Interview with Jonny and Lucy

November 17, 2010

Following my previous post about Jonny Kearney and Lucy Farrell, I asked them if they wouldn’t mind doing an interview.  They very kindly agreed, and here it is:

How did you meet?

Studying folk music at Newcastle university.

Which one of you would win in a fight?

Lucy says Lucy, Jonny says Jonny. The debate is causing disagreement, it may result in a fight.

You have a rather unique, haunting sound. Was this something you’ve worked to develop, or did it just appear naturally?

It happened naturally, we simply played together and a ‘sound’ emerged.

Would you describe yourself as folk performers?  Why?

Well in the sense we sing folk songs to folk audiences, yes. We also compose songs so I guess it’s really down to how you would define ‘folk’.

What next for the pair of you?

Well, we are embarking on a 3 week UK tour with Bellowhead starting today. Then we are recording an album over Christmas, which we will be touring in spring.

The majority of readers of this blog are here for the SF. What would recommend if someone wanted to start listening to folk?

There’s lots of great folk music around at the moment. The Unthanks are great. Chris Wood is great, Emily Portman, Phil & Cath Tyler, Alisdair Roberts, bellowhead, lau….

Lastly, which are better:  Robots or Accordions?

Difficult one.  Jonny says accordions, Lucy says robots.

Jonny: accordions have probably brought more joy to peoples lives.

Lucy: you can get a robot to do anything.

Jonny: I suppose, also you could get a robot to play an accordion, but you couldn’t get an accordion to play a robot.

Lucy agrees. Argument resolved.


Jackie Oates, Jonny Kearney and Lucy Farrell

November 3, 2010

Shaw Playhouse, Sunday 31st October.

It seems a little rude to spend most of an entry talking about the support act, but Jackie Oates has won the BBC Folk awards twice and is increasingly well known so she can perhaps share the attention for this entry at least.  Mind you, it would be churlish not to mention the variety of her set, the effortless way in which she would switch from singing to fiddle, and the confident tone that she coaxes from her instrument.  Such practised musicianship can pass easily pass unnoticed.  It’s also worth noting, for the sake of those who like to check that this blog’s integrity is maintained, that her backing band contained an accordionist.

But what about Jonny Kearney and Lucy Farrell, her support act?  I must admit, there was something about this duo that I took a dislike to when they first walked on. I don’t know what it was, maybe it was the fact that all the folk musicians look so young nowadays, but any doubts were quickly forgotten when they began to perform.  There is a haunting quality about their harmonies, the steady pace to their songs which is really quite unusual.  Even more unusually for a support act, they kept my attention all the way through their set.  If I have one criticism of this pair it was the unvarying nature of the tempo and feel of the pieces, but then again, if all the songs must be similar, let them be this good.

I’m going to keep an eye out for this pair.  I suggest you do, too.

Jon Boden and the Remnant Kings

May 30, 2010

Bury Met, 20/4/10

Half way through this concert, Jon Boden described his recent album, “Songs from the Floodplain”, as being set in world where the oil and other things had run out.  There was no electricity, and so people had to make their own entertainment.  Entertainment such as Folk Music.  This got a laugh and round of applause from the audience, which was rather ironic given that out of the couple of hundred people present, only five of us were making our own entertainment that evening.

It seems a shame to begin a review of such an excellent gig on what might seem to be a negative point, but, despite claims to the contrary, this was not Folk Music.  Yes, there were folk tunes included, yes the concert began with music played on wax cylinder phonographs,and yes, the songs had a folky feel, but taken as a whole, this was a very modern event.  The way the songs segued into each other; the way the group would set a cylinder playing on the phonograph and then join in; the attention to detail in the arrangements; all this showed a sit list as preprogrammed and rehearsed as something that Lady Gaga might perform.

Not that this is a problem.  Far from it: I don’t subscribe to the view that rehearsal is bad, and I deplore the way that amateurism is frequently passed off as self-expression.  This was a group of people who clearly had a vision about what they wanted to perform, and they delivered it.  (Incidentally, why is it, recently, that Sam Sweeney keeps turning up on stage when I go to a concert? He was playing the drums this time, occasionally with his fiddle bow.)

Anyway, I’m increasingly of the opinion that Jon Boden is not just a great arranger, but he’s shaping up to be one of our best song writers.  I’m looking forward to seeing how he develops.

I meant to write this entry earlier as the tour ends in Cambridge tonight, so it’s unlikely that anyone persuaded by this will have the opportunity to go and see the group.  Still, it allows me to describe how the show closes without spoiling it for anyone…

First, Jon Boden asks the sound techs to turn off the PA, then he launches into Stardust.  (It’s funny how this song is relatively unknown nowadays, given it was the most covered song ever until Yesterday.)  When he finishes, someone steps forward to play an old recording of the song on the phonograph, and the band accompany the song to close and fade.  Lovely, and strangely poignant.

I think I will end this entry in the same vein…

Though I dream in vain
In my heart it will remain
My stardust melody
The memory of love’s refrain

Eastern European Folk Tunes by Merima Kljuco

May 14, 2010

This blog gets more hits from people searching for accordion news than you might think, thus confirming that the worlds of SF and accordions are closer than you might think.  When oh when will the other SF writers wake up and realise this?

Anyway, here’s something about accordion music.

I bought the above book in Chappells from a gentleman who couldn’t quite keep the scorn from his voice as he announced to the store in general “Oh, one of those books with a CD in them.”

What is it about people who work in music shops that makes them so patronising?  Why did he feel it necessary to imply it was cheating to hear the music before I tried to read it? Did he think that was going to make me want to return to his shop?

Actually, I’m glad the CD was included as Merima Kljuco plays more than is written, and you get a feel for a very different style of playing.  Many of the tunes are in 7/8 or 11/8.  As someone who grew up listening to prog rock, unusual time signatures hold no fear for me, but Merima is at hand with advice for those experiencing difficulty suggesting a solution, as follows:

-simply by using the the name of the famous Russian composer, Peter Tchaikovsky.  I am sure he will not mind if we borrow his name to help us out.  How do we do this?  Simple: ‘2’ is always ‘Peter’ and ‘3’ is ‘Tchaikovsky’.

For example, on a 7/8 bar with a 2+2+3 division, think Pe-ter Pe-ter Tchai-ko-vsky

I don’t know about you, but I rather like the style of that explanation.

What about the tunes themselves?  I’ve been working through them over the past couple of months. Some of them sound rather odd at first to the Western ear, almost like a Hollywood parody of what Eastern European music should sound like, but as many of those early Hollywood writers were of Eastern European origin, I suppose they were simply reflecting what they knew.  But I find the tunes have grown on me.  They’re not as difficult to play as I imagined.  If anything, it’s the left hand that causes the most trouble as the extra beat has a habit of falling in (what is for me) the wrong place.

If you want a change from musettes and strathspeys, then this could be the book for you.   If you’re wondering what happened to the SF, well, maybe next time…

Debatable Spaces

January 13, 2010

SF Writer and scriptwriter Philip Palmer asked me to contribute to his SF Song of the Week feature.  You can read about it by following the link.  I won’t give the game away by saying what it is (how about that for suspense?), but I’ll point out that I remember listening to this at university and thinking “That would make a good story”.

That got me thinking about music that has inspired me to write.  More on that, I think, in a later blog.


November 29, 2009

Unlike many people, I don’t actually have a problem with X Factor.  Yes, I find the way they humiliate people in the early stages of the contest annoying to say the least, and yes, I’m fed up with the way they draw out announcing the results, but no, I don’t see any problem with having a talent show on TV. I can’t help thinking that some of the ire directed against it is due to the fact that everyone can participate in it, and not just the privileged few who have attended stage school.

Anyway, this is a very roundabout way of getting to the fact that I saw Kerfuffle on Friday night in Stockport.  It was an odd (though very enjoyable) event.  I can’t remember the last time I went to a folk gig where they put cashew nuts on the table, and I’m sure I’ve never been to one in a boat club before.  There was something reassuringly and authentically folky (and I’m not being sarcastic) about the raffle at half time and the support act that had an almost Music Hall feel to it (I haven’t sang Cushy Butterfield for years).

Anyway, the band themselves are young and very talented.  Hannah James has an assured touch on the accordion and a wonderfully clear voice, Jamie Robert’s guitar playing put me in mind of John Renbourn.  The group played an eclectic range of music, whilst remaining firmly within the tradition.  Definitely a group to watch.

But what’s all this got to do with X Factor?  Not that much, I suppose, except to note that this is a group of young people who have been immersed in music from a young age and who came together after entering a folk competition at the Derby Assembly Rooms (the place where Alt.Fiction has been held!).  So there you are are.  Talent shows for Folk Musicians.  I wonder what Simon Cowell would make of that?

Incidentally, posts have been a bit slow here recently as I’m busy working on another project.  More about this in the new year…

Hymns Ancient and Modern

October 20, 2009

Watching Belshazzar’s Feast last Saturday evening in Bradford (they were the support band at the Bellowhead concert) I was struck by what an easily overlooked resource the hymn book is.

The pair played an old Welsh Hymn by the name of Ebenezer ( or Ton-Y-Botel), quoting the hymn number.  I checked  when I got home in the very tatty old book that I own and had a go myself.  It sounded great- even more so, I thought, when played in 3/4.

Now my preferred definition for Folk Music is something like this one I just found on the web :

the traditional and typically anonymous music that is an expression of the life of people in a community

and of course, hymns were an example of just that in the past for large parts of the community .

Of course, tunes travel both ways.  A quick scan through the hymn book showed many folk tunes appropriated by the church: Londonderry Air, Scarlet Ribbons even Scarborough Fair.  A quick scan through my records and CDs threw up such gems as John Renbourn’s excellent version of Monk’s Gate (which I remember singing as a child to the words “He who would valiant be”) and Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s Travellin’ on For Jesus, and an awful lot of Christmas Carols (I found at least five versions of While Shepherds Watched, including the local one which is sung to the tune of Jackson).

Anyway, I’ve been playing through the hymns, some of them sound very nice (at least, the ones written before 1950 do).  Definitely something to look at in order to increase your repertoire.  (Have you learnt the Valeta yet?)

By the way, I enjoyed Belshazzar’s Feast.  Accordion and Fiddle:  a classic combination.  I’m not so sure about the slide whistle though…

Unfashionable Folk 2

July 30, 2009

Crofty makes some good points in his blog about my post on Unfashionable Folk

One thing that got me thinking was when he traced back his own musical heritage.  At first, I thought, as Crofty did, that I am not like the Copper Family- a member of some folk music family going back through the generations.  But then it occurred to me, neither were the Copper Family.  Rather, they were members of a farming family who also liked to sing and play down the pub (albeit to a very high standard).

And that’s what most of us are.  People with day jobs who like to sing and play.

So what’s my musical heritage?  Well, my father is a talented Jazz Pianist, so I grew up listening to Jazz and Swing music, but that’s hardly in danger of dying out (nor is it really a North Eastern thing). But that’s not all I heard as a child…

My father also used to play clubs as part of a dance band.   I used to go with my grandparents to the last of the Tea Dances (in fact I can still do the Saunter Together and the Katherine Waltz (or Waltz Katrine as it is known up North))  So there is a bunch of songs that is fading from my memory, and I suppose they are part of my heritage.

So, the next time I sit down to play with Crofty, we could continue to work on our arrangement of the Princess Royal for Accordion and Guitar, or we could have a go at the Valeta and all those other old songs that neither of us really like, but will be forgotten unless people like us do something about them.  Or perhaps they’re not worth saving after all…

Unfashionable Folk

July 28, 2009

When was the last time you danced the Valeta?

My Parents danced it in the Social Clubs around the North East, my Grandparents danced it at Friday and Saturday Night Dances without fail, always before the interval came when they had the chance to practice more modern dances like the Twist and the Jive.

I heard the tune this weekend at an accordion club (another example of Unfashionable Folk) and it sounded familiar, so I’m assuming its lodged somewhere in my childhood.  Even so, it’s a dance that is fast heading to oblivion.

The trouble is, it’s too working class. This is why folk music is forgotten. Working class culture is ignored at best, sneered at at worst, and thus it gradually falls out of fashion.  In a hundred years or so the middle classes rediscover some of what has been lost and they resurrect it, but only for the few. Folk Music is, after all, working class music refined for the middle classes.

If you disagree with this, then put your money where your mouth is. This summer, rather than heading to Cropredy or whatever, head to your local Working Man’s Club or Pensioners’ Tea Dance and listen to a dying folk tradition.  Record the tunes, learn the dance steps and do your bit to preserve a piece of history.   Of course, the dances will look hopelessly old fashioned, and the music will sound funny compared to the stuff Show of Hands and the rest will be performing, but that, of course, is the point I’m trying to make.

Still not convinced?  Well, as soon as you’ve finished reading this, try doing a Google Search for the Valeta.  You won’t find much, and  yet ask anyone over a certain age and they will be convinced everyone knows it.

This is how traditions die.

Spiers and Boden

April 6, 2009

This blog has been noticeably lacking in accordions lately, so now is probably a good time to mention seeing Spiers and Boden (   at the Bury Met this weekend.  This has something to do with writing, so keep reading even if you don’t like folk music…

Now, as I may have mentioned before, this blog does not do reviews,  (Rather, it does robots and accordions), but I was struck by something as I watched the show.  Nowadays, through the use of computer sampling, a musician has a world of sounds at their fingertips as they sit down to play.  You would think that so much choice would lead to greater variety, however, all too often it can restrict people and lead to a sameness of production and arrangement.

But when you are restricted to a fiddle and a selection of melodeons then you have to work harder to vary the sound, and this is what Spiers and Boden did very successfully, keeping the audience interested for a two hour show. (Here’s a great site about melodeons, btw, especially if you’re not sure what one is

So, what does this have to do with writing?  Well, when sitting down to write SF, you have the whole universe at your fingertips.  So much choice can lead to writers block, or at least, a sameness of what is produced.  This enormous variety can actually be to the detriment of the author.  That’s why when I get stuck I concentrate on the smaller picture.

Sometimes it does you good to restrict yourself.