When you’ve been married for ten years, tradition dictates the anniversary gift should be made of tin. Being in a band isn’t quite like being married, admittedly – and the members of The Shee may well have celebrated their decade together with an exchange of tinned goods (we’re thinking some kind of beans on toast party) – but they’ve come up with a more original and exciting concept for an album to mark the milestone.
Continuum, conceived by the band in tandem with the Celtic Connections festival, sees each of the group’s six members commission a favourite songwriter or tunesmith to create a piece for them to interpret. It’s a measure of the high esteem they are held in that folk heavyweights like Andy Cutting, Karine Polwart, Chris Wood and Kathryn Tickell all said ‘yes’.
The result is an impressive, intelligent album that touches on a range of subjects, but which is united by the group’s innovative arrangements. As a snapshot of human thought and emotion it’s a treasure – Polwart’s Song for Mary seems to exemplify the project, looking back with its inclusion of Mary Brooksbank singing The Jute Mill Song, and forward with the ultimately hopeful telling of her story. It’s sensitively sung by Rachel Newton, with a lovely interplay of flute, accordion and guitar behind her voice.
Highlights are many. Laura-Beth Salter movingly delivers Martin Simpson’s extraordinary examination of his mother’s unhappiness, while Chris Wood delivers one of his wonderful Hugh Lupton collaborations – a meditative and moving lullaby that’s sung from what sounds like the bottom of Olivia Ross’ heart. Tunes variously evoke junior school (Cutting), Indian sunsets (Brian Finnegan) and, in Shona Mooney’s own composition, a ‘Vampire Rabbit of Newcastle’.
Mixed in with the commissions are four original pieces – the stormy, defiant From the Shadows and the reflective Precious Tears among them. These – along with some devastatingly well-played tune sets – make great reminders that although Continuum is built on the work of some gifted collaborators, it’s the inspiration and hard work of The Shee themselves that make it such a special album. Much better than tin, that’s for sure.
We spoke to The Shee’s Amy Thatcher – accordionist and clog dancer extraordinaire – about the album, the commissioning process and crisp sandwiches.
Folk Witness: Happy anniversary! Where did the idea to mark your first decade together with a special project come from – and how did you arrive at the idea of commissioning songs?
Amy Thatcher: Well, we’ve done three albums so far which have taken a pretty similar path so we wanted to do something different. It made sense to combine a ten-year ‘do’ in there somewhere, too. I think we were on tour in Germany talking about what we could do; I can’t remember exactly whose idea it was to commission new music – the sign of a good idea, I suppose. We wanted it to be a snapshot of one of the ways in which traditional music is learnt and passed on nowadays. We’ve been inspired by musicians like the ones we’ve chosen and we also hope to inspire younger musicians in the same way. Not everyone is born into traditional music, but it is for everyone. It was also a bit of treat for us to play a brand new original piece of music from our favourite composers, like an anniversary present!
What made you choose Andy Cutting?
For me, Andy is one of those musicians I feel I’ve grown up with, ceilidhing to Blowzabella at Redcar and Chippenham, seeing him play with Karen Tweed at Folkbeat, The Two Duos Quartet coming to do workshops in Stockport, and spending my work experience with Karen Tweed when he and Karen lived in Derby, and… he writes just awesome music.
Were you surprised by what came back? Could you understand why the writers decided it was right for The Shee?
I think we were all thrilled by what came back – although that’s when all the hard work begins, so it also felt like we were miles from being ready at that point. It soon became apparent, as we were getting all the compositions back, that they had written something that meant a lot to them and they didn’t necessarily try and write something out of their comfort zone just because we were the ones going to be playing it for the first time. I felt like it was genuine writing.
Did you have much interaction with the composers as to how you arranged the pieces?
We got many different formats actually. Sometimes it was scored, sometimes it was played solo on an mp3 with notes on how they would like the arrangement to fill out. It took a lot of hard work by us to get it played through. We like to surprise ourselves, too, so it took a lot of trying out the tune on different instruments, swapping who plays chords. The most difficult thing – and most interesting thing – about our band is that every single instrument we have can play tune or accompaniment, so it could be completely different given another day. The things we made sure to set in stone were the lyrics, the core melodies and anything the composers specifically mentioned in their notes. You have to remember that they are trusting you with something precious. It must’ve felt strange to pass the responsibility on like that.
What was the Celtic Connections album launch [in Glasgow, in January] gig like?
One of those amazing gigs – they can’t all be like that, sometimes it just goes right! I can’t be that surprised to be honest; we had some of the most experienced, fantastic performers on stage with us that night, it was always going to be good!
How do the four pieces composed by you fit into the album? Did you need to knit the ‘guest songs’ together to produce something that felt like a whole, finished piece?
It’s funny, we always expected to have to knit those pieces into the rest of them, but it actually felt like a cohesive collection of music. I guess they are all connected and support each other in the fact that they are all totally brand new. Yeah, we always knew we’d need more pieces to get a good album’s worth of stuff I suppose, but also, for us, writing our own music has always been part of what we do and although we were taking a step away from that this time, it always needed some of our own music there for it to feel like The Shee.
What’s your favourite sandwich?
Errm… anything, then I add crisps. You’ve got to make dinner from a garage interesting somehow!
I had a good stare at the definition of the word continuum – ‘a continuous sequence in which adjacent elements are not perceptibly different from each other, but the extremes are quite distinct’ – and the more I do the more complex and appropriate a title it seems. Why did you choose it?
Haha, yes we did the same thing. The more we looked at that the more it seemed to define some part of this larger musical journey we feel part of. We had the idea first and the name came second; it just seemed perfect. We hoped that it would describe to the composers what it was we were hoping to achieve without pinning them down to a theme or someone else’s definition of traditional music.
Do you feel a weight of responsibility in telling other people’s stories – so personal and, in the case of Martin Simpson’s Dance With Me, so tragic? Does it feel different to doing traditional songs where the writer isn’t known to you?
When we asked the composers whether they’d like to be involved in this project, I guess we were announcing that we were ready for the weight of that responsibility. We were honoured that the pieces they gave us were so personal; they could’ve kept more personal compositions to premier themselves. And it would have a been difficult to cover Martin’s song, for example, if he’d recorded it first, so I think it gave us the opportunity to work on songs we would normally have shied away from.
What’s been the highlight of your ten years together as a group? And what’s next for you?
It’s so hard to pin down a moment – I mean, this project has been pretty fantastic. It’s a long game being in a band. You don’t ever think, right, you’ve made it. Gigs go well and you never know if it made any difference. It’s hard, but so worth it. It’s also difficult to position yourself on ‘the fame scale’, and indeed whether it’s really important to be on it at all. We all just love making the music we love and if people like it, even better.
Continuum is out on September 23. Order it through the group’s Bandcamp page to receive a free download of Song For Mary – the first single from the album. The Shee will also be on tour in September and October – click here for dates