Andy Bell: Chatting with a folk producer in demand

If you’re a fan of the contemporary folk scene, the chances are that you’ve been listening to Andy Bell’s work for some time. A kind of unsung hero, he has been working with some of the genre’s biggest artists for a decade or more, and his relatively new label – Hudson Records – is home to The Furrow Collective, Jon Boden, The Transports and an ever-growing roster of well-loved artists. 

We caught up with him just before he set off for this year’s Cambridge Folk Festival, grabbing an hour of his time to discuss everything from the difference between Jon Boden and Martin Simpson, the trials and tribulations of running a modern folk record label, how he works as a producer, what it might mean to be a folk performer in 2017, and how it feels to work with heroes like Topic Records.

He may well be the busiest man on the scene. We’re just glad we caught him while we could.

Where are you speaking from, Andy? 

I’m in Birmingham right now, actually, just getting ready to head out for Cambridge Folk Festival. I’ve just got back from being away for two weeks with The Younguns in Canada, and then a few weeks up in North Uist on an island called Berneray where I was recording an album. Since then it’s been about trying to get the Jon Boden album, Afterglow, done and finished, and all the stuff that goes with running the record label around that.

What are you doing at Cambridge? 

What aren’t I doing at Cambridge, you mean [laughs]? We’ve got The Furrow Collective on the first night, then Rachel Newton tomorrow on the main stage, and Jon Boden’s rehearsals all day Saturday and then performing on Saturday night, which is going to be a massive gig. It’s going to be really good.

Is that with the Remnant Kings, or is it on his own? 

It’s the whole brand new shebang, with the new album being played with the full band for the first time – brass, strings, everything. It’s going to be pretty mega. I’m looking forward to that. Then I’ve got Martin Simpson and Fay Hield on Sunday.

And you engineer all of those gigs? 

Yeah. And then, because we’re releasing Jon Boden’s album on our label, on Hudson Records, and because he’s guest curator, he’s got interviews and pop-up gigs and I’m doing little acoustic things with him as well. He’s got to go and sit next to a campfire and sing, so I’ll be herding that. I’m herding the Furrows around a little bit as well – interviews, publicity, etc. All fun.

So, running a label these days, you have to be pretty hands-on? 

Well… do, but only because I can’t afford to pay anyone else to do it [laughs]. Yeah, it’s pretty mental, but I kind of started it up partly because I wanted to and partly because, longterm, I don’t really want to carry on gigging forever. I enjoy it, but it can be quite monotonous, and being away from home all the time is really hard work. So I thought I’d try and do this other thing, but it’s pretty full-on, running a label. I think a lot of artists don’t really realise how full-on it is.

How are things changing in the record selling world? 

The model at the moment is for artists to go out on the road and sell loads of CDs, basically. A lot of them that self-release do that. The fact is, though, that in 10 years time there won’t necessarily be anyone buying CDs anymore. They’ll be gone. That kind of revenue stream is really going to change. It seems as though the folk world is the last genre that CDs are sold in. If you look at the representation of the folk world online – streaming and downloads – it’s quite something. Physical sales outweigh digital sales 200 to one. And the longer that it goes on, the less easy it’s going to be. People are just going to stop buying CDs. It’s interesting.

What about the big resurgence of vinyl that I keep reading about? 

Well, that does do well. We sell quite a lot of vinyl for everything. I only buy vinyl, and we’re just about to do a vinyl-only release. But how long that lasts is another matter. I don’t think it’s something an artist can rely on to sell the bulk of their music. People who are 23 or 24 don’t buy CDs anymore – they’re only listening on Spotify; they don’t even download it. In 10 years time they’re going to be getting into their mid-30s, pushing on, and getting into the target area for folk music. So, yeah – you have to do a lot, basically.

But the thing is, we want to do a lot. The reason that Jon Boden has released with us is that he wants to have an input artistically, as well as with what’s happening on the larger scale. Part of the reason for doing everything ourselves is that we can really have a say in how things change. Interesting times.

What’s the setup at Hudson Records? 

So, I own it and run it, and I do it with Neil McSweeney – an amazing singer-songwriter. Sam Sweeney plays drums in his band and he sings in a folk trio with Jon Boden and Faye Hield. He supported Bellowhead on tour. By osmosis, he’s part of the folk scene, but he’s not really a folkie. He lectures at Sheffield – he shares an office with Faye and runs the music industry masters course there. So it’s me and him. But it’s early days.

Presumably the investment is all out of your own pocket? 

Yeah, all out of my own pocket. But, you know, in years gone by I’d have just spent it on more microphones [laughs]. This is more of a concerted effort to mould things, really. I could see myself in 20 years time making the same albums and going on the same tours, and I want to do something a little different. I’ve seen other guys doing everything in the same way as I have been over the last 10 years, and then someone cooler and younger comes along and they’re kind of sidelined. It’s not easy after that to pull in the work or the jobs, so I wanted to eradicate that problem for myself, basically.

You’ve done pretty well to bring in the likes of Jon Boden and Martin Simpson, though. 

Well, Martin’s not on the label – he’s on Topic Records. I produced the album. But yeah, we’ve had a lot of people emailing us, and we have some big announcements coming up.

I dunno – some of the people coming onto the label I don’t necessarily know that well. I just think they want to try something different. I know Jon wanted to try something different. It’s not that who they’ve worked with before has been bad or anything. I think there’s certainly an element of family, and a bit of being part of a team. I know some of them like having that little team around them that they can run things past. We talk to our artists a lot and whenever there’s a misunderstanding it’s sorted very quickly because we can have a conversation about it, and we’re not an entity that’s miles away from them. That’s probably what makes it stick. But I’ve been working with many of these people for 15 years, so there’s a bit of that.

Next year we’re releasing an album which is a Norwegian free jazz improv orchestra with three or four Romany musicians, and they’ve done this amazing soundscape album. I knew two of the guys in it from music college – one of them was head of jazz. I hadn’t been in touch for years, and one of them dropped me a line without even knowing I had a label, asking if I knew anyone. So it’s old contacts, too.

Is that how you pick projects, then? Do you get emails from wannabe artists that you have to turn down?  

We have had to turn down people who have asked, yes, purely because we’re trying to get a balance on the label. We don’t want it to be pure trad or pure improv jazz [laughs]. It’s not all world music, and it’s not all singer-songwriter. It’s a mix. There are people on here that I don’t know – a friend of Neil’s who is a singer-songwriter, and I’ve been interested in doing his stuff for a while. He was looking for somewhere and we said great.

We’ve put a producer with him who has played on a few of our records, so I won’t even be producing that. That’d be the thing that we’d try and do, though – try and pull people into the family a little bit. It really comes down to what we think we can work on. We’re dedicating huge chunks of our lives, spending time away from our partners, to do this. You have to be completely into the whole idea of it in order to do it. It’s not like we’re earning… anything at all [laughs].

Do you have a preferred way of working when you’re producing and engineering? Is there an ‘Andy Bell sound’ that you look for? 

Erm, not really. I guess people will have in their mind what they think happens when they record with me, and that’s why I get records and sometimes why I don’t get records, too. I don’t think it’s necessarily true. Everyone feels that they’re stereotyped or boxed into something that they aren’t, don’t they? You get used to doing certain albums in a certain way, but it doesn’t mean it’s the way I’d always work. I quite like doing lots of different things.

What do you think people have come to expect? 

I suppose a lot of what I do is live. A lot of it is about a core playing together, which is no different to anyone else. Loads of producers ask for that. If you’re recording vocals, I don’t particularly like recording things word by word or line by line. I’m kind of lazy, I suppose [laughs]. I’m not massively bothered by mistakes – probably a lot less bothered than most musicians. I don’t always hear mistakes in the same way. I have no musical training, so something a musician might hear as the wrong root note I might just hear as music and it doesn’t bother me.

Equally, though, there are plenty of things that I hear that they don’t. I’ll really want a strong pulse on a chord, for example, and they’ll be saying, “Oh, but it’s there – it’s implied by such and such on the guitar,” and I’ll point out that it may be implied but it’s not actually there [laughs].

I guess recording the bulk of it live is how I end up doing it. With singer-songwriter albums, it’s mainly about getting the core around them. I’ve done it differently before, of course. With Emily Portman we really broke some of it down into small chunks and then reassembled it. Not her vocal, particularly – that’s always fairly live – but how we worked with loops to build things up. There are more albums that I’ve done on the folk scene that are less well known that were built up from different parts.

What’s the difference in working with someone like Jon Boden compared to Martin Simpson? They seem like quite different artists. 

Yeah… erm… not that much, really. They’re quite similar people in a lot of ways. How to explain this? [Laughs]

In a lot of ways, Jon is about capturing the moment, and I think Jon sees it as an image of a moment in time. Even with a track, he can get really finicky about certain melodies that I just don’t hear that he has to have there, because without that it won’t make sense. But it’s definitely still more about the moment. If there was a mistake on the vocal or the fiddle – and I’m not saying there would be! – he wouldn’t necessarily be bothered about that, but he might get really into why an oboe line has to be there because it balances out a string line elsewhere.

Martin, on the other hand, is very much about getting a really solid take of his thing, and then he’s less concerned about what goes on top or around it. Not completely unconcerned, but his attention really goes on getting that clean initial bedrock. Martin will play more with the musicians in the room to build that up, and then he – or I – might hear some other things that could come in and embellish it, whereas Jon has often already arranged that stuff.

But that’s more to do with flavours than differences, I would say. Both are exceptional musicians, both are exceptional composers and arrangers. It’s just slightly different slants on getting to where they get to. And I suppose their sound is just based on what their expertise is. Martin’s always going to have a super, brilliant, clean guitar arrangement, and Jon is always going to have some crazy, harebrained scheme [laughs].

In the folk world, who do you see as peers? Who are the producers, engineers and labels that you admire at the moment? 

Rootbeat are great. I did something like 20 records on Rootbeat before they started releasing less stuff. But that was a little kind of movement. There was me, Sam Sweeney, Hannah James, Tom Sweeney – and obviously there was originally the Kerfuffle label there, and then Tom took it all on and did his thing with Rootbeat. They’re kind of different to Hudson because they’re kind of like an outlet for self-release artists that want a hand. It’s not what they do exclusively, but Tom works really hard at facilitating that and making it happen. He makes people’s releases work and look professional. I suppose we’re slightly different because we’re not doing self-releases, but they’re doing a brilliant job. They’re great.

Then there’s Topic Records, obviously. They’re the kings [laughs]. It’s weird doing stuff with Topic because I’ve spent years buying their records and I’ve got tonnes of their albums, and it’s kind of strange chatting to the people who run it fairly regularly. It’s just odd! They’re very encouraging and I look up to them. David Suff, when he found out we were running a label, said, “If you need any advice or anything, I’ll do all I can.” I was just saying to someone the other day, we try to retweet or Facebook anything that Topic puts up. We always want to support them, and we’ve had exactly the same thing from their side. It’s totally right – there’s no rivalry because they’re the kings. They’re the top dogs! It’s really strange to have that kind of support from people you’ve looked up to and aspired to be like. It’s very cool.

The amount of great stuff that Nonesuch Records release is amazing. I definitely look up to them. Bella Union, Drag City – that’s all great, too. A lot of it is pretty indie. They’re not going to be selling tonnes and tonnes of records, but they release a lot of really cool stuff. On the label front, they’d be the people I admire.

And in terms of engineers and producers?

With engineers and producers, Mark Whyles – the engineer for Bellowhead and Spires & Boden, before becoming Bellowhead and Karine Polwart’s manager. On the live engineering front he was a massive influence because, basically, as he kind of retired, I ended up doing all his gigs [laughs]. He taught me a lot. When I first did Bellowhead’s live sound during the last couple of years they were going, he’d give me lots of tips… and he’d step away when he could see me stressing out [laughs].

He’s not really on the folk scene, but there was a guy called Lance Andrews – an ex-BBC engineer who I worked for. I started off working as a driver, and he’d finished at the BBC. He was running a little record label that was doing choral and classical music. He’d go around all the big cathedrals doing their albums, and I went along to help lug the gear in, and from the first recording I ended up getting stuck in on the engineering. He kind of encouraged me, and we went on. Before we knew it I was helping to run his sessions. When he retired he sold me a lot of his equipment for very little – a very good loan [laughs] – so he set me up, really. He’s the guy I owe the most to.

As I say, he had very little to do with folk music, but all of his microphones have now been used on pretty much every folk record I’ve ever done. When I was doing some sessions recently with Jon Boden, I noticed a lot of my mics have still got that sticky tape stuff that used to come out of typewriters – they’ve still got Lance Andrews written down the side of them.

I always ask this in interviews, but I wonder if you have a definition of what you think folk music is

Its funny because Martin Simpson’s album will be classed as folk music, and I would suspect that there’ll be plenty of conversations on the Cambridge Folk Festival campsite this weekend saying, “That Jon Boden stuff was great, but it’s not folk music.” And yet a good chunk of Martin’s album is singer-songwriter, whether it was written by him or other people. Jon’s album is singer-songwriter. I have no idea how people get to their conclusions – I think people are quite funny about it. Everyone has their own definitions.

When was the last time you heard Richard Thompson do a trad track? And yet there’s no denying he’s an amazing folk musician. Everyone would consider him a folk musician! I suppose it boils down to roots and whether have had that traditional contact at some point. I dunno really. I think it’s a bit of a pointless question I’m afraid, Jon [laughs].

Haha! I guess I’m interested in the variety of answers I get to hear. 

Well, it is a question that gets discussed a lot but I think it’s a bit irrelevant. The British press, and maybe the British public as well, kind of need to put everything into genre boxes, and it’s so much easier for the PR and marketing people to list it and say, “This is folk music, this is not folk music; this is this, and that is that.” If you got to continental Europe, though, the folk festivals there are so eclectic. So many different kinds of bands. We just like to put things in boxes and then that creates tension and argument. By the way, on Jon Boden’s album there is no melodion!

What?! Controversy alert! 

Well, there aren’t really very many folk instruments on it. There’s a bit of concertina, a bit of fiddle – although it’s not really fiddle because a classical violinist plays most of it. I’m not even sure if there’s any fiddle on it. But people will claim that because there are no traditional folk instruments on it then it can’t be folk. I dunno. I think it’s a very divisive conversation, but everyone wants to have it. If you’re out for dinner and someone asks you what it is that you do and you say that you record folk music, it’s the first question: “What is folk music?” And their idea of what it is will be completely different to yours.

I imagine a lot of people probably think Ed Sheeran is a folk musician, don’t they? Mainly because he strums an acoustic guitar. 

Yeah, loads of them do, and why not? If that’s what they think, then that’s perfectly valid. The same with Mumford & Sons. That, to a lot of people, is folk music. I suppose it’s only once you get into the trad folk scene that we’re all immersed in that people want to look into it even more. It really doesn’t matter.

OK. Last question, and perhaps the most important: have you won Best Engineer in Yorkshire yet? 

Haha, no. That’s a funny one. I don’t really know how I get on that list every year, because I don’t think I know anyone who is involved in it. But I’ve just found out that I’ve been nominated this year, again. It’s quite good fun.

Maybe this year, maybe… 

I think the award ceremony is in Whitby, and you get fish and chips for your supper. I’ve never been to it, so I don’t know. That’d be the ultimate, though – winning that!

For more info on Andy Bell and Hudson Records, head to www.hudsonrecords.co.uk. Main image via www.thetransportsproduction.co.uk.

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