With the launch of their new album ‘Plan B’ at London’s Harrison on April 9th The Bevvy Sisters Heather Macleod and Cera Impala give Folk Radio UK an exclusive insight into their sound.
“A Bevvy is not an easy thing to find as there’s a lot of genre hopping! There were lots of jazz singers with too much jazz, folk singers with too much folk, pop singers with no old-time experience.” Heather Macleod is telling me about the happy arrival of Cera Impala in Edinburgh at just the right moment and in doing so, seems to have captured the unique essence of The Bevvy Sisters. But it’s not just genre hopping, it’s more that they blur the boundaries of musical styles. Gospel, blues, jazz, country, folk and more meet in a whirlwind of three and four part harmony that has class and sass in equal measure. As if to emphasize their special musical gumbo, Heather continues, “Cera fitted the bill with hues of jazz, blues and old time music in her songwriting, along with the fortuitous timing of her appearance.”
Heather explains a little more of their history and the various comings and goings telling me, “The original line-up with Kaela Rowan and Lindsey Black started out as backing singers for my solo project in 2005, then fronted The Loveboat Big Band a year later. The smaller line-up of The Bevvy Sisters stepped out in 2009, born of a desire to cover a wider range of material and to put more emphasis on vocal arrangement. Life then stepped in the way and the line up first lost Lindsey, replaced her by Roberta Pia, of the Banana Sessions, then Kaela who was replaced 2 years ago by Gina.”
Cera takes up the story of their meeting, “Row My Boat is a song of mine I played at a gig opening for the Bevvies at a folk club. I knew Roberta (Banana) Pia from some pals we have in common living in Berlin (my then home). Heather thought that song would go down a storm for the Loveboat fringe show, and invited me along to play at the Queen’s Hall. It’s a tune with not only a kinky nautical them, but also birds. Very fitting. Very Bevvy!”
It’s worth noting that while their name is an obvious, sly pun on the Beverly Sisters, Heather is keen to point to other influences. “Vocally, we’re coming more from trios like The Pointer Sisters and the Boswell Sisters rather than The Andrews Sisters and The Beverley Sisters (who’s name we cast a twist upon of course, but more for humour’s sake). Though the Andrews’ and Beverlys’ voices were very cutely and cleverly arranged, they feel a bit sweet compared to the soul and blues elements that we get from the former.”
If their close harmony singing is the obvious Bevvy Sisters calling card, their debut album Plan B is built on some fabulous instrumental skills, with honorary sister, David Donnelly’s driving guitars and double bass, mixing banjo, Rhodes piano and more. It’s produced by Mattie Foulds, who’s on hand to add drums, with Cera’s husband Dr. Dirk Ronnenburg guesting on fiddle. Heather talks a little about how the album came together explaining, “We had more than enough songs ready to go into the studio with. Most had been gigged for 6 months and were very much in place, there were a couple of new ones that we enjoyed bringing into shape in the studio. 2 out of 3 new ones made it, 2 of the older ones didn’t!”
Heather offers a little more detail on the selection process saying, “I feel there’s a narrative that only opens up once you hear the music in that context and the body of work together. It soon becomes very obvious what belongs and what doesn’t. We all agreed quickly on what was to stay or go.” Cera echoes the sense of things taking their natural course. “Things always arise when making an album, you hear things back, you think about adding percussion here, a whistle there, taking out a line etc. It was an organic process, but we were fairly certain about the tunes we wanted to put on it beforehand. It’s a diverse and adventurous album.”
It certainly is that but Plan B also has a dazzling vibrancy and Heather reveals how they captured their sound. “We recorded fundamentally live, with vocals taken together rather than multi-tracking. We find that by using that process you get on record the vibrations caused only when you’re singing together, the phrasing, the emotion, the actual being as one. It’s a bit more demanding, but worth it if you get it right.” She continues, “I think a click was only used once and that was to establish the groove in Junkyard Band as we recorded it in two sections.”
Heather is also quick to credit Mattie saying, “We had all worked individually on other projects at Mattie’s Mobile with a Home. We liked the space, the mics and his patient and calm manner in the studio. Mattie is also a brilliant musician so has a very quick and clear opinion on what’s working and what’s not, but most importantly why.”
[pullquote]Plan B works on all levels and is a fabulous collection of songs as well as sounds.[/pullquote] Plan B works on all levels and is a fabulous collection of songs as well as sounds. As well as those mentioned above, David’s gritty, groovy Junkyard Band and Cera’s saucy Row My Boat, there’s a mixture of new and traditional material. Cera also contributes the old-timey Higher Place and the delightfully sozzled, if sombre Whisky. There are also a couple of songs by the wonderful Sandy Wright along with four plucked from the tradition.
Cera’s songs and her American roots are an obvious asset to the Bevvy Sisters and she explains “I’ve been writing my own songs since I can remember. I also have my own band The New Prohibition with my husband Dr. Dirk who is a fierce Americana / Gyspy style fiddler. When I met him he was playing bluegrass guitar in his own band, and also was running several other projects including a jug band. I learned to jam across many a campfire with some serious players, Dirk being the most memorable.”
I ask the Bevvys if they can pick a favourite song from the album with fairly predictable results, as Cera explains, “I was happy with how all the tunes came out. They are like children, picking a favourite just doesn’t feel right. It’s a collection, each with its own audio texture and feeling contributing in its own way to a unique Bevvy-licious sound.” Heather is a little more illuminating revealing, “A favourite is hard to pick as they’re all quite different, and all great for those differences. If I had to pick one that moves me then, for that reason, Willow Garden. I think it has everything through being a great and very emotive song for starters, and a commonly sung song, which we’ve given a very fresh arrangement to. I think we very much sing on each other’s breath, which I love every time every time we sing it.”
Nothing of course is quite so straightforward and she continues, “My second/equal first contender would be Junkyard Band for it’s dirty Tom Waitsy groove as well as being a new one that realised itself in the studio, so still has a bit of extra excitement. Furthermore it introduces the change in feel that this line up brings, which is a grittier, bluesier edge. But I LOVE Father Adieu for it’s darkness, Sylvie for the a cappella feel, Six Degrees rocks! Higher Place moves! I love them all!”
I ask about their choice of traditional material, “There being nothing new under the sun, the best results come from a mild twist, it’s lucky we’re a bit twisted! My philosophy is that traditional music has to be mutating as much as our own DNA, or just like us, it won’t survive. With every trad-piece, the door is wide open to explore. I sometimes think that this ‘information age’ does a dangerous thing to trad. music by trying to define the undefinable.” Heather adds a little about their selection process saying, “Any song makes it through to the set and album because it makes us pay attention to it. Whether it be for the feel, the melody or the words. Then the fun bit of really getting to know it’s story, taking it to bits and then making it your own starts. At any point anyone can take a song to the band and give it a workout. Some stay and some go no further. No one has the final say, so there is lots of lively discussion!”
Returning back to Sandy Wright a man who really should be celebrated a lot more than he is, Gina who was unable to contribute more due to other commitments reveals, “I first met sandy when I was about 15 years old through my brother He was in a jazz duo with my now sister in law Sophie Bancroft for many years. Regardless of family connections, we probably would have met anyway as the music scene in Edinburgh is like a small village. Years later Sandy moved to the village of Pathhead (the centre of the musical universe and also where I have lived for the past 15 years) as neighbours and mates we would meet up for coffee and a tune. We had a duo for a while and made a wee CD (On Main Street). From that the Bevvies loved the tunes Six Degrees and Little Bird, both written by Sandy. He’s basically a legend to all that know him.”
The Bevvy Sisters have already launched Plan B in their hometown of Edinburgh, but are coming down to London on 9th April for a London launch event at The Harrison (near King’s Cross). Heather promises, “An uplifting experience and a good night altogether. People love voices in harmony and it’s great to be in a room with that sound live. We like to laugh a lot, and though we do of course take our music seriously, we don’t feel that must be matched with a serious tone and show. Our banter has been commented on, maybe once or twice, as being as much a part of a show as the music! Basically it takes two things to make a good night, good music and a good audience. In order to get a good feeling going in a room, people must be relaxed, we certainly are onstage and that puts people at ease and mostly results in a pretty uproarious state!” Cera offers a more succinct take, simply saying, “Spoiler alert: the Bevvy live show experience is for those who want to have a fabulous time!”
On the evidence of Plan B, there is every reason to take their word for it. Heather is completely on the money when talking about the joy of hearing them sing. There is clearly a special chemistry that they share and the results sound fabulous. Plan B is packed with a joie de vivre and an infectious energy. You can understand what Cera means when she says, “Music has such power to bring people together and surrender us to our greater feelings, whether we are performing, or simply enjoying. It’s everything to me.”
Perhaps it’s best to leave the final words to Heather to explain what makes The Bevvy Sisters tick. Once more she is on the money saying it’s, “Opening our mouths and letting a big chord come out! Not too sweet mind, but with sass, soul and honesty. Big laughs, mischievous humour, a good bit of friendly cheek,a great gig, with good sound and a vocal audience, good hospitality and new friends. The stuff of life.”
Interview by: Simon Holland
London Album Launch:
Wed 9 April 2014 – LONDON The Harrison Bar, 28 Harrison Street,
Kings Cross, London WC1H 8JF. Tel/Fax: 020 7278 3966.
Plan B is released 28th March 2014
Order via: Amazon