Me and my blog

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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

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