together! Jefferson and I have been working on a duo project for the last year or two, creating reworkings of traditional folk songs in classic duo style. We’ve performed Lord Lovel a couple of times along with the songs we’ve developed together and I love the extra dimension his guitar playing and harmonies bring to the song. As for Emma, I was actually recommended her by my producer Tom Wright. I wanted double bass to hold some of the songs together and to round out the sound, I also knew that I wanted a couple of the tracks to just be voice and double bass as I love that combination. Tom knew Emma from her time playing with Eliza Carthy and once we met up we worked on the specific arrangements and found that her playing and my voice worked really well together on my songs.
Finally, there are a good few references to bread on the album. What’s your favourite sandwich?
Ha! I hadn’t even noticed that before but you’re right, there are! I think my current favourite sandwich is from a bagel shop in Sheffield; it’s called a Barker’s Pool bagel and has halloumi, grapes, mint yoghurt and pine nuts.