Fay Hield talks to Folking about touring, banjos and working in the shed

Fay Hield
Photograph by Dai Jeffries

Last year Fay Hield took her Hurricane Party on tour to promote her new album, Old Adam. They are on the road again soon so I had to ask if there was anything particularly significant about this tour.

“I’m hoping to bring my banjo along, actually.” I had to ask! “You’re the first person I’ve mentioned this to; not even the band yet. I’m hoping to do one solo, just me and the banjo and I’ll be bringing some older material back. There will be lots of Old Adam but lots of other things as well.”

The Hurricane Party will feature one line-up change. “The drummer will be Andy Tween because my regular drummer [Toby Kearney] is part of the Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra and he couldn’t get time off. So it’s Sam Sweeney. Rob Harbron, Ben Nicholls, Roger Wilson and Andy. He teaches at Wells Cathedral School and he’s great.”

As well as being an outstanding performer, Fay is also a distinguished academic combining her singing with teaching, writing and research which may explain why she works in a shed at the bottom of the garden away from domestic distractions.

“My Ph.D was about the folk scene and folk-singing communities and how they function – and why they’re brilliant because I was born and brought up into it. My family is the folk scene and I love it and get so much out of it. It’s what I like to do and it’s what I want to bring my kids up in and feel comfortable with. I wanted to understand why it’s so brilliant and yet why is everybody worrying about it dying out; why do people find it difficult to get in; why does it have a reputation for being a bit cliquey and how has that happened?

“My research is certainly not negative in trying to find all the badness in it and why it doesn’t work because it really does work for a lot of people. I’ve been working a bit on how audiences listen to folk music and I’m building that up into a book at the moment.”

Fay lectures in music management and ethno-musicology. “I love teaching. I cover all sorts of genres and parts of the world and it’s more about method and how to study music rather than standing there in front of a score.”

As a life-long devotee of folk music I still find it difficult to explain to someone who doesn’t get it what the appeal is. What does the expert think?

“Something in the songs catches me. Some songs you just think, ‘wow, that’s amazing’ and some songs you just have to sing over half a dozen times until you get inside it and then it doesn’t leave you alone. I find them very powerful, you build a bit of a relationship with them and you understand them – and you understand a bit about yourself because of how you understand them.”

And what about the melodies? To me, they just feel right, somehow. “A lot of people get very excited about modal tunes but a lot of them are straight major and the minor sometimes goes into Dorian. If I write a tune myself – I’m not a classically trained musician so I don’t really think in terms of major and minor – it doesn’t come out straight. It’s often pentatonic in a weird kind of way or there is something there. I do love that colour note stuff or when a melody drops and the bottom note is never the tonic, it goes to something a bit random but it fits.

“In classical music, if you put in a modal note it just feels a bit stuck in there but in this kind of music the tunes are so organic so they settle and fit – colourful but not in a dramatic way. People sing or play the tunes in a way that makes sense to them and rounds off the corners in different ways for different people so, yes, they do feel right.”

I’m not sure if any of that will help me. Perhaps I’ll just stick to ‘wow, that’s amazing’.

Artist’s website: http://www.fayhield.com/

‘Raggle Taggle Gypsy’ live:

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GEOFF LAKEMAN – After All These Years (own label GLAK-01)

After All These YearsGeoff Lakeman isn’t quite as famous as his sons but he is a much regarded singer and songwriter, particularly in the West Country. At 69 Geoff has finally succumbed to the temptation to record an album, After All These Years, produced by son Sean. Geoff usually performs solo with concertina but with friends and family like his it must have been impossible to resist getting them on board, although the contributions of Jim Causley, Cara Dillon, Kathryn Roberts, Sam Kelly, Ben Nicholls, Jamie Francis, Seth Lakeman and Nic Jones are commendably restrained except when it comes to choruses. Geoff himself has the voice of, if not a young man, then a young man who has seen a bit of life – strong and characterful.

If you were a folk club regular in the sixties and seventies you will be entirely at home with this set. Not that Geoff is locked in the past as his cover of Reg Meuross’ ‘England Green & England Grey’ proves but the mix of material is such that if you don’t care for a particular song you’ll like the next one.

The set opens with ‘The Farmer’s Song’. It was written by Roger Bryant but easily could be one of Geoff’s as he demonstrates with the next track, ‘Tie ’Em Up’. Both are about the decline of traditional rural industries and while both writers were preoccupied with the plight of Devon and Cornwall the same stories are true all around the country. ‘Rule And Rant’ is a bit of obscure Cornish history involving an ingenious mine rescue. The traditional songs include ‘Ye Lovers All’, a song of romantic teasing from Ulster, the well-known ‘Jim Jones’ and ‘The Green Cockade’ a Cornish version of the song that may have arrived from Ireland and ‘Bonny Irish Maid’ – there’s a pattern developing here.

There are a couple of oddities. The first is the original version of ‘Galway Bay’ – not that song and certainly not the celebrated parody (I confess that I was rather hoping for that) – and the closing ‘Doggie Song’. This is the sort of encore that you’ll still find in folk clubs and probably means a lot more in Cornwall but is best not recorded. That aside, this is a splendid album to unwind with, think about and sing along to.

Dai Jeffries

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Artist’s website: www.geofflakeman.co.uk

‘Tie ‘Em Up’ – live:

CARA DILLON – Upon A Winter’s Night (Charcoal CHARCCD008)

upon a winter's nightIn the absence this year of a new Kate Rusby festive collection for folk fans to warm their chilly cockles, Cara Dillon, aided and abetted by husband, musical partner and producer Sam Lakeman, steps up to the seasonal plate for her first Christmas offering, Upon A Winter’s Night, an 11-string stockingsworth of traditional nuggets, hymns and originals.

It’s one of the latter, the title track, written by Sam and Noah Lakeman, that kicks things off, a jaunty Nativity scene setter that also features Uilleann pipes, Luke Daniels on accordion and Kathryn Roberts on backing vocals. There’s three other originals, Cara and Sam providing the piano backed ‘Standing By My Christmas Tree’ with its interpolation of ‘Silent Night’ and bells-pealing keyboard notes as well as the simply arranged lullaby closer ‘Mother Mary’, he on acoustic guitar and she joined on vocals in the final refrains by a family affair of Colm, Noah and Elizabeth Lakeman. The third is Sam’s own instrumental contribution, a lively woodland romp with ‘The Huntsman’, again featuring Jarlath Henderson on Uilleann pipes and Daniels on accordion alongside fiddle from Niall Murphy and James Fagan’s bouzouki with Ben Nicholls providing stalwart bass.

The other numbers are the couple’s arrangements of, by and large, very familiar seasonal tunes, first up, introduced by Murphy’s fiddle sounding like a hunting horn, being a traditional folk-sounding reading of ‘The Wexford Carol’ that gathers to fulsome fiddle finale. Rather less known, based on a traditional Polish carol, ‘Infant Holy, Infant Lowly’ is another lowing lullaby and introduces John Smith on guitar. Considerably better known is the evergreen ‘The Holly and the Ivy’, here taken at a swayalong tempo on the back of fiddle, pipes and accordion and featuring guest viocals from both Roberts and Sam’s father, Geoff.

By contrast, while often given a rousing chorus flourish, here ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’ is an altogether more contemplative affair etched out by just her voice and Sam’s piano, a fine companion piece to the wholly a capella ‘O Holy Night’, Adolphe Adams’ 19th century setting and translation of a French poem (Midnight Christians) on which she duets with older sister Mary, their version joining a list that includes Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Bing Crosby and, more recently, Ellie Goulding.

This is, in turn, followed by another breath of fresh winter air with ‘Mary Bore A Son To God’, one of the earliest known Irish language carols and sung here in the original Gaelic (‘Rug Muire Mac Do Dhia’),a slightly softer reading than that previously done by Horslips with Henderson’s Wilson taking the fiddle parts.

Finally, once whisperingly recorded by Bono, there’s another traditional Irish carol, ‘The Darkest Midnight’, which taken from the Kilmore Carols collection of South Wexford (albeit a trimmed down version) is again arranged for just her voice and Sam’s acoustic guitar and piano, another lovely grace note to a collection that very much has its mind set on celebrating the real meaning of Christmas. A touch more contemplative than Rusby’s South Yorkshire offerings perhaps, but likely to prove an equally enduring bauble on folk’s festive fir.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: www.caradillon.co.uk

Velvet & Stone announce debut album

Velvet & Stone

The Storm is the debut release from Devon-based alt-folk trio Velvet & Stone. Lyrically drawing on a rich palette of life stories, life events, the natural world and melancholy West Country tales, The Storm is exquisitely delivered in six haunting compositions, topped by distinctive vocals, crisp guitars and soaring violin.

Formed by “fates colliding” at a Devon pub in February 2014, Velvet & Stone comprises Lara Snowdon (lead vocals, acoustic guitar), Holly Jo Gilbert-West (lead vocals, acoustic guitar) and Kathryn Tremlett (violin, piano).

“We all bring different things to the group,” says Lara. “Holly and I have a folk background. Kat adds another dimension with her classical past.”

“We all contribute to the writing and play around with a mix of genres. Our songs focus on stories of us, people we know, or things we’re inspired by. We’re lucky to live in such a beautiful part of the world and that comes through in our music,” Holly explains.

Within months of forming, the talented trio won an opportunity to record at The Convent – a venue and studio in Stroud, Gloucestershire and The Storm is the stunning result.

Joining Velvet & Stone for the recording sessions were renowned musicians Ben Nicholls (Seth Lakeman, Patsy Reid) on bass, and drummer Andrew Tween (Seth Lakeman, Show of Hands), while producer Jack Henderson (Over The Rhine, Cowboy Junkies) also played guitar and keyboards.

The Storm opens with the sublime ‘Fisherman’s Blues’, which focuses on a girl growing up in a fishing town. “It’s a folk song from a female perspective and is about the cycle of life,” says Lara, while ‘Forget About The Rain’ concerns heartbreak, and ‘Patchwork’, an equally poignant take on love, but with references to Devon, closing with the majestic title track.

“I wrote ‘The Storm’ on a beach in Cornwall,” says Lara. “It’s about the sense of feeling alive when there’s a storm coming. Soon after that we went up to Holly’s house and her mum was going storm chasing, so that added to it, although it’s metaphorical, not just about a physical storm.”

A compact, diverse and beguiling debut set, The Storm is sure to boost Velvet & Stone’s growing reputation.

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Artists’ website: https://velvetstonemusic.com/

‘Same Old Record’ and ‘The Storm’ – live at The Convent:

FAY HIELD – Old Adam (Soundpost Records SOPO 5003)

FAY HIELD - Old Adam (Soundpost Records SOPO 5003)Fay Hield’s third solo album is all traditional except when it isn’t. That is, except when the tune is by Hield herself and/or Jon Boden or the song is written by Rudyard Kipling and Peter Bellamy or Tom Waits. Although not given full billing on the front cover, The Hurricane Party – Sam Sweeney, Rob Harbron, Roger Wilson, Ben Nicholls and Toby Kearney – are back alongside the aforementioned Mr Boden and Martin Simpson. Fay is scrupulous about crediting her sources and I do worry when those sources are singers I grew up listening to.

The opening track, ‘Green Gravel’, is described as a playground song although there is a misery about it that isn’t very childish but that mood is quickly dispelled by the jolly ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsy’ and ‘Katie Catch’. The title track is a non-Biblical account of the life of the first man, told as though the expulsion from Eden didn’t happen – it is said of Eve that “her neighbours she ne’er scandalised” and she is described as “the jewel of woman found”. Yeah, right.

The best version of ‘Queen Eleanor’s Confession’ I ever heard was by Rosemary Hardman and the version by Tim Hart and Maddy Prior, which Fay uses here, ignored the melodrama and inherent comedy of the song. Rosemary recorded the song nearly fifty years ago and perhaps sensibilities have changed but I always found Tim and Maddy a bit po-faced about the story as is Fay. ‘The Hornet And The Beetle’ makes a serious point and ‘Jack Orion’ is a famous tale of what? – not quite cuckolding although we can suppose that the countess is married so it’s probably adultery. Whatever, it’s a ribald tale but with murder in the final verse. Tom Waits’ ‘The Briar And The Rose’ seems an odd choice at first glance coming, as it does, from one his more difficult albums, The Black Rider, but strip away the preconceptions and you can see the traditional themes woven into the story.

Needless to say the arrangements are beautifully judged often casting a new light on a song and ‘Go From My Window’ is a perfect example. It can be a real dirge but the banjo and up-front percussion give it pace and the key changes in ‘Anchor Song’ seem to enable Fay to get through it in record time. Leaving aside personal preferences this is an excellent album by any standards.

Dai Jeffries

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Artist’s website: http://www.fayhield.com/

‘Raggle Taggle Gypsy’ live at well-known north London venue:

Fay Hield Announces Details of New Album

Fay Hield Announces Details of New Album

Following the considerable success of The Full English album and touring band, which she assembled, singer Fay Hield is due to release her 3rd solo album, Old Adam on Soundpost Records on 12th February 2016 and will tour in February and March too. Meanwhile, a digital single, taken from the album, featuring ‘Willow Glen’ and ‘Green Gravel’ is now available.

Old Adam is a fresh and original exploration of how we use stories and music to understand what it means to be human and combines not only Fay’s gift for unearthing striking material but also her distinctive and naturalistic delivery of it. These qualities have won her critical acclaim for her previous solo albums (Looking Glass in 2010 and Orfeo in 2012, both on Topic Records) including several BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards and a nomination for Folk Singer of the Year.

Old Adam contains 14 tracks, ranging from ‘The Hag In The Beck’ from the 1600s to ‘The Briar and the Rose’, a version of a Tom Waits song. The title track explores the oldest story in the book: the fantasy of a purity of life, before corruption and sin. “Perhaps it was a result of the developing sins that we have these songs to help us make sense of it all”, says Fay.

‘Willow Glen’ is taken from the Lucy Broadwood collection, while ‘Green Gravel’ (from Alice Gomme’ s Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland) is an interpretation of a playground song. ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsy’ moves into the realms of fantasy, with an enticing glimpse of a world we could inhabit, if only we would follow our hearts. Themes of justice (and injustice) are explored in ‘Queen Eleanor’s Confession’ (from a version by Tim Hart and Maddy Prior) and ‘The Hornet and the Beetle’ is from the collection of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Many of the lyrics are adapted by Fay and she has written several tunes as has her partner, Jon Boden. The arrangements on the album are all by Fay Hield and The Hurricane Party.

Fay is accompanied on Old Adam by her stellar band, The Hurricane Party, which consists of some of the finest folk musicians working today; Rob Harbron (English concertina, fiddle, vocals), Sam Sweeney (fiddle, viola, cello, nyckelharpa, vocals), Roger Wilson (fiddle, guitar, mandolin and vocals), expanded to include Ben Nicholls (bass) and Toby Kearney (percussion) and including special guests Jon Boden and guitar maestro, Martin Simpson.

As well as enjoying a blossoming recording and performing career, Yorkshire born and bred Fay is also an academic, lecturing in Music at the University of Sheffield where she specialises in the role folk music plays in the construction of communities. With her unique combination of performance and academic talents, it was perhaps inevitable that she would be invited by the English Folk Dance & Song Society to head their ground-breaking Full English project. For the first time many of the finest early 20th century folksong collections can be found in the most comprehensive searchable database of British folk songs, tunes, dances and customs in the world.

Fay assembled The Full English Band, pulling together half a dozen of the top talents on the English folk music circuit, including Seth Lakeman, Martin Simpson, Nancy Kerr, Sam Sweeney, Rob Harbron and double bassist Ben Nicholls. This “supergroup” toured for two years and released a self-titled album, again on Topic Records, winning Best Group and Best Album at the 2014 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. Fay Hield continues in her passionate and engaging exploration of the repertoire of the English tradition. At times sparse and contemplative, at others, fired-up with a spirit lifting rhythm and plenty of rousing choruses, the music on Old Adam is both captivating and thought-provoking.

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Artist’s website: http://www.fayhield.com/

‘The Poor Old Weaver’s Daughter’ live :