Interview: Jon Boden of Bellowhead.
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.