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The Tradition: An interview with Fay Hield

The Tradition: An interview with Fay Hield

by on 2 December, 2011

in Interviews

Earlier this year we caught up with Fay Hield before her performance at the wonderfully intimate Priddy Folk Festival. We talked about her debut solo album Looking Glass, the process of choosing traditional folk songs, the folk scene and English folk singing as well as her plans for the future: including a new album and her stunning new band line-up for 2012!

Fay Hield has never aspired to become a big commercial act, for starters she is a mother and is also married to Jon Boden which makes tour schedules incredibly difficult to manage. She seems to be a believer in letting things evolve organically, her singing history seems somewhat fated, from the forming and break up of Witches of Elswick to the decision to release a début solo album on Topic Records. One thing is certain, she’s a very inspiring young woman and a perfect torch bearer for the English folk tradition.

Début Solo Release: Looking Glass

When I finished my PhD people were asking me what was I going to do, I’d done the stuff with ‘The Witches’ [The witches of Elswick] and I hadn’t had a solo record, I decided that if I was going to do the solo thing then I needed to do it now or I’d be hitting forty by the time I get around to doing it.

I never particularly wanted to be a full time solo giging artist so it was just a to-do really, we made it and recorded it all and we were about to put it out on our own label [Fay Hield’s and Jon Boden’s], but rather than do all our own promo we decided Topic would be brilliant. I wasn’t launching myself as a big act and the respect and quality [of Topic] gave me that solidity and a it was a lovely feeling to be on that label.

PHD in ‘English Folk Singing and the Construction of Community

I love the folk scene and folk singing and I was looking at fieldwork in what people are doing now. I’m aware that many people feel the folk scene is in decline and spiralling downwards, including some of those in it, and many on the outside are cynical and sarcastic about it. I just thought “what is it that makes it so brilliant?” and how does that work for people, in the hope that I could use that to convince others that it is good, valuable and brilliant.

That’s where it started from and it came down to a sense of community, that was the term I used, I’m not trying to paint this idylic picture, it’s poles apart from how other people have used the term community because folksingers don’t call themselves a community, I’m not pretending that’s going on.

I looked at the whys and hows and the border around it, it is quite difficult to get into it but once you’re in it’s brilliant. Having enough knowledge in order to join in, knowledge in terms of what songs to sing, how to behave or even finding sessions and sing-arounds, it’s all advertised within small circles which you have to have tapped into.

Introduction to the Folk Scene

My Dad used to play at Bacca Pipes Folk Club, my mum died when I was a teenager and a lot of the regulars there took me and my sister under their wing so they’re a very extended family to me, there’s a feeling of community and family, commitment to eachother rather than just a musical social scene.

The Current Folk Scene

Every now and then there is a newspaper article about nu-folk, a new folk scene or a big revival in the music of Shirley Collins, I think there are a lot of people who get into folk music and hear it through the revival recordings but I’m not sure they’ve really created another scene. Some of them are permeating the established folk scene but they seem to come and go and filter in, there’s loads of hype about it and the interest. There are a lot of people that love the sense of tradition and oldness and making music for yourself which has two strands to it that don’t necessarily tie together particularly, apart from how it works in practice. There’s a move towards it in everything, everyone is into vintage clothes, making bunting…it’s broader than music, it’s ‘cool’ to be ‘roots’ again. I don’t know if it’s a fad, it’s happening more broader than the children of the revival enthusiasts generation link, which is great [but] I don’t know how that translates into festival ticket sales.

Picking Songs and the New Album

I have a new album that is due out on Topic about late Spring (due out in May 2012) but I haven’t got a title for it yet. I looked at some other old stuff again, I’ve got about 15 tracks but I don’t know how many will make it onto the album yet. I may talk about one that doesn’t end up on it but I’ve got one that I’m singing tonight called ‘The Wicked Serpent‘ which is apparently one of America’s oldest folksongs. It’s about a rattlesnake poisoning, it happened to a man in massachusetts and there are lots of versions of it from comedy versions that became slapstick songs, but it’s an old song and it has those tragic ballad versions as well. It’s a true story and it’s from a book called ‘The Viking Book Of Folk Ballads Of The English-Speaking World‘ which is a great book it has American, Canadian and Australian songs in it.

I don’t really call what I do research, we’ve just got lots of books at home and we flick through them and find interesing things. Most of the songs that Jon sang on Folksong a Day he knew, the whole point of that was it was songs that were singable, they’re not all obscurites, they’re ones to promote the practice of communal singing so good choruses and that sort of thing.

Picking songs is tricky and it’s dibs on who gets what as well. Jon’s a lot more generous with his songs than I am. There’s a song Jon recently dug out that he recorded with Spiers and Boden called Mary Anne, I don’t think they gig it anymore so I want it back now…[laughs] anyway, there’s enough songs out there.

The tricky thing with albums is finding enough really lively material because naturally I’m a miserable unaccompanied ballad singer. Doing arrangements with instruments and lively numbers and picking your track list is when you become aware that you’re making a commercial album, but it’s good, I like the lively ones.

NEWS: Fay Hield & The Hurricane Party

Fans of Fay, and I know there are many, will be pleased to know that she has a second album due out on Topic Records in May 2012. On the album she has a new band line up, with Jon Boden and Andy Cutting joining Sam Sweeney and Rob Harbron as Fay Hield & The Hurricane Party, a band that will no doubt go down a storm!

Fay and the extended band will be appearing at festivals throughout 2012!

Also don’t miss:

– her appearance in The Woodbine and Ivy Band album. Read our 5 Star review here
– and her workshop at Martin Simpson’s Curated week at Kings Place.


Fay Hield & the Fay Hield Trio perform “The Lover’s Ghost” at Cecil Sharp House on 23 June 2011


For tour dates and more visit: www.fayhield.com

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