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Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Karine Polwart: 'I'm more Deadwood than Disney'

Karine Polwart was between sets at the Shrewsbury festival - one on each main stage. She'd dramatically underestimated the number of people who wanted copies of her new CD signed, so she was running late, and the couple who were last in the queue were warming up for a domestic incident. The husband was telling his wife that she was useless in front of the famous singer with whom they'd both like their picture taken, and the wife, unsurprisingly, was getting upset.

She wasn't the only one. It was a bit stressful.

So Polwart was a trouper for picking up two plastic chairs and setting them down behind the signing tent, where fewer people would spot her, for a brief chat.

Her song Sorry (above) really reminds me of something from the American TV series Deadwood (below), I told her.

"That is so weird. I was obsessed with Deadwood." I suddenly had her full attention. "Being a musician I can never watch anything on a weekly basis because I'm always out working. So there's an underground trade in HBO box sets on the Scottish folk scene and that one was on my mind for months. At the moment it's Borgen and The Killing."

And we're off... So it seems that Scottish female singers are having a bit of a Disney moment, what with Julie Fowlis doing all that work on Brave, and Cara Dillon writing a song for Disney World as well as doing the narration for Tinkerbell. With a cast of mind that appreciates the operatic levels of bloodshed, betrayal and alienation in Deadwood, could Polwart ever see herself doing Disney?

"Well, I think it was a bolt from the blue for Julie. It's the kind of phone call we all dream about getting. But both Cara and Julie have bell-like voices. They have the kind of voices that, if you were to think about folk and you didn't have a notion of what was about, you might think of beautiful voices like theirs. Mine is a bit too screechy - it doesn't have the same cut-glass quality. And they come from a different tradition from me. They are both a part of the Gallic or Gaelic song tradition and use their voices in a completely different way.

"Julie Fowlis is a tremendous musician - she has a degree in cultural studies and musicology. And, let's face it, there are only so many ways that a folk singer is likely to be given an opportunity like that. It's a massive opportunity. It's every songwriter's dream to have a song of theirs used in a film or on TV because it puts you before an audience you wouldn't ordinarily have and allows you to transcend your genre.

"One of mine - Cover Your Eyes - was on a television documentary recently called You've Been Trumped, which was about Donald Trump and the golf course, and Sigur Ros were on the soundtrack as well. So that was good.

"But I've written an album of songs about child murder, so I'm probably not the right person for Disney."

Um, why did you do that?

"I have two little kids and it's my worst nightmare. And I write from a place where everything has to matter to me. So I'd probably be a rubbish person to write something to a specification for someone else. I'm not sure I could write in the abstract."

But surely writing something to a specification isn't writing in the abstract?

"I have friends who write songs for Nashville. What I mean is that I can only write music for myself. However... I worked on the Darwin Song Project a while back and the one that I kept was the one that meant the most to me, which was We're All Leaving (below). That's another one about child death."

Yes. I can see a pattern developing here.

"I'd just had one baby and I think I was pregnant again... I write about the risks that are most relevant to me at the time."

So do you ever write political songs?

"Sorry would probably be the closest to a political song that I've written. I've never explained to anyone what that's about, which was an accident to start off with. But then I really liked the responses that I got to it. People would interpret it and the interpretations were more interesting than my original idea..."

She's clearly really enjoyed seeing the song take on a life of its own, so much so that she was pretty reluctant to say where the original thought came from. 'Sorry' won't pay for this loss, the lyric runs.

"It was of a time when there was a lot of George Bush  and Tony Blair and the Iraq War in the air. That may have been what kicked it off. But I like that the song is a bit enigmatic. That's my choice when I write about political issues: I like to make other people do the work.

"I studied philosophy and for a long time I was all about community-based philosophy, which would be going on in schools and pubs. That was what I wanted to do with my life - but no one wanted to fund it. And yet I feel that is what I do with my life, oddly. There's work to be done making these things - the things we habitually talk about - meaningful.

"Don't get me wrong. It's not that I find talking about politics boring. I find it fascinating. I just don't think it's my job to deliver a lecture. I don't like preaching to people."

She's actively involved with the Green Party in Scotland, which she says is in favour of independence at the moment. "And I'm swaying to a yes on it too, though it's about having more power residing locally for me. I'm not a nationalist."

Local for her is Pathhead in Midlothian. "There are sixteen professional musicians in a village of only 900, including Martin Green from Lau. We've got folk, jazz and experimental musicians - Inga," who plays in Polwart's band, wearing the headscarf to cover alopecia, "Inga lives in Pathhead too. There is a session on a Thursday night in the Foresters' Arms on the main street and we have fiddles, box players and a pipemaker who plays in a band with some Indian musicians," which sounds as if it would be worth seeking out if one were touring Scotland by car, for instance.

So does Polwart dance?

"Oh. What a question. Dancing makes me very uncomfortable - unless it's ceilidh dancing of course, in which case it's genetic and everyone does it. But I'm not one for dancing in clubs, no."

And what's she listening to these days?

"If I'm listening and really listening, my favourite at the moment is Anais Mitchell. Her new album is mighty, just mighty. I love it. And then there's Laura Veirs, who trained to be a scientist of some kind - was it meteorology? - before turning to music, and so all of her images are science-based images and they're just absurdly beautiful.

"And, of course, I have two small children - a five-year-old son and a two-year-old daughter," with her sound engineer partner, "so there are lots of counting songs. And I like Gillian Welch."

This leads to a discussion about Louise Mensch, the former Conservative MP who's husband, Peter Mensch, manages Welch (as well as Metallica). "I liked Louise Mensch. I'm sorry to see her leave parliament," said Polwart. "She's articulate and she didn't mince around with her words. I was enjoying seeing a woman in public life - on the culture committee, wasn't it? - who spoke her mind even if I didn't always agree with her."

Me too. So what's next?

"I really need a project. I like being asked to do things and at the moment I really need a project for when I've finished touring with this album. I'm thinking that it might be time to focus some of my energy much closer to home musically than I have been doing. When I got into music it was through the community in my village - I was in a band as one of about eight singers. And I have a strong sense of obligation. There is a bank of young ladies in Pathhead of 11 or 12 years old who would go for it, if we set something up. It seems only right in a village full of musicians."

And with the admission that I'd come to the end of my line of questioning, Polwart sprang to her feet and, whirling a plastic chair over head, was gone in a trice leaving only a few pages of my notebook blowing in her wake.

* You can buy a copy of Karine Polwart's new album, Traces, here.

* And here are a couple of other posts from Shrewsbury. Firstly, this and this about the webstreaming, which is continuing now the festival's over, on a requests basis. And this about a young band called Blue Horyzon, who were busking there.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook news feed - or at least stand a 15 per cent chance of doing so, according to the new algorithm that manages these things - you could *like* its Facebook page. Or follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Blue Horyzon sow intergenerational confusion at Shrewsbury

Blue Horyzon were busking in between cloud bursts at the Shrewsbury festival yesterday and made quite an impression.

Genevieve Tudor interviewed them about a terrible train journey they made recently, for use on her show today - Sunday - on BBC Radio Shropshire. And I believe Spiral Earth also interviewed them for one of the talky bits on the somewhat amazing Shrewsbury festival webcast.

So not to be left out...

They've got a banjo, which is fine by me. And before too long they had launched into Mumford & Sons' Little Lion Man. The thing that marked it out, though, more than anything else was that they had altered the lyrics, removing the most memorable line - which goes I really fucked it up this time, didn't I my dear? - so that it ran I really messed it up this time... instead.

As you can probably tell, from the picture and also from a close textual analysis of the way they spell their band name, Blue Horyzon are young, both in absolute terms but also by comparison with many people at Shrewsbury this weekend.  I would go as far as to say that they were among the youngest people in sight when they were busking.

So when I asked Lyndon, their drummer, "Why change the lyrics?" and he nodded towards the audience and said, apparently seriously, "the children" I was momentarily bewildered.

Lyndon, I should explain is the old man of the band at the age of 29.

Young people today.


Here's them playing something completely different.

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Thursday, 23 August 2012

Get the Shrewsbury festival live webcast here

It's the four-day Shrewsbury festival this bank holiday weekend, which sold out back in April and where KT Tunstall (below) is headlining on Monday night.

But never fear... If you didn't manage to get a ticket you can still get a flavour of it because - glory hallelujah! - it will be webcast live in high definition and available to watch by clicking on

Here's a schedule

19.35 Session A9
20.50 Madison Violet
22.10 Anxo Lorenzo

13.00 Hat Fitz and Cara Robinson
14.15 Jackie Oates Band
15.30 Global Dance Project

19.00 Jim Moray
20.15 Kate Rusby
21.35 Show of Hands

12.00 The Wilsons
13.00 Fay Hield and the Hurricane Party
14.10 Baskery
15.30 Jon Boden and the Remnant Kings

19.30 Karine Polwart
20.45 Plainsong
22.00 Richard Thompson

13.00 Old Man Luedecke
14.05 Caroline Herring and Kathryn Roberts
15.30 The Sweetback Sisters
17.00 KT Tunstall

It's all in British Summer Time, for those reading this outside the UK.

This will be the third year that Shrewsbury has been webcast and I invite you to consider whether there may be a connection between this and the fact that it's sold out. Here's my earlier post on the subject.

For the first time this year the live music webcasting will be augmented by interviews with bands and other bits and pieces, brought to you by the team from Spiral Earth.


* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook news feed, or at least stand a 15 per cent chance of doing so, thanks to Facebook's new algorithm, you could *like* its Facebook page. Or you could follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Mumford and Sons being Brave

Brave is a lovely film. If Pixar's earlier triumph Finding Nemo proved definitively that fish are people too, then Brave does the same for the Scots. And their bears.

Set in 10th century Scotchland, it's the story of a mop-headed princess, Merida, who doesn't want to wed when her parents decide it's time. "I don't want to get married," cries Billy Connolly, as her mountain of a father, imitating his daughter for the amusement of her wise mother, Elinor, played by Emma Thompson. "I want to stay single and let my hair flow in the wind as I ride through the glen firing arrows into the sunset."

Its big theme of mother-daughter relationships is wonderfully and economically thumped home when Merida accidentally has a witch turn her poor mum into a bear, in a kingdom where bears are the great enemy (one ate her father's leg). Metaphors don't come much better than that.

This is where the Disney/Pixar thing comes into its own. In no other medium would it be possible to convey exactly when the bear contains the spirit of Merida's mother and when her spirit is departing, leaving only a terrifying ursine husk (anyone with a mother affected by dementia may find this unbearably moving, no pun intended.) The sight of a prim grizzly bear, humiliated and fearful and yet also maternal for her human offspring is both pitiful and hilarious and therefore hard to forget.

I wanted to see it because I'd heard that Julie Fowlis had done some of the music and I wasn't disappointed. There was a lovely folky vibe that ran right through the film.

And yet at the end I found myself momentarily speechless, apart from a few expostulations, to see on the credits that Mumford & Sons were also on the soundtrack.

I like Mumford & Sons. I do. But you can just imagine how that particular conversation went in a Hollywood meeting. "Who do we know who's British and folky?" "Hey, what about those guys.... Mumfords & Son? Didn't one of them just marry Carey Mulligan? And we could get that little girl in from The Hunger Games. She's a Brit, isn't she?" Yes, she's from the New Forest.

In order to get a more celtic feel uilleann pipes were added to the usual Mumford banjo sound - and it works. I had no idea it was them until the credits rolled.

But it bothers me for the same reason that having Emma Thompson playing a Scot bothers me. I mean, what's the point of casting her in a movie in which you'll only be using her voice and then asking her to change her voice? Wasn't Gina McKee available?

I know, I know. Thompson's an actress. She's supposed to do voices. And Brits going to the huge English-speaking market that is the US are so used to having to do an American voice that it's really not an issue for them. Work is work.

Similarly, it would be unfair to blame the Mumfords for being English but adopting a Scottish accent, musically speaking, in order to appear in a Hollywood movie. You just would, wouldn't you? To refuse would be self-defeating.

Yet even the film's name references the only other movie about Scotland - Braveheart - that most Americans have heard of, thus turning the place into a kind theme park of references for cloth-eared tourists.

I guess what I'm experiencing is the habitual shirtiness of the culturally colonised. We can see the difference between being British and being Scottish - and God knows the Scots certainly can - so why can't you, Hollywood?

I guess this is what it feels like to be Scottish...

Sigh no More, indeed.

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Thursday, 16 August 2012

Morris dancing into Olympic history

"Morris dancing for the Olympics opening ceremony!" was the rallying cry. There was some wishful thinking, some campaigning - notably by Sir Bob Russell MP, of Colchester - and then some resignation. As with so much of British public life, and our sporting life in particular, it seemed that we were doomed to disappointment.

But then a miracle happened. Looking back on it now, I'm delighted to say that it seems entirely in keeping with the rest of Britain's Olympic fortnight, our amazing haul of medals and the unfamiliar sensation that this country had finally pulled something out of the bag at the moment when it was actually needed.

For on Sunday evening, while the nation watched the Olympics closing ceremony, some morris dancers appeared behind Eric Idle.

My eyes widened. I leapt up from the sofa where I was arrayed, slopping my glass of wine dangerously close to a blameless child who was loitering nearby, pointed at the screen and yelled "morris dancers!" Everyone else in the room thought I was being eccentric. I was.

But I've followed this story for several years and the unheralded appearance of Bristol University's Rag Morris and the Blackheath Morris Men was the denouement to a long running saga. I'd hoped to see something unlikely happen - the definition of a good story - for morris dancing to appear centre stage for a change. And, blow me down, it actually did.

It was the best possible end to an amazing Olympic fortnight (though for the record, I also liked Annie Lennox's bit and thought Gary Barlow was very brave to be there, considering everything that was happening in his personal life. And Bradley Wiggins. And Andy Murray. And... and I could go on all day.)

"It was pretty stunning really," said Joss Smithson, bagman of the Bristol University Rag Morris side, on Tuesday when he'd started to come down from the experience. "We were first approached about it in February and we weren't allowed to tell anybody. A number of morris sides were approached - four or five, I think - and we went down for an audition at 3 Mills Studio somewhere in East London. They got back to us about a week later to say that they'd chosen us.

"There were 24 of us for the ceremony: four sides of six. We're associated with Bristol University, in that we're a society there. But the members are students, ex-students and some people who work at the university. There were a few who couldn't take part because of work commitments but we still had enough people and we all had to sign a confidentiality agreement.

"It was a once in a lifetime gig and we wanted to be a part of it. And although it was all done on a voluntary basis the Olympics provided some nice things for us: we got free Oyster cards to get about London and they made us all new hankies especially for the ceremony." Bonzer.

"We also had to make new coats for 24 people, which was something that turned out to be really good fun. We spent the days hanging out together, making new rags and bells. This was because the kit that we had at the beginning was a different colour for everyone. For instance, mine is bright yellow and orange. But they wanted us to look a bit more uniform and at one of the meetings early on they pointed at one person in our side and said 'We'd like you all to look like him'.

"Our main performance was during Eric Idle's piece Always Look on the Bright Side, along with Blackheath Morris, rollerskating nuns, bangra dancers, a cross-dressing Welsh choir and some Roman centurians."

He paused for a moment, apparently to consider the lunacy of that sentence, then laughed.

"Then, when The Who were playing, they got all the volunteers to stream across the centre of the stage, where we had a bit of a party and jumped up and down waving our hankies.

"Overall I'd say we had about ten rehearsals but Eric was only there for a couple of them towards the end. And though we didn't really get to meet him personally, there was a bit of banter over the walkie talkies with him saying 'Well done, guys. That was a good one.'

"The whole experience was kind of crazy. Apparently for that section of the ceremony they were taking inspiration from a concept Eric Idle had used in the past for a one-off stage show years ago, and they showed us a video of him on stage with a ballet dancer dressed as as swan and some Roman soldiers.

"I was so focused on doing the dancing and getting it right on the day that I can't really remember much about seeing the athletes. I do remember some people in Irish team kit, though, and at the entrance to the stadium we saw the Kazakh team go past.

"But what I'll take away is the surreal-ness of the whole thing. During the rehearsals, which were out at the old Ford factory in Dagenham, bizarre things kept happening. We'd be waiting for our bit and there would be a skeletal ship coming around the corner and then an exploding octopus. The anticipation was building but we kept being momentarily distracted by all the bizarre stuff.

"I think the reason we were asked was that there were a couple of people within the Olympic organisation who had worked with John Clifford and Kim Woodward on The Great Caper project and Dinosaurs Not Allowed. They'd been teaching morris dancing to kids as part of the cultural Olympiad. So they were contacted by someone and asked to put forward some names of sides to approach.

"I was kind of aware of a few people being upset because it looked as if there would be no morris in the ceremonies and there was a real temptation to say 'Guys, if you wait you might just get what you want'. But with the confidentiality agreement...

"We had to sort out our own accommodation in London. But luckily one of our members, Jenny, her parents live in London - Nodge and Dorothy Norris - and Nodge is involved with Blackheath Morris. So although he wasn't in the opening ceremony himself, they already knew what was happening. They hosted us for the week running up to the ceremony and there was one night when they had 22 extra people in their house! We're very, very grateful to them.

"That was a bit random as well. We had no idea Blackheath were involved until after the audition when we ran into each other outside the building.

"It was a once in a lifetime occurrence. I mean, the likelihood that the Olympics will return to the UK in my lifetime is slim. And then the odds that, even if they did, they'd want morris dancers or me in particular are completely infinitessimal.

"It was," sighed Joss, "a lot of fun and very exciting."

Other morris related posts on this blog include

Weird morris dancing picture from Limehouse

Naturist morris dancers on bicycles?

Way of the Morris: morris on, big time

Earlsdon morris really enjoy wearing their hats

* 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

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Stephen Mangan at the Cambridge folk festival

There was something about the actor Stephen Mangan that had been bothering me since I saw Green Wing on television. Then when Episodes started on BBC Two, in which he appeared as a Hollywood screenwriter alongside Matt Le Blanc of Friends and Tamsin Greig of The Archers - and which I loved - it started to become seriously problematic.

You see, when I first watched him on TV I thought he was more famous than he was - kind of the opposite of that thing when you see someone from the telly in the street and start to say "hello" before you realise your mistake.

The suspicion crept up on me that we'd met.

There was this weird, fuzzy memory of an afternoon spent in Dublin in January 1995, where I was doing work experience. He was sitting, talking very fast in someone's flat - his own? - and was in the company of two other people, one of whom was on my newspaper course and is now a very well-known journalist. In fact, he's editor of The Times. I told you it was a weird memory. 

So when there was a sudden downpour on Sunday at the Cambridge folk festival and I retreated into a tent only to find that the he was in there too, the responsible course of action was to ask, even if it laid me open to the possibility of discovering that I was losing it...

"Yes, that was me," he said, looking quite surprised, before adding that it was nice to see me again, thus demonstrating that he has good manners, since I know perfectly well that if I hadn't seen him on television in the intervening 17 years I probably wouldn't remember him either...

However, it was such a relief to find that my mind hadn't been playing tricks on me that I had to go and sit down for a little while before returning to suggest that since it was clearly going to rain for a long time would it be OK if I interviewed him? And since he was well-mannered (and trapped) he agreed.

It turned out he was there because he made a documentary, along the lines of reclaiming a forgotten love, about playing with Richard Thompson for Sky Arts last year. The marginalised object of desire was folk music. This year the channel, which media sponsors the Cambridge folk festival, had invited him back to be interviewed. He was also doing a guitar workshop with Martin Simpson and babysitting Simpson's daughter, who seemed very sweet.

Mangan swore faithfully that he wouldn't say anything interesting to Sky, leaving the field clear for me.

"I don't know why I like folk music," he said, "because my wife doesn't like it and my friends don't like it and it makes me an outcast in my own circle. But I'm from County Mayo in Ireland and parties at our house involved carpets and rugs being pushed back.

"The process of discovering folk was a lucky one that started in the late 80s and early 90s with John Martyn and Nick Drake, then had me stumbling from one thing to another. I went to America for a year when I was 18 and someone gave me a list of things to listen to. I started with Richard Thompson.

"Then in my early 30s I got into the hard stuff: Nic Jones and Dick Gaughan. But there's this feeling that because I don't have that many mates who are into it I'm like Uri Gagarin, heading out into the void. I'm here to make some friends who like folk music."

He took a bit of a conversational detour enthusiastically to praise Fionn Regan's song Dogwood Blossom, from the soundtrack of This is England.

"For some reason it speaks to me: maybe because I have a strong melancholy streak. I like depressing music but I'm an optimist who also likes storytelling. My wife is the opposite - perhaps we complement each other in this respect. She's a pessimist who likes dance music.

"So for a long time in our house folk was a four letter word that I dare not utter. It was desperately uncool - maybe it still is, but I don't care. Eventually you have to face up to who you are and I'm a folky.

"But I'm a folky with two young children and I'm in a play at the moment that's on nearly every evening," - Birthday at the Royal Court, in which he plays a pregnant man - "so I don't get to see films, plays or gigs apart from the ones I'm actually in. When I was asked, I jumped at the chance to come here again. I love nothing better than to bring myself to the point of vomiting with nerves in the company of Richard Thompson." Not that he'd have to do that this time around...

But standing on stage is what he does for a living. Why would singing with Richard Thompson make him nervous?

"If we were doing Othello it would be fun. In fact, I think Richard should give us his Othello at some point. But there's something very exposing about singing. The music is dictating to you - the song is its own lyric. Whereas with acting you're in control.

"Singing is the most popular art form in the world but it's totally about emotion, so it's very revealing. You're expressing something about what it is to be a human being in a very pure way. Which makes it all the weirder that I'd choose to stand on a stage and sing one of the most famous songs ever written - Who Knows Where the Time Goes - while the audience nudges each other and remarks that I look the donkey out of Shrek.

"But it's good to do things every once in a while that make you want to shit yourself with fear."

Why? Most people go out of their way to avoid that.

"It makes you feel alive - it was an amazing thing. I stood there at the side of the stage and heard Richard Thompson do one of the best sets he'd ever done and then say at the end of it 'And here's Stephen Mangan'."

Despite being from County Mayo, Mangan has one of those Irish accents that doesn't really sound like an Irish accent. Dick Gaughan, on the other hand, has some fairly pungent left-wing views. I wondered whether he was comfortable with that?

"Yes, I'm quite a lefty. it's hard not to be when you're an actor because you're dealing with people. They're your bread and butter, so you have to try and understand them."

I'm pretty sure Adolph Hitler thought he understood people.

"Yes, but I don't think Adolph Hitler thought of people as people. As an actor you are mainly about people and community, and what makes people tick. I always viewed left-wing politics as having a compassion to it: I deal with the fact that kings and dustmen are all on a level, they're all human beings. For my purposes I can't look at them from a status point of view. And once you're looking at everyone in the same way you're coming from an egalitarian point of view."

A bit of probing finds that he doesn't like Mumford & Sons and when I asked about Bellowhead - whom I love - he changed the subject. "Show of Hands. They're good. I just had a tweet from the Shrewsbury festival asking whether I'd like to go along this year because Richard Thompson is going to be there, so maybe I'll get to meet them.

"After the last time, Richard invited me to sing with him again in a general kind of a way. So for a while I toyed with the idea of turning up every time he played and saying brightly 'I'm here to do my song'. Now I'm thinking of faking an emergency appendectomy so I can go to Shrewsbury. We're going to be on a family holiday in Wiltshire at the time, which isn't too far away."

So if you're at Shrewsbury and you see Stephen Mangan, be nice to him. He's there to make some folky friends.

* You can buy tickets to see him in Birthday at the Royal Court 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

Thursday, 2 August 2012

The Destroyers' Paul Murphy explains some stuff

On Friday night at the Cambridge Folk Festival The Destroyers packed a kind of nuclear punch - appropriately enough - all the energy of a show lasting at least half as long again folded into an hour. It. Was. Amazing.

I'm a pretty big fan but believe me when I say that although the video's good, it doesn't do their live shows justice. There's a kind of maniacal passion to them that's the result of fifteen individuals leaping around as if they had several thousand volts going through them. Yes, you read that right. Fifteen.

There are tall Destroyers and short ones. Destroyers who like to lie down to play their instruments, some who stand and those who prefer to hang in mid-air. They move differently from any band I've ever seen: a rolling cloud of limbs and musical instruments emitting a cacophony of perfectly orchestrated noise that worked even better in a tent than it does in a room. I think this was because each of them can really play and there were fewer sounds bouncing confusingly off walls. On this occasion their non-conformity seemed to touch the soul of their Cambridge audience: it had taken six years of toiling to get to this festival and they made it count.

At the centre of it all was Paul Murphy (metaphorically speaking anyway - he's on the right there in the picture that I promised I would credit to eFestivals), the piratical, fez-wearing singer who, at 62, is about 30 years older than most of his band mates. On the one hand his presence seems the most natural thing in the world - but at the same time, when you think about it, it poses a few questions. So I thought I'd ask them and see how it went.

Despite all the leaping around he seemed remarkably calm and chipper as he glided out of the static caravan they'd been allocated behind stage two, moving like someone at least 20 years younger: I've been told that this is because he swims to keep fit.

So how did he hook up with this lot then? "It's an interesting scene in Birmingham," he said, sounding not much like a wild-eyed pirate after all and much more like a thoughtful, cultured pirate.

"At the epicentre of it was a house belonging to Astro from UB40: he was the landlord and he let it out to a group of musicians who made it the focus of a lot of experimentation. At that time my nephew Joel was at the (Birmingham) Conservatoire and he was into Balkan ska - there's a lot of sympathy between Balkan music and ska music. Lots of his fellow music students gravitated to the house and that eventually became The Destroyers. It was an instrumental outfit back then but it's always been big.

"Then about seven years ago they asked me to come and improvise with them and I ended up bringing vocals into the band.

"I write songs and play acoustic guitar - though I mainly sing with The Destroyers. Some of the lyrics we're doing now I wrote as long ago as 1967 - which is before everyone in the band except Mick was born. The Glass Coffin, for instance" (which they started the Cambridge show with) "has found a whole new lease of life. It's brought a gothic element that goes with the rest of what they were doing."

He waxed lyrical for a while about the rest of the band's abilities. "Gaz has already written two symphonies. Dan Wilkin has a deep and strong knowledge of African music that he brings to choral work. Max Gittings  is all about Chinese music. This band has a wealth of stuff at its disposal. It is," he said in a considered fashion, "a juggernaut. And we're ready to take the whole thing up a notch."

However, a band of 15 is always going to struggle to make a living for its members, as I discovered when I interviewed Pete Flood from Bellowhead a while back - and there's only 12 of Bellowhead. The thought that he might mean they want to play even more loudly nearly made me giggle. But the marvellous thing about interviewing Paul Murphy is that he's been around the block a few times and already knew what I was going to say.

"Well, when you look at the history of art and music it's a fairly 20th century notion that musicians just turn up, go into a studio and record. Musicians traditionally have supplemented what they do by teaching and doing other projects. I mean, Renoir also did people's blinds. There are certainly a lot of challenges for a band like us - especially now the infrastructure of the music industry isn't there any more. I sold my first songs in 1966, very shortly after I moved to this country from Ireland, and the music industry was much more accessible then."

He told me a story about Ocean Colour Scene. "I was running a place at the time called The Songwriters' Cafe and that's how I met them. They'd been signed to a label and then at the start of the 90s they were dropped. But they reconstituted themselves and by the time they did their best known album, Moseley Shoals, they owned all the rights to their own music. So every time The Riverboat Song was played they got the money. I don't want to put off anyone who's interested in managing us," (they currently manage themselves) "but I don't trust big institutions."

So what's he been doing for the last 40 years or so? "I came to England in 1966 when I was 16, as a folk singer. I used to hang out with Lemmy from Motorhead - I'm probably the only folk singer mentioned in his book White Line Fever because we used to live on a farm near Blackpool. Lemmy was a member of a band at the time called The Rocking Vicars and there were two other bands living on this farm at the same time. I've always written, always performed..."

What's it like being with guys who are so much younger than him? "I'm used to being surrounded by a bunch of people who are older and younger than me. When I was a kid I used to be the youngest, hanging out with older people, so not much has changed. It's just the other way around."

Where did he get the fez? "I come with a bag of hats." This made me laugh out loud.

Career highlights?

"I always missed my own career highlights."

He mentions something about Van Morrison that I didn't quite manage to catch before adding that he has five kids. And a wife?

"My wife, Honora, died. That was 13 years ago. I released a solo album in December last year that was a kind of tribute to her. It was called The Glen and it was about the experience of love lost. It's available online." Have a look around that website... it's pretty interesting.

But best of all, before he had to leave and get in a van with the rest of the band, he explained that he's built a treehouse at his place in the King's Norton area of Brum. "It holds an audience of 40 and we do evening concerts there, then broadcast them online. There's a microphone embedded in the ceiling." It sounds as if this is an incarnation of his earlier Songwriters' Cafe and operates on a kind of invitation-only basis, although you can ask to be invited, either as a musician or a member of the audience. 

"Musicians come along and have dinner, which I cook myself. I grow the veg in the garden and bake the bread and then we have a concert. Genevieve Tudor's been along and last week we had a couple of BBC producers. It's always good fun."

And with that, he quoted some Blake at me that I was far too mesmerised to write down, a fellow Destroyer came to fetch him and he had to go. Which was a shame.

* This is also from this year's Cambridge folk festival. It's about the recent antics of Mr Forbes Legato, who I see about once a year. 

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