With The Call, their second album for Fellside, Greg Russell & Ciaran Algar have built on the success of their debut. Little has changed other than their collective and individual experience, which none the less feeds into the new record. As they tell us, it’s simply a love of music that inspires them and they are happy to be doing what they do best. From an initial Facebook chat and an exploratory get together, everything seems to have fallen into place, but to paraphrase Greg, “ What’s not to enjoy about that?”
Between The Queens Lover and The Call what has changed and how did this affect your approach to the new record?
C: It’s safe to say that there haven’t been any drastic changes between the two albums. The most noticeable differences come in our live shows, where we are a lot more confident in what we are doing. We’d hadn’t done any full gigs before the first album, which is why some of the material was literally crafted in the studio. Since then we must have done nearly 200 shows, and there is opportunity to improve material by playing it repeatedly. We had been performing most of the songs from the new album for at least six months, so we went into the studio confident of what sound we were trying to achieve.
G: We took the same fundamental approach to the second album as the first, us, in a room, recording the fiddle, guitar and voices and bouzouki etc, of course. It wasn’t a lack of imagination or creativity, all of the arrangements came about through a lot of serious thought and hard work, but we wanted to create something that was representative of us. We didn’t want to over produce things and make an album that we had difficulty reproducing live. That said, obviously our ability, knowledge, togetherness and more has improved between records, thus, hopefully a development in sound, creativity and all round ‘goodness’ can be heard.
How do you go about choosing the songs and tunes that fit each album? Do you look for themes or have specific ideas in mind when you start the process?
C: The general process is that I bring the tunes and Greg brings the songs. Of course there can be exceptions, but we both take responsibility for the area we specialise in. We didn’t particularly have any theme or ideas in mind when selecting the material, we just chose things that we enjoyed listening to or enjoyed playing. When it comes to tune selection, I like to be able to convey different emotions in my choices.
Obviously, it’s a lot more difficult to express feelings without lyrics, but I believe it’s possible. The tune set George’s starts with Miss Rowan Davies, the beautiful waltz by Phil Cunningham, and gradually gets faster and more urgent. I wanted to combine the reflective with the uplifting. The same also goes for Absent Friends. The two tunes in the set are beautiful, and I always knew that I wanted them to be dedicated to Joe Gilligan, the son of my music teacher who passed away after a battle with Leukemia. I believe that, even without lyrics, music can portray emotions in a way that no other art form can. Of course these things are personal to me and other people may experience completely different things when listening to them, but that is the beauty of it! Interpretation is extremely important.
G: It’s songs we like, have enjoyed listening to, enjoyed arranging, etc. On both albums through songs and tunes there is a little bit of the wholly original. I like a really good story, told well. I suppose Cold Missouri Waters is a pretty good example of that. Otherwise the material has to stir strong emotions for me, whatever that feeling is. Take, A Season In Your Arms, it’s beautiful poetry and a perspective that I can really relate to.
What are your main sources and inspirations for the two records? Tell me about the blend of song choices in particular.
C: As I said before, the thing that makes both albums extremely similar is the fact that they are just songs that we like. I suppose that inspiration comes from the people who we got the songs from! That would include people like the fantastic Paul McKenna (thanks to whom we discovered Cold Missouri Waters), Vicki Swan and Jonny Dyer (who introduced us to The Two Magicians and Roses Three) and of course, my Dad, who has seemingly become our fountain of material with his fantastic songs. With The Call I suppose inspiration came from wanting to improve on the first album and to impress the people who had shown faith in us from the very beginning. In that sense, there was more pressure in recording the second album, but it made it all the more exciting. Seeing the first few reviews come in was a nerve wracking but satisfying experience, because we knew that we’d done ourselves justice.
G: Inspirations really vary. We play this music because we love it. On a personal level, my dad was my first inspiration. He has always played music and seeing him perform on stage was something I wanted to do as well. On a bigger level music inspires me because it’s so powerful and important. It’s tells important histories, it can change things, move people. What is not to be inspired by about that? With that in mind I suppose the material fits into that blend. Some political stuff (in a broad sense), some historical stuff, some love stuff and the odd remarkable, belting ballad like The Rose In June.
I’m particularly impressed by the songs for Ciaran’s dad. Tell me more? There’s also Mick Ryan and the arrangements of Jonny Dyer that crop up on both albums.
C: My Dad has always been writing songs, usually taking inspiration from our hometown of Stoke-on-Trent, but he has never really had the opportunity to perform them. It’d be fair to say that I didn’t fully appreciate how good a songwriter he was until Greg and I started doing Hills Of The West, which was a song that Greg knew and I didn’t! It was always well-received by audiences, so we started to wonder what else he had in his book. According to Greg, the idea of doing Away From The Pits came out of a late-night conversation between him and my dad whilst both were snacking on some toast. It’s Chris Algar’s ‘greatest hit’ and it is perhaps the song that we enjoy performing the most currently. My personal favourite song of my dad’s, however, is A Season In Your Arms. Being a big Coldplay fan, I can appreciate a good love song, but Chris Martin can only dream of getting near the poetry in that lyric. It felt completely right to keep the song extremely simplistic on the album, with only guitar, vocals and a touch of fiddle. The words speak for themselves, and don’t really need any fancy musicality!
I think Greg is probably best to talk to about Jonny and Mick as he knows them much better than I do, but I can back up the fact that they are both fantastic songwriters / arrangers of traditional songs. Love Is Life will always be one of my favourite songs to perform.
G: Mick Ryan and Chris Algar are two of my favourite writers. Mick is a remarkable man, a brilliant character. His songs are equally as brilliant. He has a way with words, a way of telling a history. He’s fantastically knowledgeable and for a man who, as he freely admits, knows absolutely nothing about music, technically, he writes amazing tunes too. He just writes good songs, things that you can relate to.
Chris as well has a brilliant way with words. There’s not much more to say, they are just clever songs. I think Jonny arranges Traditional stuff really well although the two songs I got from him aren’t quite his arrangements and I’ve modified them a bit, but they certainly owe a lot to the start he gave them. Another clever man.
Tell me about your individual inspirations? What has shaped your musical style? Who has taught you and what has shaped your approach to music?
C: My inspiration on the fiddle has always been Sean Smyth from Lunasa, they were the band that inspired me to play Irish music, and I would only ever learn tunes that they played in the first few years of playing the instrument. As a result I can play virtually every tune from their first 4 albums without a second thought.
I owe a lot to my old fiddle teacher John Pursaill, who introduced me to a wider range of fiddle players and styles, and who is responsible for the majority of my repertoire today. Also Biddulph Up In Arms (my local folk club) have always been particularly encouraging, never hesitating to give me the opportunity to play (however scratchy I was!) I will always owe organisers Eric Cox and Craig Pickering for that.
I owe my desire to perform to my music teachers in high school/college. Derek Hurst and Julia Popple (who sadly passed away in 2009) gave me the chance to perform in the school’s Christmas concert in front of about 1,000 people, and after that I never wanted to do anything else. It was my first real experience of the exhilaration of performing, and it is still something that I could never get bored of. Also Craig Gilligan, who has taught me music for the past 4 years of high school/sixth form is one of my biggest inspirations- as a musician and a person. He has always been completely supportive of whatever I’ve done, and is the first port of call if I need any advice – musically or otherwise. He is a fantastic man, and has made the last few years bearable at times.
G: My personal inspirations is my dad. I’ve never had guitar or singing lessons and singing wise I don’t think i really have an inspiration. I’ve always just opened my mouth and hoped something half decent would come out. People seem like it so I stick with it. I’ve been told my singing technique at times can be fairly woeful, but I’m not sure I massively care. I enjoy it, and other people seem to as well so I’ll carry on! I just love singing and performing songs. As soon as I discovered that, almost everything enthused me. I just like doing it.
For guitar technique I’ve picked up, or tried to pick up, numerous things from numerous sources. Again, my dad was the first person I could really watch up close. Paul Downes is one of the best accompanists of songs around and I’m permanently trying to learn and nick things from him! I think going to loads of folk clubs with my parents whilst growing up shaped the way I perform now. I grew up believing in the importance of the and relationship interaction between audience and performer. That I learnt from the folk clubs, I’m sure.
There are loads of singers, musicians and performers I love. Chris Wood & Andy Cutting, Spiers & Boden, Jez Lowe, Breabach. I like so many, and such a variety, my favourites change from interview to interview. Findlay Napier, Nancy Kerr’s new album and Le Vent du Nord are my current favourites for listening in the car. There’s so much great stuff and I think I’m always picking things up when I listen to other people, sometimes consciously but most of the time unconsciously.
I listen to predominantly folk music but music outside ‘folk’ as well. Obviously. The Band, are probably my favourite. The Last Waltz is my favourite film, and things like that enthuse me. Sigur Ros too. But Ciaran listens to more mainstream music so there are a lot of influences coming in from all sides. If push came to shove, Waterson:Carthy and Lau would always be in the favourites pile.
The long and short of it is that my musical style, has come from me enjoying it. Picking up things from various sources and making my own mistakes, and finding my own way without someone saying play like this and sing like that. I tend to switch off when people say that. To use a horrible cliché I’ve just soaked up lots of things and some come out in the music I play and some don’t.
How did you meet and what did you bond over? What do you share and what are your points of difference?
C: We were mentioned to each other by a mutual friend at the Wirral Folk Festival, and eventually got in touch via Facebook. One rehearsal turned into a few songs at Greg’s solo gig, which turned in to entering the Young Folk Award. We bonded over a desire to play good music, and nothing else in particular. We just got on with each other instantly- there was no plan to record albums and win awards. I don’t think we’d have done as well as we have if it hadn’t have been as natural as it was! We share a love of performing, and our main point of difference is our self-critiquing. Greg is fantastic at finding positives out of anything, whereas I will be cross at myself for days for a small mistake I made at a gig or something like that. At the end of the day though, that is a fantastic combination, because we balance each other out!
G: We met on the internet! We were made aware of each other, and after a few internet conversations got together for a few tunes. We bonded, over the music that we both wanted to play and also, I think, a propensity to talk nonsense at times and a love of sandwiches. In Ciarans case cheese and in mine, ham. It just went on from the first few get togethers. We were having fun!
The Folk Awards have been good to you (and well justified), what difference has that made?
C: The main difference that the Folk Awards have made to us is the recognition. We’d be lying if we said that we’d be at the level we are at currently without the push that the awards gave us. Even just the opportunity to play at prestigious events such as Cropredy and Cambridge that we received after winning the young folk award pushed us up to a new level – it has all been fantastic experience for us. But we understand that the music isn’t about awards. The Folk Awards is a fantastic event and we love going, but we really don’t mind if we win or not. We just enjoy playing the music!
G: I think the folk awards give a nice, ‘You’re doing the right sort of thing, keep going’ feeling. That’s good to have. And in a very objective way, it makes the phone ring. Some people, who would never have wanted to book you beforehand all of a sudden will. That’s certainly not the case with everyone but sometimes it is!
What is the best piece of advice or wisdom passed on so far?
C: It was actually very recently! We performed at Folk On The Farm festival in North Wales, and we met Anthony John Clarke, who is an absolutely fantastic guy. He told me to “Never give too much thought to what you’re doing- just enjoy it.” I thought it was a fantastic idea, and I really hope that we carry on just enjoying it.
G: A. Enjoy it. B. Don’t be a complete idiot. But then I think if you need to be told either of those things then perhaps music isn’t the right job or hobby!
What are the highlights so far and what do you hope for?
C: My highlights so far have been performing at Cropredy in front of thousands of people, recording the albums, and performing as much as I do without having to work at McDonald’s. I just hope that things continue in the same vein that they have been, and that we get to perform together for a long time to come!
G: Highlights, there have been a few. We’ve been really lucky. Releasing two albums, the two Folk Awards. Playing to thousands at Cropredy and Cambridge. Home gigs in Chester or Stoke are always wildly good fun. Some of the smaller gigs have been gems too. We’ve just come off a cracking two week tour. And weve got a big August tour. Meeting great people, seeing great things. I consider myself a very lucky boy. We’re having fun.
What are the plans for the year?
C: I’m having a year out of education, so I just plan to do as much as I can! I want to try and get some Work Experience with the BBC, whilst gigging with Greg and maybe trying out some new projects. Who knows!
G: We’re busy. It’s great. Our agent Kelda Manley is getting us lots of work and that’s great! She’s been fantastic for us and we like working with her. Hopefully that can continue for many, many years. There’s loads of festivals and venues we’d love to visit and re-visit. We’re still learning new material…there will be a third album at some point in the next two years. It’s great. I hope we carry on being busy for years.
Interview by: Simon Holland
06 – Willows Folk Club
08 – Prince Albert, Stroud
09/10 – Dartmoor Folk Festival
12/13 – Broadstairs Folk Week
14 – ‘A Day’s Work’ Broadstairs Folk Week
15 – Downend Folk Club
16 – Folk at the Hall, Trelawnyd, North Wales
17 – Moira Furnace Folk Festival (Russell solo)
17 – ‘A Day’s Work’ Moira Furnace Folk Festival
18 – Tonbridge Folk Club
19/20/21 – Whitby Folk Week
23/24 – Shrewsbury Folk Festival
28 – Black Swan Folk Club, York
06 – Ley Arms Folk Club
09 – St. Neots Folk Club
20 – Folk in the Lounge, Holland (Russell solo)
27/28 – Southdowns Folk Festival
03 – Derby Folk Festival
04 – London Folk Fayre