Ange Hardy may not have always taken the easy route and as a teenage runaway can at least in some part identify with the black sheep of her album’s title. But having finally caught up with herself Ange is rebuilding bridges and settling into a family life with her own young children. Along the way she has gained a love of folksong and tradition, which although she continues to write her own unique material, is starting to take on greater significance. The Lament Of The Black Sheep features a set of songs that sound ageless and timeless, as Ange weaves stories of home and belonging into a musical tableau, capturing hopes, fears and an unfolding journey that ultimately has led her home. It’s an outstanding work graced by some great playing, with Ange’s ever-improving guitar technique nimbly supported by some notable guests. Above all, however, is Ange’s voice and her great capacity for harmony. It’s one of the most beautiful records you’ll hear this year and Ange has kindly taken a little time to tell us all about it.
Looking back, how do you view your life, especially the decision as a teenager to run away? Do you identify with the Black Sheep?
My life has been a journey. At times it’s been long, hard and painful, but I wouldn’t be here, and I wouldn’t be me, if I hadn’t been on that journey. Every event has shaped who I am and most of that seems to have been channelled in some sense into my music. A lot of stuff that happened in my childhood caused me to go off the rails. I never finished school. I don’t have a single GCSE. I got pregnant with my first child far too young with a man who wasn’t the right partner. So for a long time, yes, I very much felt like the black sheep of the family.
Over the past 8 years I’ve got back on track. I think it’s important that we don’t forget about the past – perhaps that’s one of the reasons I’ve fallen so in love with folk music. I think the past should always be remembered, and always used to improve the future. I hope I’m doing that in some small way through the songs I write.
What was the turning point and do you feel as if you have returned to your home? How close are you to the farm that features in the photos? It seems to be central to the album, what does that place mean to you in the context of the above?
There was a song (I Run) on my very first album which contained the line “I would not be running if I had a home.” That was how I felt for a lot of my life, that I just didn’t have a real home. I’ve lived in 48 different houses (yes, 48) so I never had time to put down roots.
The family farm, the one in those photos, was the only place that stayed constant. My great grandfather farmed that land, and now my mum and her husband live there. I hope it always stays in the family, it’s been the one constant point of reference. All my happy childhood memories are on that farm, but various circumstances meant it didn’t feel like home for a number of years. Now relationships have been repaired, and bridges rebuilt, and it’s now one of the places I feel safest and happiest. My children absolutely love spending time there so it will form a large part of their childhood memories too.
Reading your biography, learning the guitar has been something you’ve done gradually (in three stages?) What and who has influenced your playing and which players do you most admire?
When I was living rough in Ireland the one song I was shown how to play was Romanza. I think that sowed the seed for wanting to fingerpick the guitar rather than to strum, but for years really all I could do was strum chords. Rob and I walked down the aisle to Romanza on our wedding day.
Years later when I started playing on the open mic scene somebody taught me Blackbird and from that point I gradually learnt to fingerpick. I never went anywhere without my guitar in the car boot, but I don’t think I’d really have considered myself a guitarist, just a songwriter with a guitar.
After recording Bare Foot Folk I saw James Findlay playing at a concert and was fascinated by his tunings. That led me to play around with tunings myself and that opened the door to the guitar style I’m now playing. At the launch concert for The Lament Of The Black Sheep I played three guitars in three different tunings, and still had to retune for a couple of songs! I’ve never known the names for half the chords I play, and I don’t know the names for half the tunings I’m using, but I think they sound nice.
Have you always been a singer or aware that you could sing? Again what and who have influenced you?
When I was a child my father told me that my singing was awful, so for a long time I didn’t sing. I owe a lot to my childhood friend Carla, we’ve sadly drifted apart in recent years. For a period of my life I was agoraphobic, I wouldn’t leave the house unaccompanied. Carla heard me singing at home and somehow managed to get me to stand up at an open mic night and sing one of my songs. I was probably 23, and Tracy Chapman was a huge influence on me.
Rob always tells me I’ve got a musical gene and I guess I could always sing perfectly in tune. I think I really learned to sing during my first village hall tour. There was a lot about breathing, and tone, and microphone technique, and control that you only learn by singing on stage and reviewing your performance afterwards. We’d record the gigs and listen to them the next day.
I was hugely influenced by the 1995 album Kate Rusby & Kathryn Roberts. The first folk album I ever owned. Their version of The Queen & The Soldier stayed in my set list for a very long time!
How did the layering of your voice start? I understand that you do this live as well, is this complicated to achieve?
It started when I was recording demos of songs at home. I love vocal harmony, and it was always something I could achieve very easily on recordings. I’ve always sung harmony lines on all of my recordings.
For Christmas two years ago Rob ordered me a loop pedal. I arranged all the songs for Bare Foot Folk so that I’d be able to do the vocal harmonies on the looper. We recorded that album three months after I got the loop pedal, and I was playing songs live from them before we recorded the album.
The timing is very difficult, and you’ve got to be pitch perfect. I found out very quickly that monitoring was an issue – if I couldn’t hear the loops loud and clear it was too easy to go wrong, so I started using an in ear monitor which made a big difference. I only ever did one gig where I didn’t have proper monitoring when I used the looper. I almost gave up on music that night!
How has your songwriting developed over the course of your three albums? Have your inspirations changed at all? Story telling seems an important part of what you do.
Oh it’s changed radically! I hope it’s constantly improving. My first album is entirely auto-biographical, it tells my life story and the songs were written over a long period of time. Refuse Sack was actually a song I wrote when I was in Ireland at the age of 14. Bare Foot Folk was a collection of songs I wrote with the intention of being ‘folk’ songs but having not really listened to a very broad range of folk music. It was always intended to be a very stripped back album. I wanted it to be something I could use for trying to get some gigs, and I didn’t want to mislead anyone by having anything on the CD that I couldn’t do at a gig. The Lament Of The Black Sheep were songs I wrote after immersing myself more in folk music and tradition, and I always new I wanted those songs to have a bit more instrumental arrangement than Bare Foot Folk was. To me songs really are just stories with a melody, that’s why every song title on The Lament Of The Black Sheep starts with the word “The”. I thought it made them sound like the titles of short stories.
Tell me about the recording of the album. What were you aiming for? Did you have a specific sound in your head when you started?
I wasn’t planning on recording another album so soon after Bare Foot Folk, but after the positive reception that that received it seemed crazy not to keep the momentum going. A friend said to me “when the wind blows, fly your kite” and I think that was good advice.
I was aiming for something that built on Bare Foot Folk, I wasn’t so worried if there were some tracks on the album I couldn’t reproduce live as a solo act which gave me the chance to be a bit more creative with it.
I knew, right from the beginning, exactly how I wanted the album to sound. I’ve always said that it feels almost like the songs already exist, and I just discover them. The songs already had a way they were supposed to sound, and I was lucky enough to be in a position where I could bring all those elements together.
Tell me about the guests on the album, are they all friends of yours? How did the line up come together?
12 months ago I’d never met any of them! James Findlay was the first person I asked. I saw him in concert accompanied by Alex Cumming and was totally blown away by his voice. I later spent some time with James, Alex and Jon at a folk residential weekend at Halsway Manor and when they all said they’d love to be involved with the album I was totally blown away.
I played a showcase evening where Lukas Drinkwater was another artist, and later saw him accompanying Jim Causley. I couldn’t believe how quickly he agreed to be part of the project. He’s such a genius on the double bass!
Jo May? We met on Twitter! The first time I actually met her in person was the day she came into the studio for her session.
The guest musicians were really important; they made the process less about me and more about the music.
How is the live side developing and what are the plans to tour the new album? Will it just be you?
In general it’s still just going to be me and my guitar. With the loop pedal it’s still a very full sound, and I love the intimacy and honestness of being a solo artist. It feels very true to the essence of folk music. I say “me and my guitar” but actually, we squeeze two guitars, a bodhran drum, a shruti box, two loop pedals, a low whistle and a tambourine into the car boot!
That said, at the launch concert I had Lukas Drinkwater on bass, Jo May on percussion, Andrew Rock on Accordion, Luke Jackson (Fumes & Faith) on backing vocals and second guitar, and Steve Pledger and Jemima Farey on backing vocals. It was rather fun! I’ll be accepting bookings for Ange Hardy And The Bare Foot Band but it’s a much more expensive, changeable, and complicated act to take on the road so I don’t imagine it’ll dominate my booking calendar.
Tell me about the dedication to Poppa Willis on the album?
Tom “Poppa” Willis passed away on the day I finished mixing the album. When I first started recording home demos I used N-Track Studio. This must have been 2007. There was a wonderful community of people on that forum. Tom Spademan (who funded the recording and release of Windmills & Wishes out of his own pocket) was a friend from that forum. Poppa Willis was the forum moderator. On our wedding day Rob got all of them to record personal greetings, and played them during the speeches. They were, and are, such an amazing group of people.
Poppa Willis had an ongoing battle with throat cancer, as a singer of songs that was really hard for him. I never met Poppa Willis in person, much like I’ve never met Tom Spademan, but thanks to Facebook and emails, and instant messenger Poppa was like family.
I sent Poppa the first track from the finished album, and the email I got back two hours later was his daughter breaking the news.
What are the future plans?
Ah! Well – there’s another album in the pipeline already! I’m not going to rush, but I’m hoping to be back in the studio in February or March again. It’s going to be a bit of a ‘project album’ and I’m really looking forward to it, the concept is finalised I’m just ironing out the details! I’ve also done a couple of live duets with Luke Jackson in recent weeks (including at the album launch concert for The Lament Of The Black Sheep) and we’ve found that our voices blend beautifully. We’ve both said we’d like to try writing and recording some stuff together, so it’ll be really interesting to see where that leads.
Interview by: Simon Holland
06 Oct – The Green Note, London
Ange Hardy & Steve Pledger: Just Passing Through
15 Oct – Chedzoy Village Hall (TA7 8RE)
20 Oct – Donyatt Village Hall (TA19 0RJ)
22 Oct – Chumleigh Town Hall (EX18 7BR)
27 Oct – Awliscombe Village Hall (EX14 3PJ)
29 Oct – Corry Rivel Village Hall (TA10 0HD)
10 Nov – Clayhidon Village Hall (EX15 3PL)
12 Nov – Broomfield Village Hall (TA5 2EN)
17 Nov – Nynehead Memorial Hall (TA21 0BS)
19 Nov – Upton Villahe Hall (TA4 2DB)
24 Nov – Blake Hall South Petherton (TA13 5BT)