Me and my blog

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Sunday, 14 September 2014

The Willows teach a crucial PR lesson at King's Place

The Willows played a late set - 9.45pm - on Saturday at the Kings Place festival this weekend that worked like coffee. Jade Rhiannon is their beautiful lead singer, with a highly distinctive and beguiling voice; there is a charming and eccentric guitarist, Ben Savage, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Rupert Grint; they have a fabulously musical brother and sister banjo and fiddle combo in Cliff and Pru Ward; and an absorbing and upbeat collection of songs that wraps you in a blanket of sonic joy: their four or five part harmony (the drummer, Evan Carson didn't seem to have a mic though I could be wrong) was transcendent. They're the real deal.

Their second album, Amidst Fiery Skies, is from a place where folk and bluegrass cohabit and has immediately taken up a residency on my multi-disk CD player. But it was interesting to hear about the problem they had with their first album. "We didn't put the name of the band on the cover," explained Savage. "Our PR went nuts when she found out: apparently that's a PR disaster. Rumour has it we'd be HUGE if we'd put our name on the cover."

It (above) was called Beneath Our Humble Soil, they have taken to using stickers bearing their name to compensate, and the absence of most of the salient information from the CD cover didn't stop it picking up some very nice reviews, from Bob Harris and Mike Harding among others.

Nonetheless it got me thinking because I have a related problem with CDs and it's do with the basics: there is a large-ish collection of CD covers in my front room that have become separated from their disks, and while some of it is due to negligence and enthusiasm (playing stuff to people without taking the trouble to replace CDs toward the end of the evening) there is a handful that I have been unable to match with their covers because the CDs have no information whatsoever on them. For instance, can anyone put a name to this - rather beautiful - orphan?

Or this?

It has a doodle of two large-headed humanoids and was apparently produced by Parlaphone - who should probably know better - but I'm having no luck finding its cover. This means that unless it's instantly recognisable when I play it - though it'll be hard to find a reason to do so since I don't know what it is - it's going to languish in a kind of musical no-man's land for the forseeable future.  

It crossed my mind that in the case of The Willows, the missing name on the cover could have been misplaced modesty, which is something one comes across quite a lot among folkies and frequently ties in with an anti-capitalist ambivalence about being better known (good) and making money (not entirely the point). Also there is often no one who thinks of their actual job as being to check this stuff at cottage-industry-sized labels. 

However, I spend a large amount of time making sure that all the basic information is present in newspaper stories and feel qualified to suggest that there are very few circumstances in which it is inappropriate to fully label one's output. And if in doubt, do it again: no one will complain.

Here's something else by The Willows to make up for my hectoring tone, which is certainly connected with annoyance about futile attempts to de-clutter The Glamour Cave. 

* If you liked this post you may also be interested in reading this post about Rodney Branigan, who deserves more attention than he gets.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter at @emma1hartley

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Nancy Kerr: never underestimate Towersey's sweetest visitor

Not enough women hear themselves called geniuses. A lot would be embarrassed: as a group we're most often brought up to believe that modesty is the way forward, to having our triumphs mitigated and our disasters emphasised while, for the most part, being rewarded less fully than our brothers, underestimated at the outset and frequently discounted in the final reckoning. This is not something I would have written twenty years ago or something I was brought up to believe: it's something I've learnt.

Part of me wishes I could un-know it.

But Nancy Kerr brings the discomfort of this under-acknowledged truth into sharp focus. If the definition of a genius involves exceptional creativity resulting in a leap of insight, ladies and gentlemen, I believe we have a contender: no blushing, if it's all the same to you.

One of the UK's finest original folk albums of recent years has been Twice Reflected Sun by Kerr and her husband, James Fagan, for the explosive impact of the songwriting and its strong sense of two places - England and Australia. Kerr is English while Fagan, of course, is an Aussie. It was rightly honoured by the Radio 2 folk awards and has several songs on it that feel as if they will outlive us all. Kerr and Fagan each have a voice you would be able to tell from anyone else's, which multiplies their distinctiveness as a duo by several powers of magnitude. Couple this with Kerr's ability to play both ends of a fiddle simultaneously - drawing the bow with one hand while plucking with the other - and they're a proposition of unique and powerful singularity.

I came to the album - and Queen of Waters, above, about a canal boat - about three years ago at the Warwick festival, and loved it a lot, immediately. At the time Kerr could herself have been the Queen of Waters, so heavily pregnant was she, and Fagan left an indelible impression as a result of an overwrought and highly memorable conversation (for me, anyway) after the gig during which I was buying a copy of their CD and he was giving off static, jangling with nerves and anticipating the imminent arrival of their second child. He might be medically trained but when it's your own family I guess all bets are off. 

I saw Kerr play again this year at Folk by the Oak, as a part of The Elizabethan Session, and received a copy of her wonderful first solo album, Sweet Visitor, soon afterwards through the post, which I absorbed walking to and from work for several days. One particular thought jostled to the front, sat up and begged for attention though: while this was Kerr's solo debut it was not a departure from Twice Reflected Sun; the brilliant continuities and lyrical consistencies were far greater than the differences. Why was that?

"I also wrote all the songs on Twice Reflected Sun," Kerr nodded. We were perched on a sofa in a green room behind the CD tent at the Towersey festival and I was not-very-discreetly delighted by the significance of what she had just said.

Not that it had been a secret. Had I paid greater attention, the information was out there. But because several of the songs on Twice Reflected Sun were written in a male - even martial - voice, I had made sexist assumptions about the division of labour between the two of them - she and Fagan  - that were, quite simply, wrong. And that, I suppose, is how it all starts...

"That album really uncorked me as far as song-writing goes," said Kerr. "It was the first one I ever wrote and I was consciously doing some songs for me to sing and some for James. Sweet Visitor came about because James told me to sing them all, like other singer-songwriters. For Twice Reflected Sun I was trying to write in the way that the tradition behaves: it was quite abstract. And I think that's the case because folk songs trickle down through so many filters. The old ballads might tell a personal story but the proponent has often been lost, so the singer-songwriter becomes a very powerful agency."

It should be more widely known that you're the writer, I suggested, with all the leaps of imagination implied by that. She smiled wryly.

"A good friend said to me after he'd listened to Twice Reflected Sun 'Is that all going on in your head?' And it tickled me because it was just an inch away from 'your pretty little head'. But my mum is a songwriter and I grew up listening to Peggy Seeger's songs about being female. This gender thing can be quite subtle. You often get a man telling women's stories and it's an interesting perspective: the messages get altered when you give them a different context."

Sweet Visitor has a lot on it about London 2012?

"Yes. Radio Two commissioned me to write three songs about the Olympics, though the theme was a bit bothersome to me. I wasn't sure how to find my part in it. I'm not sporty and my writing is all about mood. Also a lot of folk relies on jeopardy, adversity and hard times, which is kind of the opposite to what the Olympics was about. But in the end I thought of my grandparents, who were from the East End, and I thought about the cost of this incredible event in their lives, then wrote about the Greek gods coming to the East End, all golden."

I love the folk rock track on there called The Bunting and the Crown: it pounds along a little bit like an early Steeleye Span track.

"It's about competition and how a lot of things come down to nationalism: I dwell a lot on music and identity, and nationalism is about power and a sense of power. But if someone's personal sense of power is derived from their country being better than someone else's I'm not interested. The Bunting and the Crown is about that not being important... I do like bunting though."

She giggled. It was infectious.

"But the main thing about these songs was that someone asked me to write them. It was a very big deal and the deadlines helped."

I hear you.

"I need deadlines. Your brain gets refreshed by them. I love a deadline and I have learned to make my own: if I say to James 'can you take the kids out for two hours?' I have to have a song by the end of it. After the Olympics, I wrote Sweet Visitor as if someone had commissioned it and then you could say that I was match-fit for The Elizabethan Session.

"There is a slight subtext to Sweet Visitor, which is that we are all visitors. At a time when there are a lot of questions about nations, heritage and where you are from - people fleeing terrible countries, trying to escape risk - if we realise that we are all where we are by the grace of coincidence or fate, that should make us behave better to each other."

When I'd told a friend I was hoping to catch you for an interview here, he said he thought you were Australian.

"I've spent a lot of my life in Australia," she said, her often deliciously flat vowels getting a twang for the occasion. "I get that whole emigrant experience. Where The Jacarandas Grow (from Sweet Visitor) is about asylum seekers in Australia and how a pretty wealthy country has closed itself off to humanitarian concerns."

Interesting. I saw a thing on TV recently about the British "orphans" who were sent there in the 50s and 60s, around 180,000 of them – and lots hadn't actually lost their parents: they were taken away from poor families, exported and then horribly brutalised in corrupt institutions, lots of them run by nuns and priests. Australia's got a small population and perhaps to have so many people to whom that happened so recently - a substantial portion of a generation - I was wondering whether it would have an effect on a country's public discourse as well as its family life?

"Maybe. We played a folk festival at a place called Fairbridge on one of those old sites – the institutions - south of Perth. It had a very peculiar atmosphere.

"James and I met in the UK, though, back in 1995. He was a medical doctor at the time and when he went back for his first year of being fully qualified I went with him. We split our time between Britain and Australia for several years: it was a constant round of festival summers on two sides of the world. So I do feel quite Australian and I got to really love the music scene there.

"It's not as easy for us to go back now that we have heaps and heaps of work, but we will at some point, when it fits in with schooling. We sing in a five-piece when we're there, with James's sister and his mum and dad, Bob and Margaret."

I wondered about the vast distance between England and Australia and the people whose lives are shaped by both places.

"It was really cool meeting James and realising how much we had in common, our backgrounds and references. I sometimes wonder how people make connections without music as an opener: there's a certain amount that's understood, that doesn't need to be said. I mean, I've been playing the fiddle since I was five. And I don't really know how to hold my bow properly, but it works for me. I'm really interested in the texture and the colour of the sound it makes: I like the little scrapes and growls and even if you are just playing one note, I love how you can change the tone. I'm an accompanist as much as anything."

once had a chat with Kathryn Roberts in which she'd said something about her husband and musical partner, Sean, that I'd misunderstood at the time. She'd said that he was at his best as an accompanist and, in my ignorance, it had crossed my mind this might have been a slight. Later I realised the opposite was true. Without collaboration music amounts to very little.

Kerr nodded.

"I like accompanying but it's hard then being a leader. When you're accompanying you have to put any ego away for a bit and play differently... but there is a lot of power in supporting something properly. That's why I love working with James: he knows where to pitch what he is doing. He doesn't just think about the notes, he thinks about the rhythm and the notes and about telling a story all at the same time. That's what I love in his music: with the right accompanist we can do anything."

I really wanted to ask this next thing because the song sets my imagination ablaze: I Am The Fox, from Twice Reflected Sun, was written for James's voice (though it was also served up convincingly as hard rock at a dreamlike late-night Towersey ceilidh by Fagan's excellent "metalcore dance band" The Glorystrokes). What alchemy could possibly have produced that slice of lyrical subversion?

"It was the cusp of the financial crash and for about ten minutes I thought maybe it was payback for capitalism... That was before I realised that the crap always trickles down and there were difficult times ahead. I thought that for once in my life, being a folk musician was not a ridiculous choice. The character in that song was partly Fantastic Mr Fox, Robin Hood and Reynardine. I thought that if you can't make money on the stock market then you might as well write songs about it."

I asked whether Now is the Time, from the new album, was a reference to John Ball, whose rallying cry those words were: I thought she might know this because the song about him by Sydney Carter is a part of The Melrose Quartet's set - the group being Kerr and Fagan's collaboration with fellow Sheffielders Jess and Richard Arrowsmith. In fact, Kerr said it was coincidence, that the song had been written about someone else. But she seemed very taken by what was evidently new information to her (about the rallying cry). I probably glowed a little when she mentioned my question while introducing the song at her album launch later.

Sophie Parkes' biography of Eliza Carthy, Wayward Daughter, is partly about how the two of you played music together as teenagers. Will there be a reunion?

"I don't think Eliza and I will work together in the future," she said, somewhat to my surprise. "There's something about identity in music: we were two women of exactly the same age. We don't sound similar, but we both sing and play fiddle, and people compared us with each other. It's very hard to be compared: I don't want to be compared to anyone. I found it hard back then: she was so successful so quickly."

That has an irrefutable emotional logic to it. In any case, I cannot resist the thought that, for Kerr at least, the time is undeniably now.

* Also from Towersey 2014 there is this, about Blair Dunlop believing that he invented determinism, this about Dunlop's dad, Ashley Hutchings, and the forthcoming film about his former wife, the folk singer Shirley Collins, and this short thing about Lau.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter at @emma1hartley

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Blair Dunlop does determinism at Towersey

Sometimes Blair Dunlop, whose maturity shines through his music, betrays his extreme youth through his references. "Is anyone here doing philosophy A' level?" he asked the Big Club tent on day two of Towersey.

Someone in the audience made like a windmill, indicating that they definitely were.

"Hey! I did that course and I remember when we did determinism. I opened up the book and I couldn't believe my eyes: I'd believed in that philosophy since when I was a little kid and it used to make me feel really down. I was a strange child."

Determinism, if you recall, is the belief that everything that happens is the only possible thing that could happen, given all the circumstances that led to it. It leaves no space for free will and so, in a society that places a high value on freedom of expression, could very easily be depressing.

"I stuck my hand up in class and said 'Miss, miss. I invented that'," Dunlop recalled.

Provocative. I mean, it makes perfect sense that an intelligent child should feel this way: a "good" childhood in modern Britain is basically the condition of being subject to the will of a bunch of responsible adults and the knowledge that you have less freedom than them and that many of your basic decisions - what school you go to, for one - have been made for you can weigh very heavily. I remember.

It also made me wonder how Blair Dunlop - who by the time he took his A' levels had been in a film with Johnny Depp - could feel trapped in this way, and curious about how he thought, at the time, that his life was predetermined to turn out?

So I asked him.

"What it was, basically, was that I felt that my entire existence was being determined by a girl called Alice Whitehead," he explained.

Ah. That makes sense.

"I'm over that now."

* Blair Dunlop has a new album out on Rooksmere Records, called House of Jacks. It's really good.

* If you would like to read more about Blair Dunlop on this blog, you could try this, which is about his first album Blight & Blossom.

* If you would like to read more from Towersey 2014 there is this, about Lau, and this, which is about Dunlop's dad, Ashley Hutchings and the forthcoming documentary about folk legend Shirley Collins, who is his former wife. And there is this interview with Nancy Kerr, on the occasion of launching her debut solo album, kind of.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter at @emma1hartley

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Hands up for Lau's seal boy at Towersey

Lau played a transcendent set in the Big Club at Towersey last night and also took the opportunity to raise the flag for local journalism, in particular Aidan O'Rourke's local rag in the west highlands.

"I'm from an island called Seil," he said, pronouncing it "seal".

Martin Green stepped in. "When Aidan won best musician in the folk awards earlier this year The Oban Times ran a story about it. And the article had a headline - I'm not joking - the article had a headline that read 'Hands up for Seil boy'."

Much laughter from a packed audience whose collective imagination had clearly turned to flippers.

"And I've been in show business long enough to know that there's more money in a seal boy than there is in a fiddler," Green deadpanned.

* You may also be interested in this from Towersey on Saturday, which is an interview with Ashley Hutchings about the film being made about Shirley Collins, his ex-wife. This, in which Blair Dunlop wrestles with the existential condition of being himself. And this interview with the delightful Nancy Kerr, in which I veer extremely close to calling her a genius.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter at @emma1hartley

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Ashley Hutchings at Towersey festival on the Shirley Collins film

In June there was a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund a movie about the fascinating early life of folk singer and song collector Shirley Collins, to be made by Tim Plester and Rob Curry. The pair also made the elegaic Way of the Morris, and have their fingers in several other pies including, brilliantly, Game of Thrones.

Part of the blurb for the Kickstarter campaign read: "We will explore [Shirley's] relationships with men, tracing the connections from her first great heartbreak, when her father was pushed out of the family after the war, through her controversial affair with Lomax, to her two - ultimately doomed - marriages."

Who should I run into at Towersey festival but Ashley Hutchings, formerly of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, now of The Rainbow Chasers. He was also Collins' second husband. Turns out he's working on a project with his son, Blair Dunlop, to write an album of "proper" songs about football, which is, ahem, likely to have a strong emphasis on Tottenham Hotspur. Inevitably the conversation turned to the Shirley Collins movie.

"I heard about it on the Mark Radcliffe show," he said. "And when I looked at the Kickstarter campaign it was already up to £23,000 or so - they were going for £25,000, weren't they? I thought about whether I had a spare two grand but, well, I didn't. But the next time I looked they'd hit their target anyway, so that was good. Obviously I wish her the best and hope the movie works out well...

"But we're not in touch. It was a very acrimonious breakup: she was right, I was wrong."

Do you remember what the issues were?

Hutchings nodded.


For a second I thought he was blaming women as a species for the failure of his marriage, but then realised that he was saying he had been unfaithful to Collins. There were a couple of beats of silence.

"I've been wondering whether I should expect a phone call from the filmmakers?" he said. "John Marshall, Shirley's first husband, died earlier this year, so I'm the only left now."

I said I thought it was quite likely they'd be in touch, given that they had already said on the Kickstarter page they were interested in exploring Collins's relationships. Plus there's the right of reply thing and they'd probably be interested in getting the whole picture before they decide what to leave on the cutting room floor and what to keep. But that's just my best guess...

"Well, I was thinking that I don't particularly want to do the interview because the situation with Shirley was so acrimonious by the end. But then I was talking to a friend about it and they pointed out that I didn't have to talk about everything if I didn't want to. I could talk about the good years and and focus on the positive things that I remember. I mean we were together for seven or eight years and she did some good work during that time.

"So I suppose I'm waiting for the phone call."

* You may also be interested in this from Towersey, about Lau. And this, about Blair Dunlop and his early dalliance with determinism.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter at @emma1hartley

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Unsigned Welsh rockers Fireroad get taken to the Bahamas by Lynyrd Skynyrd

Yes, yes, yes. They're not folk: I know. But you may like this because it casts a powerful light on the prickly question of how hard bands have to work these days in order to get lucky, if you know what I mean. I thought I'd heard it all when I interviewed Keston Cobblers Club, but these guys take the proverbial welsh cake.

Fireroad (inset), an unsigned band from the Cynon valley, have been invited to support US southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd (main picture) on a cruise around the Bahamas this November. I know: sounds awful, doesn't it? You may know Lynyrd Skynyrd from Sweet Home Alabama...

Or maybe Free Bird...

The Jacksonville band has been through lots of incarnations since the original line-up was involved in a plane crash in 1977, killing three members  – a third of the band – and seriously injuring the rest. But the Lynyrd Skynyrd juggernaut rolls on. Fireroad, on the other hand, are a relatively new thing.

"We've been going for about two years," Richard Jones, their singer, told me. "And we do everything ourselves. I do graphic design and promotional work. It's pretty much me sitting at home 15 to 18 hours a day contacting people on the internet and by phone."

So how did you land the Lynyrd Skynyrd gig? It says a piece in Wales Online that you went on a "charm offensive". How charming do you have to be exactly to get invited to the Bahamas by a legendary rock band?

"I actually went on the cruise to Miami last year with our manager – who had taken another band there in 2012 – to see how things were. It's relatively cheap if you're American, I think: a cabin for the four days is about $750. But if you're from elsewhere obviously there are flights to the US to consider as well. He managed to get us on the short list of eight support acts for this year but said there was only any point us being on there if we built up a fan base in the US.

"So it turned out that it was the passengers on the cruise who would have the final say about who the support were and when I started looking around on the net there was a Facebook group for the cruise with around 2,000 people in it.

"I joined the group and spent about four months contacting these people individually. I'd send them an introduction explaining that we're from Wales but that we grew up with American music and would they be willing to have a listen to our stuff? And then there would be video and Soundcloud links. We're just four boys from the valleys: it seemed like the thing to do.

"Then when the voting happened it turned out it had worked."


"It's my idea of heaven on a boat," he added, sounding properly excited. "The music starts at about midday every day and goes on until the small hours."

So here's the hardworking Fireroad, who a completely brilliant live, according to my cousin Helen, whose seen them several times and knows a thing or two about rock.

The company that puts on these cruises – which are worth knowing about in their own right – is called Sixthman and other artists on their roster include Richard Thompson, Steve Earl, The Civil Wars, Emmylou Harris, John Mayer, Loudon Wainwright III and The Indigo Girls, who I absolutely love... all of whom need support bands.

Better than a fist full of dramamine any day.

* If you like reading about hard-working bands you may also enjoy this about Keston Cobblers Club.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter at @emma1hartley

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Boomtown: the Ryanair of festivals

Remember those stories a while back about how Ryanair would be charging for using the toilets? How's this for a sign of the times? Spotted at Boomtown festival, near Winchester, this weekend and subsequently appearing in a Facebook feed near you.

I rang, curious about how this particularly delicate distinction – the £1 or £2 service – is policed? Surely where commerce is concerned the festival needs to make sure it is not being taken advantage of?

"I only heard about this today, but I understand that it is operated on a trust system," said Anna Wade, a festival spokesperson. She went on to explain that there are also free toilets on site but the distinction is that those in the tastefully named "Poonarnia" are cleaned regularly.


And since we're all here: way to go with the name, Poonarnia. Managing to be tasteless, sexist and childish in four syllables is no mean feat. I'd probably find it amusing if it weren't for the usuary thing.

* If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy reading this one about the BBC's efforts to keep the names of the folk awards judges a secret. Or maybe, in a more carefree vein, you'd like a gallery of folk musicians lying in foliage?

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter at @emma1hartley

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