Trembling Bells • Hurray For The Riff Raff Walsh & Pound • Olivia Chaney • The Unthanks Sam Lee • Shirley Collins • Jackie Oates The Belles of London City • Michael Tyack ISSUE ZERO
Editor In Chief Crispin Parry Associate Editors Rupert Morrison & Dan Ford Sub-editor Satu Fox Design Louise N.Morgan Front Cover Illustration Patrick Savile
The World According To Folk The Road To Ruin by Alex Neilson from Trembling Bells
The Woodshed with Hurray For The Riff Raff, Walsh & Pound and Olivia Chaney
The Plague Interview with The Unthanks
The Revelator with Sam Lee and Shirley Collins
Back Cover Photograph Dan Ford
The How-To by Alex Merry from The Belles of London City
US Desk Gabe Soria
The Plague House with Jackie Oates
Back To The Garden with Michael Tyack
Contributors Alex Neilson, Crispin Parry, Will Hodgkinson, Sam Lee, Jackie Oates, Alex Merry Photographers Jonathan Stewart (Trembling Bells), Alleyn Evans (Hurray for the Riff Raff), Anika Mottershaw (Becky & Rachel Unthank), Judith Burrows (The Unthanks) Printed on Riso by Hato Press www.hatopress.net Paper supplied by Paperback www.paperback.coop Acknowledgments Ben Jones, Tom Bridgewater, Adam Greenup, Seven of Diamonds, Helen Morris, Boat Band, SxSW Correspondence address 60 – 62 Clapham Road, SW9 0JJ E: email@example.com Whilst every care has been taken in the preparation of this magazine, the publishers cannot be held responsible for the accuracy of information or any consequence arising from it. This magazine is a labour of love made possible with the support of Sound And Music. Sound and Music
Upon setting up the only f olk club in South East London run by two hot, young fillies, looks of bemusement from peers and beyond were rife. One close friend patted my head adding, “I don’t know what this is or what you’re doing, but… well done.” In general, the move was welcomed amongst the f olk community, but having dipped my toes further in, I discovered that ‘youngsters’ are feared amongst the staid old guard through dread of dilution or pastiche of their venerable f olk collection, (like how an older sibling might react to you thumbing their Beano annual: “don’t touch it, it’s mine, you’ll break it.”) Yet such nitpicking fails to deter most, as discoveries of contemporary artists turning to the traditional music of these shores for song crafting inspiration continue. To whom, from San Fran doom rockers Sleepy Sun to psych-f olk progenies Trembling Bells, revivalists like Shirley Collins and travellers like Davie Stewart are demigods. And only those without access to electricity will have failed to notice the arrival of the Mumford clan. So Plague is here to unify, carouse or put simply, enjoy this varied world of f olk music in all its bizarre and resplendent glory. Katie Weatherall Editor
“ It felt like these self appointed custodians of the flame were the same people who were trying to cut the cable at Dylan’s Newport concert .”
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Trembling Bells’ Alex Neilson recalls his journey into traditional music Folk music almost ruined my life. Growing up as a pluke-farming teenager in Leeds with an obsession for old men in cloth caps with fewer teeth than lungs singing songs about tarry sailors, night visitations and transvestite soldiers meant only one thing; no girlfriend until I was 25. But these anachronistic ballads held more relevance to me than anything as delicious and spurious as mere sexual union. They enlivened the environment around me and forced me to reassess it through their remote, fusty prism. Suddenly regions such as Sussex, that had previously felt little more than pretty, took on Land-of-the-Giants proportions as I imagined myself retreading the same hallowed sod that the Copper Family, Shirley Collins, Pops Maynard and numberless Traveller singers had eulogised in song. I would travel the length of this good, grey island making pilgrimages to the Seven Bells pub in Peacehaven (purportedly once owned by the Coppers). Or put paid to days in Robin Hood’s Bay drinking real ale in the shadows of the Waterson/ Carthy homestead. Or make frequent visits to that veritable Mecca of f olk miscellany, Cecil Sharp House, and acquire under-the-counter items from the sympathetic librarians. These formative rovings would serve to strengthen my connection to the mighty river of song that is the British folk canon and also invest my own expanding repertoire with a little more experiential croak. The next step from this was to actually track down the titans of the 1960s folk revival (Shirley Collins, Anne Briggs, Mike Waterson, Martin Carthy, and Richard Thompson) who had provided a Technicolor portal to this sepia-tinted old, weird Britannia. This seemed to validate my interest as I went beard-to-beard with the old masters, grilling them over ‘field singers’ like Margaret Barry, Davie Stewart and Fred Jordan and learned about what had attracted them to traditional music, where they had sourced their material and meanings of certain lines of songs (such as the portentous parrot in The Outlandish
Knight). One of my keenest queries when meeting anyone of that Golden Generation is ‘what was Peter Bellamy (the flamboyantly dressed/ voiced singer of the Young Tradition who tragically took his own life in the early 90s) like?’ It seems that few people had a good word to say about him, which only goes to fuel my interest and reinforces a theory that I have about the most obstreperous personalities often making the best music. Whilst scouring the folk clubs of Great Britain I encountered a general lack of tolerance towards eccentricity, showing reluctance to toe-the-partyline and even having interest in other forms of music. Mention of rock n roll, psychedelia or (whisper it) free jazz would be met by incomprehension and derision, as if I’d just told them I was signing up for the Taliban’s Child Molestation Regiment. The f olk orthodoxy expected slavish updates of the old forms in terms they could easily understand, which in a vast section of contemporary f olk music means sanitized, reverb-soused, Fairtrade-f olk. For me, it is the extraneous snap, crackle and pop of those old recordings and the profound dignity in their untutored voices that invests the music with such vitality and reflects its inherently organic nature. It felt like these self appointed custodians of the flame were the same people who were trying to cut the cable at Dylan’s Newport concert and would do it again 45 years later given half the chance. It was this disenchantment that eventually lead to a break away from the tyrannical grip that traditional music had held over my creative will. After a long, initiatory process of immersion in the half forgotten lore of Britain, I managed to crawl out the other side and write my own material. And now faced with the unattractive lot of all overgrown boys limping towards 30, with waistline expanding and hairline retracting and the ravages of a long term love affair with real ale taking itself out on the reddened tip of my hooter, I can confidently say that f olk music almost ruined my life. myspace.com/tremblingbells
Hurray for the Riff Raff By Gabe Soria Quiet, creepy, hushed, haunting and messy. Words that could describe both New Orleans and the small but thriving loose assemblage of bands that are currently sweating it out down there. Folks are crafting a peculiar riff on the idea of chamber pop, filtering it through a lens fogged with humidity and a transistor radio pulling in impossible signals. From Storyville circa 1909; from a shack in Southern Appalachia circa 1931; from a joyous wedding in an unnamed Balkan country ‘round ‘bout 1897; from a café in Montmartre between the wars. A catholic collection of influences hung on a rickety superstructure of guitars, banjos, slightly dissonant pianos, horns, accordions, drums and raucous sing-alongs. Music composed for the sidewalk and made to soundtrack a quest for a little club at the end of a narrow alleyway. Hang a name on it and call it waltzpunk if you have to.
Hurray for the Riff Raff’s name sounds (probably intentionally) like a wry battle cry, a tribute to the small army of beer-can nursing musicians that ply their ill-paid hustle on the corners, in the venues and at the house parties of their river city home. Make no mistake: this is f olk music, but it’s got nothing to do with the legions of Americana pretenders out there. Alynda Lee, the architect of HftRR’s blessed mess, is crafting something delightfully arcane and witchy with Young Blood Blues, the band’s second record. Riff Raff (along with other New Orleans artists like Meschiya Lake, the Happy Talk Band, and the equally baroquely named Why Are We Building Such a Big Ship?) are writing and performing songs that, perhaps, could only come from such a bizarre, beautifully fuckedup place. Guaranteed: Hurray for the Riff Raff will break your heart and fix the cracks with cobblestones, whiskey and spit. Hallelujah and bless ‘em. myspace.com/hurrayfortheriffraff
New music Americas and I s l
WILL POUND, DAN WALSH & OLIVIA CHANEY by Crispin Parry
from the the British es
Liverpool can be a gruesome place at three in the morning. Fleshy bodies lie across pavements while feral kids eat raw pizza and snarl. There is a stink of old booze, weed and piss. But I am in the company of Will Pound, a young man with a tough if somewhat Dickensian vibe about him and we are looking for sherry – so everything is fine. Will is a virtuoso harmonica player making a name for himself in the clubs. “I had open heart surgery twice as a young child,” says Will when asked why he chose his instrument. ”Into which I also had breathing issues. The harmonica seemed a good idea to combat the problem and improve my breathing.” He travels with a worn blue suitcase, which when opened reveals a workshop of harmonicas in all shapes and sizes. “I play a number of genres, ranging from pop to rock, Arabic to jazz, to f olk and even some classical. If I could play it all day I would!” Will’s stage buddy is claw hammer banjo player Dan Walsh. We met briefly in the swankier setting of London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall after he and Will played a staggering live set. “I love claw hammer style,” Dan says “and I feel it can do almost anything. The banjo has such a distinctive sound anyway which I love, but I feel claw hammer especially can sound so full combining melody, rhythm and percussion all in one.” I also heard the remarkable harmonium and guitar player Olivia Chaney for the first time at the same concert series. Inspired by Joni Mitchell and Joanna Newsome and having toured the States as a singer with Zero 7, she mixes traditional, classical and contemporary ideas with a raw emotional singing style. All three artists have in common a chutzpah and diversity of influence, which they use to produce great music that straddles the borders of definition – a really tough task and one that we should raise a glass (of sherry) to.” danwalshbanjo.co.uk willpound.com myspace.com/willpoundanddanwalsh myspace.com/oliviachaney
Even the interest large swathes of young people were taking in f olk music didn’t impress the hardcore. American singers like Will Oldham and Devendra Banhart have eulogised revival figureheads Bert Jansch and Shirley Collins, added ancient English and Scottish ballads to their repertoire, and grown beards small children would be advised not to play near. But still the invitations to perform at Cambridge Folk Festival did not arrive, as if these hairy Americans were mere dilettantes; fashionable interlopers. Nobody was there to
Until recently, the f olk world appeared to exist in its own hermetically sealed bubble. It was oblivious to the changes going on in wider society.
THE UNTHANKS By Will Hodgkinson
“People are searching for something earthy, but the young, mainstream f olk world is the antithesis of that,” says Adrian McNally, husband to elder sister Rachel and pianist, producer, manager, arranger, booking agent and all-round svengali type to the band. “So much of the contemporary f olk scene is way more staid and unimaginative than it was back in the 60s, when you had people like The Watersons breaking the mould. The mainstream is looking for something a little rough around the edges, getting totally sold on images of authenticity like Bon Iver disappearing into the woods to
on to reveal that he spends most evenings beating her black and blue. At a time when so many young musicians from the f olk world are couching traditional tunes in an elegant cloak in an attempt to reach out to a commercial market, The Unthanks are bringing out the stark, primal beauty of the old ballads – and a world beyond the f olk scene is connecting with it.
Rachel and Becky sing in the broadest of Tyneside accents. They intersperse concerts with bouts of clog dancing. They perform sad laments like Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk, a favourite of the late gypsy singer Belle Stewart in which a woman admits marrying a man for his money before going
Rachel and Becky grew up going to f olk clubs with summer holidays spent in a haze of festivals and clog dancing. “It wasn’t restrictive at all. Festivals had more freedom attached than normal life,” says Rachel, who has that gentle, disarmingly friendly Newcastle air to her that makes you feel at ease. “It gave me a strong sense of self because nobody criticised you at the festivals; you could be who you were. You know what kids are like – me and my friends were quite hippyish so there was endless name-calling at school – but it didn’t bother me because I knew the playground wasn’t the extent of life. I had another world to escape to.”
Folk music is all about telling stories and capturing the spirit of the land, and there are few people doing that better than The Unthanks. Based around Rachel and Becky Unthank, Tyneside sisters that spent their childhood being dragged from one festival and f olk club to another the behest of their shanty-singing, rapperdancing father and f olk-friendly mother. The band has achieved the remarkable feat of taking the darkest ballads into the mainstream without diluting their harsh, elemental power. The Unthanks’ background and material couldn’t be more traditional, but they don’t appear beholden to tradition, or held back by it.
To the Unthank sisters, it seems that being surrounded by shanty men when you are on the threshold of adolescence was not only perfectly normal; it was healthy. Desirable even.
Becky, seven years younger, had a bout of teenage resistance to the inevitability of her f olk existence before giving in to it. “I do remember thinking maybe I shouldn’t tell everyone that I’m the only clog dancer in class,” she says. “I mean, how do you bring that up? But I always enjoyed singing and dancing. My dad was a shanty singer. I remember many wonderful evenings spent in pubs, surrounded by shanty men. It was great.”
make an album on his own, while the f olk scene is trying to polish up and dilute old ballads to make them palatable for radio. It’s depressing.”
bridge the gap between the traditional f olk world and the f olk-influenced alternative scene – until The Unthanks came along.”
According to McNally, Rachel always knew that she wanted to sing professionally. But coming from a family in which everyone sang as a matter of course this was a hard step to take. “It started because Becky and I were looking for ways to get to f olk festivals for free, so we became an unaccompanied duo,” explains Rachel. “I did always think it would be fantastic to be a singer, but when everybody you know sings it’s tough to get off the floor and onto the stage and tell everyone else to be quiet.”
“ The Unthanks have proved that you can make deep and heartful versions of traditional songs without compromise and break out of the f olk ghetto.”
“Probably because we’ve been brought up in it, we’ve always accepted clog dancing and singing as the thing that we just do,” says Rachel. “Me and Becky have only recently realised that we’re not experts in the tradition because we’ve never studied it. People expect us to know what we’re on about and I’m not entirely sure that we do. We just like singing songs.”
This helps explain why their approach to the old ballads is so natural, and so appealing: they don’t question it.
McNally persevered, leading to a critical breakthrough and a Mercury nomination with 2007’s The Bairns and then 2009’s Here’s The Tender Coming. Band members came and went. Rachel Unthank And The Winterset became The Unthanks,
McNally had his work cut out in convincing the Unthanks to make a go of it. A music industry all rounder from Manchester that has variously been a manager, an editor of a music magazine and – although it’s not something he advertises – a member of a Take That tribute band, McNally wanted the girls to turn professional soon after becoming romantically involved with Rachel. But there was the problem of Rachel’s shyness to deal with, and the fact that, during the summer of 2004 when they were working on their debut album Cruel Sister, Becky was an 18-year-old with a job in a nightclub, an active social life and a university stint looming, and forming a band with her elder sister and her boyfriend was not at the top of her agenda. “So it became Rachel Unthank And The Winterset and I went: oh no! People are going to think I’m a bighead!” says Rachel, sounding distinctly non-big-headed. “Put when Becky wasn’t forced into singing with me it became something she wanted to do.”
“Hearing those stories as kids was like sitting in an adult world,” says Rachel. “The songs are about the human condition. They deal with all the things people don’t talk about. You don’t sit around and have a chat about child mortality or rape or domestic violence, but when someone stands up in a room and sings about them they’re captivating. Now we want to communicate the stories to other people, to let them know that we have a wonderful, rich tradition right here in our own country.”
It’s a problem at the heart of f olk music: the point at which a singer removes themselves from something that is communal and puts themselves forward as the one to listen to. The Unthanks have dealt with it by letting McNally take care of the professional side, allowing them to concentrate on channeling the spirit of such darkly compelling ballads as I Wish, I Wish, the tale of an old maid lamenting her lost youth; and the title track of their 2009 album Here’s The Tender Coming, a song from the northeast about being press-ganged into Nelson’s army.
Of course, that may not be a bad thing. As Rachel and Becky Unthank will no doubt confirm from their teenage experiences with shanty men, bearded men in their 50s can be a lot of fun.
“The f olk world has, largely, disappointed,” he concludes. “If I’m into a bit of Bonnie Prince Billy, only to discover that Chumbawumba and The Levellers are headlining at a f olk festival, I’ll think it’s still in the dark ages. So inevitably we do think about where we fit in. We get people coming to see us who like Fleet Foxes and The Low Anthem, and we get booked at places like The Green Man and End Of The Road and that’s fantastic, but if I’m going to be honest our audience is chiefly composed of bearded men in their 50s.”
“ I do remember thinking maybe I shouldn’t tell everyone that I’m the only clog dancer in class.”
reflecting Becky’s commitment. McNally steered the course towards a real career. And The Unthanks have proved that you can make deep and heartfelt versions of traditional songs without compromise and break out of the f olk ghetto. Now McNally is wondering where, exactly, the band fit into the great scheme of things.
Sam Lee from The Magpie’s Nest (BBC Folk Club of the Year 2010) talks to Shirley Collins, the most influential voice of the SIXTIES folk revival.
You travelled America with song collector Alan Lomax in 1959 and met and heard some of the finest traditional musicians. How did your experience there compare to your experience of the British f olk singers? For the old traditional English singers such as Harry Cox, George Maynard and Bob Roberts, singing was an essential and natural part of their lives, as natural as breathing. Arkansas singer Almeda Riddle just sang, it’s what she did. And for Mississippi Fred McDowell too, it was the most important part of their lives. Although they were poor country people, they were aware of what they’d got, how valuable and precious their music was. What were the singers’ reaction to meeting Alan Lomax and this gorgeous exotic young English girl? He was a tall man, over 6 foot and a big build. I often thought of him as an American bison, but perhaps a grizzly bear would be more apt. Not too many 23-year old English girls had ventured to the South in 1959. One mountain woman exclaimed, on learning that I came from England, ‘how come she speaks our language so good?’ But their openness and friendliness was heart warming. This was partly down to Alan’s talent and experience as a collector; a Southerner with gentle good manners, charming and funny. There was genuine amazement when
I sang songs that they knew. They were overwhelmed when they learned they were English songs, still being sung in what they called the ‘old country.’ And what did Alan Lomax smell like? How did he smell? Sam! This is very, very odd. Only a few days ago I was thinking back to the last time I saw Alan. He came down to see me in Brighton on a visit from the States in the early nineties. We had so much to talk about that he stayed the night. I only had one bed so we slept together, even though we hadn’t met for many years. He said in the morning, “and what do you think?” And I replied, “How lovely you smell!” I can’t remember a time when he was malodorous, even when we were on the road and you didn’t manage to wash everyday. I’ve never told anyone that - that I slept with him one more time. There was still so much affection between us. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. The full text of this interview will be in the next issue of Plague shirleycollins.co.uk themagpiesnest.co.uk
Topsham Folk Club Recommended by Jackie Oates
I moved to Devon from my native Staffordshire in 2001 to study English at Exeter University. By the end of my first term it was dawning on me, perhaps against my will, that I was craving the company of the friendly, f olk singing, real ale drinking types that adorned the sessions and sing-a-rounds of my home town. One night in early January, I braved the rain and caught the train to Topsham to seek out and do a floor spot at the f olk club. I felt as if I was stepping into a new world, in which I was totally at ease and full of inspiration. Everyone there was friendly and encouraging, and I was offered our first concert spot that night, to support Dr Faustus later in the month. The club quickly became a weekly haven,
a place of laughter and great music. I have met some of my greatest friends through the club, who have provided me with masses of knowledge, repertoire and good times. I have seen some of my favourite gigs there, amongst them: Chris Wood and Andy Cutting, Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman, and Dick Gaughan. Each time, the venue is intimate, warm and carpeted, with an infectious, excited atmosphere, akin to being sung to in your living room sitting in front of a log fire on a frosty autumnal night. Topsham Folk Club takes place every Sunday in the Malt House of The Globe Hotel, Fore Street, Topsham, about 10 minutes outside of Exeter. topshamfolkclub.co.uk myspace.com/jackieoates
Artist Michael Tyack Group The Princes in the Tower & Circulus Garden Modelâ€™s own - Brockley, London Recommended by Midlake