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

If you would like to order a copy of the one of the albums (in CD or Vinyl), download them or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the Young’uns link to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website. Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

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.

The Young’uns road trip and tour dates

The Young'uns
Photograph by Elly Lucas

Teesside trio The Young’uns have embarked on a road trip to meet four men who have inspired songs on their acclaimed new album Strangers (out Sept 29) – two in the UK, one in France and one in Germany.

First Sean Cooney, Michael Hughes and David Eagle were in their native Teesside to meet Middlesbrough man Ghafoor Hussain (right).

Songwriter Sean Cooney was touched by the Teesside grandfather’s humanitarian work in 2015 when he converted a bus into a travelling kitchen to feed migrants and refugees across Europe. At one point, in the refugee camp in Dunkirk, he was serving 3,000 hot meals and 10,000 cups of tea a day. The catchy resulting song, ‘Ghafoor’s Bus’ has proved popular both here and in Canada, with its optimistic message.

Today (20th) they fly to Paris where they will meet Mark Moogalian, the 53 year-old French-American hero of the Thalys train attack, shot when he tried to tackle the gunman. Sean wrote the song ‘Carriage 12’ about the incident and the incredible bravery of Moogalian and others who confronted the attacker. Moogalian heard the song and wrote to The Young’uns to say: “Many thanks for this wonderful song – the only thing that has ever brought tears to my eyes regarding what happened that day”.

From Paris the trio will travel to Berlin tomorrow (21st) to make the acquaintance of Hesham Modamani, who fled Syria following the disappearance of his brother and took the drastic decision to swim the Aegean Sea with fellow Syrian Feras Abukhalif. Sean wrote the beautiful song ‘Dark Water’ about this.

Hesham is now studying in Germany and contacted Sean saying “I am honoured that my journey made words for your song.”

Back in London on Wednesday (23rd) they will finally meet Matthew Ogston whose affecting story inspired the song ‘Be The Man’.  Matthew founded the Naz and Matt Foundation to tackle religious and cultural homophobia following the tragic death of his fiancé Nazim Mahmood. www.nazandmattfoundation.org

‘Be The Man’ is the first single taken from the album.

The Young’uns will be writing an on-the-road blog and making a podcast of the road trip.

In the space of little more than a decade – and just three years after giving up their day jobs – they have become one of UK folk music’s hottest properties and best-loved acts.

Stockton Folk Club’s star graduates clinched the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards ‘Best Group’ title two years running (2015 and 2016) and last year saw them spreading the net, taking their unique act and instant audience rapport to Canada, America and Australia.

With their strong songs, spellbinding harmonies, human touch and rapid fire humour, they have achieved one of the trickiest balancing acts – an ability to truly ‘make them laugh and make them cry’, while cutting straight to the heart of some of our most topical issues.

On September 29 they will unveil their fourth studio album Strangers – playing their strongest suit to date.  Bold, profound and resonant it showcases the growing talents of Sean Cooney, fast becoming one of folk’s finest songwriters, in a collection of folk songs for our time.

  • Strangers will be showcased on an extensive UK tour (October 4-27) including a debut at London’s Union Chapel and dates at

Sage Gateshead (Hall 1), Glasgow’s Oran Mor and The Sugar Club in Dublin – their first headline gig in Ireland. Support for most dates comes from The Hut People, with singer songwriter Greg Russell opening for the trio in Nottingham and Lincoln.

If you would like to order a copy of the one of the albums (in CD or Vinyl), download them or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the THE YOUNG ‘UNS – Strangers link to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website. Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

ORDER – [CD]

Artists’ website: http://www.theyounguns.co.uk/

‘Be The Man’ – radio edit:

The Young’uns Strangers album tour – October 2017

4  LANCASTER Dukes Theatre
https://dukes-lancaster.org/?event=younguns  01524 598 500

5  SHEFFIELD City Hall (Memorial Hall)  www.sheffieldcityhall.co.uk/events/The-Young-Uns
0114 2 789 789

6  GLASGOW Oran Mor  www.seetickets.com/event/the-young-uns/oran-mor/1086128

SHREWSBURY Theatre Severn www.theatresevern.co.uk/shows/whatson/the-young-uns/  
01743 281281

OXFORD The North Wall Arts Centre www.thenorthwall.com/whats-on/the-younguns/  01865 319450

9  COLCHESTER Arts Centre www.colchesterartscentre.com    01206 500900

10 BURY ST EDMUNDS Apex  www.theapex.co.uk/whats-on/event/3283/the-younguns  01284 758000

11 BRISTOL Colston Hall Lantern www.colstonhall.org/shows/the-younguns/ 0117 203 4040

12 LONDON Union Chapel  https://store.unionchapel.org.uk/events/36caa4b0-fdb6-0134-4600-520ebcb4555f  0871 220 0260

13 SHOREHAM-BY-SEA Ropetackle Arts Centre https://ropetacklecentre.co.uk/events/the-younguns/ 01273 464440

14 LINCOLN Drill Hall www.lincolndrillhall.com/shows/the-young-uns-strangers-album-tour/ 01522 873894

15 NOTTINGHAM Glee Club  https://www.glee.co.uk/performer/the-younguns/  0871 472 0400.

17 BRECON Theatr Brechyneiog https://theatrbrycheiniog.ticketsolve.com/shows/873572817?locale=en-GB 01874 611622

18 SOUTHPORT Atkinson www.theatkinson.co.uk/events/younguns-strangers-album-tour/ 01704 533 333

19 LEEDS City Varieties   https://www.cityvarieties.co.uk/online/YoungUns 0113 243 0808

20 MANCHESTER Home – Folk Festival  https://www.manchesterfolkfestival.org.uk

21 BIRMINGHAM Mac https://macbirmingham.co.uk/event/the-younguns-strangers-album-tour 0121 446 3232

22 CANTERBURY Cathedral Lodge www.folkinthebarn.co.uk/WhatsnewInfo.aspx?id=193 01227 831493

24 DUBLIN The Sugar Club
www.ticketmaster.ie/the-younguns-dublin-10-24-2017/event/18005285B4AC477B

27 GATESHEAD Sage 1
www.sagegateshead.com/event/the-younguns44036/ 0191 443 4661

THE YOUNG‘UNS – Strangers (Hereteu Records YNGS17)

StrangersThe Young’Uns have come a long way in a few short years. Strangers is their fourth studio album, coming a mere three years after they turned professional. The trio are strong singers, they enjoy the sort of on-stage banter that only good friends can get away with and they have a fine songwriter in Sean Cooney. The theme of the album is, I think, that there are no strangers, or if there are it doesn’t really make a difference. Cooney’s songs in this set are full of “ordinary” people doing extraordinary things on behalf of people they don’t necessarily know.

The album opens with ‘A Place Called England’ which suggests that we are now strangers in the country we thought we knew. They take it a bit fast for my taste but I’ve heard Maggie Holland’s original so many times that it feels “right” now. Next is ‘Ghafoor’s Bus’, the story of a grandfather from Teesside who converted a bus into a mobile kitchen and drove to Europe to feed refugees. To him, they weren’t strangers. Switching from accompanied harmony we have ‘Be The Man’ with David Eagle on piano and Michael Hughes on guitar with support from Rachael McShane on cello and a topping of flugelhorn from Jude Abbott.

‘Carriage 12’ tells the story of the terrorist attack on a French train two years ago. We’re back to unaccompanied harmony with a tune inspired by the familiar cadences of country music that suits the song perfectly. The four heroes of the attack could have run and saved themselves but they stood and fought. ‘Cable Street’ is a story familiar to all of us and ‘Dark Water’, the story of two refugees fleeing by swimming five miles of open sea, returns to the accompanied style and features Mary Ann Kennedy on harp.

Sean borrows the idea of pairing a jolly, singalong tune with a lyric that carries a serious message but he doesn’t overuse it. ‘Bob Cooney’s Miracle’ tells how fifty-seven men in the Spanish Civil War were fed from a loaf of bread and a tin of corned beef. OK, it’s not exactly Biblical but the humour makes it. Arguably, the best song is ‘These Hands’, the story of Sybil Phoenix, the first black woman to be awarded the MBE for fostering children in London but who faced racism throughout her life. The song is uplifting and ultimately ends happily. Finally we have ‘The Hartlepool Pedlar’, about a Jewish refugee named Marks who opened a shop in Leeds and took on a partner – and we all know what happened to them.

So The Young’Uns go from strength to strength with an album of great, thought-provoking stories and they probably have another forty years left in them yet.

Dai Jeffries

If you would like to order a copy of the one of the albums (in CD or Vinyl), download them or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the THE YOUNG ‘UNS – Strangers link to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website. Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

ORDER – [CD]

Artists’ website: www.theyounguns.co.uk

‘A Place Called England’ – live:

The Young’uns announce new album – tour dates to follow

The Young'uns
Photograph by Elly Lucas

Teesside trio The Young’uns have always had the human touch. In the space of little more than a decade – and just three years after giving up their day jobs – they have become one of UK folk music’s hottest properties and best-loved acts.

Stockton Folk Club’s star graduates clinched the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards ‘Best Group’ title two years running (2015 and 2016) and last year saw them spreading the net, taking their unique act and instant audience rapport to Canada, America and Australia.

With their strong songs, spellbinding harmonies and rapid fire humour, they have achieved one of the trickiest balancing acts – an ability to truly ‘make them laugh and make them cry’, while cutting straight to the heart of some of our most topical issues.

On September 29 they will unveil their fourth studio album Strangers – playing their strongest suit to date.  Bold, profound and resonant it showcases the growing talents of Sean Cooney, fast becoming one of folk’s finest songwriters.

Together with Michael Hughes and David Eagle, Cooney has come up with a collection of folk songs for our time, all sensitively arranged by the 30-something trio – looking back at wartime heroes here, offering a news report for the 21st century there, turning the spotlight on injustice and ultimately celebrating the indomitable human spirit.

Setting the scene with a cover of Maggie Holland’s ‘A Place Called England’ (Best Song at 2000 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards) , the remaining songs on the 10-track album all come from the prolific pen of Cooney who manages to combine unflinching, sharply observed but compassionate, heartfelt lyrics.

With its ocean blue cover, Strangers looks at the stories of those that have crossed the seas to British shores and soldiers that have voyaged from here to the warfields of Europe. Paeans for the underdog have been inspired by the courage of Syrian refugees, have-a-go heroes and Gay Rights campaigners which sit seamlessly alongside narrative songs of First World War soldiers, Caribbean and Jewish immigrants, including the founder of one of our best known British High Street stores.

Not forgetting their native North East heroes, The Young’uns inspiration also comes from further afield – the banks of Spain’s River Ebro (Bob Cooney’s ‘Miracle’) and the Thalys train terrorist attack in France. (‘Carriage 12’). There are constant changes of tempo and mood, from the jaunty sing-a-long ‘Ghafoor’s Bus’, celebrating their fellow Teessider who reached out to refugees across Europe to the slow, soaring beauty of ‘Lapwings’ (as performed on BBC-TV’s Springwatch), inspired by a First World War diary entry from a soldier homesick for English fields and skies and the sublime, poetic ‘Dark Water’ where they are backed by Aldeburgh Young Musicians and Radio 3’s Mary Ann Kennedy on harp.

Stand-out song ‘Be The Man’ was inspired by the incredibly moving story of Matthew Ogston and his fiancé Nazim Mahmood – its poignancy elevated by ex Bellowhead musician Rachael McShane on cello and fiddle and Chumbawamba’s Jude Abbott on melancholic flugelhorn. Matthew reacted to Sean’s lyrics saying: “I do not have the right words to even begin to explain how your words have touched my soul and heart”.

Sean’s songs have reached some of the people who inspired them including Syrian refugee Hesham Modamani, now living in Germany and Paris-based American-Frenchman Mark Moogalian, injured in the Thalys train attack, who heard Carriage 12 and wrote to say: “Many thanks for this wonderful song – the only thing that has ever brought tears to my eyes regarding what happened that day.”

These are powerful songs prompted by remarkable stories – making for an ultimately upbeat album full of hope, echoing the lyric from ‘Ghafoor’s Bus’: “There’s a friendly face, a better place and a future for us all”

Striking a chord wherever they go, the emphatic Strangers marks a milestone chapter in The Young’uns brilliant story.

Recorded at The Chairworks in Castleford and Loft Studios in Newcastle, Strangers is produced by Neil Ferguson, released on Hereteu Records label and distributed by Proper Music.

Strangers will be showcased on an extensive UK tour (October 4-27) including a debut at London’s Union Chapel and dates at Sage Gateshead (Hall 1), Glasgow’s Oran Mor and The Sugar Club in Dublin – their first headline gig in Ireland. Support for most dates comes from The Hut People, with singer songwriter Greg Russell opening for the trio in Nottingham and Lincoln.

Artists’ website: http://www.theyounguns.co.uk/

‘Be The Man’ – radio edit:

THE YOUNG ‘UNS – Another Man’s Ground (Hereteu Records YNGS30)

Another Man's GroundThe only reason that this album isn’t absolutely perfect is that there isn’t enough of it. It’s not that The Young ‘Uns have short-changed us – there are twelve finely-crafted tracks here – but they make their points with remarkable alacrity and three tracks make it across the line in under two minutes.

The trio’s music remains rooted in the North-East and their choice of covers reflects those roots. There are two songs from Teesside songwriter Graeme Miles, both reflective of the changing times and landscape of the region and Ewan MacColl’s ‘School Days Over’ which applies to any mining area for a century.

The album opens with the neat pairing of the traditional ‘Jimmy Go Down To Your Uncles’ – a song about pawn shops – with ‘You Won’t Find Me On Benefits Street’, written by Sean Cooney and David Eagle giving a modern viewpoint on poverty. Politics are present in ‘Between The Wars’ proving that nothing has changed in the last thirty years and ‘Tom Paine’s Bones’ which serves to remind us what happens to those who don’t toe the line. Two of Sean’s songs are inspired by minor incidents in the Great War, both concerning letters. One was cast into the sea in a bottle and took eighty-five years to be delivered; the other came from the enemy and took a mere eleven days but both detail moments of humanity amongst the conflict. ‘Tenting Tonight’, a song from the American Civil War, is something of an odd man out but again reflects on the common humanity of both sides in a war.

‘The Streets Of Lahore’ is probably destined to go straight into the shared repertoire or generate a fatwah. It tells of the “honour” killing of a young woman in broad daylight outside the Lahore High Court, related as straightforwardly as such an atrocity can be. It is a stunning piece of writing but it really does test one’s tolerance for different views and ways of life.

Another Man’s Ground is an exceptionally fine record and, for once, I really can’t find anything to be critical about.

Dai Jeffries

If you would like to order a copy of the album (in CD or Vinyl), download it or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the banner link below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website. Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artists’ website: http://www.theyounguns.co.uk/

‘Between The Wars’ – Kansas City, February 2015:

THE YOUNG ‘UNS – Never Forget (Heretue Records YNGS10)

NeverForgetNever Forget begins and ends with contrasting views of the EDL march on the Bull Lane mosque following the murder of Lee Rigby. I caution you not to listen to ‘A Lovely Cup Of Tea’ before you have appreciated ‘The Biscuits Of Bull Lane’. Listening first in the car I got it wrong and thought that the former was too close to the edge. Even now I think it may be ill-advised but I’ll leave the judgement to you. Jez Lowe’s ‘Hands Feet’ certainly makes their position clear if anyone is in any doubt but I wonder if David is, in fact, saying that a fascist can’t be reformed.

In between, Sean Cooney, Michael Hughes and David Eagle are firmly grounded in their native north-east with two songs by Graeme Miles and six by Cooney including the wonderful ‘The Sandwell Gate’, a perfect representation of place and history in just four verses. Cicely Fox Smith may be a bit Hampshire but ‘Rosario’ is such a glorious combination of words and music that we’ll forgive her. ‘John Ball’ is the other southerner but he knew which side he was on.
Continue reading THE YOUNG ‘UNS – Never Forget (Heretue Records YNGS10)