Jack McNeill took some time out recenly to give FRUK an exclusive insight into the increasingly busy lives of McNeill & Heys and the writing and recording of their wonderful new album, Any Other Morning.
Where are you based and what is life like at the moment?
Life is good, we’re both based in Birmingham at the moment and trying to perfect the art of plate spinning! Charlie performs with several other groups including a new folk string quartet she set up with close friend and viola player from The Old Dance School, Helen Lancaster. They’re taking the time to work on new material at different residencies and when not involved with that or McNeill & Heys, she’s been touring with the UFQ and keeping up with teaching commitments. I spend a lot of the time as a freelance clarinet and bass clarinet player performing with different orchestras, contemporary music groups, chamber ensembles and over the last two years touring with a contemporary dance piece and a new theatre piece in Europe. I think it helps us both to be doing such varied things and the different influences and approaches inevitably influence and enrich our own music. Being in Birmingham is great as there’s a vibrant music scene and we’re central for travelling in the UK. So life is good and interesting!
What has changed for you over the course of your three albums?
I think the biggest change for us has been finding a sound and writing process that best communicates our ideas and personality. It has felt that ever since we took part in the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Awards our identity has been under question. We’ve never really tried to please a particular genre, although I think initially for want of a better term, ‘folk music’ certainly resonated with us both; our backgrounds and then also by its cultural connotations our ideas of place and purpose. That said, a large portion of the ‘folk’ scene never really got behind what we were doing… perhaps they could see that it wasn’t really what they were doing and I think that’s fine. Now all we want is to be able to make our music and continue to do so for those who want to listen. Interestingly, this is the first album we’ve made with a ‘folk’ song on it – Philip Gaston’s Navigator seemed to fit, we didn’t seek it out, and it has for some time been a favourite of mine. We’re certainly happy to pass on that sort of tradition.
Tell me about the recording of the new album, the switch of label and working with Calum Malcolm. You seem to have kept everything stripped back, what sound were you after and why?
We had wanted to work with Calum for quite some time, being huge fans of some other albums he has recorded and produced. He has an incredible ear, feel and halfway magical talent for getting to the heart of what you’re trying to do and is incredibly practical and yet fluid in his approach. The process was a joy and the whole album was recorded in a week. For our last album Two Fine Days on Fellside Recordings we had played with three other musicians, hoping perhaps to expand the group and tour as a band. This just never happened and then, as we sat down to write new material together which eventually made its way onto Any Other Morning, we realised that we had everything we needed to achieve the sound we wanted. Hopefully the music retains its intimacy. In many ways this album is also the most private, and yet the idea behind the sounds and textures we used was to dissolve any sense of the size of it – a shape-shifting sound that can be outwardly delicate and inwardly vast.
Is there a linking theme to the songs? Animals and birds seem to pop up throughout. How did you approach the writing for this record and did it come quickly or over a period?
There are lots of linking themes both lyrically and musically throughout the album, although hopefully enough individual character between tracks to enable them to inhabit their own individual spaces. As always some things came quickly and when this happens it is best to go with your gut instinct, and then there were some things that took months. For the first time in thinking about an album we actually shelved some ideas, which we liked a lot but didn’t quite work yet. The album is the shortest of the four we’ve made but definitely the most clear in intention, which feels like a natural maturing in our style. We played a lot with form and with arranging, incorporating clarinet, bass clarinet, harmonium and some percussive sounds to the guitar and violin sound of the previous albums. We’re also both looping sounds, this took some thinking about because we didn’t want to use them purely rhythmically. Our music is melodic and that’s how we’ve approached the use of loops as well.
Where do you draw inspiration from? Does where you live play its part?
It is very tempting to write about nature in a way that detaches from your own experience. I try to avoid this and write about why I want to write about nature. Living in a city definitely plays its part, the way that people, animals and plants all find a way to grow. Mostly, this album is about people and hope for people. Growing up in Kendal and Carlisle, the North of England has always had a special place in my heart and particularly the Lake District where I’ve enjoyed many adventures running, walking and camping. There is a wealth of writing, writers and local legends who have all inspired me in the past to write my own stories. Some of them are in these songs.
Tell me about the cover as well. It’s a brilliant shot that seems to capture the contents in a way.
Our good friend Robin Beatty took the cover photo for the album. He had taken some time after listening through the whole thing and then said that he didn’t think we should be too prominent in the image. He was right, we think it captures the feeling of the album. It’s not about us and it feels like the contents is where the key is. We’ve also decided to go out as McNeill& Heys, it’s clear and simple, easier to say and hopefully conveys the message that we mean to stick around.
What have you got lined up?
We have exciting plans to work with some very special musicians in the future and are working on a project that will hopefully breathe new life into the experience of listening to music together, a celebration of place, and an adventure for those who are tired of the same old thing.
Interview by: Simon Holland
13/06 – Troutbeck, Cumbria at Troutbeck Village Shop and Tearoom
13/06 – Ambleside, Cumbria at Zeffirellis
14/06 – Sherborne Castle, Dorset at Behind The Castle Music Festival
16/07 – Up In The Gallery, Bath
Digital Release: 02 June 2014
Physical Release: 09 Jun 2014