Me and my blog

Follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Mike Harding starts digital radio show

I owe a lot to Mike Harding. I think of him as a friend because after I was made redundant he encouraged me to start this blog.

We'd met for lunch and he asked why I'd stopped writing about music? I said it had crossed my mind to start my own blog but that, low as I was, I wasn't sure I'd have anything to write about. "Come to the folk awards" he said. It was kind, I went along and it was the catalyst I needed. Writing this blog has cheered me up and reminded me of a lot of things I needed to remember but which had slipped away in the chaos of losing a job I'd loved.

Tomorrow - December 30th, 2012 - Mike is starting a new venture himself in a very similar situation. His new radio show will be kicking off online at 5pm at, I wish him the very best of luck and had a chat with him about it the other day.

"I've been messing about with databases and other admin stuff," he explained. "I'd had hundreds and hundreds of emails from people as a result of the Radio 2 show being axed and I thought: 'Do it on the web and finance it myself.'

"I've always had the studio - two in fact, there's also one in Ireland where I have a home - and I've just invested another £2,000 in new equipment and a PRS licence - a big one. I've also had to sort out a new server for the website. But I used to co-produce my own show when it was on the beeb so I know how it goes.

"It's going to be an hour plus, starting at 5pm - which is a good time on a Sunday for a lot of people - and it'll be free streaming, live. Then it will be turned into a podcast and added to an archive for downloading."

The BBC never got the hang of turning Mike's show into a podcast.

So how will the new show be different from the one on Radio 2? "There won't be any adverts for other people's shows - which used to really annoy me. But apart from that it will keep the overall ambience."

He added that the website will eventually allow him to do some things that the BBC wouldn't, like link to the websites of bands and other people's folk ventures.

"But I'm not looking for adverts. If someone approached me about advertising on the website or the programme it would be something I'd have to think about very carefully."

I wasn't sure whether this was a political standpoint, a hangover from working at the BBC or a bargaining position: all media - unless state supported and that comes with its own baggage - are somehow subject to market forces. But there's a good argument to be made that refusing to bend to advertising pressure strengthens the brand of a show - or any medium - rather than undermining it in the long run. Why advertise on something good if all you want to do is change it? So I hope that Mike finds a way for the show to pay its way without compromising anything that matters to him: if he can't make it work after the following he's built over 15 years then what hope is there for anyone else?

He said that he's forged a relationship with a new production company, Whistledown, which makes Feedback and The Reunion for Radio 4, and that they may be doing a little PR for the digital show while also being in discussion about some ideas for programmes and series that Mike's been working on.

"There's no way I could have stayed at Smooth Operations," he said. "They wouldn't make another folk show while also producing Mark Radcliffe for Radio 2. It was the portal through which I worked for Radio 2 but I also doubt any radio station will commission another folk show at this stage."

I think - hope - that Mike might be a bit more pessimistic about that than the situation strictly requires. Mumford and Sons are arguably the biggest band in the world at the moment. And folk has an audience of young people for whom "folk" simply means "a bit historical", which they seem to actively embrace judging by the fashion for all things vintage and moustachey. Plus the recession has made very many of us necessarily conservative (with a small c) about our personal habits. Admittedly the Mumfords have a euphoric, joyful quality not often found in folk. But that's easy enough to remedy... Bellowhead also do this very successfully. It's simply a question of finding a way to lift people's spirits, as that's what the present climate seems to require.

I wondered about the short gap between the end of the BBC show (Boxing Day) and the beginning of the digital show. While applauding Mike's enthusiasm, it also occurred to me that a holiday often helps with perspective after the shock of an upheaval. "I don't need a holiday," he responded. "My work is my pleasure - the thing I enjoy most."

He added that he's hoping to get Andy Kershaw on the show to talk about his new book very soon, which is called No Off Switch, and that seemed about right under the circumstances.

Best of luck, Mike. I want to see you make it work.

* The show can be found here. Mike says the website will be ready in time.

* 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 @emma1hartley

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Sound of Heimat. Or why the Germans hate their own folk music

If you think England has a difficult relationship with its folk music, pity the poor Germans.

Hayden Chisholm is a New Zealander of Scottish descent who went to Germany to study music and happened upon the country's awkward relationship with its own songs. Sound of Heimat is a thoughtful documentary exploring his love for and interest in Germany and German folk music that doubles up as an attempt to understand what has gone so very wrong for the genre. As he puts it: "I wanted to find out why the Germans have a problem with their own folk music? The same people who are moved to tears when they hear an Indian in the Andes playing on his pan pipe for the thousandth time that day go red with embarrassment at the thought of a German song." Sound familiar?

Chisholm is an engagingly genial narrator. The third child of a seventeen-year-old father, we hear that he was adopted as a youngster and, in turn, adopted music as a way of making sense of the world. His wondering where he belonged has caused him to wander. Literally - with a saxophone.

And so, mane of ginger hair knotted in a bun, he takes us to examine some rather self-conscious folk singing in a German pub, we accompany him on a yodelling course, meet three sisters who've spent their lives playing the instruments they learnt together as children and the young men trying to make folk sexy by singing traditional songs about shagging... In fact, the first time I watched it I was so taken by the uncanny superficial resemblance of German folkies to English folkies that I missed some of the differences.

I might as well get it out of the way though. Yes. German folk music's problem is the Second World War. And yet that simple statement contains nuances and subtleties that the documentary draws out rather well.

For instance, when I say that Germany's problem with its folk music is the war, I don't just mean the Nazis. National Socialism appropriated the country's culture with a special vigour reserved for that which was ethnically and indigenously German. So folk music took a right hammering. A calm Buchenwald survivor explains to Chisholm that the concentration camp had had a song specially composed for inmates to sing when someone had tried to escape, was caught and returned to be made an example of. Clearly such a thing might very well put you off singing for life (assuming you survived). In fact, he says after the war the sound of a folk song would for a long time simply produce the reaction from ordinary people that: "We've had enough of that."

But there is also an interview with a squeezebox player called Rudi Vodel, who I would say is around 70, a huge wardrobe of an easterner who has lived most of his life in the German Democratic Republic. He describes what being a folk musician under a communist regime meant and the exquisite unpleasantness of having one's songs forensically examined for political correctness by a committee of functionaries with no interest in music whatsoever. So, for instance, a song containing a lyric that ran "It was fun on the mountain and I wouldn't want to swap places with any king" was chopped from the repertoire because there was no room for kings in the GDR's ideology. "In the end it made you think 'Screw you'," he explains, after reliving the whole frustrating ordeal vividly on camera.

And yet Vodel is one of the many characters in Sound of Heimat who seem to have made a kind of peace with the music, which is important because the film implicitly makes the case that a country that is ill at ease with its own music is a country with an identity crisis. The relationship of a people to their ancestors' music is a direct analogy for that country's relationship with its past. How could it be otherwise?

Sound of Heimat is a fascinating and brave film that easily stands up to more than one viewing because of the understated seriousness with which the subject is drawn out. In fact, although it's made waves in Germany - where Der Spiegel recently printed an article asking, plangently, "Why doesn't Germany sing?" - I wondered whether it could usefully have hit the main points of its thesis a little harder for a foreign audience? It's as if it pulled its punches because Germany is still so touchy on the subject

Chisholm and the documentary's German director, Arne Birkenstock are seeking an English-speaking audience for Sound of Heimat (there is a version with English subtitles that I've been watching), so if you're interested and can help arrange this please contact Birkenstock here.

Watching it made me wonder, though, how to anatomise English squeamishness about its own folk music?

Mumford & Sons are arguably the biggest-selling band in the world at the moment despite much of it considering them to be an English folk act. This suggests to me that England's problem with its traditional music is - like Germany's - down to two big historical factors. Germany's have been fascism and communism. For England it's about class and post-colonial anxiety about what the world thinks of us: the usual suspects - and frankly they're nothing that the rest of the world gives a hoot about.

There is a very interesting moment in Sound of Heimat when Chisholm asks one of his interviewees whether the women at a dance would be wearing dirndls. In response she says that the good thing about folk events is that all classes of society are present, the dirndl-wearers and the non-dirndl-wearers, the doctor and landlord as well as the baker. I don't know whether dirndls are considered posh by Germans or not. The point is that German folk is not about class.

English folk still is though.

It's why the Mumfords get such a hard time - though their massive fame and success will, I imagine, go some way to taking the edge off that particular problem for them. They are highly visible posh boys in a genre that thinks of itself as the music of the masses.

However, the rest of the world doesn't really care about the niceties of English class distinctions in the 21st century, whether the acts themselves are worried about appearing "too big for their boots" to  sharp-tongued failures on internet messaging boards or whether aiming high is denounced as arrogance by those without the courage themselves to try. The English have over centuries developed a million habits of mind to keep people in their places: generation after generation replicates its steeply unequal class-based behaviours and it's not something that's being done to us, it's something we do to ourselves. What the Mumfords have neatly demonstrated is that - whatever doubts English folk has about itself - the world has nothing against English folk acts.

And that's useful information.

Whether we're comfortable showing the version of England represented in the English folk tradition to the rest of the world is a different matter.

* If you'd like to talk to Arne Birkenstock about showing Sound of Heimat in the UK contact him at this address. It would be fodder for a lively debate afterwards.

* 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 @emma1hartley

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies on Townes van Zandt, John Leckie and illegal downloads

"What the thing is, is who we are."

Margo Timmins is, by her own admission, "a talker". Which is just as well really. Because if you're on the phone for an hour to someone who lives in Canada it's good to feel you're getting your money's worth.

I got to speak to her because the illustrious Cowboy Junkies will be touring the UK early next year to Manchester, Glasgow, London and, er, Warwick Arts Centre, the last of which is evidently the town's karmic reward for running a great folk festival. Let's hope it stays calm down there.

"We had to cancel a tour to Madrid and Barcelona last month," she said. "There was a lot of rioting going on because of the economy and on the day of our Madrid show they had scheduled one of their demonstrations. We just figured that no one would be coming to the show, that they wouldn't want to come through the town."

So, it was macroeconomics in action. No confidence, no concert?

"Yeah. Well, we don't make a lot of money when we come to Europe and anything that goes wrong could really set us back. We could lose our shirts. The way we tour is that we get a date that will be a paying gig and a strong paying gig and then maybe get some more in the same country that will pay a little less. Spain was going to be four days but Madrid was the paying gig so economically it made more sense not to go at all."

I've loved the Cowboy Junkies more than salt since The Trinity Session, their phenomenally successful second album, which came out the year I left school. Mellow without being melancholic, they were an introduction to the idea that sexy music didn't have to jump up and down in tight trousers. Coolly intelligent and quietly confident, they spoke and played in a language that murmured of big skies, trailer parks, prairies and long, long roads.

When they toured their third album The Caution Horses in the early 90s, they hit those roads with a legendary hell-raiser called Townes Van Zandt, something that has fascinated a lot of people, since at first glance it would appear to have been like mixing oil and water. How did that come about and what was he like?

"We were going to be playing large concert halls, nice venues. And when we were putting together the tour the record company kept making suggestions about who should open for us. But we thought about it and it dawned on us 'Why don't we ask someone we actually want to hear?' And the person we wanted to hear was Townes.

"We'd seen him play in Atlanta in this tiny little club and because of his reputation the record company didn't really like the idea. But we said we didn't really care. It was us who had to listen to him every night.

"So we went to him, almost apologising, and asked him. And, being Townes, he said 'I don't care who opens for who'. His only request was that he got to travel in our bus. And he was fantastic. At that point in his life he was on the wagon, by his own standards. He wasn't drinking all the time. He did still drink but not constantly.

"And when he did go off and get drunk he was very, very polite with me and would avoid being in my presence. He could get kind of nasty. The boys would like to hang out with him. But if he was drunk he would go to the back of the bus. He was very giving with his music, though. We would ask him questions like 'What's Flying Shoes about?' and he'd explain.

"I don't mind drinking. But I don't like it when people get really drunk and mean. It's not what I want to do in life and the boys don't either. I know a lot of bands do, but we don't fight. Townes understood that - he knew he was with a bunch of people who didn't brawl - and he was respectful of that. We would get happy drunk sometimes and that would be fun. But when he got to his demons he would leave. And the demons eventually won. I mean, that's what his songs are about. He knew not to be around me."

This is especially poignant if you watch Van Zandt's rambling explanation (above) of what he thought Flying Shoes was about. And here's Lyle Lovett making superb sense of the same song.

Three out of the four original band members - Margo, Pete and Michael - are siblings, so she was pretty safe on that bus, in case you were worried.

The Cowboy Junkies have been around since before the internet was big. How has that particular upheaval been for them? "I remember when someone explained the internet to me for the first time and it was like someone explaining the automobile to my great-grandfather. We were in New York City and David Bowie had a site up. And we were looking at it and I was wondering 'Who would go to this?' and why would anybody go there? Because at the time not many people did.

"So I said 'Let's put one together'. It was very rudimentary but as our website grew so did we. We knew we had to have a way of reaching people but that's the part of music that's hard. You always think that if more people could hear it, they would love it. But how do they get to hear it?

"Now you have to be constantly reinventing yourself on the web and reaching out with something new to keep the audience coming back. You have to always be creative: it's not just about the music, it's about the music and the video and the book. The whole package.

"But the ability to download music for free has been a terrible thing. Anyone who steals it doesn't really love music and that makes me sad. I hope that as time goes on people might come to understand better. I mean, when you're young you don't always use your brain and think 'This isn't good for an industry that has given me so much. And this band - I'm taking money straight out of their bank accounts really.'

"We used to have a four man crew when we toured, now we have two. And we don't travel as well as we used to. A lot of it is because of that but it's also because of our times: in my own personal home we're downsizing. So what we hope is that even if people do download the music illegally, that they also come to the show or buy a T-shirt. Like I say, you always think that if more people could hear it, they would love it."

Bands these days are not just in competition with each other for sales and downloads, they're in competition with every musician who's ever recorded. 21st-century kids don't just have new bands on their MP3 players, they have things from their parents and grandparents' eras. It's a musical survival of the fittest. Also known as the folk process.

So where do The Cowboy Junkies stand in relation to folk music?

"When I was growing up in Canada we didn't really have country music, we had folk. And to me that term is about your own culture and where you come from. In Canada we have people from all over the world - that's what our country was started on. And they bring their music and they talk about their homeland with their sounds and their instruments.

"I don't think we're a folk band but I think we're very heavily influenced by folk and in particular by the singer songwriter tradition, so Neil Young and John Prine. And we've got the mandolin and the harmonica. But we're also a very modern band. We have very strong punk roots. In the 70s and 80s we spent our time in New York in the punk clubs."

This tickles me as I can't think of a band that's less aggressive than The Cowboy Junkies. They're like the anti punks.

"You're right. There's no aggression in The Cowboy Junkies - it's one of the reasons we're still around after all these years with same four members. But what we learnt from punk was not so much about the aggression - we didn't need it. Those kids they had nothing and nothing to look forward to and we've never lived through that. We're Canadian."


"Yeah. Life's been pretty good to us. What we took from punk was the idea that anyone could do it: just pick up a guitar and form a band. And this feeling has never stopped for us. If it doesn't make money, who cares? We sell the furniture and make a record..."

I hear you worked with the producer John Leckie on an album called Miles From Our Home back in 1998? (I explained that he's just done a couple of albums with Bellowhead. Then I explained who Bellowhead are.)

"Yes. We always produced our own records so it was difficult to hand over the responsibility to someone else. But it reached a point where we couldn't go any further without a teacher. We interviewed a lot of people. Whoever it was had to teach us as we were doing it, so we couldn't have someone with a big ego. John was humble and open. He offered ideas and he was very gentle natured so there was no craziness in the studio.

"He took us to Abbey Road. We didn't need to go there but John wanted to because he knew the studio and thought he could do his best work there. And we were with Geffen at the time and knew we would probably never have such a big budget again. So that was our rock and roll fantasy..."

I've never understood your song Black Eyed Man. What's that about?

"Black Eyed Man is about being deceived. It's a about a woman who tricks the black eyed man and blames him for something in order to get other people to blame him too - the poisoning of the well, though that's not a literal thing. This woman is not a very nice woman and by the end of the song she's starting up doing the same thing all over again with someone else."

Thanks. People are very sentimental about musicians: I'm pretty sentimental about The Cowboy Junkies. Am I right to be?

"No. It's just music is a very intimate art form. You literally go into people's houses. With painting you have to go to a museum, where it's hard to have that intimacy. But we whisper into people's ears through their headphones: I see my son putting on his headphones at night when he goes to bed and I want to know who he's listening to. People connect themselves to a song or an artist because it's gotten them through hard times or changed their lives. We have to be responsible and not break these people. We have a bit of power and we have to be respectful of that power."

At this point something happened at the other end, all the way over the water in Ontario. Timmins's door bell went and then her neighbour came in, asking whether there was any wine. She sounded very elderly and a bit confused. I was slightly grateful for the interlude, though, because earlier I'd had to break off to get a cake out of the oven, which I'd been embarrassed about.

I could hear kind tones at the other end. When Timmins came back she said that her neighbour was Greek and made the most delicious spinach filo pastry dish in the world but that she was becoming quite frail.

So The Cowboy Junkies sound pretty much the same as they always did. Was that a conscious decision? Lots of bands talk about the need to grow and develop and this often seems to involve "departures" of some kind. I haven't detected much of that kind of thinking here.

"Well, what the thing is, is who we are. Our formula, if we have one, is that we've always been honest about who we are and what we do. People have asked us to change. Record companies asked us to become more aggressive and one of them even asked if I would have a nose job. But it's a bit like asking me - us - to change our personality."

A nose job?!

"There was a time when there was a lot of attention on me because I was the only woman in the band.

"I've never been very comfortable having my picture taken and don't really care much about all of that. I have two very beautiful sisters, one who is an actress and another who loves fashion and that's really their thing."

* You can book tickets to hear the Cowboy Junkies doing theirs here.

* If you enjoyed this post you may also be interested in this, about The Civil Wars.

* 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 @emma1hartley

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Ashley Hutchings on Blair Dunlop and the folk awards

It was definitely among the more pleasantly surprising lunch breaks I've had. After strolling around the beautiful new concourse of St Pancras for a few minutes admiring the apparent sense of purpose and self-defeatingly unwieldy luggage of those around me - why, why do people pack so much that they need their luggage to have wheels? -  I stopped to buy some lunch. And as I looked around after placing my order I realised that I recognised the person standing next to me.

"Excuse me. Is it Ashley Hutchings?"

He looked up in a friendly manner. We'd met before, once, at Cecil Sharp House, but I doubted he'd remember.

"It's Emma. Emma Hartley."


And I got the best bear-hug I've ever had from someone I slightly knew.

I'd like to say that I've just got one of those faces, or that there's something about me that's supremely huggable. I was once in a room with Michael Palin, who was giving out some awards, and couldn't help noticing that anyone, men included, who got within five feet seemed to want to kiss him. Sadly that's not me - usually I fail to score hugs even when I'm hoping for them.

It was just that Ashley Hutchings was very pleased indeed about my review of his son, Blair Dunlop's, album.

I said no problem, I only wrote it because I meant it. And anyway Blair did all the hard work. We sat down to eat lunch.

That part was slightly awkward. "If I'd known I'd be sitting opposite someone else I wouldn't have ordered the burger," said Hutchings, looking at his food a little anxiously.

We exchanged pleasantries. He said something unusually nice about my blog, I asked what he was up to musically these days and he said that mainly he was thinking about Blair and his stuff and how proud he was about Blight & Blossom and the folk award nomination. It was the day after the nominations had been announced and Dunlop's up for the Horizon Award.

"Everyone's got a beef with the awards and mine is usually with the original song category," he said. "It's great about the Horizon award. But what I was secretly hoping for was an original song nomination for Blair."

"For which song?"

"Blight and Blossom."

Ah. My favourite is Bags Outside the Door. But I can see where Hutchings is coming from: the album's a treasure. Since Blair's only 20 one can afford to take the long view, though.

He talked about how exciting it had been to realise that his son was a real talent, about the encouragement he'd given him - "his mum wanted him to go to university but I said I thought he could do this, if he wanted to" - and about having to take a step back now. "Blair's got himself a proper manager. John Hart worked at Universal and has been in Edward II. But maybe I could still help manage him on a personal level - encourage him to get out of bed, that kind of thing." He also said that Blair was off to the US to make an album with Larkin Poe, adding that they were a little older than him and probably a good influence. Take a look at that video, it will break your heart for your own youth...

I asked if I could take a picture, to prove that this wasn't the latest of my fantasy folk awards posts. He said no problem and put his hat on specially...

... then took a snap of me in return with his pink iPhone (I should have asked him about the colour). I don't remember him eating his burger. But mine was delicious and I went back to the office in the winter sunshine with a spring in my step. I told the guy sitting next to me what had happened: it was his turn for a break. "Just off out for a snack with David Bowie," he said.

* Here's my review of Blair Dunlop's debut album Blight & Blossom, which it would be fair to say I  enjoyed.

* 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 @emma1hartley

Monday, 26 November 2012

Borgias' actor David Oakes's Desert Island Folk

I love Twitter. I looked at my phone one day to discover that I was being followed on there by someone who looked slightly familiar and had a dramatic looking profile pic.

David Oakes described himself on his blurb as an "actor who likes folk music". Turned out (a) the reason why he looked familiar was because he'd been in Trinity, a pretty weird and addictive TV show I borrowed from Love Film for reasons that elude me now. And (b) Oakes was starring in something big budget with Jeremy Irons called The Borgias that's been showing on Sky Atlantic and is now available on DVD. 

That's him, as Juan Borgia. 

My thinking was that there's a similarity of intention between folk music and costume drama, so if you like folk there's a strong chance you'll also enjoy a good historical swashbuckling shagathon like The Borgias - and vice versa? - and may be interested to hear there's a folky who's acting in one. 

So, I asked Oakes, 29, whether he'd be interested in doing a kind of online Desert Island Discs? He agreed and this is the result. He wrote it, I edited it. And then I discovered that he'd thoughtfully put the songs up on YouTube where I - and you - could find them easily.

Here's David...

"I grew up in Fordingbridge in the New Forest and went to a primary school there that had mandatory country dancing classes. There were only 14 of us in my year and more boys than girls, so there were some much-dreaded weeks when I had to wear a red bib instead of a green one, denoting that I was dancing the ladies' part... This set me up nicely for a career of wearing tights and also instilled a love of music that was accompanied by the musky smell of hay bales and barbecue smoke. Fordingbridge, by the way, is not all that far from the Larmer Tree Gardens, home of the festival. But I heard my first choice of folk tune for this blog in Salisbury.

* Huckleberries Island by The Huckleberries from the album Jigweed
God knows whether they do this for a living but it seemed for several years as if every time I walked around any city in the west of England  - Bath, Salisbury, you name it - I'd stumble across this lot. In front of them there'd be toddlers jumping up and down and pensioners swinging each other around. I loved them for their bluegrassy liveliness: there's nothing stoic or dour about them. And they're a perfect accompaniment for drinking farmhouse scrumpy. 

* Prickle-eye Bush by Bellowhead from their first EP EPonymous
Driving back into Salisbury one day following an indigestion-inducing pick-your-own raspberry experience, a friend of mine put on a CD of a band she'd just heard at a festival. It was my first taste of Bellowhead - an experience bettered only by seeing them live for the first time. I'd come across Spiers and Boden before but it was their new, big band that really caught my fancy. You see, my mother plays the French horn and as a kid my attempts at television-watching often took second place to her and her friends from the Salisbury Brass Ensemble, who'd proceed to blast through their repertoire in the front room with no small pomp. I've loved brass ever since: a folk group with a brass section could have been designed for me. Prickle-eye Bush plays out in my head across the Wiltshire fields we were driving through on the day I first heard the song. It makes me think of Hardy - Tess or Jude put in imaginary cameo appearances. I also really loved Jon Boden's Folk Song a Day podcasts - they're littered with gems. Outstanding.

My Young Man by Kate Rusby from Little Lights
More brass. This is one of those perfect songs. I love Kate’s voice, it's so expressive. And the purity of the accompaniment by such a tight knit brass ensemble makes it a beautiful modern folk tale that brings a tear to my eye every time I hear it. Listening today, there's also a sorrow within the sound of colliery brass that speaks of the pain of the mine closures under Thatcher. I think that Kate’s tale of a woman and her love for a changed man links the personal to the political and also reminds me of my time at university in Manchester. I studied English there and became entranced by the music that came from the industrial heart of our country.

* Kit's Tune / When a Knight Won His War by Martin Simpson from Prodigal Son
A few years back, I went to a folk concert hosted by the BBC as part of the proms at the Royal Albert Hall. It was the first time I'd heard either Bella Hardy or Martin Simpson but I came to love both as a result. It proved to me that the tradition will not die - people will always sing great stories. Martin did When a Knight Won His Spurs that evening and though I knew the melody from singing it in church - my father is a C of E canon - in Martin’s hands it came vividly back to life. Now I listen to the song regularly; the themes of valour, honour and duty are something I often have to deal in the roles I play and, to be honest, I don’t think audiences really understand these themes anymore. The constancy of Catholic faith throughout Europe during the time of the Borgias, or the hardship of a peasant’s life, which was central to Pillars of the Earth.  We far too readily modernise what we see and water down what we imagine to be the truth. Drama can be grittier and much more fun if we present these alien historical landscapes as they really were. It’s hard enough filming in some 'period' locations - God knows how people managed to live in them. One day on Pillars of the Earth there was a huge rainstorm and we were wading through mud up to our knees!

* Uncle Lung by Sheelanagig from the album Uncle Lung
During my second and final year at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School we had the privilege of being the last to perform in the Bristol Old Vic theatre before it went dark for a refurbishment. One of the many excellent things about working there was the pub next door: The Old Duke had live music every night and it was here that I first heard, danced to, and sweated profusely alongside Sheelanagig. It was like discovering the Huckleberries again - but this time I was old enough legally to drink a pint of ale. We were doing an adaption of Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield and I only had one line. But I went on stage as a woman, a yokel, a beer seller, a morris dancer and a bailiff (and probably a few more that I’ve forgotten now). There were only 12 in a year at this drama school and only three women, so it was a return to my country dancing days. But I'll always have Sheelanagig. We poured out of the stage-door and into the Old Duke one particular evening, following the sound of one hell of a party kicking off: a little dancing can lift the soul. I also used their song Skotchne in a video we made at the time

* She Moved Through the Fair by Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet from The Juliet Letters (You may need to download Spotify to listen to that, if you don't already have it.)
My love for Elvis Costello was planted in 2007 when I was preparing for the Sam Wanamaker festival at the Globe. I was half of a duologue from Twelfth Night and had to walk out on to the most awe-inspiring stage in the UK singing Come Away Death, which is in the play. Trying to find an appropriate melody, I discovered Elvis’s collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet and that it had included a rendition of the song. That said, we didn’t use their arrangement. And when I walked out I was so stunned by the sight of 1,700 people staring back at me that I sang it completely out of tune. But my performance that day, despite the bum beginning, began my professional career. I was asked to join Shakespeare’s Globe company that summer for Love’s Labours Lost and a new play, We the People. The soundtrack to my six weeks' rehearsals was The Juliet Letters.

* Imporsa by Lau vs. Adem from their EP Ghosts
At the moment I'm in Bruges shooting The White Queen for the BBC and those who follow me on Twitter may have noticed a rise in jazz recommendations. In London folk's a good antidote to the modernity that's all around. But Bruges is like a museum and arguably a little frustrating for it, so jazz balances out the tourist-centred cadences of the medieval city. It hosts a rather stunning annual jazz festival and I've found two good jazz clubs so far. In fact, my only folky experience here has been the musical taste of the proprietor of Books & Brunch on Garenmarkt. So Lau and The Imagined Village have stepped in. They've been vying for my Bruges airtime with Wynton Marsalis and John Coltrane.

I think that Lau's Race the Loser is a perfect modern folk album that respects the technology available on a laptop as greatly as it does a fiddle. It'll be a classic, I reckon. 

* The Washing Song by The Imagined Village from Bending the Dark

If I was allowed a ninth track on my desert island, it’d be Caw The Yows by Maz O’Connor from On Leaves or on SandNow I’m off to listen to some Justice - a French Electro Duo that have bog-all to do with folk music...

Thanks for reading this.

* Follow David Oakes on Twitter @David_Oakes

* If you enjoyed this you may also be interested in this about actor and folky Stephen Mangan.

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 @emma1hartley

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Fantasy folk awards 2013

After a perusal of the folk awards nominations pages on the BBC website it's a treat to discover that the corporation has done exactly what it said it was going to do when Fergus Dudley contacted me - and named the panel of judges who will be deciding two of the awards.  

I look forward to hearing what manner of expensive inducements Genevieve Tudor and the rest will be (wo)manfully resisting in the name of impartiality. In fact, after all the curmudgeonly talk of how naming the judges will corrupt the process I'd be disappointed if their usually level heads haven't been completely turned by February.  

Here's a scene I may have imagined.

ME: (At the folk awards in Glasgow, waving one arm in the air while trying to bat Seth Lakeman away with the other using a programme): "Genevieve! You look well! You're all aglow. Have you been away?"

GENEVIEVE TUDOR (looking around, slightly panicked, for an escape route but seeing only half-pissed folkies in Show of Hands jerkins blocking her way at every turn) "Darling! How lovely to see you! (She's faking) Yes. Er. I've been away."

ME: "Wow. Where've you been? That's a pretty tan."

GENEVIEVE: "Oh, you know. Around...."


GENEVIEVE: (Crumpling visibly) "Oh god. I can't bear it. The shame of the thing, I mean." (Tugging at her flaming tresses distractedly.) I thought I'd be OK but... I'm sorry. 

ME: (Concerned) Oh dear. What is it? Are you OK?

G: It's those devils from Proper. 

ME: (Sharp intake of breath)

G: (Determined to get it out now) I told them I didn't care about any of it but they wouldn't listen... It started simply enough with the limited edition of Broadside, hand-pressed by Rachael McShane and her groupies during the same ouija board session that produced the album. (Genevieve's biting her fist.)  Judging from the shimmer I think they made it using polycarbonate scraps left over from from Paul Sartin's wardrobe of Barbarella onesies. But I didn't *mind* that. I don't even mind the music. But then they started in with the unsolicited gifts. First it was an entire Welsh dresser full of diamond-dusted mead tankards and the barrels of oak-aged Hobgoblin from Chris Wood's subterranean vaults on the Riviera. And then...

ME: (Appalled) What? What happened next?

G: (Desolate now) Before I knew it they'd whisked me off to Alan Bearman's faux renaissance castle in Antigua staffed mainly by superannuated members of The Mediaeval Baebes. And I was lying by his infinity pool - you know, the one with the tiny little fishes to nibble off the hard skin on your feet, like at Bristol last year - and being fed these teeny tiny cornish pasties by Sam Lee and an entire phallanx of young men dressed as bare-chested angels. 

ME: (Caught between horror and sympathy) Oh God, no! 

G: And then I knew...

ME: (Caught up) What? What did you know?

G: It's going to have to be a lifetime achievement award for Roy Harper this year.

ME: Oh Genevieve! How could you?

(Wailing, fade to blackout)

Let's hope they name all of the judges next time, not just a small panel of five.

* No Radio Shropshire presenters were harmed during the making of this post.

* If this post makes very little sense to you, here's some background.

* And here's a link to a piece about the 2013 awards that was published by The Spectator.

* 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 @emma1hartley

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Bellowhead's Pete Flood on Pinocchio, Broadside and the movies

"It wasn't a conscious decision to monopolise the Bellowhead writing process. I'm going through a very prolific period," said Pete Flood (below). He arranged five of the twelve tunes on the new album, Broadside, to lead singer Jon Boden's seven and theirs are the only credits on the sleeve this time around.

Making his point neatly for him, the reason I was in touch was because he's also done the incidental music for a new version of Pinocchio at the Little Angel Puppet Theatre in Islington, a venue I know from childhood. Pungent are the memories of Saturday mornings spent there: my sister and I hugely excited, mum and/or dad barely able to keep their eyes open after a long week. There was always a strong smell of coffee in the foyer.

"I haven't seen it yet," said Flood. "I've been away for two weeks, which has been a source of worry. Did the music turn out OK?" Yes, everything went off without a hitch.

"I worked very closely with Peter O'Rourke, the director. We did two weeks' worth of R&D back in January and he's a meticulous director. He writes everything down and thinks everything through. The number of notes he sent me was astonishing, even to the point where in July he sent through an overview of where he thought the music was needed, exactly how much and where it should change.

"There are pros and cons to working like that. If I were to write everything according to the script, he would have had no flexibility. I tried to give him enough so that, in the more complex scenes at least, he would have options. But we always knew I'd be away for the first week and so wouldn't be around to help out."

Flood hasn't been around because he's been touring the country promoting Broadside. When we spoke he was aboard the band's tour bus as it pulled up outside the Sage in Gateshead - they'd been at the Lowry in Manchester the previous night.

"It was a strange gig. I was tired and feeling a bit under the weather and there was a sit-down audience. For me a sit-down gig is so wrong: if I see an audience sitting down I can't get into it. And in the really well-appointed theatres you can't even see a sit-down audience because there are too many lights, so you don't get any sense of engagement. Other members of the band like the perfectionism that a sit-down audience asks of you. But after last night several people who'd seen us before said it was one of our best. You can never tell..."

I expressed my admiration for the latest Bellowhead album, which I've been listening to on a rather spanky pair of noise-cancelling headphones. Bellowhead are often referred to as "theatrical" and likened to "a juggernaut" and in this format the album is a bit like being run over by a carnival float populated by characters from a Tim Burton movie. It's dark, complex and multi-textured, deeply rewarding when listened to on hi-fi and, truthfully, cinematic in scope rather than theatrical. Could film be Bellowhead's ultimate medium?

"About ten years ago I did some incidental music for a film and I'd like to get back into it. But I'm really enjoying myself at the moment. I've spent a couple of years thinking about the ideal group to involve myself with: I'm considering putting together a trio that's going to take the world by storm."

This is especially interesting in the context of what he said the last time I spoke to him, about the practical and financial difficulties of being in a band with so many members. His candour at the time was disarming, something I'm coming to associate with him.

For instance, one of his arrangements on Broadside - The Wife of Ushers Well - similarly stopped me in my tracks and left me wondering how on earth one gets from this...

... to this

"Ha! The real trouble with trying to explain this song - and I've tried a couple of times - is that I end up sounding like the most pretentious man on earth. There's a special problem with Bellowhead, which is how to you do a straightforward main verse ballad with a band that's known for its theatricality? One idea I had was that it should be quite incantatory, like a spell."

That makes sense: the woman in the song is essentially bringing her three sons back from the dead.

"Yes. There was also a specific interest I had in delivering a large amount of information quickly, flying through it and yet still making it compelling. We get a bit of stick now and then for unintelligibility. But I grew up with punk, with Echo and the Bunnymen, and you never had a clue what they were on about. To me, that was an incentive to listen to it again. Similarly, with The Wife of Ushers Well, if you don't get the story the first time around we have CDs these days and you can listen to it again and that's fine. So this chanting... it would take a few listens to get to the bottom of it if you didn't know the song."

It's the atmospherics that stay with you though, like a cross between the Carmina Burana and the Wicker Man. The overall effect is quite terrifying.

"Er. Thanks."

So how did he get to the point where this was possible? Is a Bellowhead album written down and did he go to music school?

"Oh god yes. It's completely scored out, though not particularly rigorously adhered to. There has to be a trust with the other musicians that maybe they'll come up with something better. And yes, I went to Goldsmiths, though it took me a long time to get on to a music degree. I was told at every step of my academic career that I shouldn't do music. I wasn't massively talented and I still feel like a blunderer who blunders around until I get something right. If I have a talent it's tenacity - although I'm not tenacious in any other area of my life.

"So I got three bad A' levels - Spanish, geography and social biology, which is what you did if you weren't good enough to do biology - and took a couple of years out. I hadn't been allowed to do a music A' level because I hadn't done a music GCSE. So I tried to start up a band and then went and lived in Los Angeles, where I went to a place called the Musicians' Institute.

"I came back and did an A' level in a year at Goldsmiths and got to degree level. So because of all the struggle, by the time I got there I was so happy that I consequently just worked my arse off and ended up getting a first. Up until then I don't think I'd ever got an A for anything and when that happened, that was the moment I thought 'Maybe I should be doing this'.

"I graduated in 1996 and worked in a record store for a couple of years as a buyer - and got to know a load of people who did physical theatre: I did some physical theatre myself. I also played in a few Algerian bands and spent a lot of time in studios recording house music. My big worry was how to reconcile all these different influences: my stuff was too wide-ranging. And actually Bellowhead, when it came along, was a bit of a godsend. A focus."

So how did that happen?

"I knew the brass players already, I'd worked with them in various guises. But actually it came about because Jon Boden's mum knew my mum - they were working in a charity shop together."

I'm not sure why that's funny, but it is. And how do you describe what you do these days?

"Whenever I have to write a biog I say 'percussionist/composer/teacher'."

We returned to the subject of incidental music.

"When I left Goldsmiths the first thing I did was apply for the film music MA at the Royal College of Music. I was turned down for not having the theory skills. I didn't have perfect pitch or the instant ability to hear a chord and know it was a diminished seventh. Plus the guy who worked in the office had a chip on his shoulder about all the contemporary music at Goldsmiths. I was the third or fourth person with a first from there who he'd turned down for that course.

"But I'm glad I'm doing this now: going out and playing music with people who are clearly having the time of their lives. It couldn't have worked out any better. We'll see how this album's received - it all seems to be going well - and there's another tour in February, including to the Benelux countries.

"I think the whole band would love to go to the States and Japan on tour. But what we found last year is that English traditional music is a difficult sell. If it were Celtic we'd be a lot more easily taken up but people don't tend to think of English traditional music as interesting to listen to."

Sounds like a job for the Arts Council and Visit England. You'd think that a combination of the Mumford effect and all that hard work might combine to create something akin to a Blue Fairy - a la Pinocchio - for Bellowhead. Only, you know, for real.

* Tickets to Pinocchio are selling fast but can be got here. And here's a list of tour dates for the phenomenal Bellowhead.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog into your Facebook news feed you could *like* its Facebook page and then indicate using the drop-down menu next to the *like* button that the blog is one of your "interests" You could also follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The UFQ and 650 kids blow the lid off the Albert Hall

The mind boggled. The project sounded like fun though: most of The Urban Folk Quartet and several hundred kids were going to be making a helluva racket in the Albert Hall. Now I love The UFQ, who deserve a much wider audience than they currently command. And I love the Albert Hall - for that moment when you enter the sonic cathedral and your head involuntarily flicks backwards while your pupils widen; it's a space that produces a physiological reaction. Plus kids in great numbers cease to be kids really and simply become a super-impressionable crowd, something to be bent to one's will. At least, that's what a totalitarian dictator would say and all my favourite teachers had a touch of Stalin about them.

That's Joe Broughton, though, for the sake of clarity.

So it was pretty exciting that this particular group of 650 kids from the Bradford area had been roped in to take part in the Music For Youth Schools' Prom. Not that much corralling had been necessary, judging by the alacrity with which they were throwing themselves into the proceedings, their purple and orange T-shirts a riot of pointillism in secondary colours - and that was before the music even started.

The concept was familiar to me because I'd seen Broughton, Paloma Trigas (above) and Tom Chapman with The Stamp Collective at the Vortex in Dalston about two years ago - although that stage of this idea's evolution there were about 30 music students involved, instead of 650 11 to 21-year-olds.

"Yes," said Broughton. "This is the biggest group we've ever worked with. And lots of them had never played a musical instrument before - that's why we're a bit drum-heavy."

The concept was born back in 1997, when Broughton (above) left the Birmingham Conservatoire to join the Albion Band - but was invited back to the college that autumn to run The Folk Ensemble, a group that performed by ear, its numbers expanding and contracting depending on who was available. The results impressed - try and imagine the level of energy required to organise 30 musicians using only your voice and your body, let alone 650 - and a similar invitation followed from the Barbican; then a series of commissions including The Stamp Collective, Wildfire Folk and Music for Youth. Alumni have included Jim Moray, The Old Dance School and McNeill and Heys.

Here's a short video explaining what was going on in Bradford that also catches, in some small measure, the excitement of Monday's prom, which was the only performance by the Vivendi Sounds Bradford Massed Ensemble.

Though the logistics of getting so many people from one end of the country to the other for a one-off gig were daunting, the result was jaw-dropping.

Around 250 of the kids were also in two of the evening's featured orchestras - the Vivendi Youth Orchestra or the Kirklees Youth Symphony Orchestra -  and therefore had cellos to swirl on the spot where they stood or flutes to wave in the air, like a field of silver reeds.

There were also a surprising number of electric guitars, which made me suspect the influence of the Wii game Guitar Hero: I've never seen massed electric guitars before. But there were also a great many young people involved who had never had a musical experience. It was a heady combination of melody, rhythm, dance and atmospherics and I particularly liked the serious-faced young ladies in their saris twirling in unison at the beginning of the show. Those are their shoes (the photographer, David Firn, and I were invited to attend a dress rehearsal, as well as the show).

Broughton explained that the approach had been entirely predicated on the strengths of the kids, that it had taken nine months to pull together - 20 hours rehearsal for each participant, bringing it to a total of 13,000 hours - and that none of the performers had used written-down music. "What a lot of people would do in this situation is say 'Well, you need to get some tabla players and and some English folk players and that'll do the trick. But what you'd end up with would not be fusion, just a lot of things happening simultaneously. We didn't audition anyone and my 'composition' was the result of collaboration and finding tunes that were memorable and simple but which would allow us to build around them."

"It was totally inclusive," explained Paloma. 'We had some people who don't usually get that level of attention or support, including some with concentration issues. But it was all about a burst of positivity." Something she's uniquely suited to. "We saw some people literally switch on and lots of them are talking about what they're going to do next musically."

Tom Chapman - one of the subtlest percussionists I've seen - was highly visible at the front of the stage, on this occasion keeping the hundreds of tabla and other drummers pinned to the rhythm through the use of a cow bell (with Tom, above) and exaggerated arm movements. But, boy, did it work. "I'm now known by Music For Youth as Cowbell Tom," he grinned. "For months they had no idea I did anything else - they thought I was a professional cow bell player. Then the other day some of the organisers came to an Urban Folk Quartet gig and realised that I play other stuff as well... The triangle, for instance."

It's hard to do justice to the scale of what was achieved at the Albert Hall on Monday night. It was in tune, it was in time, it was beautiful and it used the sheer number of people standing on stage to its advantage by combining movement with sound. It was breath-taking in its ambition and awesome in its accomplishment. And that's before you even begin to think what the experience meant for the 650 young people performing on the best stage in the world and how they'll carry it and its ramifications with them for the rest of their lives.

Also, Tom's mum and dad came to see it.

* The Urban Folk Quartet are also - unbelievably - doing a UK tour at the moment and will be playing Kings Place in London on November 30 if you'd like to see the musical equivalent of a contained nuclear explosion. Here's a taste.

* And here's a blog post about their performance at Cropredy last year.

* If you would like to contact David Firn about any of these photos or other projects you think he may be interested in you can do so here.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook news feed you could *like* its Facebook page. Or follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

Emma Hartley blog logo

24hourlondon logo

Did David Hasselhoff End the Cold War?