There’s a growing sense that 2018 may be the Year of Lucy Farrell – the year that the perennial band-member and session musician steps out from the sidelights and takes centre stage. If that’s the case, it has been some time in coming. Lucy has been a very sturdy cog in the traditional folk machine for a good while, notably as a member of the Johnny Kearney & Lucy Farrell duo, The Emily Portman Trio, The Coracle Band, Eliza Carthy’s Wayward Band, and the award-winning Furrow Collective. Her viola, vocal and saw (yes, saw) skills are in great demand, which is probably why the highly-anticipated solo career has been on the back burner for so long.
All that is set to change, however, as 2018 rumbles into view. With the Emily Portman Trio now on hiatus, and with the latest Wayward tour fading in the rear view mirror, Lucy is readying a single release on Andy Bell’s Hudson Records label, followed by an album (or, quite possibly, two) in the opening months of the New Year. We caught up in a coffee shop opposite the Union Chapel just before the Wayward Band’s last London performance of 2017, our mission to find out as much as about Lucy Farrell as we could in a few pre-gig minutes.
I first saw you as a member of the Furrow Collective at Normafest, 2017, and then saw you in a number of sessions throughout the festival. You seem to get about a bit!
Yes… it’s a bit weird, isn’t it? The Furrow Collective was created as a kind of outlet for purely traditional stuff. All of us have played together in different realms beforehand. There was The Emily Portman Trio, which was obviously all Emily’s stuff, and before that, Johnny, Rachel Newton and I used to play together. We had the worst name ever. We were called The Vicars of Blyth… it was when we were at university, and just after. We just started chatting about [the lack of traditional stuff they were doing], and me and Emily would quite often get together and drink lots of tea and just sing the saddest songs we knew. Traditional stuff was always something we’d throw in occasionally, but it always felt like a spare thing. At some point we just said, “Let’s just record what we know”. We asked Ali [Alisdair Roberts] to join in, and that was the beginning of that.
Was Ali at university with you?
No, he wasn’t, but his girlfriend at the time used to live on my street in Newcastle. Emily used to live around the corner and me and Rachel Newton used to live together, so we’d see him on the street, and occasionally we’d do support for him. I remember us all being, like, “Oh my god! He’s amazing!” and Emily would be like, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could tour with him?!” I think Emily did some vocals on one of his albums once, and in the end we decided to go for it – to just ask him. What was the worst that could happen? He said, “Yeah, sure”, and we were [stunned silence; deer in the headlights face]… “GREAT!”
So, you went off to university to specifically study traditional folk music.
You’re one of those university-educated folk singers.
That’s quite a phenomenon, isn’t it?
Ha! Well, I don’t know if it makes me any more qualified. It has definitely put me in the right place. I wouldn’t be doing any of this if I hadn’t done that. I went off to art college initially, partly because I hadn’t done any music qualifications. There’s this hype at the end of school, isn’t there – “Go to university! Go to university!” So I went to art college and then realised that I didn’t really want to do art. I met some people at one of those French dancing weekends who were on the folk degree…
Hold on a moment… “One of those French dancing weekends”!?
Haha. Yeah, one of those.
Me and my mates are always on ’em. Can’t keep us away.
Haha! I used to live with French osteopathic students when I was a kid. My mum used to rent out rooms to them. As I got older, I’d befriend them, and they used to introduce me to French dancing. If you delve into your local village hall community, there’s bound to be a French dancing Sunday going on. It’s great!
So that’s basically how I got to the folk university degree: we found a little French dancing thing and there I met somebody in a folk degree hoodie. They told me all about it, so I quit art college, worked for a bit, went and sung some Richard Thompson songs at Alistair Anderson, and that was basically it.
Had you been a folkie? Did you have a folkie upbringing?
Yeah, my dad had been in the Seven Champions Molly Dancers – a strange brand of Morris Dancing – so we used to go to Sidmouth Folk Festival and various things when I was a kid. I definitely had it in my system. And I was lucky to get into that folk degree at the beginning, when you didn’t need too many qualifications. I met Rachel and Johnny, who were in my year, and a lot of other people. It was a good time.
You played with Johnny as a duo for a good long while. Do you still?
No, not really. He’s been trying to do his solo stuff. He got it in his head that he wanted to do a solo record, but it has taken him years! He’s still doing it! We haven’t played together for a long time, but we still chat. We got lucky meeting The Unthanks in a folk club in Newcastle, and they invited us to go and do some support for them. When they asked us to go on tour with them, we made a little record and that’s how we got off the ground. At the same time as that I was doing Emily and Rachel stuff, so I just kept going.
It seems as though all of the people on the traditional folk scene all seem to be doing four or five different things at once. Is that driven by artistic desires? Financial needs? An inability to stop?! I imagine if you’re a professional folk musician in this day and age you don’t earn a huge amount…
You don’t earn a huge amount, no. So that’s partly it – you do have to work a lot to make a living. I don’t have another job. I briefly had a teaching job, but it really made me go, “Oh, God, no!” I’ve been really lucky in that I haven’t had to take much work outside music so far. As my little boy gets older, other things might have to happen. I do other things that don’t make any money at all – I’ve started a little choir, and I run a folk club whenever I can – bits and bobs. I’ve also got this band, Gluepot, and then there’s the Furrows and Eliza. I do whatever I can.
You’re a viola player…
…yes, and saw. There can’t be many people out there playing the viola and saw. You’ve got that market nailed.
Yeah, basically [laughs]. I was really lucky getting the viola, actually. I bought one in a junk shop when I was 16, and that just sorted me out.
Did you play at the time?
I could play a bit on the fiddle. I started the fiddle quite late – when I was 13, or something. When I got the viola, I just liked it a lot more. I was never really into the fast tunes. For me, it was more about the singing and accompanying. It worked out pretty well in the end. I’m only in Eliza’s Wayward Band because of the viola! [Laughs] They wanted a string section, and that was where I stepped in.
When did you first encounter Eliza? You must’ve known about her before you played with her.
Yeah, and that’s weird. Sometimes I look up and I think, “Isn’t it strange that I’m playing with Eliza Carthy?!” She’s such a name – and I knew that name from my childhood; from when I was growing up. I used to do duo stuff with Kate Young at university, and our violin teacher curated a gig with me, Kate, Eliza and Bella Hardy. That was the first time I met her, and we all got on well and decided to make a record as Laylam. I guess, a couple of years after that, she asked me to do the Wayward thing. As you know, everyone knows everyone in this world.
Yes, it seems a bit like freelancing. If you work well with a certain group of people, you often get asked back. As long as they’ve got a career, then everyone else does.
Haha! Yes, that’s true.
You’re in the middle of the Wayward tour at the moment and Eliza keeps tweeting that this could be the last chance to see you all. Is this the end?
Actually, a few people have asked me that today. I don’t know if I’ve missed the memo…
— Eliza Carthy MBE (@elizacarthy) November 30, 2017
Haha! After the summer, Lucy, all this is over. Just thought you should know!
Argh! Well, we have a 12-piece band, a couple of sound engineers, a very vital tour manager. It’s a massive operation.
It can’t be easy to keep something like that running, financially speaking.
Right, but we are rehearsing new material. We’ll see how it goes. It’s such fun, playing together.
Yes, it’s quite clear that you all have great fun doing it.
Absolutely. It’s amazing.
I’ve seen you several times with the Wayward Band this year, and I’ve also seen you with the Furrow Collective and Emily’s Coracle Band. What’s the difference in playing with each of those groups?
Erm. Well, the Wayward Band requires a lot of jumping and screaming! It’s certainly a different way of playing.
It gets fairly heavy, doesn’t it?
Yeah, it does, and that’s interesting because my background has always been mainly about the songs. The Furrow Collective is really song-led, and very sparse. It’s not something intentional – it just happens that way. Then there’s Emily’s stuff, which is… not choral, exactly, but it’s like a puzzle. We’ve been playing together for 10 years, and we’ve really got into knowing how to play with each other and how to sing with each other – close harmonies, and that kind of thing.
Emily is an interesting one, because she’s known as a celebrated folk singer, but a lot of what she does isn’t traditional at all. She performs a lot of her own stuff.
Yes, although she’s like a library of traditional songs. Her and Ali. When we’re with the Furrows, they really go for it, nattering away about every version of every Child ballad. It’s great, but me and Rachel are like, “Shall we just make the tea?” But when Emily first started writing and releasing stuff – The Glamoury, for instance – it was all about stories and exploring her love of folklore. Later on, Coracle was a lot more about her experiences, but still drawing on that folkie, storytelling thing.
So, in that band I’m part of the backing for Emily. In the Furrows, we’re taking turns. It’s such a relaxing band to be in. We’re about to make another record, so you’ll just bring three or four songs, and the whole ethos is that the first take is the best.
Do you have to rehearse those takes, or does it all come naturally?
We did have a little rehearsal back in October. I dunno – I’ve just got it in my head that if it doesn’t work the first time then that’s just it: it doesn’t work. The first time we ever rehearsed all together we had about 56 songs, so we can afford to be ruthless.
When you say you have 56 songs, do you all just sit there saying, “I wanna do this one, this one and this one”, and then it all goes on a spreadsheet…
No! No spreadsheets! Emily loves a spreadsheet, actually, but spreadsheets terrify me. We all just sit around, drink tea, and singing songs.
So, when you say you had 56 songs…
…I’m really starting to doubt that number now! There was a lot. Mainly from Ali. He’ll play, literally, all day. He’ll be playing and somebody will be cooking, and we’ll just go, “Oh, that’s nice. That’s a good one.”
So, for this new record we’re about to make, we got these songs together and they were the happiest bunch of songs ever. We were all like, “What’s going on!?”
Are they all traditional?
Yeah, all traditional, and hardly any murders!
That’s not folk music, then.
Haha! I know, right? And then there’s the Wayward Band. Every time you play with somebody new, it brings out something new in you. You learn to do something else. I entered the Wayward Band going, “Oh my god, I can’t do this stuff”. But then you find your place in it. The process of recording that album was wonderful for me. I really learnt a lot. There are so many people, and so many riffs and tunes, and I really learnt how it all gets put together. People would be coming up with ideas, and the producer was great – so encouraging. The harmonies… wow! I like being part of the cog-work.
With the Wayward Band, does Eliza bring songs and arrangements, or do you all sit around and work things out? It must be hard to get 12 jobbing musicians to sit around and rehearse.
We all went to The Convent – a boutique hotel in Stroud where they used to put gigs on. Eliza was the artist in residence there, or something, and the guy who ran it really loved having us there. We had a week or so practising. For a few of the songs, Eliza brought the words and tunes. I wrote the tune for ‘Devil in the Woman’. She had the words and she said, “Right, we need a tune for this.” Me and Loz worked out that we needed a jig. He set up a beat, and I just made up the tune. Actually, that was late night at her house in Robin Hood’s Bay. It happens in a lot of ways – lots of making it up on the trot.
There are so many parts going on. Sitting and listening to it, it’s quite hard to imagine how it all comes together when it’s clearly not a band that lives and works and plays together all the time.
You do get quicker at doing it. We’re doing a couple of new things and having a couple of rehearsals. The way it happens now is that Saul, Eliza and Dave will get together and kind of come up with the basic arrangement, and then we all fit around it. We all work in sections, so we’ll go off and work out what works. Then we come together. Sam’s really good at saying, “We need a little stop here”, or pulling rhythms this way or that. So, yeah – if you think about it in terms of sections, it’s easier to digest. It is massive.
And then, of course, you have all your solo stuff coming out soon.
You’re in the interesting position of having been a cover star for fRoots Magazine, without having ever released a solo record.
Yes, well Ian Anderson was forever going on at me about releasing my own album. I started recording with Andy Bell, and I think Andy tweeted about it. Ian was like, “Right! Come on! Time to do an fRoots story!” I was saying, “I don’t know when it’ll be out,” but he said it was all fine. So I did that, and then… Well, life happens. We all get so busy.
I love songs, and I love writing songs, but for a long time I haven’t performed any. That’s partly because I was playing in other peoples’ bands, and it didn’t feel it necessary to push them out. Then Andy got on a roll, so I invited Barn [the bass player from the Wayward Band] and Loz [percussion], and a few other people to come to the studio. Andy was producing it, and it all came out like this synth-pop thing, and I was like, “Jeeezus!”
So, you’ve made a synth-pop album?!
I say synth-pop, although I’m not really sure what that means. It’s bass, drums, electronic stuff… vocoder-ed trombone. Plus tenor guitar. It sounds great, but I’m sure if it was just me it would’ve happened quicker.
So, it’s your songs? Original stuff?
Yeah. I always kept my traditional stuff and my original songwriting stuff very separate. It’s only now that I’ve thought that it’s all fine – it’s all from me and that’s OK. It was a slow process wondering whether I should keep it all separate, although I guess it’s still separate in my mind. I’ve done this songwriting album, but I’m also working on this trad album…
Wow! You are busy!
Yeah, Andy said I should make a trad album as well. [Laughs] It was like, “Now you’ve done your synth-pop album, it’s time to get back to the trad”! After being in that mindset of writing songs, it felt really weird to start thinking about trad stuff. Plus, I’ve got the Furrows as that outlet. So, what I’m doing for the trad album is I’m really examining what it is that I like about each song – why I really want to sing it.
Give me an example of a traditional folk song that you’ve taken through that process.
Well, the first one I did was ‘The Wife at Usher’s Well‘. It’s a massive ballad, and it has been on my mind for sometime but I haven’t really sung it out. It’s about a woman who sends her children away to school ‘to learn their grammarie’. While they’re there, they get the plague and die.
Yes. Anyway, one of the things I liked about it was that I like the symbolism of birds in folk songs. In this song it’s the lark, and the lark is the plague. That’s what got me interested. In the song, she’s saying how she misses her dead children and how she’d give anything to see them again, and then they come back for Christmas and she’s really happy. She makes their beds and makes them food. The words of the song are so full of weird things, and it all ends with them flying away over her head and back to heaven.
Anyway, I started wondering why this song was on my mind all the time – what is it that draws me to it? At the time, my brother had just had a baby and I’d gone to see it with my son Edwin, who’s now four, and I started thinking about that weird hush that falls when there’s a new baby around, and I remembered that it was like that with Edwin. And then I looked at Edwin and thought about how he’d been a baby and he was a massive great person now – and the elasticity of time. I started thinking about all of that in terms of the mother in the song.
So, it’s the conceptual aspects that caught you rather than the melody?
Although the melody must’ve caught you, too.
Yes, but I’ve done something completely different with it. I guess this is all connected to the songs that I write. They are very “I” – about exploring my emotions. I just have to go through that process. Maybe something different will happen later. I just try to be honest. That works better.
Has the trad album been recorded yet?
We’ve started it, but Andy has become very busy.
He’s hugely in demand, isn’t he?
He is, which is great.
You’re doing a mini tour in January as a solo artist. What should people coming to your shows expect? Synth-pop?
Haha! No. There may be some stamping…
It’s just you, isn’t it?
It’s just me, although I’m thinking about bringing Andrew Waite [The Wayward Band] on the piano-accordion. We’ve been doing some playing together. The thing with the tenor guitar is that there’s no bottom end, and after having been in bands for so long, you start to think you’d like the support of someone doing something underneath so that you can just chill out and do your thing on top. I’ll be doing my own songs, some trad stuff and maybe some bits and bobs from the Furrows.
What’s the first folk song that caught you and got under your skin?
Ooooh! Let me think about this. I was always into Richard Thompson, so it could be a Richard Thompson thing, although, I remember my dad playing me a Bert Lloyd album once, and there’s a song about a demon… I never learnt it…
Oh, hold on! When I went to university, Sandra Kerr taught me a song called ‘Child Owlet‘. Do you know it?
I’ve never heard it, no.
It’s a terrifying song. It’s about this woman who fancied this guy, and she says, “lets go and make out”, and he says, “no”. She’s a queen and he’s a lowly commoner. And so she gets really mad, ties him to four horses and sends him over the moors.
Yeah! I remember listening to it and thinking, “Gaaah! This is the most terrifying thing!” Things like ‘Long Lankin‘ as well. It’s the most gruesome thing.
One I’ve been listening to a lot recently is ‘Geordie‘. It’s the same kind of thing. It gets you wondering. The woman in the song says that Geordie didn’t do anything – that he’s innocent – and then says that he sold the king’s wild deer. So he did do it! What’s going on?!
I do that song, actually. It’s set in Shooter’s Hill in what was then Kent, not far from where I come from. Yeah, it’s a weird one. “But he’s a nice guy, and he can run really fast! Let him go!” I love that tune as well. I remember someone talking to me about that song – I think it was Shirley Collins – and she said she could rip up every verse and then put it together at random and it would still make complete sense. It doesn’t matter what order you sing the verses in.
A bit like David Bowie, then?! Ha! Shirley Collins is the David Bowie of folk music. Who knew?
Now then. Explain the saw.
Ah, yes. I was watching Delicatessen with my dad and there’s a scene with one. We looked at each other and said, “Does that actually work?” So we went and got a saw out of the shed and started playing it.
And by the end of the evening you were a virtuoso?
Yes, very much in demand. [Laughs] I played it with Johnny a bit, whenever we did some spooky songs. Yep… it’s got me where I am today!
It’s a wonderful instrument. I was going to say that there needs to be more saw players in the world, but that would take from your business.
Well, there’s a saw player in The Unthanks. Jo Silverston – she plays cello, but she also plays the saw. We thought we ought to do some duos, but actually it’s the most piercing sound. We were trying to sing Christmas carols with two saws. Gah! It was the most hideous sound.
How do you get a saw onto a transatlantic flight?
You put it in the hold.
Yeah, I can’t imagine they let it on as hand luggage!
Well, the first time I took it on a plane it was just in the back of my fiddle case. They were like, “What the… what the hell are you doing?!” I’d forgotten all about it.
Hahaha! Easy mistake to make. So, when does the album come out, and does it have saw on it?
Which album? The synth-pop, or… haha!
I assume the synth-pop is the only one that’s ready.
We want to put a single out in January, a song called ‘Only Sound’, which is a merging of ideas. It’s about my neighbours, basically. Two little boys and their mum, and they always make a racket, just as me and Edwin must do. We don’t really know them, so we don’t talk to them very much. I remember the morning that I started writing this song, I woke up and I could hear her boys singing, [robot voice] “I like to move it, move it. I like to move it, move it.” I thought, wow! I can hear all this stuff, but I don’t know anything more about them. And I started to think about relationships and how you can be really close to people and not know what’s going on. It’s the combination of those two ideas.
That’s a great subject. I lived in Dubai as a journalist for a while, and for the first few months I was put up in a hotel – a bit like Alan Partridge in his grief hole. There was a guy next door who used to bring prostitutes home every night. Let’s just say the walls were thin. Every morning we’d see each other in the corridor or say hello over breakfast, and I’d just be thinking, “I don’t know you, but I was awake until 2 o’clock this morning because of you. And the things I do know…!”
Yeah, yeah! Exactly! It’s an interesting thought. We all live so close, and yet the things we don’t know… It makes you think.
For more info on Lucy Farrell and her forthcoming synth-pop and trad albums, keep up-to-date via lucyfarrellmusic.com, her Twitter account or her Facebook page. You can find out more about the Furrow Collective at thefurrowcollective.co.uk and the Wayward Band at elizawayward.com.