SEAN COONEY talks to Folking about writing songs and life as a Young’un

Sean Cooney

The Young’uns have come a long way in a very short time. I asked Sean Cooney what he attributed this to – apart from natural talent and charisma – and it came down to one word: passion. The beginnings of the group came in a moment of revelation.

“Michael Hughes and I knew each other from school and we met David Eagle at college when we were about seventeen. We were into all sorts of music but we had no idea about English folk music until one night in a pub back room in Stockton. We didn’t know that people sang in their own voices and it was quite a discovery. We became immersed in it and met lots of inspirational people like the Wilsons.

“It was about a year before we had the nerve to get up and sing and we only knew one song – ‘Roll The Old Chariot Along’ – and we didn’t know the verses so we said ‘We’ll sing the chorus if you’ll sing the verses’.” And from such small beginnings, the Young’uns became the phenomenon they are today.

“Ron Angel [who ran the club] invited us to do a full night but we said ‘we’ve only got one song’. He said ‘well, you’d better learn some more’. We nicked most of the songs and we knew nothing of folk club etiquette: him in the corner sings that song, so it’s his and we can’t do it.”

That first booking was in 2005 and led to more and more local gigs. Eventually the trio opened their own club. “There wasn’t a club on the Headland so we started one at The Harbour Of Refuge, known locally as The Pot House, meeting every other Friday.” Having established themselves locally it seems that things just fell into place for The Young’uns. First they were invited by Richard Grainger to join the Endeavour Shanty Men alongside Ron Angel and that took them to Holland, Norway and Whitby where they were invited to The Gate To Southwell Festival in 2009. “We knew nothing about the festival”, admits Sean. Then came Folk East.

“People are often puzzled about how we came to be involved in a festival so far from home and which focuses on the music of Suffolk. We went to the first one and met John and Becky Marshall-Potter, who sold their house to get the festival going, and we got on like a house on fire: they are always up for a laugh. They invited us to be patrons of the festival which means that we are there every year and also at other associated events.”

However, there was one major change still to come.

“There were two points in my life when I thought I’d never, ever write songs; I never should or could be able to because I was so immersed in other songs. The first of those times was when I was completely immersed in the songs of Bob Dylan from when I was sixteen. It just felt then that Dylan said so much and the songs were so all-encompassing that I thought there was never any point in anybody else writing songs. I was completely absorbed by Dylan; his protest songs, his love songs, his pop songs, his blues songs, his gospel songs and all the influences that he took on board. Dylan led me to literature – Dickens and Conrad and Hardy – and poetry like W B Yeats and Keats.

“I sort of grew out of that a little bit although my love of Dylan never left me but when we discovered folk clubs when we were in our late teens and early twenties I suddenly had a completely new passion for traditional songs and I really threw myself into those with the same passion with which I’d immersed myself in Dylan.

“At that point in my life I thought there was never any need or desire to write songs because traditional songs said all there was to say and spoke to me on so many different levels: the old story-telling ballads, the comical little ditties, the working songs of the sea and of the land and at one point I was learning a song a day. I built up a repertoire of over one hundred and fifty traditional songs and I thought that was all I needed to do as a singer and as a follower of folk music. Just keep learning traditional songs and keep singing them because they deserve to be sung.

“That was my background and, looking back now, I was quite snobbish in my attitude and I’d think that I’d only ever sing traditional songs because they’re the best. But as the years passed I began to feel a need to write and it was having that background, that education that stood me in good stead for finding my own voice as a songwriter. It was the time when I moved to Hartlepool, living right by the sea and I was so blown away by the history of Hartlepool and the stories that people would tell me that I decided to write and I had all this inspiration from traditional music. I began to write songs in, I suppose you would say, a traditional style using this vast vocabulary of traditional lyricism.”

Sean’s early songs were, by and large, historical in nature and about the place he lived and the stories of the people around him.

“I sort of believed that’s what folk songs were and, as someone who had studied history, when I moved to Hartlepool I was determined to document its history. There were so many people who didn’t have a grasp of how beautiful and how colourful and how important the history of the area was. I find that quite often: people are so proud of where they come from but are unaware that there are all these songs and stories out there, so I felt that I was on a mission to write as many songs about my local area as I could. It felt really important for us to share the stories of Hartlepool and Stockton.”

You could say that Sean was continuing the great folk tradition of making songs about the places around him and the events that happened there and, while that hasn’t changed, his horizons have broadened.

“It just feels so natural now to write about great stories and to write them in the style and language I’m used to. People ask me, about the new album, will it be difficult to go back and sing traditional songs? I always answer no because it’s all part of the same thing.”

Some of the songs on the new album, Strangers, are about real people who have done extraordinary things and, just a few weeks ago, the Young’uns went on a road trip to meet four of them.

“It was an amazing thing to do and the enormity of it hasn’t quite sunk in yet. I wrote these four songs over a year ago about four people who had witnessed and overcome and achieved remarkable things. I was so nervous about writing songs about real people who I had never met but I was compelled to because the stories were so moving and inspirational. We’d performed the songs, across the world really, for a year or so and as the release date approached we thought it would be a good thing to go and meet them.

“The trip began in Middlesbrough where we met a wonderful man called Ghafoor Hussain who spent thousands of pounds of his own money converting a coach into a kitchen and has spent the last eighteen months driving across Europe feeding refugees, migrants and homeless people. He was preparing for another mission and we sang the song to him on the bus and it was really, really special.

“Then we went to Paris and met Mark Moogalian who was one of the heroes of the Thalys terrorist train attack. He and five other men managed to thwart the intentions of a heavily armed gunman on a train to Paris. He told us with great grace and humility every single thing that went through his head in the moments after he was shot and had to play dead. Because he is a musician and, like me, had been a busker we had this great connection and Michael decided that we should sing the song to him – we began and Mark joined in and it was brilliant.

“And then we flew to Berlin and met Hesham Modamani, whose incredible five mile swim across a stretch of the Aegean [to escape from Syria] inspired me to write ‘Dark Water’. I’d originally heard Heshem sharing his story to the BBC in these simple, stark, beautiful phrases – how he described the deep, dark, cold water and the great fear and the moments when he thought he could swim no more, but also the joyous moments when he swam on his back and could see the stars. To meet him and to hear his story in his own words was something that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.

“Finally, at the gates of Hampstead cemetery we met Matthew Ogston, a man who has lived through an enormous tragedy in losing the love of his life, his fiancé Dr Nazim Mahmood, because of his religious family’s reluctance to accept his sexuality. We sat on Naz’s memorial bench and talked about everything Matt has been through and how his life is now a mission to share his story with as many people as possible in the hope that something so tragic need not happen again.

“It was wonderful to hear Matt’s reaction to the song, ‘Be The Man’, because as a songwriter it’s with great trepidation and care that I go about trying to turn these stories into songs and in the case of this song it took over a year of thought to actually get the confidence to write it and to hear that Matt loves the song so much was a really moving moment for the three of us. He said to the local press, who asked what he thought of it, ‘it was like I’d written it myself’.

Strangers will be released later this month with The Young’uns touring throughout October. In the New Year they return to the stage to tour with The Transports and…

We’ve got some ideas. There’s a whole load of stories that I’m spending many hours trying to turn into songs so we’ve got a few project ideas that we haven’t quite firmed up but we’re just looking forward to getting these new songs out there and reaching out to people.”

Dai Jeffries

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Artists’ website: www.theyounguns.co.uk

On their recent Talk to Strangers road trip Michael, Sean and David went to meet Matt Ogston, the man who inspired Sean’s Be The Man song at Hampstead Cemetery, where there is a memorial bench for his fiancé, Naz. Here is the new video.