With their brand new album, The Hum, released today (17th February) O’Hooley & Tidow continue to build on their growing reputation with confident musical development. Calling on producer and muti-instrumentalist, Gerry Diver, The Hum is packed with songs that marry thoughtful and emotive lyrics with a fine set of tunes and sparkling, vibrant arrangements. Thematically the new release picks up from where The Fragile left off, but where that record concerned itself with the vulnerable, The Hum adds a sense of defiance, grit and also endurance.
O’Hooley & Tidow delight in taking a sidelong view of the world as the title track exemplifies. They’ve kindly given us this video to première and also taken some time out to tell us about the new record, the creative process and much more below. This performance of The Hum was filmed by Minster Studios in Holy Trinity Church, Leeds shows the duo in great voice too, as they head out on a UK tour. Don’t miss them.
I’m interested that you both share an Irish family background, although Heidi obviously has German roots. Does this play its hand in your music? If so how? How have families affected your music making both individually and together?
Belinda: Our Irish backgrounds have a massive influence on our music. From the melodies to the topics, to our traditional song choices. Come Down from the Moor explores the parallels between post famine Ireland and austerity Ireland, with my great grandmother Anne Murray’s singing interrupted by a call from the future, as her children’s children emigrate to distant lands for work.
Heidi: My dad’s family originate from Athenry Co. Galway and many of my relatives left Ireland for better lives in America and England. I believe the history of emigration in your blood has a big impact on the soul of your music. The feeling of always moving, the sadness of leaving home and of not fitting in. The Irish were treated with suspicion and prejudice when they started coming to England, which affects future generations of migrant families; similar to how Eastern European immigrants are being treated now. My Oma; Magda was German and used to play the accordion to me when I was a little girl, which has probably contributed to the European flavour of some of our songs. We’ve had comparisons to Brecht and Kurt Weil.
How would you say you have changed over the three albums you’ve made and how have you developed as artists? Do you naturally share a common vision or is there debate and even disagreement along the way?
Heidi: I think that The Hum is our most confident album yet. We feel with each album, we have grown in confidence, taken more risks and pushed ourselves harder. There was never an initial vision for our musical journey, it has evolved naturally. Since we brought out The Fragile in 2012, we toured like mad for 22 months, which has really strengthened our music craft – from our individual voices, to our harmonies and Belinda’s piano playing, to our story telling and engagement with the audience. We are really enjoying the journey and our motto is ‘we must continually strive to improve, and not rest on our laurels!’.
Belinda: We disagree about most things, which is why I think we both add different angles and perspectives to our songs. We are both passionate and feisty women and love a good debate; something that has helped create our best work.
There is a definite theme for this record. Do you pick the themes for the records before you start or do they just develop as you go?
Belinda: They just develop as we work on the songs. Certainly, Silent June was our first album together and includes some of my back catalogue as a solo performer, so less of a common thread here. I think when we had written The Fragile, we looked back at our clutch of songs and only then realised they all shared the common thread of fragility, which is how we decided on the title of the album (which is the first line of the song Mein Deern) With The Hum, there is still that fragility there, but there is also a strength and an anger towards the oppression and suppression of ordinary folk; the way we disrespect our environment and the joyful celebration of the grit and mettle of people standing up and protesting, often in quiet, subtle ways, such as using dilapidated spaces to brew proper ale; highlighted in our song Summat’s Brewin’.
Heidi: We live on a street which has a very strong community feel, of people supporting each other and an acceptance of diversity. There is a desire to maintain the beauty, history and character of this traditional Victorian street, whilst still being forward thinking and realistic about change; perhaps like modern folk music.
To lead on from that a little bit about the genesis of the songs, the inspirations and perhaps the way you work through ideas would be good. I’m intrigued for example by Summat’s Brewin’ (it’s an obvious choice because I’m an ale drinker), but did you talk to any of the brewers? What has their reaction to the song been? There are obviously bigger concerns on the album than just a decent pint!!
Ok here goes:
The Hum – Our neighbour told us about a sale of a house on our street which had fallen through because the prospective buyers had heard the humming sound of the local factory and said they couldn’t live with that noise. Our neighbour replied that the sound of the factory gives her comfort, as it’s the sound of people working. We both looked at each other and knew that what she had touched upon was a feeling that resonates in these times of austerity and job losses. How easy it is for some of us to discount the very core of what makes lives live-able. Work is the foundation of this. Also the irony of middle-classes coming into areas which were traditionally mill worker houses, without respecting that these areas exist due to the hard graft of our fore bearers and how petty in contrast, it seemed to turn their noses up at the humming of the local factory.
Just a Note – We fell in love with this Ewan MacColl song about the building of the M1 motorway from the singing of it by Lal & Marry Waterson. Their a cappella version is so beautifully northern and honest. In our version, we implement a systems piano motif to suggest the industrial sounds of the labourers working on the road, against the simple melody line of the song, sung by Heidi with a few of Belinda’s harmonies thrown in. Gerry Diver created a percussion loop using the real sound of a pneumatic drill, to further take the listener right up to the side of the road.
Summat’s Brewin’ – Both being fans of real ale, how could we not write a song about beer? It’s inspired by the real-ale revolution in Huddersfield, with a great number of micro-breweries popping up around town, two of our favourites; Mallinsons & Riverhead Brewery ales incidentally happen to be brewed by women (brewsters). For the video, we filmed inside Mallinsons Brewery, The Riverhead Brewery Tap, The Sportsman Arms and The Hand Drawn Monkey; they were all delighted to be included in the song. The Sportsman in Huddersfield which is a CAMRA award winning pub have really got behind us, nicknaming the song The Huddersfield Beer Anthem. The video has been shared in Germany, Italy, Texas, Canada, Australia & New Zealand – which is wonderful, and just shows how many people love good beer.
Two Mothers – We’ve always wanted to write a song about mothers – because they really don’t get the recognition that they deserve. Belinda was part of Jackie Oates’s Lullaby Project and she asked us to write a song that was relevant to lullabies. We decided to look at adoption, which lead us to the film Oranges & Sunshine; about the controversial child migration scheme that sent lots of young children to Commonwealth Countries away from their mothers, often to live in institutions. Our story is slightly more positive in that the baby in our song is re-homed with a new mother, but sadly never found her birth mother.
Peculiar Brood – This is another song which was inspired partly by a film. Paradise Now is about two young men, preparing to blow themselves up in the name of their beliefs. The song is from the perspective of one of the boy’s mothers. We use bird imagery in this song which stemmed from walking around our local reservoir and noticing a mother duck and her ducklings and then coming back a few days later to find that many of the ducklings had disappeared. Apparently this is nature’s way, but we were saddened by it.
Like Horses – Where we live in the Colne Valley, there are loads of horses and on our walks, we often stop to pet them. It occurred to us that horses are both powerful and gentle, which brought up feelings about humanity, masculinity and war. We wondered why humans can’t embody the best of both feminine and masculine traits. If the world was more feminine (We don’t mean female necessarily) or had a better balance between masculine and feminine, there would be less power imbalance, leading to less violence and less war.
Coil & Spring – A co-write with Chumbawamba’s Boff Whalley based on feminist punk band Pussy Riot’s act of protest against Putin and the church in Moscow. We wanted to celebrate their bravery in standing up to oppression and show solidarity from outside of Russia.
Ruins by the Shore – Our cover of the Nic Jones song. Being part of his trio has immersed both me and Heidi in the music and ethos of Nic, who likes people to cover his songs in original ways rather than just copy him. We love this song and feel its message has a real place on this album.
Kitsune – In ancient Japanese folklore, the Kitsune is a fox who turns into a woman. This inspired our love story of the album, but with a tragic conclusion. There are many levels to the song, but it’s main theme is of outsiders, forbidden relationships for example inter-faith, inter-class, homosexual, but that love sees no boundaries despite our very human prejudices. We also are intrigued at how foxes are perceived and this ties into the ongoing ostracising of asylum seekers. This song also has slightly different production methods to the rest of the album with a very modern, alien soundscape. Something we may further develop in the future.
Do you write well together or do you tend to work separately? How do you finalise the songs? Do you tend to write in bursts when an album is due or is it an ongoing process?
Belinda: We write together and separately, with most of the work evolving through discussions, walks and ruminations. We are not very prolific, preferring to really mull over ideas over time, which is why they are often multi-layered as new themes come and add substance or alternative perspectives to a song. We tend to write lyrics first and hone these as best we can, being each others worst critic (fortunately). Music comes later in general. Knowing that an album has a deadline obviously keeps us on our toes, and a bit of time pressure doesn’t hurt.
What was working with Gerry like? Why did you choose him? What do you think you have gained the most from his production techniques? Were there elements that surprised you?
Heidi: It was a very satisfying experience. We met him at the 2013 Folk Awards and realised we were fans of each other’s music. We love his concept album The Speech Project and he loves The Fragile. He said he would like to collaborate with us, which we loved the idea of. We chose him because we like the emotion in his music and his originality of arrangement and production. We feel that his instrumentation and production brought our songs to life; brought pictures to the words, colour, texture and a heightening of emotion. He came from such a different perspective, so each time we got a completed song back from him, we were completely and utterly blown away. We think he is a bit of a genius!
How will you approach the coming live shows, will there be an expanded line up or will everything be stripped back again?
Belinda: For most of the shows, we have developed the arrangements for piano and voices – which sounds like they are going to be stripped back. We’ve worked hard to bring another dimension to the songs, which is completely different to just simply removing the extra instrumentation, and we are really excited about this. For our London album launch on Monday 31st March at St Pancras Old Church, we have invited Gerry Diver to come and play with us. So that will be a very different and unique evening.
I have to ask what you feel about idealism in music today? My feeling is that it’s there if you look for it, but the big gestures seem to have disappeared. Is that fair? Tell me a little about people you admire?
Heidi: I think in the folk world, there are still some performers and songwriters carrying the torch of protest singers including Chris Wood, Lady Maisery, Lucy Ward, Coope Boyes & Simpson, Roy Bailey, Grace Petrie, Ewan McLennan, Show of Hands, Oysterband and June Tabor. It would be great if more of our young folk performers would step up and give a voice to ordinary people. Now, more than ever we need to be heard.
On that tip, can you tell me a little about the nuts and bolts of No Masters?
Belinda: No Masters is a Northern based songwriting co-operative which aims to carry forward those elements of the folk movement deemed as relevant and political. We are all equal members, taking part in decision making and as the name suggests, there are no bosses. Members include Coope Boyes & Simpson, Ray Hearne, Georgina Boyes, Jo Freya and the sadly departed Chumbawamba and the late Lal & Mike Waterson. We are the youngest members of the co-op and as such, are given the baton to carry forward and keep this wonderful label going.
As well as the tour what have you got lined up and what else are you involved with? Perhaps that should be what else can we look forward to collectively and individually?
Heidi: We’ve got a busy summer of festivals this year, followed by more touring in the autumn. We both performed on Patsy Matheson’s latest album Domino Girls (out in April). You will also see us as members of the Lucy Ward Band, which is touring this year and Belinda is collaborating with co-op member Jim Boyes on a beautiful suite of songs called Sensations Of A Wound about Jim’s great grandfather who served in Flanders Fields in World War 1. We both feel fortunate to be full time musicians and who knows what the future will bring.
Interiew by: Simon Holland
21 KEIGHLY, BACCA Pipes Folk Club @ Ukrainian Club
22 HULL Ropery Hall
06 KENDAL Brewery Arts Centre
07 NEWCASTLE The Cluny 2
08 HUDDERSFIELD Marsden Mechanics
12 YORK National Centre for Early Music
13 BURY The Met
14 NOTTINGHAM Glee Club
15 MILTON KEYNES The Stables
16 PETERBOROUGH Folk at The Key Theatre
19 BIRMINGHAM Red Lion Folk Club
20 ALDERSHOT West End Centre
21 BRISTOL Folk House
27 EXETER Folk Project
28 LEWES Union Music
29 BRIDPORT Arts Centre
31 LONDON St Pancras Old Church
05 BROSELEY Birch Meadow Centre
26 OXFORD Folk Weekend
09 CHESTERFIELD Folk Club
23 SWANSEA Chattery
24 MACHYNLLETH Museum of Modern Art
27 GLASGOW Live at The Star Folk Club
30 SKYE Red Roof Gallery Cafe
03 PENICUIK Folk Club
07 DUNTON Folk
20 NETHERLANDS Roots aan de Zaan
21 NETHERLANDS De Lantern
22 NETHERLANDS Roots aan de Zaan
18 CUMBRIA Music on the Marr