Jim Causley on his Special Commissions EP, Folk Fever and the virtues of Devon

Completists will be relieved. Devonian singer Jim Causley has collected a series of seven songs commissioned by various individuals and groups on to one handy EP, released on his own Hrōc Music imprint.

It’s just seven tracks long but covers a lot of ground: some compositions are Jim’s own, some are covers and one is a gorgeous setting of a poem by Charles Causley – On The Border. This is something Jim is used to doing, having recorded an entire album of them, Cyprus Well, in 2013.

Fans of (Jim) Causley will be familiar with the strong, hearty Pride of the Moor – it appears on his Forgotten Kingdom album – and is one of many songs concerned with the Westcountry. The similarly titled Diamond of the Moor, written by Tony Dean, is a mournful ballad about the tragic true story of Charlotte Dymond, who lived on Bodmin Moor in the nineteenth century.

More contemporary is City of Trees, a clever, riddle-filled tour of Exeter’s trees and associated traditions. It might require a look at commissioner Common Ground’s book to untangle every meaning, but it’s an invigorating listen nonetheless. Green Lanes, meanwhile, ventures into the countryside to augment author Valerie Belsey’s insights into rural history, and Unearthed Theme offers a glimpse of Causley’s involvement with the Villages in Action project, and his passion for history, stories and people’s sense of home.

Glorious Devon Morning is a romantic tribute to the county that shows off Causley’s crooning baritone, and deserves to be heard by a wider audience. It’s rather a surprise to learn it’s written by a Scot, Martin Rooney.

Folk Witness spoke to Jim about the EP, the process of commissioning, and the funky folk-disco project, Folk Fever, of which he’s also part.

Folk Witness: This is something of a lower-key release for you – available only through your website. Why’s that?

Jim Causley: I didn’t feel this material was quite right for an album just yet and there’s not enough of it! But I also felt I wanted to put these songs ‘out there’ so an EP seemed like the perfect solution. I also didn’t feel it quite warranted the attention of a proper record label so I decided to start my own imprint for smaller-scale releases such as this. I thought it would be nice to have a CD which is only available to dedicated fans who are good enough to visit my website – plus it means I don’t have to line the coffers of Amazon and Apple every time I want to release some new music!

Do you seek out Devonian projects or do they seek you out?! Do you think you will ever tire of singing about Devon?

Haha! Guilty your honour! I admit I do write and sing a lot about Devon, but these are all songs I have either been asked (and even paid) to compose or record. So that lets me off the hook in this case – but no I don’t feel any tiring of singing of the virtues of Devon just yet, in fact I’ve made some more fascinating historical discoveries very recently which I’m itching to put down in lyrics!

The EP also sees you return again to the poetry of Charles Causley. What made you choose On the Border?

I was asked to set a new, small selection of Charles’ poems to music for a one-off event the Causley Trust were holding in Launceston Town Hall two years ago and On the Border is one that I was particularly pleased with. Since I recorded Cyprus Well I’ve continued to be very closely involved with the Causley Trust and last year for Charles’ centenary celebrations they commissioned me to create an entire new album of Charles’ poems set to music and that time I focused on his poems for children, which is how I Am The Song came about. I don’t think they’ll ever get shot of me now!

How do you approach writing a song when it’s been commissioned? How is it different from when you sit down to write a song of your own accord?

I find it very different. Hopefully I am inspired by what I have been asked to do, otherwise it can be like pulling teeth! But all the songs on this EP were pieces I was very happy to embark upon. For this sort of work I like to draw a sort of bubble chart with all the elements I want to get into the song. And then it’s rather like cooking – stewing: songs have to stew for a bit until they’re ready. And then you have to add bits in and take bits out, something you can’t always do with a stew! Usually when I write a song of my own accord I get a theme or some words or a bit of melody pops into my head all by itself and it grows from there, so those songs are much more organic. But of course all of these methods blur into each other to a point.

Is making the song a collaborative process or are you just given free rein?

A bit of both actually. Some have been completely left to me whereas others such as Green Lanes, Valerie Belsey gave me a lot of facts of interest that she wanted me to include in the song. Some of them have come out sounding a bit like a heavily compressed history lecture but hopefully in an enjoyable way! But others have simply given me a very loose remit, which is both fun and daunting.

Can anyone commission a song?

I suppose so! You just need to have a good idea and a large amount of money! Wink wink.

Have your songs always got the receptions you’ve hoped for from their commissioners?

No-one has ever had a bad reaction, they were all very polite! Again Valerie did make a suggestion for the end of Green Lanes because she didn’t like that the last verse ended on a military theme and wanted the song to end with a more positive look to the future of the usage of green lanes, so I tweaked that. But apart from that they have all been received very well I am very relieved to say!

While we’ve got you, tell us a bit about the Folk Fever project. How did you get involved in that and how easy did you find blending folk and disco styles?

Well I record with Mark Tucker who lives in East Devon, and one day he told me about this crazy little idea he’d had of making an album of folk reimaginings of 1970s disco hits! He asked me if I’d like to be involved and at first I must admit I was slightly sceptical about how it would work and whether or not we’d just end up ruining wonderful songs. But anyhow I agreed to it and it’s been a hoot from start to finish. It was a fascinating exercise, taking these songs and deconstructing them, almost like dismantling a car to see how it works. Once we’d sussed out all the moving parts we began replacing the instruments with folk instruments and also playing around with the structure of the songs, trying different tempos, time signatures, rhythms etc. It was a very interesting thing to do indeed, to learn what makes a song great or catchy. It was also interesting that several of the songs have come out feeling particularly moving in very surprising ways that you might not expect. Many of the lyrics are very beautiful but can easily go over your head when on the dance floor. In a stripped-back acoustic fashion the words really jump out at you.

We finished the album a year ago and after a long process of getting everything sorted out with the label and the release it is finally due for general release in late September 2018. We also have our very first booking in the pipeline I am now allowed to tell you about! We’ve been booked to play in Hyde Park for BBC Radio 2’s Live in Hyde Park! We are in some very highly regarded company indeed including Kylie Minogue and the Manic Street Preachers!

I hope the wider world likes the album we have made. I think it could be a bit ‘Marmite’ but I love how it makes you question the notion of the two musical genres and the very impermanent nature of genres. Once you change the instruments or the tempo, a song you assume is very much of one type of music sounds like it very much belongs to another.

What’s next? Any new projects in the pipeline?

Apart from all that?! I’m continuing to work with Villages in Action and the Charles Causley Trust, I have The Band of Love on the boil, which I sense is about to become somewhat in demand! I’ve got a big Christmas tour coming up this December which I’m probably going to make an album out of, that’s something I’ve never done before (well, not on my own) so I think it’ll be fun to make a Christmas record and give my own personal take on the festive season. I’m working with two mediaeval musicians who I found lurking about in the middle ages and brought back to present-day Devon and we are doing a project working on the more mysterious songs that are to be found in Sabine Baring-Gould’s collection. So it’s all good fun really! So many songs, so little time!

Special Commissions EP is available to order now, exclusively from jimcausley.co.uk

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