Jim Moray is well known for being daring and adventurous in his approach to making folk music. I’ve always found this an admirable quality of his work as you never know what is coming next. His latest release ‘Skulk’ really does reach the pinnacle of his work and is by far his most accessible piece of work to date. As he says: “I honestly believe that there’s something there for everyone that likes folk music in some form”. We couldn’t agree more and he has put his money where his mouth is by pre-releasing the album on Bandcamp for all to hear in full before it’s physical release.
Jim’s music has featured on Folk Radio UK for a long time now so we thought it was about time we caught up with the man to talk about his new release which features a number of guest artists (including sister Jackie Oates) as well as some unexpected covers such as Big Love by Fleetwood Mac.
A Skulk is a collective noun for foxes. There are foxes that live on Brandon Hill in Bristol, around Cabot tower and I started to see them quite a bit. Then I worked on adapting an idea that exists in a few traditional songs into a song about going to live with them and leaving a human form behind. Sort of a mix of lycanthropy and Scottish myths like the great silkie. The fox in the photos is called Sorrel and is one of the few acting foxes in the UK. She’s been in adverts and on tv quite a lot. It turns out that there’s a big private zoo in Oxfordshire where loads of animals for film and tv live. The company told me that they had the worlds only acting polar bear too. Some of the animals (like their badger) can be trained once and then will be able to follow commands whenever you need them, but apparently if you don’t work with the foxes every few days they’ll stop doing their tricks and you have to go back to square one.
The aim was originally to make a solo acoustic album to reflect the folk clubs or arts centres that I play solo between band tours. But it quickly moved towards being an acoustically-based but expanded album as I started to record. From my point of view the real departure is in the two Child Ballads – Lord Douglas and Hind Etin – and the reconstruction work that I did. People like Martin Carthy and Nic Jones, and more lately Chris Wood, set a standard of sympathetically rebuilding songs from texts that would otherwise have been unperformable, but it takes a lot of skill and knowledge to be successful. After ten years of work it’s the first time I’ve really felt confident to do that and get every word in the right place.
I’d been working with Andy Cutting in the Cecil Sharp Project, and he’s such a sympathetic accompanist that it was an obvious choice to get him on this album. Similarly, BJ Cole is one of the best pedal steel guitar players in the world and I’ve wanted to work with him for a long time. Tim Harries has played bass for June Tabor for a long time, and is also Brian Eno’s choice of double bassist so he seemed right for the more experimental acoustic stuff. And then I really wanted some jazz horn players who were into working with electronics and everybody pointed me towards Jake McMurchie and Pete Judge. The great thing about Jake and Pete is that they’ve both covered a lot of ground – Jake has played in a jump jive band so knew all the licks for the bonus track (Hog Eye Man), but if I asked him to make a noise like a broken coffee machine through a delay pedal he wasn’t daunted. It was a slight nod towards the trumpet and sax on John Martyn and David Sylvian records where its all sort-of floating over the backing.
We pre-released the last album by giving it away with Songlines, and I enjoyed some aspect of that but not others. From a financial point of view it allows me to not be in loads of debt just to put it out, even if it takes a while to actually make money. From a critical point of view it allows everyone to make up their own mind based on what it sounds like, rather than being influenced either way by reviews in magazines or newspapers. In some ways you have to have balls to allow people to hear the whole album before deciding whether or not to buy, but at least you can separate out the people for whom its not really their thing before they part with any money. And I’m confident that this is the most accessible and coherent album I’ve made – I honestly believe that there’s something there for everyone that likes folk music in some form.
Track by Track
The Captain’s Apprentice
The Captain’s Apprentice was collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams from a fisherman called Duggie Carter. It’s got a lot of similarities with the plot of Benjamin Brittens opera Peter Grimes.
The Golden Glove
The Golden Glove comes from Nic Jones, but is set in Tamworth in Staffordshire near where I grew up. That’s probably the track that has the most links with the kind of sound on my earlier albums.
If It’s True
If It’s True was written by Anais Mitchell from her folk opera Hadestown. She invited me to sing the role of Orpheus when it came to London, and I enjoyed singing the song so much I wanted to record my own version. The original recording was by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and quite dark and almost low-key, so I wanted to make it a lot more British sounding as a contrast.
Lord Douglas is a new variant of a Child Ballad called Earl Brand. It’s a ballad with a great plot, and many European versions, but I’ve never heard it sung by another revival folk performer. I wrote a new tune and added and changed a lot of words to get it to sit right.
Horkstow Grange is one of the Joseph Taylor songs. I’ve recorded a lot of songs that were collected from him, and they were all originally recorded on wax cylinder by Percy Grainger in the early 1900s. It’s also the song that Steeleye Span got their name from.
Hind Etin is another reconstructed Child Ballad. It has similarities with Tam Lin, apart from with a more malicious intent on the part of the forest-dweller. In most versions I found there was what is now known as ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ where she eventually falls in love with her kidnapper, but the song could have gone on for half an hour if I’d have included that, so I’ve split it off into a forthcoming part 2…
Big Love is by Fleetwood Mac, and was just an experiment when I picked up the banjo one day.
The 18th of June
The 18th of June is from a singer called Henry Burstow in sussex. I learnt it from footage of Martin Carthy singing in a BBC Play about the Napoleonic wars, but Martin later told me that he learnt it from Mike Waterson who had changed it quite a bit. The track features Tim Harries on ‘prepared bass’ which was incredibly visual – bits of metal and wood threaded into the strings and played with all sorts of objects.
Courting is a Pleasure
Courting is a Pleasure is another Nic Jones song. I worked a version on baritone guitar out for the Nic Jones tribute concerts at Sidmouth and South Bank but ended up doing other songs instead. This got crossed with a John Martyn influence when the trumpet and saxophone were put on.
Seven Long Years
Seven Long Years is from Northern Ireland, and was learnt from an album by Nick Dow. I wanted something with a bit of an uplifting spirit to end, and I had an idea for something with a wordless refrain for an audience to join in with at bigger gigs (see below).
Album Tour Dates?
I’ve got a first gig at Twickenham Folk Club on February the 26th, and then a run of dates starting in Whitstable in Kent on the 9th March going all the way to Kings Place in London on April the 20th. All the dates are listed on my website and I’m roughly covering most of the England. And then festivals are staring to come in for the summer, and I’ve got some really nice slots confirmed with more coming together.
Your recent trip to Vietnam?
We were invited to go to Vietnam to represent the UK at the UNESCO International Congress. The musical director had apparently requested us personally out of a list of folk acts, so the British Council organised for us to play a short tour of the country. Not very many acts go to Vietnam unless they are huge stars playing the Stadium outside Hanoi – Lady Gaga had played a few weeks before we visited – so we were treated like celebrities and our gig in Ho Chi Minh city was sold out. It was a wonderful opportunity and the people we met were so lovely that we’d love to go back. At the final concert we were supported by a few former finalists from Vietnam Idol, the equivalent of X Factor, playing acoustic songs and despite the language barrier, the audience were really enthusiastic. The British Council do great stuff with taking artists to other countries, so we were really privileged to be invited.
un, 26th February – Twickenham
Fri, 9th March – Whitstable
Sat, 10th March – Southwell
Sun, 11th March – Cambridge
Mon, 12th March – Colchester
Wed, 14th March – Leicester
Fri, 16th March – Corsham
Sun, 18th March – Exeter
Tue, 20th March – Reading
Wed, 21st March – Chichester
Fri, 23rd March – Hull
Sat, 24th March – Knaresborough
Fri, 30th March – Cockermouth
Sat, 31st March – Shrewsbury
Wed, 11th April – Aldershot
Tue, 17th April – Manchester
Wed, 18th April – Liverpool
Fri, 20th April – London
Sat, 9th June – Trelawnydd
Sat, 28th July – Warwick
Sat, 25th August – Shrewsbury