In the months that I’ve been interviewing folk singers for this blog, one thing that tends to come across perhaps more strongly than anything else is the sense of enthusiasm for the subject. It doesn’t seem as though traditional folk music, in England at least, is something you get into lightly. It becomes a bit of an obsession. You suddenly find yourself with a head full of stories and a library (you never had a library before!) full of obscure books and archaic biographers of people who were once as caught up in it all as you now find yourself.
As you’ll see in this interview, Rosie Hood knows exactly what I’m talking about. A young folk singer from Wiltshire whose beautiful new album, The Beautiful and the Actual, came out in June is similarly bewitched by the topic, her enthusiasm coming – as so often seems to be the case – via the chance discovery that someone in the dim and distant past once collected songs from her neck of the woods, songs that reached back and brought that dim and distant past into sharp focus.
Over the course of an hour we chatted about said folksong collector, Alfred Williams, the definition of folk music (“I used to think it was… like an older version of Eastenders“), the sage advice of Bella Hardy (unrepeatable here, but do read on), how being a folk singer in the 21st century comes with the option of being mentored, and (of course) tips on how to develop your very own folk library.
So, without further ado…
This may sound like a strange question to be asking someone who has just released an album, but is music what you do full-time, Rosie?
Pretty much, yeah. I’m in The Dovetail Trio, I do solo stuff and we do this Live Music Now stuff with the Dovetail Trio. And I also work for Mark Anstey at Unique Gravity, an agency. That’s really useful because it gives me an insight into various parts of the folk scene that I wouldn’t have got to yet.
What is your folk background? How did you get into folk music, or how did it get into you?
Ha! Well, I went to my first folk festival when I was seven, which probably had quite a lot to do with it…
So your parents were folkies?
They were folkies in as much as they enjoyed folk music. They weren’t really performers. My mum plays piano-accordion, and they used to go to folk clubs when they were in their twenties. They went to The Village Pump in Trowbridge. They used to take us to gigs when we were younger, although that’s hard when you’ve got small children, so we did lots of sessions with friends, but slightly oddly. My dad drives vintage cars and my mum has always driven them, so we’d go on these vintage car holidays and we’d sit up in the evenings, in a pub or a tent or whatever, and we’d sing songs and my mum would lead everyone on the piano-accordion. I was lucky also that at school I learnt one of my first folk songs.
Which one was that?
‘The Keeper’, which, it turns out in hindsight, is not about catching deer! [Laughs] It probably wasn’t a suitable song to be teaching six and seven year-olds. However, I sang it in the middle bar at Sidmouth when I was seven and my mum tells me they gave me The Future of Folk award, which I think they probably invented for me at that moment.
Do you remember anything else about Sidmouth as a seven-year-old?
I remember it raining. It was a very wet year. I remember running through Sidmouth with bare feet to get a pasty. We did lots of the fringe events – we definitely went to a ceilidh – and I remember lots of music around us; lots of traditional dance. When I got a bit older, I remember sitting on that hill in the old Arena Showground, just snoozing and listening to the music.
Looking at the sleeve notes to your album, it looks as though the collector Alfred Williams caught your imagination fairly early on. Was that because he had been collecting in the area where you grew up?
Yeah, absolutely. When I went to university, studying illustration at the Glasgow School of Art, I became more interested in folk songs and looking at making my own arrangements of things and making up my own versions. While I was doing that I became interested in seeing if there were any folk songs local to where I grew up, and a quick bit of research on the internet brought my attention to the Wiltshire Folk History Archive. I found out about Alfred Williams and his song collections there, and also the amazing fact that Chris Wildridge had transcribed them all and that you could access them there online [see previous link]. Obviously that made it a lot easier to be researching things in Chippenham while in Glasgow… they’re not cities that are close together!
But yes, Alfred Williams collected songs for a few years before the first world war, and he published them in newspapers at the time. Then, in 1923, he published a book called Folksongs of the Upper Thames, which is up here on my folk shelf.
Like the Bible…
Yeah, I’ve got my own miniature library now, mostly acquired from charity shops and kindly older folkies who have said, “Oh, I’ve got a double copy of this – you have this one,” and they get added to the shelf.
That happens to me, too. People keep giving me folk things. It’s very nice of them.
It is very nice, isn’t it!
I get the feeling that the folk world is generally a friendly one. We’re safe here.
Yeah, I think so. People see other people having an interest, maybe a bit of passion to do with the history, and they want to encourage you to keep it up. So they do little things for you, which is lovely, and that probably keeps people keen to get involved a bit more.
It’s true. And probably a good cue for a big question: how do you define the term ‘folk music’, Rosie?
That’s a tricky one! I guess it’s the music of the people: folk. It’s music that has been around the block. Folk music, to me, might be different to other people. My folk music is the folk songs that I sang with my family at those vintage car events. Some of them might not have been all that old, but I learnt them through the oral traditional, so they’re folk songs in that way. I’ve written songs on my album, and I’d still say that those are folk songs. In a way they’re ‘of the tradition’ – written with an understanding of that tradition, and written so that they should be accessible in the same way… I hope! I’d feel hugely complimented if any of my songs made it into the tradition one day. That would be a big seal of approval.
Somebody recently said to me that, in order to make it into the tradition, you need to have been forgotten…
That may be true. But that said, Graham Moore has written tonnes of brilliant songs that sound as though they come from the tradition, and people sing them thinking that they’re traditional. I sing a song by a harp player and singer called Bonnie Shaljean – I learnt it from a Jackie Oates album, I think, quite a few years ago. It’s called ‘Billy Riley’, and I actually contacted her to ask if she minded me singing it. She said not at all, but could I make sure I say that she wrote it because people had been assuming it was traditional. Whilst it’s a folk song, it’s not a traditional song. I think if you can still get hold of the person on Facebook to ask them if you can sing their song, it’s probably not traditional quite yet!
Haha! Good point. You’ve just pre-empted a bunch of my questions, actually. I wanted to ask how you select your traditional songs, and I also wanted to say that the original songs on your album blend quite seamlessly with the traditional stuff.
Well, that’s a huge compliment. That’s exactly what I was aiming for, but you can never be quite sure when you’re putting together an album. Even if they were all traditional songs, it’s quite hard. I write some of the melodies for the older songs as well, so making sure that everything fits together successfully can be tough. But I do write songs having grown up knowing and listening to so many folk songs, so I think it comes relatively naturally to me writing songs that are in that ilk. Writing a really short pop song with one hook that you repeat and repeat and repeat doesn’t come naturally to me at all, whereas stories do. And I suppose that’s the common thread that goes through all of the songs on this album. They all have a strong story, so they feel like they live together as a group even if they’re not necessarily from the same era as one another. They’re still telling what I think is an important story.
And I guess that links into your other question about how I choose songs. I choose traditional songs because they jump out at me, because they might be a particularly interesting version of a song I might already know, or because they’ve got a really great story. Or it might be because they’re really unique. On this album, ‘The Baker’s Oven’ and ‘The Little Blind Girl’, I don’t think have been recorded by anyone else.
…which is quite amazing, because ‘The Baker’s Oven’, in my opinion, is great. I’ve already earmarked it for my own set!
Haha! Have it! It didn’t have a tune when I found it. It’s a comedy song, at the end of the day. It’s got loads of bread-based puns in it. It’s a bit of a joke about a man who had aspirations above his station, so I thought a nice Morris jig was precisely what it needed. Ollie King, who plays with me – I knew he’d be playing it when I was writing the melody in my head, and I just thought yep! That’ll do it! It says, I think, in the liner notes that the Alfred Williams version was found near Cirencester, but I also found that in Purton – less than 10 miles away – where there was a history of the church, a book, that I found online. Within that book there was a really similar version of the same story, but I think they had it more as a poem than as a song, and they definitely thought that it was from Purton. It’s certainly local, so I guess it’s based on something that happened around here at some point. I wouldn’t say it’s a factual representation of it, but people decided to write about it nonetheless.
I used to think that folk songs were a little bit like an older version of Eastenders. They wanted to write about the drama – the stuff that they remember. But actually, now I think it’s more like Game Of Thrones! It’s all sex and death, with a few funny bits in between.
So, that’s your definition of folk music: sex, death, and a few funny bits in between!?
Yep, that’s it! That’s definitely what I think it is.
When I first listened to the original songs on your album, I noticed a strong Emily Portman influence on the song, ‘Adrift, Adrift’, and then I noticed that she’s actually on the album…
Yes, she is. And that’s the first song that I ever wrote. I’ve been listening to Emily ever since she was in The Devil’s Interval, and I even did a singing workshop with The Devil’s Interval at Sidmouth when I was… er…
Haha! Maybe 15, or something like that. Anyway, I’ve listened to her a lot, and I particularly loved the Coracle album that she put out relatively recently. And then, when I did my performing arts fellowship with the EFDSS, she was one of my mentors, so she actually helped me to finish that song. It’s interesting that you say that, though, because I never saw that as a song that was particularly influenced by her, even though she had a hand in me finishing it. Melodically, I think I had all of that before she got involved.
It reminds me of something like ‘Tongue Tied‘.
Oh, well I’ll have that! Thank you. I guess you always end up influenced by the people you listen to.
So there was Emily, Nancy Kerr, James Fagan, Karine Polwart, Kate Rusby… lots and lots of singers who come from the tradition but have written as well. Subconsciously, I guess I must’ve picked up elements of what I enjoy in their writing. It was wonderful talking to Emily about songwriting and the way in which she approaches things. She really helped when I got very stuck. She was great at offering up writing exercises. For example, if you write down all the rubbish that’s going to come out, then you’ve written it and you can forget about it. If you haven’t done that then you’re constantly thinking, “Is that a good idea?” So you write everything down, really produce a lot, and then edit and put things together afterwards.
You’ve also worked with Bella Hardy as a mentor, haven’t you?
Yes, I worked with her even before Emily, on something called the Aspire programme. That was another EFDSS thing. It was a weekend looking more at the business side of being a musician. You learnt what an agent is, what a manager is, what their roles are, how they’re different, all of which I probably had no idea about before that. So Bella was there talking about the practicalities of being an artist on the road, and how to survive it. The thing that everybody took from that was the final page of her flip-chart. In massive letters she’d written, DON’T BE A DICK!
[Laughs] Yes, well it’s so true! We work and live in quite a small scene of people, and everybody is only here and doing this because they really want to. You wouldn’t if you didn’t. Being nice to one another really doesn’t cost anything at all. She was great. Then she was then asked to mentor somebody for a year and we got put together. We were both living up in Scotland at that point so we would meet up and talk about what I was doing and about my general plans musically. She gave me some singing lessons. Knowing that I had support from somebody who had been there and done that gave me more confidence to decide that I was going to keep plugging at it and make it my career, rather than just something on the side. So, initially it was for a year, but this is the kind of scene where people don’t just stop at the end of it. You still have conversations and they’ll still help you with stuff. Both Bella and Emily were really helpful when I needed advice on the recording and putting together of this album.
That’s great. I didn’t even know that any of this mentoring took place.
Yeah, but it also happens on an informal basis. Talking to Emily, she’ll tell you that lots of people helped her – people like Sandra Kerr; people who are generous with their time and their experiences. You end up finding that there are so many different elements to being a professional folk musician, rather than just the performance side of it.
Back to the album, though. One of the songs that really stood out to me was ‘The Hills of Kandahar’. It feels like a classic folk song, but when you listen to the words you realise that it’s talking about very recent events. It’s by your friend, isn’t it?
Yeah, it’s by my friend John Archibald. I lived in Canada for a semester at university in the autumn of 2011, so I heard him singing that at Remembrance Sunday or at the singing session that was closest to it. I went to a session every other week on Wednesdays at a place in Toronto called The Caledonian. It was actually the very first thing I did on arriving in Toronto. My friend collected me from the airport – somebody I’d actually only met once (at Sidmouth, again!) – and he took me to The Caledonia, to a singing session, where I met the people who would be my adopted parents for the next four months. John is a great songwriter. ‘The Old Red Duster’ is another song of his that has made it into sessions back here in the UK. He’s a Morris dancer, been writing songs for a long time, and has a real knack for writing songs that sound like they’re part of the tradition.
‘The Hills of Kandahar’ was written about the war in Afghanistan. There were a lot of Canadian soldiers out there. When I heard him singing it I knew straight away that I had to sing it, too. I could just hear myself singing it. So I asked him and he sent me a recording of him singing it, along with the lyrics. I learnt it once I got back to the UK, but when I went back to Canada in 2012, we were at a folkie music event and I asked him if I could sing it. It made both of us cry… in a good way! [Laughs] He’s been really kind to me and let me do whatever I wanted with it, knowing that I’m not going to do anything too stupid. He has his copy of the album and he has enjoyed it, which is a real relief.
When you were starting out, where did you go to perform?
I didn’t go to a huge amount of things when I was back in Wiltshire. I went to the Trowbridge Village Pump a few times, and I went to Minchinhampton Folk Club in Gloucestershire, where I would try out my repertoire as I was growing in confidence as a performer. People who were also interested in Alfred Williams knew about Bob and Gill Berry who run the Chippenham Folk Festival and the Devizes Folk Club and they were very supportive of me in my search for Wiltshire songs. But all the sessions that I went to in pubs were probably in Gloucestershire.
And now you live in Sheffield. Why does everyone in folk music move to Sheffield?
Haha! Yes, everybody in folk music does seem to move here. When I moved to Sheffield, because I’m a very logical and boring person, I wrote out a pros and cons list. When I finished university up in Glasgow I had total freedom – no job lined up or anything – and I knew that I wanted to focus on performing. So I moved to Sheffield, partly because – as much as I loved Glasgow – I felt like I needed to be in England because I’m a very English folk singer. Sheffield is very convenient in that there are a lot of places that you can get to within a couple of hours and still get home to sleep in your own bed. It’s also probably about half the distance between where I was and where I come from. A lot of it’s to do with being a post-industrial city, I think. The rent’s cheap – you can actually survive living here; I can’t imagine trying to be a folk musician in London. I had a lot of friends here, there was the potential for a lot of other hobbies – I do a lot of dancing – the art and music scenes are really strong and there’s some really excellent beer!
Rosie Hood’s album, The Beautiful and the Actual, is out now on Rootbeat Records. For more information on Rosie’s songs and tours, both as a solo artist and with The Dovetail Trio, check out www.rosiehood.co.uk.