Photo by SteveB
An edited version of this interview originally appeared in Metro and the Nottingham Evening Post.
You’ve had an interesting ride this year. Right at the start of the year, when fewer people were aware of you, you were on a big arena tour with Keane. Did you scale up comfortably to the demands of an arena?
I learnt a lot from that tour. The biggest lesson that I learnt was to not get really drunk in Manchester the weekend before, and then not being able to sing for half of the tour. I got ill. But I was very unhappy throughout, due to the amount of things that I had to throw myself into for the first time. I’m not one of those people who bodes well with throwing myself into new situations.
Then you went to the opposite extreme. You did the “Live and Lost” tour, where you went round the country with 20 quid in your back pocket, relying on the kindness of fans. Was that a good experience?
It was probably the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. I didn’t realise it at the time, due to the fact that I hated it. I was ill with tonsillitis, and it knocked me completely sideways. But it was amazing to see people come together for a common cause, and it was very humbling. I’m not just being schmaltzy, it really was. It was a rather bizarre idea that was brought to the table by the record label. I really didn’t want to do it, but I’m glad I did.
So there was a process of forging closer links with members of your audience than most artists would experience?
The conclusion I came to was like this. Everyone nowadays owns a digital camera, but no one seems to put their photographs into print these days. I was taking my digital friends and bringing them into the reality of a print, by meeting them and engaging with them on a human level. The internet is such an un-human thing in so many ways, and it does deteriorate our social ability to communicate with people in ways that we’ve been doing for thousands of years. So I was trying to take things back to a very real place. Throwing myself into some rather bizarre situations with complete strangers is always going to create a lot of exciting human interactions.
Now that period is over, do you continue to engage directly with your fans?
I engage in conversations. I end up in relationships with some of them. There’s no real boundaries, due to the fact that I’ve always seen myself as the same as anyone else. I would never want to put myself on a pedestal, or separate myself from anyone with the job that I do. I don’t think it’s right.
Having looked through your press clippings, I’ve rarely seen such a polarised reaction to one artist. People think you’re either the future of pop, or the living embodiment of everything that’s wrong with pop, and there doesn’t seem to be an awful lot in the middle. How do you deal with that?
As Oscar Wilde once said, I would rather weigh my press than read it. It doesn’t matter how much press there is, as long as there’s lots of it. Answering your point on the polarised opinion, I feel that it’s better to be somewhere of an extreme than somewhere very averagely in the middle. The NME review gave me one star, which was a horrific journalist writing these horrible things about me. I found that journalist’s old band, and it was the biggest load of crap I’d ever heard in my life. It’s just people’s opinions. I didn’t start making music because I cared about what anyone thought, so I should carry on that way.
How do you feel about attempts to label you as part of an Eighties synth-pop revival, along with artists such as Little Boots and La Roux?
I hate feeling like I’m the only intelligent person on this fucking planet sometimes. If people actually looked a little bit deeper, they would realise that La Roux, Victoria Hesketh [aka Little Boots] and myself are all pretty much of the same age. We all grew up in the Eighties, and we have a very idealised view of Eighties music – without having a social or political attachment, which you guys would have remembered. We have taken the influence of the Eighties, which is what we grew up with, and put it in our sound, due to the fact that’s probably what impacted us the most. It’s just the same as the Kooks or any other band looking back to the Sixties – to do Beatles music basically, but no one really says that. Indie music is the Sixties and Seventies revival, but synth-pop has got such a character to it, that it’s very easily associated.
As someone who does remember Eighties synth-pop from the first time round, I’m curious as to which aspects people of your generation choose to revive. To me, it’s interesting to see you twist it in new ways. I remember glam-rockers in the Seventies being criticised for supposedly ripping off Fifties rock and roll, and so it goes on. But if you’re younger, you don’t get weighed down by this whole idea that it’s revivalist.
Exactly. There’s a journalist called Paul Morley who did a very interesting article about me, and he kind of summed up all of us, to some degree. We don’t have the weight or the history attached to us, which older people would have had remembering the Eighties – from Thatcherism to anything else. We take the music videos, we take the music, and we don’t really go any deeper than that. We make our own interpretations. But I wouldn’t say that I was ever trying to re-affirm nostalgia. There’s a fine line between being nostalgic, and just using something as an inspiration.
I’m a bit confused by what your next single is going to be. Is it Time Will Tell, or is it Three Little Words again?
Do you want to know what my next single is? There isn’t one. I spoke to the label, and I told them I didn’t want to do any more singles from this album. I just wanted to move straight on to the next album, while I still felt like I wanted to. You can promote and promote a record until it’s dead, but I feel like I would be flogging a dead horse. Why not just say: that record did well, let’s move on, get another record out for very early next year, and just keep on being fresh. You need to be fresh in this day and age. You don’t have time to wait around. I’m moving straight on.
Your first album (Complete Me) is highly personal, in that it dealt with the disintegration and break-up of a relationship. So you wouldn’t want to be trapped for too long, reliving experiences that you’ve probably moved on from.
You’re actually the first person to say that to me – not just as a journalist, but in general – and you’re very right. I would like to write a whole new album that is moved on from that experience. I don’t really want to write about relationships for a while. I don’t want to write about anything to do with love, to some degree.
Well, how the hell are you going to get a date? Because they’re going to think: oh, I’m gonna be album number two.
Well that’s what’s happened, yeah. That has happened. That’s why I’m moving to Los Angeles, where I’m not so known. (Laughs)
Oh God, really? Well, that’s one way of dealing with it.
Yeah, I think it’s a pretty good way. And I’ll get a suntan at the same time.
Do you have an idea of what the next lot of material is going to address? Are you going to go for a unified theme, in the same way as Complete Me?
No. I had a lot to prove to myself on the first record. I wanted to produce and write the whole thing myself. I had additional help from a few other people on production, but every single word was written by me. On this next album, I don’t want it to be so personal. Some will say that I’m selling out, but I will say that I’m liberating myself. I want to be able to write a record that isn’t so tied down – and I haven’t got anything else to write about from my personal life. I don’t want to write about that. I want to have something to hold back. So I’m going to be working with some writers, and collaborating a bit more. The next record is going to be very different. It’s going to be even more pop than this album. So it’s a different way of doing things. You’ve got keep on keeping everybody guessing.
As to who you might be collaborating with, are there any names you can drop?
I’m going to try and get Tinchy Stryder on the record, because we’re old friends. I’m going to try a couple of other people, such as Sophie Ellis Bextor and Taio Cruz. Taio is someone I’ve started to become friends with this year, and it would be great to collaborate with him. We’ve got a shared friend who is a producer, who I think will want to work on a track with us. And I want to work with some American artists as well.
Any remix projects on the go? I’ve got Alexandra Burke’s name scribbled down here, and I can’t remember why.
I was supposed to do some writing for her, but since the time we were supposed to speak, [I decided that] I didn’t want to write for anyone else. I needed to write for myself. I’m working with an up and coming artist called Ellie Goulding, who is a really talented songwriter. And there’s another guy called Starsmith who’s going to be coming on tour with me. I don’t want to work with big names because they’re big names. I want to work with people who excite me and interest me.
And you were involved with a charity single for War Child?
It was a mixture, a mish-mash of artists – from Pixie Lott to N-Dubz and myself. It’s the Killers song: I Got Soul (But I’m Not A Soldier) [aka All These Things That I’ve Done]. We performed it at the MOBOs. It was a great experience. To be honest with you, I had no idea what it was all about until after I’d done the recording. I’m not gonna lie! But it’s an amazing charity. I don’t really pay much heed to charities, due to the fact that I only associate them with very annoying people in the street with clipboards, and those painfully schmaltzy adverts you get on TV. But War Child is something that doesn’t get as much attention as it should.
2009 must have been a pretty momentous year, all things considered. A year of great changes, I would imagine. Is there one particular highlight?
Getting to the end of 2009 with my head still screwed on. To be honest, you’re on autopilot when you do this. You can never really know what to expect. Any expectations you have on something is bollocks. It will never be what you think it is. But I think the biggest highlight for me is 2009 as a whole. So many things happened, and it’s a huge bookmark in my life. I’m sure I haven’t absorbed even a fraction of what’s happened this past year. I’ll probably look back in ten years, and it will start to make some sort of sense. But as a whole, it’s just been a bloody great year, and I hope that I have many more to come.
What do you think you’ve learned about yourself along the way?
Not to worry so much. To take control of situations when you really have to, but to let people do their jobs to their furthest potential, without getting in the way. I don’t trust anyone generally, but I feel that it’s driving me slightly crazy, trying to be in control of everything at all times. It’s impossible. And the other thing I’ve learnt is to not have a girlfriend, until I stop being a musician.
Well, I wish you well in your newly monastic existence in Los Angeles.
I’m looking forward to it!
Talking to EG on Monday from his home in Glasgow, James Graham – lead singer and lyricist with Scottish indie band The Twilight Sad – was still feeling somewhat groggy…
I gather you were in the States last week?
Yeah – I’m still pretty jetlagged. We got back last Wednesday, and since then I’ve been getting up at three in the morning, then four, then five, and then six today. So I’m slowly getting back to normality, if you can call it that.
Have you got much on this week?
Tonight we’ve got a BBC session, and tomorrow [Tuesday] we’re off on tour. So it’s basically home for five days, and then away for a month again. To be honest, I could have been doing with another week off – but it’s another tour, and to get to do it is pretty cool, so I can’t complain.
Where are you recording the session?
Just in Glasgow, for a guy called Vic Galloway. It’s just four songs, so it should be OK. It’ll be a good rehearsal as well, before we go off on tour. It’s actually cheaper. We’ll make money out of it, instead of having to spend money on a rehearsal room!
How long did you spend in America?
Just over a month. It was the sixth time we’ve been over there. We toured America before we’d toured Britain, or even Scotland. But it was amazing: 90% of the shows were sold out, and we got a chance to headline the Bowery Ballroom [in New York], which was a big thing. So it’s all going really well over there.
Your new album (Forget The Night Ahead) came out in the States a few weeks ahead of its release in the UK. What sort of reception has it been getting over there?
I don’t really look at reviews, but apparently the sales have been excellent. The label are really happy, and they say it’s all going really well, and it’s all setting up for a really good album campaign. It’s selling better than the first one did, and the first one is still selling a good amount each week since it’s been out – so it’s great for a small band from Glasgow.
I understand your reluctance to read reviews, but you might want to make an exception for this album. They’ve been seriously positive, right across the board.
We were forwarded some reviews from the guy who does press, but I’m one of these guys who will read five good reviews, and then one bad review, and I’ll just think about that one bad review for the rest of the week…
There’s a very intense, epic sound to the production, which is quite overwhelming on first playing. And you’ve got a big, distinctive guitar sound: a real raging squall of noise.
Andy [MacFarlane, guitarist] experimented quite a lot with the guitar sound. He wanted to change it a little bit from the first record, and he spent hours and hours with Paul [Savage, co-producer], to help produce it. He basically used a lot of space echo on everything. I think we got a bit carried away at some points. (Laughs) But it was sounding really good, and we were happy with it.
Even with the drum sounds, we were making them as big as possible. We even hitting fire extinguishers and stuff like that, just to make it sound big and noisy. We were just looking for things in rooms to hit, basically.
Your lyrics aren’t straightforward, and clearly they’re open to interpretation – but they’re also inspired by personal experience, so there’s a puzzle there for the listener. What do you see as the benefit of shying away from obvious, literal meanings?
I’ve always said, from day one, that I like to leave the lyrics up to other people’s interpretations. There are a lot of metaphors in there, and I wanted the people who are listening maybe to try and relate them back to themselves. My favourite songs are the ones that I can compare back to a time, a place, or a person in my life. I wanted to give people a little bit of work as well, to try and make out what it’s all about. Basically, they’re my songs – and if I know what they’re about, and if I’m singing them every night, I’m happy. Nobody else needs to know exactly what they’re about.
What about your fellow band members? Do they have a bit of an inside track?
None of them know what they’re about, either! Andy knows a little bit; I’ve told him now and again. I go through him as a filter. I’ll say, is this a good line, and he’ll say yay or nay, and I’ll bounce ideas off of him. He’s usually good at telling me what’s shit and what’s not. But to be honest, we don’t really talk about it too much. We just get it done. I think they understand where I’m coming from, and I understand where they’re coming from.
Is there also an element of self-protection? By disguising the meaning, you’re not laying all your emotions bare, for us to pick over.
I find writing quite therapeutic, but ultimately I don’t want to bare all and let everybody know exactly what I’m talking about. I don’t feel the need to go out and announce it to the world.
What about in terms of stage performance?
We called the album Forget The Night Ahead, and basically the title meant that some nights, I wanted to forget what happened – and the other nights, I basically did forget what happened, because of going out and getting hammered and things like that.
I suppose that by writing an album about it, it’s not really good to try and forget stuff, while having to sing about it for about two years. (Laughs) But when I’m singing, I don’t really think about anybody else being there, apart from myself. You get into this state of mind where you’re just singing for yourself.
When you’ve finished a performance, do you feel emotionally drained by what you’ve put yourself through?
Very much, yeah. A couple of times on that American tour, I just sat back and I was just like (sighs) fuck, that was a bit of a rollercoaster, that one! As people, we’re all very approachable. We’re always up for a laugh. I think we get that darker side out of us in our music. After that, we’re just like any normal 25 year old guys, just wanting to have a good time.
As an audience member, is it OK to leap around and have a good time at a Twilight Sad concert – or are we not taking it seriously enough?
No, I’m quite happy. In America, there were loads of people going absolutely daft. Maybe it even helps us even more, by showing that people are not scared of us. But a lot of people don’t know when the songs start and finish, because we never really stop and talk to the crowd. It’s all one big passage.
It would break the spell in a way, I suppose.
Yeah, and people just don’t know what to do. I suppose we’re really noisy and loud as well – so they’re just standing in a wee bit of a state of shock, and going, what is actually happening right now?
There can also be something perversely uplifting about listening to dark, troubling music. Are we just enjoying somebody else’s pain?
Everybody goes through ups and downs, and it’s good watching somebody singing a dark song. It shows you that other people go through the same as yourself, and it’s uplifting to think that you’re not on your own, in that sense. I think darker songs are more uplifting than songs bashing on about how good some people’s life is. I find that very depressing, to be honest.
Your first single off the album was called I Became A Prostitute. The record label must have loved you for that.
We met with quite a lot of resistance, actually! (Laughter) We never really thought too much about it, because obviously the song is not about becoming a prostitute. It basically means that you’re becoming something that you don’t want to become. You can see it happening, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Andy our guitarist named the song, and I think it’s from a Jean-Luc Godard film. It might ruffle a few feathers, and people might not like it – but we’re not a band that is going out there looking for radio play, looking to become the next big thing. We do it for ourselves, first and foremost.
When the record company gave the song to radio, they called it I Became A… and then a picture of a lady. So they tried to body swerve it that way. (Laughs) It actually got more radio play than any other of our songs, I think. We probably did shoot ourselves in the foot a little bit, but we’re not the kind of band that cares about that sort of thing.
Who is the woman that appears all the way through the video?
I have no idea! That was one of these situations where the label said we needed a video, and we said, help us then. They did a video for us, and we thought it was a little bit literal. We weren’t too sure about it. I like a lot of the footage in the video that doesn’t feature the lady. But the other stuff is maybe just a bit too risky for my liking, what with the song title in there as well.
And you have a new single (Seven Years of Letters) coming out today?
I actually just found out last night! Then I went on the label’s website, and it says “out today”. We’ve filmed a video for that – but we’ve been away, so I don’t really know why it’s not out yet.
We filmed another video while we were in America, for The Room, which will be the third single. A girl called Nicola Collins got in contact with us. She just did a film about her dad, who’s a gangster in London. It was called The End, and it won all sorts of prizes. As soon as we heard that she was interested, we got her in. She got David Lynch’s granddaughter in the video as well.
You’ve been together as a band for about six years now. Does it get easier or harder?
It gets easier in some ways and harder in others. As you get older, you want to make a career out of it. You’re not just doing it for fun. When the music itself is always going to turn out the way it does, there’s nothing you can do about it. So we’re never going to be a band that sells out, or anything like that.
As for being on the road constantly, I think we played 160 gigs in one year, all over the world – so for me, it is hard being away from home. I really enjoy being at home with my friends and family.
But things get better: the American tour is selling out places like the Bowery Ballroom, and there are hundreds of people singing your songs back at you, and that makes it all worthwhile.
In the financial case, it’s quite difficult. It’s not an easy game to get into, if I’m being honest. But I love it, so I’m not going to give up.
From a punter’s point of view, I like the fact it’s forcing bands out on the road, because there are so many more bands to see now than there were five or six years ago.
It’s a bit of a meat market now, don’t you think? But there are some good bands out there, and I’ve got a lot of respect for the bands who are out on the road constantly plugging away – and not on major labels. Bands who are out there to just try and grab three or four fans a night, and they’ll hopefully turn up the next night. I’ve got a lot of respect for anybody who’s in the same shoes as mine.
And there are lots more ways that you can build your audience, and interact with them: forums, social networking sites, all of that. So from that point of view, it’s easier to get the message out yourselves.
When our first album came out, we played in London – and a guy came up to us and said, oh, your album’s Number One in the illegal downloading chart that I go to, and 5000 people have downloaded your album, it’s brilliant! That’s a lot of money to be missing out on. But we got into the indie album chart last week, so it shows you that the record’s selling well, and more people are hearing about us. We’re in it for the long haul.
This Austin-based singer-songwriter has been a regular visitor to The Maze over the years, ever since his first appearance here in 2001. Back then – riding the crest of a resurgence of interest in alt-country Americana, thanks to his breakthrough album Broke Down – Slaid’s name was often mentioned in the same breath as another emerging talent: Ryan Adams, whose debut UK show took place at the same venue a few months earlier. But while Adams went on to be a fully-fledged, decidedly erratic rock star, Cleaves has ploughed a more even furrow, nurturing a loyal audience who have followed his career with affectionate interest.
Last night’s capacity crowd certainly knew their stuff, softly singing along with old favourites such as Horseshoe Lounge, and enthusiastically welcoming material from Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away: Slaid’s first self-penned album in five years, and an extended meditation on the theme of loss. As the artist himself says, “Whether it’s your loved ones, your way of life, or even just your sense of innocence and hope, every song in some way is about how it all gets taken away,”
Of the new songs, the opening track (Cry) and the closing track (Temporary) both stood out. A gifted singer, a compelling storyteller and an innately likeable performer, Slaid Cleaves is welcome to return here as often as he likes.
Two hours, twenty minutes and two support acts down the line from the 7pm start time shown on the tickets, the red curtains finally parted – revealing a slender, sparkly showgirl perched on a swing, her miniscule costume accessorised by an equally tiny top hat, some long black gloves and a cane. This was the opening night of The Alesha Show: an eighteen-date UK tour that will end in Brighton in a month’s time, during which Alesha will also continue to fulfil her weekly judging duties on BBC1’s Strictly Come Dancing.
It can’t have been easy to weather the storm of controversy that greeted Alesha’s appointment to the Strictly panel, and perhaps we saw a faint trace of lingering insecurity in her stage performance last night. We were constantly urged to stand up, dance around, wave our hands and sing along, in a manner that sometimes verged on the downright bossy, and there was a certain edge behind all that well-intentioned eagerness to please. Perhaps she’ll loosen up as the tour goes on, giving her audience the space to show a little more spontaneity of their own.
That aside, this was an impeccably well-drilled show, which gave its star ample opportunity to strut her stuff, and remind us just why she was voted the winner of Strictly in 2007. But although Alesha is undoubtedly a well-trained and disciplined dancer, again it would also have been good to see her breaking step, cutting loose, and surrendering to the rhythm.
As for the music – for after all, this was a concert rather than a dance display – the accent was firmly on pop, with most of the songs being drawn from the current album. The new single (To Love Again, co-composed with Gary Barlow) got an early outing, before Don’t Ever Let Me Go got everyone up dancing. Breathe Again was spoiled by too many of those bossy instructions, leaving little room for Alesha to channel the emotion of the song – whereas the more urban-tinged material towards the end of the set played to her strengths as a singer, while reminding us of her early connections with the UK garage scene.
The biggest song – and the best routine – was saved for the encore: a spirited romp through The Boy Does Nothing, which closed the show after a meagre 67 minutes. It had been an evening of candy-floss entertainment: sweet and fun and fluffy, but offering little in the way of lasting nourishment.
For local fans of British folk, this has been a golden month. Following superb performances from Lau at the Playhouse and The Unthanks at the Arts Theatre, last night saw the return of the mighty Bellowhead: an eleven-piece act who blend traditional jigs, songs and shanties with a theatrical, vaudevillian approach.
Scruffily smart in their black shirts and loud ties, the players filled every inch of the stage. To the left, a four-piece brass troupe; to the right, a three-piece string section whose members doubled up on woodwind and pipes; and between them, three of the leading lights of folk’s new generation: John Spiers on the squeeze box, Benji Kirkpatrick on guitar and other related instruments, and their lanky, wild-eyed singer and band leader, Jon Boden.
It took a while for the audience to respond in kind to the sheer energy of the performers, but rambunctious crowd-pleasers such as Kafoozalum and Haul Away proved impossible to resist. By the time we reached the likes of Sloe Gin, London Town and Frogs Legs and Dragons Teeth, most of the room had surrendered to the madness of the moment, bouncing up and down like gurning loons – and proving that when it comes to sweaty nights out, folkies can match rockers pound for pound.
Was Bellowhead conceived as a long-term project, or was it a short-term side-project that took on a life of its own?
It was conceived as a festival act, I suppose. We didn’t have much thought as to how long it would last, but we certainly didn’t expect that it would be a touring venture. Obviously, touring is a much harder proposition; you have to fill the theatres with your own fans, whereas festivals kind of fill them for you! So that’s been a great surprise. It’s very nice, because you can create the whole atmosphere of the evening in whatever way you see fit – whereas with a festival you’re fitting into someone else’s conception.
You have a very distinct visual identity, which sets you apart from other acts. It suggests a theatrical kind of approach.
I think that if you’re going to shove eleven people on stage, you can’t really just stand there and look at your toes. So it’s inherently theatrical, and we just seem to get more and more theatrical, and it seems to work. It’s nice to paint with a broad palette, as they say.
It’s curious that you’ll be playing at Trent University, as I don’t tend to think of folk acts playing to student audiences. Are Bellowhead crowds different from the audiences that you would attract with your other projects?
Yeah, it’s certainly a younger audience. That’s always been our intention. Not to neglect the older audience, because we love playing to all audiences, but it’s certainly very important to us to get more young people interested in the scene.
I wouldn’t say it was predominantly young, but it’s certainly a nice balance of age ranges. We play standing venues; that’s one of the policy decisions we had about the tours. So that’s why we tend to play student venues, because a lot of conventional folk venues are sit-down venues.
We’re not ruling out doing sit-down gigs, because that’s a different kind of theatricality that we’re quite interested in as well. But the gig at the moment is also about making the audience dance. And because of that, it feels strange playing to a fully seated audience if you’re on stage jumping about.
And you’d want to have that reflected back at you, to feed into your own performance?
Absolutely. It’s a wonderful privilege to be able to stand up in front of five hundred people, jumping up and down like maniacs.
It does seem as if the British folk scene has rejuvenated itself in the last few years. A new generation has come through, with a notably different approach, and with a higher public profile than we’ve been used to over the past couple of decades. So are we living in a golden age for British folk?
Well, it’s certainly true that it’s a much healthier scene than it was ten years ago – and thirty years ago, even. I’m not sure I’d say it was a golden age; it’s more about getting back to a sensible balance. Because folk music is a very important art form. It’s been the pop music of the people for three hundred-odd years, and I think it was just a blip, those twenty years when it wasn’t a healthy scene.
So I certainly think there’s been a recent rejuvenation, with a second generation coming through – the children of the revivalists – and it’s very interesting. What I’ve noticed over the last two years is that a lot of acts that have been going for a while have really cranked up a gear.
Is there maybe a snowballing sense of confidence, and a realisation of what can be achieved beyond the usual parameters?
I think that’s absolutely it. And it’s in all sorts of ways. I remember when Jim Moray came along, and the artwork of his albums was so much better than anybody else’s. So now all the artwork is better, and everyone just rises to the level that their peers have set.
I always used to think of the folk scene as existing in a kind of parallel universe, ring-fenced off from other music scenes. But now I’m not so sure that’s the case. Is there a sense that those old barriers are being broken down? Or is the music stronger if you continue to stake your own territory?
I probably agree with the latter more than the former. I’m not interested in getting out of the folk scene; I’m interested in bringing more people into the folk scene. Because it’s such a vibrant place, and it’s such a nice place as well! (Laughs) Folk festivals are fantastically nice things to do. Everyone at folk festivals just always seems happy, you know? But there’s also the social side of folk music making, whether it’s singing or playing music in the pub, or joining a Morris team, or whatever. It’s a really great thing to do, in terms of enhancing communities. So I think it is a wonderful institution, and the more people we can entice back into it, the better.
Bellowhead is a project where you’re clearly bringing in other influences, such as Brecht and Weill – but when you perform solo, or as a duo with John Spiers, you’re much more straight-down-the-line traditional. Are you someone who thinks that purism has its place, or are you not much of a respecter of boundaries?
I am a bit of a purist, actually, in a funny sort of way. The distinction that I make – and maybe some people who are thought of as purists don’t make it – is the distinction between the performance and the music for itself, if you see what I mean. I’m quite purist about the act of entertainment. So I take that very seriously, and I’ll use any influences that I think will enhance the listener’s or the audience’s experience. But just as a music fan, and as someone who just goes to the pub to sing, I am quite purist. If I’m singing for my own pleasure, I’ll tend to sing unaccompanied or with a concertina, and I tend to listen to quite old fashioned folk music. So it’s a funny mix.
This probably demonstrates my naivety, but I’m continually amazed that you and your contemporaries keep finding new traditional source material to arrange. Where do you find it, and you ever going to run out of Trads to Arr?
Well, there’s a great thing with trad stuff: just because someone has arranged it, it doesn’t mean you can’t re-arrange it. So there’s a lot of stuff that will have been recorded by other revival artists, whether or not it’s well known. You’d be quite hard pushed to find any stuff that we’ve done that hasn’t had some sort of different version recorded. But in terms of finding slightly different versions of songs, then I think you’ll never run out of that, because there are so many different versions that were collected. And you can also make your own. You can write your own tune to it – which is something I do quite a lot – or you can mix two songs together. So I think in that sense, it’s an endless resource.
When selecting your source material, are there particular qualities that you’re consciously looking for?
Lyrically, what I love about folk music is the economy of it. A good folk song is a song that maybe only has a few verses, but tells a great story, and tells it in an efficient and beautiful way, and has a sense of timelessness to it. I’m not somebody who thinks just because it’s traditional, it’s therefore good. There’s a lot of rubbish. And the really rubbish songs are mostly songs that haven’t had time to get passed around from singer to singer, and have their rough edges filed off, and the dead wood cut out.
So there’s an inbuilt filtering process. If a song is going to survive the passage of the years, then it’s got to have something about it.
Absolutely. And people just edit naturally. A singer edits out stuff that doesn’t need to be there, and stuff that doesn’t quite work gets dropped along the way. So it’s a great way of writing, really. In a way, that’s a nice thing about the folk scene. People are always rearranging these songs, and not necessarily going back to the source material. So there is that process where songs are still developing and evolving, and where people are taking on other people’s ideas and incorporating them.
As someone with a degree in Medieval Studies, you clearly have a keen interest in history. Is there an antiquarian aspect to what you do? Or are you something of a man on a mission, helping to keep a sense of history alive?
I think there has to be some sort of antiquarian impetus to it. For me, there’s a sense that folk music has a memory of the kind of communal lifestyle that mankind is supposed to live, and that we did live until fifty years ago. I feel that a lot of the dysfunction of society is to do with the breakdown of communal existence. Folk songs are a way of remembering that, and maybe trying to bring some of it back, in a small sort of way. So there is a sentimentality about it – but it’s quite a positive sentimentality, as it’s about trying to bring back stuff that has been lost, that shouldn’t have been lost.
It’s interesting to hear you talk of communality. One of the big reasons why I like mainstream pop music is that there’s something lovely about thousands of people all enjoying the same piece of music at the same time, and all sharing in that experience. So maybe it’s another aspect of the same thing?
There are people who will make quite a strong argument for saying that a real folk song is something like Yesterday by Paul McCartney, because that’s a song that everyone knows. I think that the difference is that with folk music, the ownership is communal. I mean, that will always be a Paul McCartney song. People will sing it, but they will always be singing his song. Or if they’re performing it, then they’ll be doing a Paul McCartney impression to some extent. Whereas with a folk song, as soon as you learn it, it’s yours. And I think that’s the special thing about folk music: that communal ownership of it.
You’ve just triggered a new thought. I wonder what will happen to songs like Yesterday, when they drop out of copyright and we’re another three generations down the line. Maybe songs like that will start to mutate, and you’ll start to have more of a sense of collective ownership. You won’t be governed by the original performance. So any song that’s written now could become part of that tradition.
I think that might well happen. That’s a very good point. People get quite worked up about the importance of copyright, and I think it’s important because it enables an artist to earn a living. But I also think that public domain is a fantastically important thing, and I think people should maybe be a bit more gracious about handing their material over to the public domain, rather than trying to keep it all to themselves. Particularly when it’s families hanging onto their great-grandfather’s copyright and not letting anybody do anything with it, which does happen. I think public ownership of all material is a very important thing.
So you should go out and earn it, rather than sitting back and waiting for it all to roll in…
Yes, and to an extent it’s important that people can retain their copyright. I think that during their lifetime would be a better system. Once you die, you bequeath your copyright to the world. That would be a much nicer system than 75 years after you die, or whatever it is.
Turning to future plans, how soon can we expect a third Bellowhead album? Is the machinery whirring into action on that at all?
It is, yes. We’ve kind of got the new material written, but we’ve got to plan it in, and then we’ve got to find some time to record it. I think we’ll be recording it in the spring, so hopefully it will be out in autumn 2010.
Photos taken by jcoelho at Festival Músicas do Mundo Sines, July 25th 2007.
When they last performed here – at The Maze, in December 2007 – Rachel Unthank and the Winterset were a sparsely arranged quartet, touring in support of a strange and sublime new album (The Bairns) that went on to be nominated for a Mercury Prize. Two years on, with Rachel’s younger sister and co-vocalist Becky promoted to equal billing, The Unthanks have expanded to a ten-strong touring line-up, complete with string section, brass section, keyboards, a banjo, a ukulele, and just about any other instrument you might care to mention. Almost every musician on stage performed in multiple roles. The trumpet player might switch to guitar, or the drummer might grab a double bass. And yet for all the activity on stage, the sound remained spacious, restrained and wonderfully pure.
With their new album (Here’s The Tender Coming), Rachel and Becky have made a conscious decision to move away from “the stark bleakness of The Bairns”, in favour of something “calmer and a little warmer”, as they put it in the sleeve notes. But although the boundary-crossing Robert Wyatt and Will Oldham covers may be gone, the music continues to draw on a wide range of influences.
There were shades of Michael Nyman’s soundtrack music to be found in Lucky Gilchrist: an affectionate tribute to a recently deceased friend (“a bit like Freddie Mercury, camp and yet angry, except you had a lady”) which ended with a spirited display of Northumbrian clog dancing. A cover of Sexy Sadie from the Beatles’ White Album was a surprise addition – as was a re-arrangement of Blackbird from The Bairns, in homage to the Penguin Café Orchestra. The Lancashire street song Where’ve Yer Bin ‘Dick teetered amusingly on the brink of obscenity, while The Testimony Of Patience Kershaw was a raw and riveting setting of a 17 year-old’s actual spoken testament to a Royal Commission on Children’s Employment in 1842. (“I try to be respectable – but Sir, the shame, God save my soul.”)
The slightly down-at-heel gentility of the Arts Theatre – a venue which feels frozen in the 1950s, in the most agreeable way – proved to be a perfect setting for this kind of music, and these kinds of songs. Let’s hope that more concerts of this quality are staged there in the future.
From leading light of the underground grime scene, to darling of the broadsheet critics, to fully fledged mainstream pop star, Dizzee Rascal has come a long way in the last seven years. As with fellow traveller Tinchy Stryder, his new audience is young, eager, pop-savvy, and up for having the best time possible. The girls at the front of the balcony lapped up his bad-boy act (without ever taking it too seriously), while the boys at the back of the main floor nodded their appreciation of his quickfire lyrical flow. All of them knew their stuff, chanting whole verses back at their beaming hero, his sidekick and rhyming partner Scope, and Semtex, their man-mountain of a DJ.
Saving his most pop-orientated tunes for the end of the set, Dizzee launched straight into his performance at full tilt: spitting out the rhymes at top speed, with barely any let-up for the first twenty minutes. It could have felt oppressive – but the MC carried his crowd with controlled assurance, keeping right on his marks and never dropping a syllable for even a split second. The tempo dropped briefly, for the nearest we were going to get to a slow jam, before Dizzee picked up the pace once again, with a special shout-out out to his female fans. (“This one’s for all you sexy girls. DROP THAT S***!”)
As the set built to its climax, Old Skool recycled the Lyn Collins “woo-yeah” breakbeat that so dominated hip hop in the late Eighties, while new single Dirtee Cash revived Stevie V’s dance anthem from 1990. Finally, we got to the three big hitters: Dance Wiv Me, Holiday and Bonkers, all of them chart-toppers, and all of them guaranteed to raise the temperature to boiling point and beyond. Bonkers in particular seemed to unleash a special kind of madness – confirming its status as one of the defining hits of 2009, and reminding us that this has truly been the Year of the Rascal.
Having impressed the cognoscenti with their fine debut All Hour Cymbals, it has been a couple of years since we last heard anything from Brooklyn-based art-rockers Yeasayer. Last night’s warmly received thirty-minute support slot gave the band – now expanded to a five-piece – a chance to try out material from their next album, due for release in the new year. The new songs sound more straightforwardly accessible and melodic, nudging the band away from the Animal Collective end of the indie spectrum (gone is the tribal hollering which characterised much of the first album), and placing them nearer to fellow Brooklyn-ites MGMT. That early experimentalism has by no means vanished – but equally, a commercial breakthough now looks possible.
Natasha Khan, the 29 year-old singer-songwriter who performs as Bat For Lashes, has drawn creative inspiration from the same Brooklyn scene for her second album Two Suns. Although eclipsed in sales terms by the strikingly similar Florence and the Machine, Natasha’s music offers subtler, richer rewards. Where Florence can sound strident and over-egged, Natasha understands the value of space, restraint and a softer, surer touch.
Backed by a shifting line-up of up to six musicians, with strings and percussion shaping the musical palette, Natasha maintained an ethereal, captivating presence. After building to a mid-set peak with Daniel and What’s A Girl To Do, the band faced the tricky task of maintaining the momentum set by their two best-known numbers. The energy levels dipped for a while, before soaring to new heights with the percussive, syncopated Two Planets and a thunderous, climactic Pearl’s Dream.
Encoring with The Big Sleep (the final track on Two Suns), Natasha duetted with a monochrome screen image of herself, who faded from view after the first verse. Was this a way of bidding farewell to “Pearl”, the alter-ego around which the album is centred? Theatrical to the end, Bat For Lashes were poetic without being pretentious, spiritual without being soppy, and tender without being twee. Glorious, uplifting stuff.
Twenty-six years after Bernie, Coleen, Linda and Maureen last performed together as The Nolans, the four sisters chose Nottingham for their return to the live circuit. Billed as “the ultimate girls’ night out”, the reunion tour follows in the wake of a comeback album (I’m In The Mood Again) – and as with the album, the sisters opted to mix their old hits with a selection of well-known (and in some cases, well-worn) covers.
In keeping with the “girls’ night out” theme, eight strapping male dancers were given free rein to strut their stuff, in a wide range of costumes which didn’t always stay on for too long. During the opening medley of Holding Out For A Hero and It’s Raining Men, their cheesy, Chippendales-style cavortings threatened to overpower the whole show – but as the ninety minute set progressed, a better balance was struck.
As for the ladies themselves, now in their forties and fifties, middle age has not diminished their capacity to entertain. Coleen’s regular television appearances have turned her into the most instantly recognisable Nolan, while lead singer Bernie – a sorely underrated talent in her day – remains the star vocal attraction. The slender, dignified Maureen seemed almost untouched by the passing of the years – whereas Linda, always the joker of the pack, has become the most emotionally charged performer of the four.
Visibly nervous at the start of the show, Linda gained strength and confidence as the evening progressed. When she wobbled, you willed her on. By the end of the main set – drained by an intense performance of Christina Aguilera’s The Voice Within, and overwhelmed by the warmth of our applause – she was openly weeping. Other sisters, and even some audience members, followed suit.
The cheers grew ever louder, reaching fever pitch as I’m In The Mood For Dancing closed the show, and forcing the stunned, nearly exhausted sisters to reprise the whole song. As comebacks go, this one was little short of triumphant. It’s good to have them back.
In February 2009, Lau won the “best group” category at the BBC Folk Awards for the second consecutive year, thus setting the seal on their fast-growing reputation as one of our finest live acts. At Friday night’s well-attended show at the Playhouse, we were duly treated to a two-hour display of superb musicianship from guitarist Kris Drever, accordionist Martin Green and fiddler Aidan O’Rourke.
Although Drever and O’Rourke hail from north of the border, Green grew up in the south of England. This geographic division gave rise to some wry banter, as the English accordionist remarked on the “topographic pretentiousness” of the Scottish Highlands, while chuckling at his bandmates’ unease with the flatness of the Fens. On the current album (Arc Light), there’s even a track about it: Horizontigo, which Green defined as “the fear of lack of heights”.
Selections from Arc Light comprised the bulk of the set. As with the band’s previous compositions, the pieces tend to be lengthy, episodic affairs, which can shift between exquisite tenderness and euphoric frenzy without ever sounding disjointed. O’Rourke’s beautifully expressive fiddle playing stood out during the quieter sections, while the louder passages saw Green rocking and lurching in his seat, his accordion almost becoming an extension of his body.
Blending considered precision with earthy passion, Lau represent British folk at its very best.