If you’re reading this I think I’m pretty safe in assuming that you’re a music fan. So, as a music fan, you’ll know that now and again something wonderful happens….
It’s when you hear that piece of music that, for whatever reason, seems to connect and resonate with you just that bit deeper than anything else you’ve listened to recently. It’s when you want to play that particular band/album/track over and over again until you’ve driven everyone else around you nuts. It’s when you hear something that just makes you want to say ‘Yes!’.
If you’re a music fan, I’m guessing you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Well for me, the first time I heard Megson was just like that. Their approach to folk had the same timbre, earthiness and musicality that I love about all folk, but there was something else. I heard fantastic stories bought to life with a North-Eastern twist…sometimes with humour, sometimes with emotion…and always with a modern ‘freshness’ that made their music (at least for me) incredibly accessible.
This year Megson released their seventh album ‘In A Box’ that like most of their work before, received rave reviews, including a glowing commendation from Simon Holland for FRUK.
Since the album launch Megson (AKA Stu and Debs Hanna) have been hard at work performing the new material to audiences up and down the country and last Saturday they visited the wonderful Michaelhouse Centre in Cambridge to perform at a special event, the proceeds from which went to the Dosoco foundation (b.t.w. check Dosoco out, they’re doing something very cool).
Before their performance to an appreciative Cambridge audience, I was fortunate to get some of Stu and Debs’ valuable time for a chat and a few pics…
FRUK: How’s the ‘In A Box’ tour gone so far?
Stu: Really good. It’s good to do the new songs live. They’re the best set of songs that, I think, work live from the albums we’ve done.
Debs: Often you do the album and then you try and do them live and some of them don’t quite work. But actually with this album most of them do.
FRUK: You’ve done a lot of dates in the last couple months…do you find the gigs start to blur into one another?
Debs: Yeah! Even from one day to the next, you might be somewhere and you can’t remember where you were the night before. It could have been a great gig, but I think just because you’re on the road…it’s easy to forget.
FRUK: Are you still enjoying playing the tracks from the new album?
Debs: Yeah definitely….even trying new things with them. They’re still evolving a little bit…
Stu: They always do yeah…you write things and record them, you play them live a little bit and then…there are some songs that we’ve been doing for about seven years that have evolved as the time has gone into better and better versions we think. Certainly live as well, you learn different ways of playing around with verses and choruses and things to bring certain elements out. For these, it will still be another couple of years before we get to a point where they’re stable.
Debs: I remember we heard one of our songs… I think it was maybe ‘Fell To The Breeze’ or ‘Smoke Of Home’, one of them anyway…it was on the radio and we were like ‘Oh look, somebody’s doing our song’…but it was us doing it! It’s because it had changed since how we’d first done it…it took us a little while to twig it was actually us!
Stu: We were thinking ‘Who’s covering our song?’!
FRUK: What’s your favourite track from the new album to perform?
Debs: I like singing ‘The River Never Dies’
Stu: For me…I like singing ‘In A Box’
FRUK: I noticed this week you’re still listed in the Telegraph’s ‘Top Folk Albums of 2014′. Thinking about the various nominations and awards you’ve had…how important to you are they in terms of acknowledging what you do?
Stu: It helps to spread the word. We put our own albums out ourselves, we book our own gigs…we do so much ourselves. So anything that helps spread the word just takes a bit of work off us.
Debs: It’s good to have, definitely…
Stu: It’s something to stick on your posters as well, for people who haven’t heard of you…
FRUK: You’ve been doing this a while now. What’s been the highlight of the Megson story so far?
Stu: I liked the launch for this album actually. We played at Kings Place…it was a lovely venue. I don’t know if you’ve ever been there…Kings Place in Kings Cross, London…it’s a big office building and there’s an arts centre downstairs. To get into the backstage bit there’s like a carpark and you’ve gotta drive your car into this lift. It lifts you down and then there’s someone waiting for you with a motorised trolley for all your things. We had some friends play with us…a band called The Willows…they were playing a few numbers and playing as our band as well. That was really nice…everything together felt good that night. It was good fun.
FRUK: As well as being in Megson you’re also husband and wife, and parents. How do you manage juggling between being Stu and Debbie ‘Megson’…Stu and Debbie ‘Mum and Dad’…Stu and Debbie ‘Husband and Wife’…?
Debs: We don’t!
FRUK: I imagine you discussing key changes at breakfast?
Debs: Well actually sometimes we are talking about stuff and then we’ve got this little three and a half year old who’s there trying to interupt you…telling you about what she wants for breakfast or something!
Stu: Everything kind of blurs into one. There’s no structure like work/home…
Debs: No…we’ll be driving to gigs talking about, you know, our day…it’s really hard to draw that distinction.
FRUK: Can you describe your creative process? How do you do it?
Debs: It’s harder now than it was before…or just different…because before we’d have all the time in the world just to sit down and jam and put ideas together. Whereas now we don’t have that…so I think sometimes we have to kind of be forced to be creative..
Stu: Or you’ve got certain times when you can write. I mean ideas probably still come at the same pace but you develop them…you might have an idea that springs up…that’s an important part of the creative process I suppose…but the longest part, time wise, is then developing that idea into a song. That’s the point where we’re a lot more focused now…when we do that we’ve got a certain amount of time to get it done…and if it’s a good idea, to see where we can take it. Ideas still come at the same pace…we’ve still got as many songs.
Debs: It’s just about sitting down with each other…one of us will have an idea and then it’s bouncing it off each other until it turns into something I guess…and trying not to fall out in the process!
FRUK: Even when you’re playing something that’s essentially ‘traditional’ in it’s construct, you still seem to be able to give it a contemporary edge. Is that something that you consciously think about, or does it just ‘happen’ like that?
Debs: I don’t think we consciously think about it…
Stu: Yeah…but at the same time we don’t feel penned in by the traditional side of it…we don’t feel like we should do things a certain way. A lot of the folk performers and traditional folk singers…their parents were involved with that, they’ve been brought up with it…in some respects they feel burdened, like they should do things a certain way. Because we never have…Debs was a trained soprano…I played in Punk bands and Rock bands…when we approached this material we just did it that way. We didn’t feel like it had to be done a certain way. Which people seem to like…it makes us a bit different…
FRUK: Are you finding time to write at the moment?
Stu: I had some new ideas the other day actually, yeah…this is probably the first Debs has heard about it! We’ll start to work on some new material next year, but you’ve got to let it develop slowly. When we first started off we’d push things out a bit faster I think. But if you find that if you’re not happy with the lyrics then songs tend to get dropped quite quickly…or you’re not happy with the way they sing, the way they’re sitting in your voice, the way it works…then the songs don’t last that long. So it’s worth spending that time and getting songs you’re really happy with…and then they’re the ones you’ll sing again and again, they’ll stay in the set.
Debs: People ask about songbooks all the time, so that’s hopefully next years plan…
Stu: We’ve put it off so long. The guitar tunings I use are very different and the guitar chords…I can’t just put ‘C for this verse and F for this bar’…so that’s always deterred me from doing a song book. But people are always asking so we’ve got to do it…
FRUK: What’s the hardest thing about being Megson?
Stu: I find the hardest bit actually when we’re not gigging…when we’ve got elongated periods of time around the house…’cos we’ve got so much admin, putting our own records out and all that stuff…there can be days when you haven’t left the house apart from taking Lola to pre-school. But then there’s long periods of time when you’re doing more and more stuff and it’s crazy…there’s kind of these manic times and then…well, not boring times but the time when you’ve got to get stuck in and get things done.
FRUK: And the best thing?
Stu: Getting to work with each other.
Debs: Just doing what we love I guess. It’s hard doing everything ourselves but in a way that’s quite nice as well ‘cos there’s no pressure and we can do things our own way and in our time…be our own boss.
Stu: Yeah that’s quite nice…not having anyone saying ‘You should be doing this…’…the freedom of it.
Debs: And performing…
Stu: Yeah that’s the best thing! Performing…
FRUK: Thinking back to when you started, what’s the biggest thing you’ve learned about being professional musicians?
Debs: Hmmm….you’ve gotta be organised.
Stu: I haven’t managed that yet!
Debs: No, maybe you haven’t!
Stu: We’ve learned that you should do it, we don’t necessarily do it though!
Debs: Just try and enjoy what you do..’cos you meet people all the time and you never know when they’re going to turn out to be really helpful or useful. So just enjoy it I guess. It’s a bit different now to when we started off…some of the open mic nights in London where we lived then. We were turning up and open mic nights, you’ve got all the singer-songwriters and then we’d get out some traditional songs, get a whistle out. It was bit scary, you never knew if you were just gonna get glassed!
Stu: We didn’t play folk clubs back then, we played open mic nights…people didn’t really do traditional folk. It was good fun though…the first or second gig we did was in Chelsea just after Chelsea Football Club had won a home game, and it was in a real ‘Chelsea’ pub. You had these couple of North-Easterners singing folks songs…
Debs: It was good training!
FRUK: What’s next for Megson?
Stu: We’ve got the songbook, we’ve got some dates next year. We’re doing a gig in April of next year that we’re putting a band together for, that’s something we’ve never done before…we’ve had The Willows play with us on a few songs…but this is gonna be a proper gig band.
FRUK: So are you auditioning for band members?!
Stu: Well it’s not quite as straightforward as that…we’ve got some friends but it’s persuading people to do it! We’ve got a guy who’s gonna play fiddle and banjo and a guy that I think is gonna play double bass…we’ll probably keep it at that, jam that out..see how that goes and if there’s anything else needed. It’s gonna be fun…I can’t wait to hear the songs…
Interview by: Rob Bridge
Upcoming Tour Dates
21 Jan 2015: Red Lion, Kings Heath – Birmingham
22 Jan 2015: RNCM, Manchester – Lancs.
23 Jan 2015: The Ram Club, Thames Ditton – Surrey
04 Feb 2015: House Concert – Barnsley
05 Feb 2015: Unity Works, Wakefield – Yorkshire
06 Feb 2015: St Barnabas Church – Middlesbrough
07 Feb 2015: The Sage Gateshead – Tyne & Wear
This is part of an ongoing new series of photo / interview features on Folk Radio UK from Rob Bridge, a photographer, writer and film-maker specialising in folk, acoustic and Americana music. You can contact him on twitter@redwoodphotos