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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

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