Me and my blog

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Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Letter to John Whittingdale MP, chairman of the culture, media & sport select committee, about the BBC Radio 2 folk awards and its anonymous judges

Dear Mr Whittingdale, 

Lovely to meet you last night: I'm so sorry I couldn't stay for dinner. 

As I said, I'm a professional journalist - presently at the Guardian as a sub-editor, formerly at the Telegraph as an associate editor - who writes a music blog.

Two years ago I met someone who was a judge for the BBC folk awards and, thinking this might be interesting as there is usually a chorus of moaning about the nominees (the same names seem to come up every year, is the gist of it), did an off-the-record interview with them about it. The reason the interview was off the record was that the judge I met was under the impression that the names of the awards' judges were supposed to be a secret. There was some confusion around this. Mike Harding, who presented the BBC Radio 2 folk show at the time, said the names weren't a secret.

But then John Leonard, who runs Smooth Operations, the production company that produces the folk show and the folk awards for the BBC, waded in and not only said that, yes, they were a secret, but also came up with an elaborate justification for this.

It turned out that the BBC has guidelines for running awards that specify transparency as one of the criteria

so I submitted a freedom of information request to the relevant department at the BBC

only to be told that the request for the names of the judges had been denied because the BBC folk awards are "journalism" and therefore excluded from submitting to FoI rules. Since I'm the journalist in this scenario, that was ridiculous. It made me wonder why go to all this trouble instead of simply supplying the names? By this stage there was so much interest that one would assume it would simply have been easier to supply the names.

Roy Greenslade at the Guardian had picked up the story

as did The Independent

But nothing occurred until the next year, when a month or so before the nominations were announced I received a phone call from Fergus Dudley, head of compliance at Radio 2, saying that there were going to be some changes to the folk awards to make them more transparent

I was invited by Fraser Nelson at the Spectator to write a piece at this stage about why it was important

And that was basically where it lay until this year, when the awards nominations were announced in November and it became clear that Dudley's hints and suggestions about naming the judges this year were only that, and had apparently been designed to get me off his back. In response to my inquiries directly to Fergus Dudley and John Leonard I got an email from a junior press officer who was unaware of the history of the request.

This all sounds a bit specific and of interest only to folkies. But the BBC Radio 2 folk awards is the best marketing platform the UK acoustic and roots music industry has, although it does not appear to see itself in this way. There are, I understand, over 180 anonymous judges for these awards, all of whom by Smooth Operations' own admission, have a financial stake in the industry. This is the qualification for the job and many of them know each other. In fact they are laughingly referred to as the "folk mafia" (see my latest post, an interview with Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span, for an example of this). When I started writing about the awards the first thing John Leonard did was try to co-opt me by inviting me to become a judge. 

Mumford & Sons are the biggest band in the world right now and to the rest of the world they are an English folk band. But no other English folk bands have benefited from this surge in international interest, despite there being a folk scene in the UK that is full to overflowing with young talent struggling to get by, because the industry's biggest marketing platform - the BBC Radio 2 folk awards - has never invited Mumford & Sons to take part, nor have they ever nominated them for an award for reasons explored in the Spectator piece. Instead, and despite a constant throughput of new young bands that need a boost in a difficult environment, the same bands run by the same handful of middle men and women get nominated every year, as if folk were a niche thing. Indeed, John Leonard argues that it is, which in his case is self-fulfilling. For instance, Laura Marling has had three unsuccessful Mercury nominations now, as if she were the only young British folk musician the industry-wide Mercury judges have heard of.

Here is a link to a recent More 4 documentary about the groundswell going on in the British folk industry saying many of the same things I'm saying here: I had nothing to do with its production. It is also worth noting that the documentary is one of the few pieces of TV folk output in this country that has had nothing to do with Smooth Operations, which also does much of the folk festival coverage for Sky. 

This is a British industry crying out for the kind of help that the BBC is ideally suited to provide, indeed is supposed to be providing. But instead the BBC runs the awards as if they were a club for John Leonard's mates from the folk clubs of the 60s and 70s adding ever more "lifetime achievement awards" each year. These clubs are no longer relevant to a young generation of musicians financially crippled by college debt who can't afford to go touring up and down the country's folk clubs, which are - it often seems - entirely populated by people who are themselves in their 60s and 70s: this is not ageism, they are simply a very small section of the music-buying, gig-going public. John Leonard, it seems to me, is confused about folk clubs' relevance these days. Young musicians rely on the web for marketing when they are starting out, as every other industry does, but there's no indication from the awards nominations that the judges are even aware of the web, focusing on bands that have been around for four years or longer. There is a separate section for "young" musicians, which does little justice to the breadth and scope of what's out there.

Britain's creative industries are one of its great exports, I believe that the UK market is simply too small to support the amount of folk, roots and acoustic talent we have on these shores and that the BBC institutionally is not pulling its weight in this regard. I also think that if they named the judges of the folk awards, as Fergus Dudley (head of radio 2 compliance) suggested they would before doing a U-turn, we would see why the awards nominees are pulled from such a shallow pool of talent. (I have been told that there are judges on the list who haven't left their own homes for months, relying entirely on the Mark Radcliffe Radio 2 show for their information about what's new.) The fact that this has not been done, moreover, suggests that the BBC knows it has something to hide.

My campaigning on this issue has received an enormous amount of support from folk music fans and musicians, which is evident from the comments on the blogs, as well as emails and personal messages of support when I'm out and about. In particular Phil Widdows at Folk Cast has also campaigned on this.

I would be enormously grateful if you were able to pass this to the people at the committee who regularly deal with the BBC, to see if anything can be done: if any questions could be asked of Fergus Dudley about his intransigence on a matter that seems so cut and dried even by the standards of the BBC's own guidelines? I believe naming the folk awards judges would eventually have a knock-on effect for the music industry in this country that would be wildly disproportionate to the effort involved.

I also believe that the BBC's FoI office is "broken" and would be grateful if you could add my evidence to anything similar you have on the same subject.

All best wishes
Emma Hartley

* If anyone else would like to email John Whittingdale, to add support to my email, you can reach him at This is a constituency office email address, but if you label the email "BBC folk awards, anonymous judging" it should reach the staff who deal with his duties as chairman of the culture, media and sport select committee.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter at @emma1hartley

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Maddy Prior on Wintersmith, Peter Knight's departure and why being in Steeleye Span is hard

"We haven't learned anything about how to deal with being in a band. 
We've learned nothing. We've never been sensible, that's just never been part of our make-up. A lot of the time there are stresses that are quite unnecessary."

"Terry (Pratchett) has listened to our music from way back," said Maddy Prior. "He was introduced to Boys of Bedlam as a young man and when you read his books you recognise references to our work. He quotes lines from our songs and you sort of recognise them. So he uses 'you love not where you live' which is a song that we do... But he also knows a lot of other material."

I was asking what it was that, in essence, Steeleye Span and Terry Pratchett have in common because after reading Wintersmith - the book on which the band's latest album is based - it struck me that it was more than just an appreciation of each other's work (which has been apparent since Pratchett chose Thomas the Rhymer as his track to keep on Desert Island Discs and Prior says she has read 10-15 of his books). It's as if the sensibility of each is from the same wellspring: something essentially English, historically truthful but also fantastical. They inhabit the same psychic landscape.

Reading Wintersmith, I was particularly moved by Pratchett's witches: complicated, hard-working, under-appreciated women, somewhere between wise and clever (on the whole), with senses of humour but also the knowledge that they might fall off the edge of society at any time. He anatomises the social high wire act of these characters with aching, heartbreaking clarity while also keeping it the right side of sentimental through the usual English device of making a joke out of the whole thing. 

I've also been struck that Pratchett's deep empathy with those characters may go a little further than is entirely usual, in the sense that in public appearances he has often chosen to look as much like one of them as it is reasonable for a man to do.

That's not just me, is it?

Prior began speaking about the history of witchcraft and the patriarchal landscape that real-life so-called "witches" made their way through, recommending a book on the subject that I can see on Amazon is also one of Hilary Mantel's favourites. (Guess what I'm buying myself for Christmas.) "I find it very interesting the way that Terry has presented the witches: they play the game of being scary but... It was a change in social circumstances that led to this myth.

"There had always been wise women and women who knew about herbs and medicine. But suddenly communities were separated form the land and from each other and all the old communal ways of being were ended. One of the ways that remained of surviving was by threatening people if they didn't help you. So it's very interesting to know that during the witch trials you had to prove that you'd done something to a woman to make her put a spell on you: in order to get her convicted you had to explain how you had threatened her. It was a very complicated social manoeuvre and Terry looks at that in a kind of inverted way. 

"The great thing about his books, though, is that there is never total evil, just people getting the wrong end of the stick. He's not so much a feminist as a humanist.

"I'm lucky in that I've never had to deal with really bad situations in life, in which people have no empathy for each other. But I know that it happens and that when it does, it can be... Terry's explanation for all this is that the perpetrators have something missing: it's not deliberate evil in that sense."

Sounds like he's coming at the issue of psychopathy from a very kindly perspective, which is reassuring but not necessarily the response that psychopaths evoke when you meet them. What saves Pratchett's worldview from tweeness is the shadows around the edges, into which people - the witches - will fall when things go wrong. He writes about "cackling" as the gateway to insanity, the thing that witches start to do when they're on their own if things are going badly for them and down which road you find "poisoned spinning wheels and gingerbread cottages". The first time I read that, I shuddered involuntarily, my childhood dread of becoming lost in the Great North Woods or somesuch, plunging to the surface.

So why is Peter Knight leaving the band at the end of the Wintersmith tour?

"I'm not quite sure," said Prior. "Maybe it's time to have a break and do other things. Gigspanner is his baby and that's what he wants to do. It's a bit late on for returns but I would never say it's out of the question."

There was a slight pause. 

"Actually, though, we've only just found out and it's been a very stressful tour as a result. When someone is leaving it changes the dynamics of the band. What we'll do next I'm not sure. He's left before though."


"Yes. In the 70s. Peter and Bob left and Martin (Carthy) and John (Kirkpatrick) joined. Then a year or so slid by and we reformed with Pete and Bob again. You get something in each musical situation that you're in that you don't get anywhere else and sometimes you miss that. Pete will never get what he gets from Steeleye anywhere else - it's a different dynamic. 

"There has always been a drive in Steeleye that has made it a very powerful band. There is a huge amount of energy, a huge sound that is extremely distinctive that comes from those of us who have been in the band the longest. But it's always been a difficult band to be in."

How do you mean?

"There is a lot of tension: strong personalities and huge dynamics. Never a day goes by that we don't have a row. You would think that after all this time we would get on. But no. Pete is just finding it too much at the moment. 

"But that's actually what makes it a very interesting band. We haven't learned anything about how to deal with being in a band. We've learned nothing. We've never been sensible, that's just never been part of our make-up. A lot of the time there are stresses that are quite unnecessary.

"I look at all these young people navigating their way between bands on the scene these days and think how good they are at that and wonder how they do it?

"But the other side of our equation is that we laugh a lot. Our energy comes out in different directons: very positive and very, very negative. But it's springing out in all directions at the moment. It's amazing that we've lasted this long really.

"I really have no idea what we will do with Peter gone. He's very distinctive: it would be like trying to replace me. It's a voice that nobody else has, a voice in which he has spent 45 years learning how to speak. If somebody else were coming in, it would be difficult."

Still, at the Barbican gig on Monday, Spiers & Boden joined Steeleye on stage for a stunning evening that was notable partly for the look of unadulterated pleasure on the duo's faces and the way they were hanging around at the side of the stage, clearly hoping to be invited to join in All Around My Hat. Well you would, wouldn't you?

As they left the stage again the question: "You wouldn't like to join the band, would you?" floated after them. But I guess that since Spiers & Boden are packing in their double act apparently to devote more energy to Bellowhead, it's hard to see how they'd make time for another folk behemoth...

So what advice would she give her younger self? When I spoke to Peter Knight a few months ago - he broke the news about the Wintersmith project - he spoke with some regret about the lack of business acumen they'd had in the 70s...

"We were never shrewd people and that's the nature of the business. We had fantastic times touring the US, they were great days. We fought and raged and laughed our way around and I wouldn't have missed it. And this is what our lives have been. Why would I change it? The easiest place in the world is the grave and yet we spend our lives trying to make things easy.

"Sometimes this is lovely work. But my experience has been that as soon as you put a lot of energy in, it stops being easy. The more you invest in something the harder it gets and by the end nothing in my life will have been invested in to the same extent as Steeleye, simply in time alone."

A couple of people sent questions about spin-off projects. The first was whether there will be a follow-up to Three for Joy and then there was another, from someone on Twitter calling themselves Fractal Geek, asking how you got into "obscure but fab, odd-tempo east European stuff"? 

"Well, Hannah, Giles and I will be touring with Three for Joy next year, starting in April, and we'll probably record something as well. Hannah is such a little treasure and she and Giles are such a delight to work with. This is what I mean about not getting the same energy with any band..."

"We are looking at yodelling at the moment: I'm trying to get some skills: I've never had any skills particularly."

This seems like an odd thing to say for someone who's in a band that was partly responsible for producing an entire generation of musicians, although given the number of young multi-instrumentalists playing folk these days, I can see where she's coming from.

"Hannah and Giles are both very skilled in lots of different areas. It's difficult to yodel well: to actually control it is quite difficult. But Hannah learned it on an exchange in Finland at Sibelius academy. She's a sponge for learning things and I'm picking up stuff that drops off as she rides by."

And the east European stuff?

"June Tabor and I sang Bulgarian material. It was the first thing we learned together, I think because an album came out on Topic in the 60s and it kind of became a part of our canon. But again, I think it's Hannah who's really nailed this stuff. She goes to ethno-music camps that are often in Slovenia and teaches them English music and in return she learns yodelling and overtone singing."

You're obviously impressed by and fond of Hannah and Giles. What do you think the outlook is for youngsters on the folk scene?

"Traditional music is massive these days, isn't it? All these players: there are so many of them. It's just like it was in the 60s but there are so many of them and they are so much more skilful and they all grew up on it. Hannah's parents went to festivals and took her with them and her mum was in a dance team, which is how she became aware of clogging. I didn't come to all this until I was 17 and there was nobody else doing it. We had to find it ourselves.

"What the youngsters need is a massive audience, whereas what they've got is the same audience we had and quite often exactly the same people. When I was young, people used to say to us 'Why don't you get a proper job?' Whereas these days it seems to have somehow become the proper job, the one where if you play your cards right you can make good money.

"The audience in the US is massive, just colossal. Almost every state is the same size on its own that the UK is." The trouble is finding a way of reaching it, though.

I talked a bit about how the UK's highest profile marketing platform - the BBC folk awards - somehow doesn't seem to see itself as a marketing platform and is, in my opinion, letting the youngsters in the industry down quite badly. The secrecy surrounding the judging process is only the start of it, as I suspect knowing the average age of the judges would reveal the nature of the problem, allowing it to be fixed. (Expect more on this soon, since Fergus Dudley turned out to be saying the things he said last year simply to get me off his back. Nothing has changed.)

"I know what you're saying. I'm not denying that the folk mafia has become a bit... What you need is young producers. There are some in their 30s and 40s. I'm thinking of Bellowhead. But they're really playing to the same crowd that we've always played to. It's the middle men they need, to find a new market for them. It is a problem.

"It's the same in Scotland. They have a massive number of players. But it's almost that nobody English is going up there any more and nobody Scottish is coming down here. That border has become very strong. I live nine miles from the border and I think it's an independence thing. I don't quite know what has happened: perhaps that country's resentment has just come to fruition?"

It's been a pleasure, Maddy.

* You can buy the beautiful Wintersmith album, here. And Terry Pratchett's quietly brilliant book here, where there is also a Terry Pratchett blog.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

Monday, 2 December 2013

Crisis averted: Ruth Skipper fails to leave Moulettes

Saturday was one of the final outings for the Moulettes' Bears Revenge album, at a gig in Islington town hall that also had Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker on the bill. And it was an amazing night: I took two friends who hadn't seen Moulettes before and by the end they were both slightly dazed by the sheer volume and energy of the thing, which some might say defies description. However, I am characteristically undeterred...

It's got a folky vibe while consisting only of original songs, but with more energy on one stage than you'd normally get in an entire folk festival: something that Shepley got around nicely by booking them this year. Comparisons with Bellowhead and The Destroyers are apt because at one stage there were 15 of them playing - not even  including Arthur Brown, who appeared in full make-up towards the end. But neither Bellowhead nor The Destroyers have a bassoonist in a dirndl, or the majority of their melody lines played by a cello and a fiddle. And it's all about the girls. When they really let rip they have a touch of the Indigo Girls about them, musically speaking, exploding with colour and romance: imagery piles on top of swooping, banging, melodies in such a way that you feel you're being taken on a magical journey to a place they found themselves. As it turns out, this is entirely what they had in mind.

They're also extremely playful, something that got them into hot water in Liverpool, where they have a hard-earned reputation as sexually deviant pagans. But there was a disturbing rumour going around that Ruth Skipper - of the dirndl, the bassoon and, just recently, the Bride-of-Frankenstein-style hairdo - would be leaving the band at the end of this tour, due to commitments to her medical career: she is a qualified doctor.

"But I'm not going," she said.


"We did loads of auditions, including several French people who couldn't understand our lyrics. So we were treated to their interpretations of our lyrics instead, which was, um, interesting."

But there was no bassoon-playing, dirndl-wearing Bride-of-Frankenstein-a-like among them?

"Not a one. But  I'm not wearing the dirndls any more. Haven't you noticed?"

Sorry. I guess they left a pretty big impression.

"Well, I'm not wearing the dirndls any more because I'm trying to move away from the whole folky thing."

I see.

"But I've got 15 of them. So it's hard to imagine they're gone forever," she added. "We may actually have found a replacement for me of sorts, but she doesn't play the bassoon."

So in what sense is she a replacement?

"She sings."

Excellent. I'd wondered whether the pianist - Matt Gest? - who'd appeared that evening might be up to the job because he had the whole bass range going on. Not that a piano packs quite the same punch as a bassoon at full, buzzing volume.

"No... My replacement would have to be a girl," she grinned.

So the girl in the dirndl with the doom stick and the badger-flashes in her hair is completely irreplaceable: who'd've thunk it? But how she's going to combine touring the forthcoming new album with a full surgery rotation in Brighton next year is anyone's guess

In one other nice piece of news, it turns out that Hannah's mum has something in common with John Spier's dad, in the sense that both took up their offspring's instruments after hearing and appreciating the success that was being made of them. So there are, presumably, now two fabulous cellists in the Miller family.

* Stop press: I understand there are, in fact, three cellists in Hannah's family, as her sister Esther also plays.

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Sunday, 10 November 2013

A first Glamour Cave playlist. Enjoy!

It seemed like a logical step.

While I'm waiting to hear back from Big Country about the pickle they seem to have got themselves in with the rights to their music, my eyes fell on some Spotify tokens given to me for my birthday by my friends Hari Patience and Nick Cowen *waves at Hari and Nick*

I'm afraid I haven't really considered the whys and wherefores of who gets the money from Spotify, though I understand it's not a very good deal for the musicians. However, in my defence I own CDs with nine out of ten of these songs on it - the exception being the theme from The Hobbit. And this is the case because I harbour an atavistic fear, probably born from growing up in the 1980s under the terror of imminent nuclear armageddon, that one day iTunes will simply change the terms and conditions for its online music (contained in one of those enormous legal documents that you never read before ticking the box at the bottom) and I'll lose everything I've ever bought from them.

Give me a CD every time. Though Spotify is good for hearing new stuff...

When my friends sit around in the Glamour Cave I play them whatever I'm excited about that week, hoping to elucidate a similar reaction. It's the musical equivalent of jumping up and down on a desert island waving and shouting "Hey! Are there any humans out there?" This is the same thing on a larger scale.

It's been fun to do. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I immediately put another one together, thinking that I might do one each month. So roll on December.

There should be ten on there, though for some reason ahab doesn't seem to have shown up on my preview (why?). Anyway, let me know what you think. 

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

Monday, 4 November 2013

Big Country takes the money, refuses to endorse the Yes campaign for Scottish independence

The Today programme had a piece a week or so ago about the campaign for Scottish independence and, soaring in the background, I heard one of the sounds of my adolescence, One Great Thing by Big Country. Oh glory... it's the Yes camp's campaign song.

Ah, I thought, that makes sense. Half the band was, if I recall, at least half Scottish, their guitars sound like bagpipes and they are identified with Scotland in my mind. It makes sense that they'd come out in favour of a Yes to Scottish independence, referendum on 18 September next year. 

I called the office of the Yes campaign and asked whose idea it had been to use the song as their anthem and whether they'd got an official endorsement from the band?

"It was suggested by Jim Downie and Will Atkinson, part of the creative team," said Sean Lafferty in the press office at the Yes campaign. But I understood that permission to use the song was given by the record company rather than the band.

I guess it's possible that they didn't know that Big Country are back on the road with two of the original members - Mark Brzezicki and Bruce Watson - and will be touring next year to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the release of their magnificent album Steeltown. I emailed them via the band's website...

In return I received a message from someone signing him or herself "J" who first asked whose idea it had been at Scottish Independence HQ to use the song. And when I told them I got this reply: "If you read between the lines the use of the song is not overly appreciated at this point."

Oh dear. You'd think that political campaigns would learn... I'm thinking about Ronald Reagan and Springsteen's Born in the USA, which Reagan - along with a lot of other people - misunderstood as a patriotic anthem when in fact it was about an angry Vietnam vet. There are also inherent difficulties in co-opting music and therefore musicians for political causes, not least because several band members amounts, inevitably, to several political points of view.

To clarify, I contacted Big Country's management and asked whether allowing the music to be used by the Yes campaign amounted to an endorsement from the band?

"I've been in touch with Bruce Watson and he doesn't want to make any political statement," said Colin Black.

Does it matter? I guess that  depends how seriously you take your music. Or your politics...

* Here's a version of this story I wrote for the Spectator

* If you enjoyed this post you may also be interested in this, about how to get your band on Later with Jools Holland.

* Or this about Bob Dylan in Crouch End.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Wes Finch fails the Billy Bragg elevator test

I've been hoping to find a way of writing about Wes Finch for a while.

At the Warwick folk festival he played a version of Richard Thompson's Vincent Black Lightning that was so good it made you forget to breathe: to be honest I don't think the recording I've linked to there really does it justice. Judging by the wild applause he received Finch, who's local to Warwick, impressed more people than just me that afternoon.

I spent good money buying the album, Mayflower, (above) listened to it a couple of times and then forgot about it for a few weeks until my stereo developed a mind of its own one day and stuck it on. By then the CD had become separated from its cover and while I was scrabbling around confusedly thinking "Bloody hell, that's good. What is it?" several of the tunes had become earworms. Check out Good morning, captain! and Bowl of Stars.

So I rang him, in order to find something to say that you couldn't hear for yourself by listening to the album, explaining that I tend not to write reviews because I don't think on the whole they're very useful. The beauty of blogging, anyway, is that you can embed the music and let other people make up their minds.

Wes gamely told me a bit about himself. Turns out he's 36, has recently gone full time with the music, which he can do because he plays in a band that does covers for weddings called Doc Emmett Brown, after the character in Back to the Future, and another called By Lantern Light. As a solo artist he's working on a project with Gerry Diver, who has recently produced albums for Lisa Knapp and Sam Lee, though I always think he sounds like a character from The Beggar's Opera. And then, to show what a pro he was, Finch also came up with a good anecdote.

"I supported Billy Bragg at the Royal Shakespeare Company's theatre in Stratford recently and they gave me the male lead's dressing room, which had a balcony over the river. I'd like to become accustomed to that kind of thing... And it's an amazing place to play because there's this wall of people in front of you.

"I'm not sure whether I could say that I really met Billy Bragg though. We shared a lift but he seemed a bit preoccupied, and I don't really talk about politics or football so I didn't know what to say. Plus for a while I didn't recognise him: he was in kind of a disguise."

"That'll be the beard," said Billy Bragg, over Twitter. "It does have that effect on people."

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

Friday, 18 October 2013

Seattle Anglophile Dylan Carlson plays Reynardine like you never heard it before

This was a real surprise, and one that may intrigue Fairport Convention.

"Come and see the man who bought the shotgun that Kurt Cobain killed himself with play some rock and roll," was the invitation. Who could resist such a morbid offer? Not me...

Dylan Carlson was best friend of the unhappy Cobain, which puts him if not actually in the rock and roll hall of fame, then lurking somewhere in an anteroom nearby. Rock loves a good tragedy and so, if we are completely honest, do most of us so long as it's happening to someone we don't really know. Carlson carries with him a trace of that mortal glamour and, accordingly, his later show sold out so quickly that The Lexington cannily decided to schedule another at 5pm. This also sold out, if I'm not very much mistaken, despite starting at a time when only freelances and students were really likely to make it.

It was quite a show though. Dirty, fuzzy, grungey guitars played by seated musicians - first Thurston Moore and friend, then Carlson accompanied by a really sympatico drummer - in the Lexington's upstairs room with all the windows blocked up, organised in such a way that it was completely mesmerising: it felt like a cross between a rock and roll show and an extended dope-smoking session. Or something that the Barbican might put on as part of a modernist season.

It was great: a mind-altering musical experience.

And then Carlson pulled a cultural rabbit out of the hat. A young female vocalist came on, the drummer departed temporarily, and they proceeded to do the filthiest, weirdest version of Reynardine that you're ever likely to hear. The grunge curled and twisted around the familiar tune as the singer, who went by the name of Teresa Colmonacco, gave it a kind of haunted-house Sandy Denny without overdoing it. It was perfectly judged and fantastically surprising under the circumstances.

It turns out that Carlson is an Anglophile, in a semi-mystical, imagined Albion, renaissance faire kind of a way. His Twitter handle - @drcarlsonalbion - reflects this and when I asked him about Reynardine he said: "Liege and Lief was one of the first albums I ever had. It was given to me by my uncle, so the songs on it are all part of my personal history."

I wonder whether his curiosity has taken him to Cropredy yet? He may be ripe for a crossover project, clearly loves the material and does something darkly enjoyable to it.

* If you were intrigued by the mention of renaissance faires you may also be interested in this, about the Mediaeval Baebes.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Bruno Zamborlin's invention, Mogees, turns everyday objects into musical instruments

Picture this. 

It is a warm night, and on an island in Mexico an orchestra in white tie sits playing Stravinsky under the stars. Across the lake, which is carrying the sound, an audience in neat, seated rows is absorbed by the music and by the spectacular lights that are playing across the island's trees - lumiere for the son. But the evening is about to become even more magical... For when a break comes between movements, the orchestra quietly puts down its traditional musical instruments - the clarinets go back on their stands, the cellos balance on their sides - and continues the symphony by playing the trees instead. 

This is one of several projects - this one potentially to be sponsored by a bank - that have been suggested to Bruno Zamborlin, a 29-year-old Italian drummer who is completing a computer science PhD at Goldsmith's College and the Pompidou Centre in Paris, since his TEDx talk (below) about Mogees.

In essence the technology is a microphone that can be attached to any hard surface, which can then be played in a variety of ways: it detects all movement around it. The output can be programmed, using related software, by the player in advance and what can be produced is, therefore, bounded only by the player's imagination.

The TEDx talk has been watched more than 8,000 times on YouTube but judging by the number of commissions that have come Zamborlin's way, it's likely that a large number of these views were by people working in the creative industries. For this is a technology with a million potential applications.

The last time I saw Zamborlin he was too busy to talk because he was doing a demonstration at an evening organised by MC Saatchi ad agency to promote Peroni beer by association with the work of world-beating Italian expats - of whom there are a great number for reasons he explained succinctly, if sadly. "Nothing in Italy works. People leave."

But when asked about Mogees' applications, the first thing Zamborlin mentioned was music teaching. "There is usually a gap between starting to play music and enjoying it, simply because it doesn't sound good. During that period a lot of children give up or come to the conclusion that they'll never be able to do it. But Mogees is really nice to play even if you don't really know how to - it allows you to improve your skills without making any terrible sounds."The hope is that Mogees will encourage musical confidence, building music into the lives of those it touches.

Accordingly, the EU has provided a grant to manufacture the system for classroom use, at a cost of around £1 per microphone. That's one above, attached to a railing that temporarily became an instrument for demo purposes, along with the iPhone that is running the software.

There was also an installation for the Italian kitchenware company Alessi, which had Zamborlin turn some of their products into a musical instrument for promotional purposes, much as he does with the bicycle in the video above.

And then there are the wider applications of the technology, which is known as EAVI - "embodied audio visual interaction" - for the group of talented researchers working in the same field. One of Zamborlin's colleagues, Mick Grierson, has been working with handicapped children and told me: "I've been working with some boys aged 12-14 at Whitefield School and Centre, who are very seriously affected by their autism: they are non-verbal, sometimes violent and with extreme repetitive behaviour.

"I worked with them to develop a sound and music system for the iPad called "Sonic Scrapbook" and an interactive squeezable interface for sound recording and manipulation. I developed the interface because although most people find iPad touch screens easy to use, the people we were working with didn't always get along with it.

"These new interfaces [can't] make them less autistic, I think it's pretty clear that this is impossible. What you can do is make them feel that their choice is important, and that whatever they do can have an impact on the world. From talking to teachers and carers, this is a good thing you can try and do for people who have autism."

There is also talk that the EAVI technology has been used by researchers in the US for military purposes connected with the sighting of tank guns: as I say when you can programme the output of a device to be anything you would like it to be, the practical uses to which it can be put are limited only by the user's imagination.

* Bruno Zamborlin will be producing an installation at Rich Mix on Bethnal Green High Road at the beginning of May 2014. In the mean time you can contact him here and follow him on Twitter @brunozamborlin

* If you enjoyed this post, would you also be interested in reading about how music is a political force in Afghanistan?

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Beautiful Hell, ahab's new album

In terms of being unemployed in Hackney on a weekday afternoon this was a bit like winning the lottery. There was (a) a copy of ahab's forthcoming new album, called Beautiful Hell, sitting on the pub picnic table in front of me and (b) Dave Burn getting increasingly slurry and whimsical on the other side of it.

Over the course of a few messy and hilarious hours given in the service of this blog - it's a tough job etc - several things lodged themselves in the increasingly mushy folds of my mind. Firstly, ahab is a man down this time around.

Callum Adamson, of the 12-string guitar, has departed. This is because his partner has had a baby and the line is that he needs to make a more stable home for his family than is presently possible as a musician playing Americana - however brilliantly - in a country that isn't the US. Since I, coincidentally, saw him disappearing into the office of a media company on Dean Street in Soho earlier this month - his day job has always been in digital media - it looks as if the plan may be working out.

"He's still on the books and he's got writing credits for the album. But I don't know whether he's coming back," said Burn, who along with Luke Price and Seebs Llewellyn, is the remainder of the song-writing quartet.

Secondly, the album cover bears a picture of a brothel in Spain taken by David Emery, a friend of the band, which is therefore also the significance of the the discarded mattresses on the slip, and was deemed appropriate subject matter for an album called Beautiful Hell.

"But don't mention that if you write something."

OK, Dave.

And third, ahab is having more and more trouble online over the fact that they share a name with a German doom metal band. This has potential for hilarity - the other band is very doomy - but it's also a marketing handicap in a small digital universe. "I've been in touch by email with them a lot," said Burn, "and it's all very amicable - I like their stuff. The trouble is that we both started out at roughly the same time and though we've tried to differentiate ourselves with upper and lower case letters, that doesn't always help and there's one new and important site - called Bands in Town - that keeps sending messages out to our fans saying that we're playing gigs in Germany."

He looked a bit glum.

"I don't know what's going to happen with that. I suppose it's possible that we'll end up having to change our name. Both bands seem to be doing OK..."

The response ahab gets online is strong - watch the avalanche of "likes" and comments pile up when they post something - so it would be a shame to have to take a step back, which is what a name change would involve, if they go properly global. And since there may be a US tour in the offing...

Which brings me to the album. On first listen I was inclined to think that without Adamson and John Leckie - who mixed their eye-opening KMVT EP in 2010 - there was a certain kick-arse quality that was missing. But I've actually changed my mind.

There's a sweetness to it that is a lot to do with Burn and Price's voices. But there's also enough dramatic light and shade - particularly toward the back end of the album - to make you want to listen over and over. The trick with a band that is as good as they are live, is punching that quality into the mix. I'm not sure they've quite pulled it off on this occasion. But the songwriting is as strong as ever and I'm looking forward to hearing it from a stage. Preferably a large one. This is a high quality album from a band with a lot of petrol in its tank.

Specifically In My Dreams feels like a departure, a kind of sweeping, 80s-themed reverie with a vein of synth running through it; while This War has a riff that could be a tribute to Big Country, a band buried deep in ahab's genetics.

Rescue Me - I think, it's not listed so let the CD run to the end - is my favourite track, megaphone hystrionics and all, and I can't find it yet online. Personally, I think the more stressed out and strung out they sound the better...

ahab deserves far more success than they've had so far - despite what sounds like several near-misses with the major leagues. I wonder whether a US tour will finally give them the oxygen they need?

* You can buy Beautiful Hell here and they kick off their UK tour in Southampton on October 1.

* If you'd like to read more about ahab there's this, about the first time I heard them, including an interview with Cal Adamson. And there's this about them and Show of Hands at the Bristol festival in 2012.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Radio Two's 'Whispering' Bob Harris: 'Why I'm taking three bands to Nashville'

Lucky old Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo, Blue Rose Code and Eloise Rees (who is such a beginner that she doesn't even have her own website yet). They're off to Nashville next week with Radio Two's Bob Harris, to play the Hard Rock Cafe on Friday as part of the Americana Music Association's festival.

What an opportunity to impress industry people in the largest market for roots music in the English-speaking world: a lot of bands would kill for such a trip. I asked the great man why he's doing it?

"I've got very involved with BBC Introducing," Harris told me over the telephone: you can probably imagine him saying it. "The whole exercise is a fantastic opportunity for young bands to have their music heard. They can upload songs directly on to BBC Introducing's website, where they will get listened to by someone from their local BBC station and from where they can come to the attention of people including myself on the national stations. It's a great way to have your music bounced around.

"Two or three months ago someone from BBC Introducing suggested that I take one or two bands out to Nashville with me when I go this year. It turned into three bands, we'll be out there the better part of a week and then I'll be splashing some of the stuff I hear out there through the shows in the near future."

He mentioned that, as of four months ago, there is a branch of the Americana Association in the UK, which he sees as a natural extension of the US organisation. "It's a community of like-minded people, including an agent called Bob Paterson and another called Paul Fenn, who bring a lot of American acts over here and then return the favour. To my mind this is all a very positive step in the right direction. The more contact British musicians can make with the Americana Association and the festival the better."

I put it to him that there are an awful lot of terrific unsigned bands in the UK and relatively little music management, marketing and PR talent. Since the collapse of the traditional record industry and the rise of the internet a real gap in the national skill set has opened up, which used to be filled by transatlantic record companies. British bands need access to world markets - our creative industries are our crown jewels - but bands are often young, whatever age they are they are rarely well-organised and there's barely anyone with the expertise to usher them out on to a larger stage.

Cue Whispering Bob: for surely what he is doing next week is traditionally the job of an impresario rather than a DJ?

"Maybe. What I know, though, is that British folk and roots music is flowing back across the Atlantic. There's Mumford & Sons, who are the apex of that, and - although I take your point that they haven't pulled many other bands through with them - that wasn't what they signed up for and they have, at least, shown that there is an appetite for what the Americans are beginning to call 'Briticana'. There is also a British band called The Dunwells who have made an appearance in the Americana charts over there recently and Billy Bragg will be receiving an award at the festival this year."

Aha! That's interesting because when I was at the Tonder festival last month Billy Bragg was talking about Americana and had a difference of opinion with the extremely glamorous Pokey LaFarge that was played out over two nights on the main stages about what the term actually means. I understand Bragg is writing a piece about it for the Guardian.

"There's certainly a debate about what Americana is. I'm against categorising music unnecessarily. But in this case the term Americana has provided a kind of mast to which people can nail their flags and which has only been good for folk and roots. There are two new Grammy categories for Americana, so it's a way of bringing folk, bluegrass, blues and country into the mainstream."

Would that there were that kind of marketing nouse over here... Could it be partly the job of the arts council to be doing this, I asked?

"I've spent quite a lot of time in Canada over the years," Harris said, "where there is just an enormous amount of acoustic talent, including a wonderful band called The Great Lake Swimmers. And the thing that I was amazed by was the financial support that Canadian artists could get, as - at least the last time I was there - you could apply for a grant of sorts. If you had a good plan and your music was good they had a budget of around $200,000 a year to underwrite the international tours of young Canadian bands.

"I remember that it funded the Trafalgar Square concert on Canada Day one year, which I helped to compere. And there is an example of another country's government seeing its creative talent as a kind of ambassador for the whole country and using it to create an awareness of who the Canadians are.

"I think there are definitely times when we knock our traditional music over-much in this country. All the cliches about the finger in the ear and the woolly jumpered folk singers just aren't true any more. And it's the same with the cliches about country music: you still hear it referred to over here as country and western, which hasn't really existed as a genre since about 1958. Especially over the last four or five years there has been a huge upsurge of talent and I don't really understand why people - the older generations I suppose I mean - aren't more open minded about it. My daughter really really loves Kacey Musgraves and quite rightly so. She's amazing."

So how did he choose the three bands that he's taking to Nashville next week?

"It was partly a personal choice. It was a question of who do we like, who is ready and who is available? I would have liked to have taken Keston Cobblers Club but they're on a sell-out tour at the moment so that wasn't possible. And BBC Introducing has certain ideas about how far a band can have progressed before they become self-sufficient. But if this goes well, then I hope we can do it again next year and take more: four or maybe five acts."

Would he like to see other people take a cue from him in this respect? Surely it would be in the interest of UK record labels to expose their bands to such a huge market? I can see from looking at the gigs list that Communion Records - founded by, among others, Ben Lovett of Mumford & Sons - has its own slot on the Americana festival timetable.

"Absolutely. One of my favourite record labels Six Shooter Records - again, Canadian - are doing exactly that and renting a venue in Nashville for the festival. If British labels began to see the festival as an opportunity, maybe three or four of them could take a venue and each take five or six acts out there." And then the British would definitely be, as they say, coming...

I can think of a couple of bands off the top of my head that would probably go down a storm at Nashville - ahab and Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker who, when left to their own devices, are as likely to write a country song as something resembling English folk.

I enjoyed talking to Bob so much. We chuntered on for over an hour in the end, exchanging anecdotes about the state of the music industry and he left me with this...

"Have you ever heard of a band called Walk Off the Earth?" I had to admit that I hadn't. "They're like the Keston Cobblers in a way. They're very creative with their videos and have built a global following just by putting videos on YouTube. They were over" (again they are Canadian) "for five gigs in April and they did one number for Radio One in the Live Lounge, after which I managed to grab them for a quick interview. But I have never seen that place so packed. It was busy for Robert Plant. But nothing like this. It was just heaving.

"The point is this. Their version of Somebody That I Used to Know has been watched something like 150 million times on YouTube and yet ask a record company executive who they are and nine out of ten of them will have absolutely no idea."

His point, I believe, is that it's all up for grabs. There is a kind of anarchy about the music industry at the moment that will reward risk-takers.

It's all genuinely up for grabs.

* If you enjoyed this post you ay also enjoy this interview with Margo Timmins about The Cowboy Junkies and Townes Van Zandt.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

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