Hannah James & Sam Sweeney first collaborated together in Kerfuffle in their pre-teens and most recently on their second album State and Ancientry. They both cut their teeth on the folk club circuit and have gone on to appear in many other projects. Sam is probably best known as a current member of Bellowhead and Hannah is currently in the all girl trio ‘Lady Maisery’ along with Hazel Askew (The Askew Sisters, The Artisans) and Rowan Rheingans (Fidola). She is also a well known clog dancer and has performed in Damien Barber’s ‘Time Gentlemen Please’ which merges street dancing with tradtional dance.
Both artists are very in touch with the English folk scene as well as being equally adept at bringing a modern twist to their music that attracts both longtime advocates of the tradtional music scene as well as newcomers. They kindly set aside some time to give us an insight into their backgrounds as well as the twists and turns that have led them to cross paths and where they are today.
Background & Introduction to the Folk Music Scene
Hannah: I was brought up in a folkie household. My mum played a big part in the local folk dance scene and my dad organised the feet first festival in matlock so there were always musical things happening around me, and for some reason I never rebelled against it!
Sam: My parents have always listened to a wide range of music, and folk albums were often played on the stereo at home. At the age of six I had a go on my friend’s fiddle and I got on really well with the instrument, so a couple of weeks later I began lessons at school. Whilst doing my grades at school, I began to play folk tunes I had picked up by ear at home, and so I taught myself a small repertoire of mainly Irish tunes. My parents have always been incredibly encouraging, and they used to drive me up and down the country to as many sessions, gigs and workshops as possible. Without them, I wouldn’t be as experienced as I am now, so I owe them a huge amount.
First Public Performance
Hannah: I performed in shows at my dance schools from when I was very little and then used to sing and dance out with my mum’s dance teams.
My first public performance on the accordion was at the Beehive folk club in Hearthill. I played ‘Tantika’ by Jo Frayer. I went back and performed there regularly until I moved away and it’s still my favourite folk club.
Sam: My first gig was a floor spot at the Carlton Folk Club, near Nottingham, supporting Ben & Joe Broughton, at the age of ten. After that, I entered a few competitions at the age of eleven and the prizes for those were gigs at Trowbridge and Chippenham festivals, so in the summer of 2001 I played to a few hundred people on my own – something I wouldn’t have the nerve to do nowadays!
Hannah: I did start to study on the folk degree in Newcastle but decided it really wasn’t for me (think that’s a question for a different interview!) But I did go on an exchange to the Sibelius academy in Helsinki which had a huge influence over the music I play; especially my singing. They have a very open minded approach to folk music over there which makes you feel very free to find your own musical direction.
Sam: I went to study on the Folk & Traditional Music degree in Newcastle, but I left after only four weeks so I’m not really in a position to say that it helped me. However, leaving the course did enable me to do a lot more gigging and I began to actively replace what the course would have given me, in my own time, so I started to read some of the course books and started to learn a lot more about the music and its history.
It was through Kerfuffle that we first heard of Sam and Hannah and we played a series of their albums on Folk Radio UK.
Sam: In 2001 (aged 11) I entered the In The Tradition award in Derby and won, so I went back the following year to play as the previous year’s winner. Hannah entered in 2002 and we ended up playing together, along with my brother Tom, in the foyer of the venue. A couple of weeks later we met up again, as a three piece, to play some more tunes and we entered the Wiltshire Folk Association Young Folk Award together. We won that and got a bunch of festival gigs as a result. For those 2002 festivals we got Chris Thornton Smith to play guitar with us and he did that for five or so years, until 2007 when he left and Jamie Roberts came in for To The Ground and Lighten The Dark. It was a great band, and one I miss playing with very much!
Hannah: After learning clog and Appalachian step dancing from my mum I joined a fantastic group called the Fosbrooks in Stockport. The Fosbrooks have been going since the 1920s and are now run by the fantastic Liza Austin Strange. This was a very important thing for me to do as I was suddenly around people my own age who were playing music and clog dancing and got the feeling that I was past of something much bigger. I also Started to play the accordion with the Fosbrooks so it’s all down to that really!
Yes [I've noticed a growth in clogging]. I’ve recently been running a series of beginners’ clog workshops because so many people have been getting in touch to ask where they can learn. I think the recent TV publicity has helped a lot. It’s all very encouraging.
Hannah performing in ‘Time Gentlemen Please’
Hannah: I’ve known Rowan [Rheingans] and Hazel [Askew] from the young folk scene for a long time but a couple of years ago, Hazel mentioned to me that she’d really like to start a female vocal group. We had the idea for quite a long time before we finally found Rowan, who has a great, low voice, and started putting some ideas together. We really have a lot of fun and it’s very different being in an all girl band!
Sam: I was in the last few months of my sixth form education when I got a call from Jon Boden asking if I could dep for Giles Lewin [in Bellowhead] at the reopening of the South Bank Centre. I jumped at the chance but had to learn the English Bagpipes for the gig, which was only six weeks away. I then did five more depping gigs with the band a few months later on their Autumn tour. Then, the following January, Giles left the band and I joined the band full time. If I had to pick a highlight, I would probably say playing Green Man Festival last summer. It’s an amazing festival in the Brecon Beacons with incredible scenery, and an atmosphere to match. The crowd was absolutely incredible from the second we walked on stage and I can’t wait to go back.
State & Ancientry
Hannah: The material has come together over quite a long period of time for this album. Some tunes and songs just appeared out of out back catalogues (if you like) when we were playing together, some are our own compositions and some are from books and source recordings. It’s hard to say what makes a song suitable for the duo but we generally know straight away whether something is going to suit us.
Sam: I sourced the majority of the tunes for the album. There are three tunes from Playford, two from The Great Northern Tune Book, two of Hannah’s compositions, and one of mine. When it comes to tune hunting, I take a manuscript or tune book and flick through it as quick as possible. If by playing it once it leaps off the page at me, then the chances are it will have the same effect on an audience. If you have to play a tune thirty times before it sticks, then it’s probably not a tune that will immediately appeal to a listener.
Holy Moly Session:
Favourite Track on State & Ancientry
Hannah: I think my favourite track is the tune set, How Do You Do/Gallons of Cognac. I love the second tune which is a composition of Sam’s and I think it really shows the musical connection that we’ve always had, ever since meeting in Derby.
Sam: My favourite track is definitely The Hole In The Wall. I love a lot of the tunes from the late seventeenth century as the boundaries between baroque classical pieces and folk tunes were often quite blurred. I fell in love with this tune when I first heard it, and Hannah’s new accordion makes the track sound enormous.
New Folk Talent
Hannah: There are SO many amazing musicians coming up at the moment but a few things that have really impressed me recently are the trio, Moor Moss Rutter, A fantastic EP from multi instrumentalist, Jim Molynoux, and a very long awaited second album from Sue Brown and lorraine Irwing which has just been launched.
Sam: The Young’Uns are brilliant. I saw them a few times last summer, as well as working with them on The Transports, and they are not only brilliant traditional singers but they are one of the funniest acts around. Maz O’Connor has a gorgeous voice and having heard bits of her new album, I think it is going to be really special. I also listened to the whole of James Findlay‘s album the other day. He is a fantastic solo act and should be booked at every club and festival in the country. There is some great talent at the moment but it always surprises me how few young performers there are on the circuit. In a scene that is screaming out for young people to grab the tradition and run with it, there are only a handful of people actually doing it.
27th April – Guildford Folk Club
28th April – Whitchurch Leisure Centre, Shropshire
30th April – Colchester Arts Centre
1st May – Great Knight Folk Club, Northampton
7th May – Bristol Folk Festival
10th May – The Musician, Leicester
11th May – Bridgwater Arts Centre
12th May – Wiveliscombe Congregational Church
13th May – Square Chapel, Halifax
16th May – Liverpool Philharmonic Hall
17th May – Bury Met
18th May – Culterham Hall, Mawbray, Cumbria
19th May – Santon Bridge Village Hall, Cumbria
20th May – The Kirkgate Centre, Cockermouth, Cumbria
23rd May – The Old Ship Inn, Lowdham, Notts
21st June – Folk At The Hut, Powerstock, Dorset
22nd June – The Stables, Milton Keynes
23rd June – Celtic Fringe Festival, Sligo, Ireland
3rd July – Garforth Men’s Working Club, Garforth, Leeds
18th August – Beautiful Days Festival