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Monday, 20 February 2012

Three mildly dysfunctional musician/instrument relationships from the Frome festival

The first Frome folk festival happened at the weekend and was enlivened by - among many other things - some curious stories about dysfunctional relationships between musicians and their instruments.

First there was Tom Kitching, of Pilgrim's Way and Albireo, who is reputed to own the loudest fiddle in the world. "It was made by a fellow called Colin Cross and has more wood in it to vibrate than usual," he told me. "Mainly he takes commissions from classical musicians but mine is a classical reject because it stood out too much.

"The bloke who had it struggled to keep it in check because if you're an orchestral player you want to be on the same kind of noise levels as everyone else and this is a big, brash beast. Luckily I believe that you should play a fiddle in the same way that you would drive a railway spike." To amplify his meaning he mimed bringing an enormous mallet smashing down on a something with an impressive overarm action.

"Also, I believe you should judge a fiddler in the same way that they score Robot Wars: using style, control, damage and aggression as your criteria. I haven't named the fiddle though. That would be wrong, in the same way that renaming body parts is just wrong. Having said that, my car's called Trebevor. Like 'Trevor' but with an extra BE. The, um, the registration begins TREB." Oddly after the alacrity of the spike-driving mime, he looked a bit embarrassed explaining this.

Then Brendan Powers and Tim Edey played a set in the Cheese and Grain hall on Sunday morning - which looked lovely decked out in bunting. And Edey mentioned that his guitar had once exploded. I wasn't sure whether I'd heard that correctly.

"Yes, really. It exploded,"he confirmed later, unfolding a little morality tale about the dangers of not being kind to the things that you love. "I was in Cape Breton in Nova Scotia and I'd abused the guitar quite badly over the years - it was my old, nylon string job. There was an amazing guitarist called JP Cormier there and I was playing a set of bluegrass reels. Suddenly the area below the bridge burst outwards and part of it embedded itself in my arm. It made me bleed! JP just looked at me and said 'Man. Your guitar exploded'."

And finally, lest one might wrongly come to believe that only men are capable of having abusive relationships with inanimate objects, it turned out that Miranda Sykes - one third of Show of Hands - was once indirectly responsible for a piano keyboard being superglued shut.

"I'd gone home for Christmas and thought I'd have a bit of a play on the piano in the front room," she explained as she launched her new album on Sunday afternoon. "I thought I'd have a go at Walking in the air, since it was that time of year. But the lid wouldn't open. At first I thought it must be locked. So I asked mum and dad if they had the key and they said it wasn't locked. When I had a closer look I realised that someone had gone to all the trouble of supergluing the thing shut. No one would own up at the time, it was all very curious. And then just recently - many years later - the subject came up again and my little sister just said 'Oh yeah. That was me'. It turns out she really doesn't like Walking in the air."

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Thursday, 9 February 2012

O'Hooley & Tidow on Fay Hield, homophobia and the fragility of life

Belinda O'Hooley and Heidi Tidow's new album, called The Fragile, is a sweet and multi-textured thing. Their roots are in folk but they write (nearly) all their own songs and it's poignant, stirring, sentimental, existential stuff with tumbling fiddles and crystalline harmonies that remind me a little of The Indigo Girls.

I'd meant to write about their previous album, Silent June, which was similarly intriguing, but made the scatterbrained mistake of leaving my copy in the CD player when I went round to someone's house and then didn't see it again for several months, by which time the moment had kind of passed...

I've apologised to them but feel I should do it again... So, um, sorry.

Anyhow, the new album cover's got a distinctive picture of a bird on it with a little old lady clinging to its back. Age, loss and the elderly crop up over and over again as subject matter. "The picture is a representation of Heidi's German grandmother," O'Hooley said over the telephone from Huddersfield, where they live. "There's a song on the album called Mein Deern which is about her final hours on this Earth.

"She had ambitions to be a performer and played the accordian. But she was a war nurse and ended up having a family instead. The bird represents Heidi: she's carried her grandmother on her dreams. Also I think Heidi looks a bit like a bird..."

Tidow was in the room at the Huddersfield end of this conversation and I got the impression that some of what was being said was as much for her benefit as mine.

"The artwork is by a lady called Kate Aughey, who has a blog for her work. We were on tour with Chumbawumba when we first saw it in Portsmouth - and I think she's entered the work she did for us for the V&A illustration awards. We sent her the lyrics and the themes of the songs and she came up with all these ideas. She's really inspiring but not all that well known - I think we want to keep her for ourselves.

"Being elderly is definitely a theme, though. Heidi and I seem to be obsessed. I work with the elderly so I meet them more than I do any other group of people. I do musical reminiscences and visit lots of homes with my Bontempi organ. It's got a built-in drum machine so it makes everything sound a bit like Latin American dance tunes from the 1940s. South of the border, down Mexico way... Also I was very attached to my grandmother and Heidi was close to all her grandparents."

I asked O'Hooley about a song on the CD called A Daytrip which is about a trip to the coast for a lady called Vera and her husband, Albert, who prefers cheese and pickle sandwiches to ham, because ham involves a financial sacrifice and "he wasn't born to moan". This tickled me.

"That song came from some time we spent with Nic Jones and his wife, Julia. He said that his favourite songs were existentialist things that don't say much but just tell you something. It inspired us to write a song about something which is a bit everyday.

"Then we were talking to Martin Carthy one day and having a joke that I used to live in a place called Slaithwaite - which is pronounced 'Sla-wit' - and he reminded me of something I'd forgotten, which was that some Yorkshire people, when they they've liked something say 'It were real". Heidi's family says it all the time. So that's what Vera says about her daytrip at the end."

There's something considerably more lusty and provocative in the tale of Gentleman Jack, or Jack the Lass, about Anne Lister (1791-1840), diarist, Halifax landowner and lothario, who left detailed lists of her sexual conquests in a code that was subsequently broken, much to the distress of husbands and boyfriends for many miles in every direction.

O'Hooley and Tidow met six years ago on the folk scene. "First of all she stalked me," says O'Hooley, who at 40 is nine years older than Tidow (right)."Then I stalked her back again. She came to one of my gigs and I didn't know she was there. Then she emailed me to let me know that she'd liked the concert and invited me to one of hers. Then we just gripped each other.

"We were civilly partnered a couple of years ago in the registry office at Whitby. It was a quiet affair - we just invited our families - and then we had a reception at the Magpie cafe with fish and chips and champagne. It were brilliant."

Looking around online before I spoke to them I'd found a recent news story describing an attack that O'Hooley suffered in a bar. "Yes," she said, sounding a bit grim. "It's one of many times it's happened to both of us. People generally don't like to talk about homophobic incidents - they just want to forget about them and get on with their evening. But we've both been verbally abused more times than we can remember, usually by groups of men.

"This was the first time I've actually been hit, though, which is why I reported it to the police. They had CCTV in the bar but they didn't catch the incident on it. And even though we were with another couple who witnessed the whole thing - we'd all recognise my attacker if we saw him again - it doesn't look as if it will result in a prosecution.

"I must say, though, it was the first time I'd ever been in a police station and even though you often hear that people have a hard time in them, I was very impressed. The police woman was very sympathetic and actually seemed to get quite upset when I told her what had happened. She said that if we saw the man again we should get in touch."

The story appeared online because the two of them are involved in something called The L Project - "L" for lesbian - which launches a single on Saturday (Feb 11).  Here's an explanatory video.

"There's a song being released on Saturday called It does get better, in order to raise money for a charity called Diversity Role Models. The charity goes into schools and discusses some issues surrounding homosexuality and homophobia with teenagers," O'Hooley explained

On a more cheerful note, she said that her favourite song on the the album is Calling Me. "Heidi sings it, Andy Cutting plays on it and it's about Heidi's yearning to have a child. We'd love to do that but there's, er... there's an intrinsic problem. We're considering the options and we talk about it all the time. We're really hoping to sort something out."

She joked that the only thing that could come between them were "if Fay Hield turned out to be gay".

That would be Dr Fay Hield, I think you'll find...

* O'Hooley and Tidow start their 40 date tour, which includes the Cambridge and Warwick festivals, on Saturday in Taunton.

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