Over the course of her three albums Jennifer Crook has begun to establish an excellent pedigree as a singer songwriter and instrumentalist. While with guitar in hand she easily slips into the classic mode of some of her personal touchstones from the 60s and 70s, Jennifer has made the bold decision to put the harp, her first instrument, at the heart of her songs. It adds a unique quality to her writing and also pushes the sound of The Jennifer Cook Trio, formed with Beth Porter and Mike Cosgrove, into rarefied sonic territory. Here she takes some time out to explore her musical development and talk about the making of Carnfoth Station, which if there is any justice will be the making of Jennifer Crook.
Where are you based and what is the music scene like?
I’m based between Bath and Box – both of which have great music scenes!
Bath is home to some fantastic musicians, and as it’s such a small city most of us know each other. Many a party has benefited from a cross-pollination of folk, bluegrass, african, blues and traditional music! And of course The Bell Inn has nurtured some great talent with it’s regular music nights. The pub made national news last year after being bought by the community to save it from corporate non-identity, and had support from a number of big stars. Box of course is home to Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios so it’s not unusual to find some famous faces around these parts and lots of great producers and engineers. It is a wonderfully creative area.
How did the trio come together and is this now a permanent move?
Beth Porter has played with me and in various incarnations of my band ever since my first solo album release in 2008. After the release of Merry-Go-Round I felt that I wanted a guitarist to help underpin the rhythms and free me up to play the harp more. Multi-instrumentalist Mike Cosgrave and I had talked about ‘having a play together’ for years and I’d seen him perform on a number of occasions and knew he was a great musician, so he was the ideal choice. He also plays accordion which I felt would work beautifully on some of the songs. We have really gelled as a trio so, yes, I hope we will continue to work together for some time!
Tell me about your individual backgrounds.
There are lots of connections… When Mike Cosgrave was a member of the band Sine they recorded an album with Stuart Bruce who mastered Carnforth Station. Later he joined Leon Hunt’s Daily Planet and Leon did the initial recording sessions for us. He also toured for many years with Jackie Leven culminating in producing the duo album Wayside Shrines And The Code Of The Travelling Man and has been recently working with Jackie Oates and Reg Meuross.
Beth Porter burst onto the Bath music scene some years ago and is now an extremely in-demand cellist and has played with too many artists to name! She regularly tours with Eliza Carthy as part of the Wayward Band, Newton Faulkner, and The Bookshop Band. She also has a string quartet and her own project Beth Porter And The Availables.
I’ve worked with many artists and songwriters including Eddi Reader, Boo Hewerdine, Susheela Raman, Andy Davis (The Korgis), Elephant Talk, and international artists at Real World. I performed with Snow Patrol throughout their Reworked tour (on electric harp and backing vocals), and feature on their ‘Live at the Royal Albert Hall” DVD. My first duo Cythara recorded the music for the BBC David Attenborough series The Private Life Of Plants, and I formed celtic roots band Madigan and then a duo with Henry Sears, before focusing on a solo career. Carnforth Station is my third solo album.
What have you grown up with and what set you on your way? When and where have you learnt the most and what inspired you?
My mother taught music so it was natural that I did grade exams in piano, flute and singing. “She would be more suited to folk or pop than classical music” read one singing report, and I was secretly pleased as I was always making up songs on the guitar and singing them in church and at school concerts. I remember learning every song on Carole King’s Tapestry, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan songs, and I knew every lyric on Simon & Garfunkel’s Live in Central Park…
By the time I took up the harp at the age of 19 I was listening to Fairground Attraction, Fleetwood Mac, All About Eve, and a lot of folk music…I tried to emulate Sandy Denny’s ornaments and Clannad tunes and went to Bert Jansch gigs…but it was a very varied musical time. I’d go to see a heavy rock band one day and to a Baroque chamber concert the next. Everyone loved the harp so much I formed a medieval/folk band for my final performance at Uni where I was studying Performance Arts. Then I teamed up with Maclaine Colston as an instrumental duo, and after being invited to take part in the BBC Young Tradition Award, began a professional career in music with all it’s ups and downs! As a result I’ve been involved in a lot of diverse bands and projects from mainstream pop to Indian Raga. It’s all inspired me.
Singing and songwriting took a back seat at first though. I remember seeing a very young Kate Rusby perform a Mary Chapin Carpenter song – I bought her Stones In The Road album, and came across artists like Patti Griffin, Shawn Colvin and Gretchen Peters – and I remember thinking that I would love do that. I needed to hear songs full of poetry, passion and truth – and still do. There’s nothing like it when it cuts right to the heart. Artists like Ron Sexsmith who I saw perform solo at Cambridge Folk Festival one year. Darrell Scott. Beth Neilson Chapman…all inspired me to be brave enough to perform my own songs. My friends and I played and listened to a lot of what is now called Americana. I think it’s the song craft…the fact its the main event. Over here I gravitated towards writers like Richard Thompson, Steve Knightley, Clive Gregson and Boo Hewerdine.
Tell me more about your songwriting style. What and/or who has influenced that? What has changed since Merry-Go-Round?
Like some of the artists I’ve mentioned, I have quite a narrative style. I’m very visual and sort of ‘see’ songs as little films and go into a kind of zone when I write… sometimes a song comes very easily (and mostly the words and melodies arrive together), and sometimes I am really digging around to find just the right lyric to express something. Once the words are right I generally don’t forget them and they ‘sing well’. It really varies though – some songs I hardly remember the process of writing at all, and one or two keep periodically bugging me until they are written, and that might take a few years!
I learnt a lot from working with songwriter Boo Hewerdine who produced Merry-Go-Round, but the process of making that album was very different. I basically presented Boo with a whole bunch of songs and we picked out the ones that floated our boat at the time, and he helped me knock them into shape. We also ended up with a couple of co-writes.
This time I wrote the majority of the songs on the harp – not as a ‘texture’ but as a central element of the arrangements, and incorporated more of my folk influences, which means for me, this album draws together many strands of my own musical journey. I wrote all the songs myself and had to trust my own instincts about which ones ended up on the record.
In terms of the arrangements, my musicians are my main collaborators through our live work, so it was a much more organic process. Also the feedback from our audiences had an influence as people had already been asking for recordings of many of these songs, as well as actually helping to fund the album through the Pledge Campaign.
How did you approach making this record and what have you done differently in preparation and also in the studio?
The main difference with this record is that the majority of the songs were already ‘road tested’ and I had a pretty clear idea of how I wanted the album to take shape. However, I think we struck a good balance of being well prepared and still saving some room for inspiration and spontaneity.
We recorded seven of the songs live at Leon Hunt’s studio in Bath before heading to Real Wold for overdubs, more vocals and mixing with our producer Stephen W Tayler. There’s a very different energy when you record together in this way and I wanted to capture that warmth and musical connection. Also we tend to play off each other so it made sense…one or two first or second takes (and a couple of guide vocals) made their way onto the final mix. It was a lot of fun, but it was also very exciting to work on some brand new songs in the studio too.
Working with such experienced producers and engineers as Stephen W Tayler, Stuart Bruce and Leon Hunt really brought out the best in us all. At first I was a little daunted by Stephen’s CV – having recorded artists like Kate Bush and Stevie Nicks – but he could not have made us all feel more comfortable. Everyone was 100% committed to the project and I am very proud of the end result. And it was all done on a budget and in record time too, so that kept us all on our toes!
How did the theme of the record come together? What inspired it?
I noticed that I had a number of songs that seemed to centre around the idea of travelling and journey’s, and the transitions we have to make in life. This was partly due to some songs I wrote for our tour of Scotland last year such as One More Day, and of course the title track itself. Long Drive was also brewing with it’s images of being on the road, and then there was the sea-scape of The Net…. Maybe I also felt I had been through quite a journey myself since I decided to pursue this path of being a songwriter!
I kept being drawn to the idea of rail travel as the perfect image for being in-between places, and Carnforth Station being the setting for the David Lean film Brief Encounter, and the perceived romance of the steam era, seemed to tie it all together.
Did the instruments shape the songs or the other way round? Tell me about the guests on the record. What was it like working at Real World/
On the whole, the songs came first, although my choice of which songs to play with the trio and a couple of the newer songs we recorded, were very much influenced by the instrumentation. I certainly had the arrangement for Long Drive Home From Love in my head as I was finishing the song – imagining the chugging cello part, and the way Mike would strum in DADGAD to drive the song along, and how that fitted with my harp pattern…so I suppose in a way I was writing with the role of each instrument in mind.
Likewise with the sounds on The Net – although I didn’t have any fixed arrangement ideas and pretty much invited Beth and Mike to just ‘do their thing’…I think the end result exceeded all of our expectations!
Knowing my musicians very well makes a big difference. For instance, Only The River was written on the guitar, but I arranged it for the harp and knew Beth would come up with an exquisite cello part for it. I’ve Forgotten Everything was also written on guitar but I knew Mike would do a better job than me in the bluegrass style. Miranda has also been involved in that scene in the last few years so I asked her to play double bass on that, and 2 other songs. Again, I know Miranda’s playing well as she is a very good friend, and also because we toured together for a time. That was a very efficient session! Kevin Brown is a fine lap steel player and I thought some slide would work brilliantly on the banjo-led songs. His bluesy licks on Black Fly really added another flavour we all loved.
Working at Real World was an absolute joy. And it’s led to some great connections. We even had Robert Plant and his band rehearsing next door for a few days! It’s a beautiful place to spend time and a very friendly and creative environment. And the lunches are great.
Tell me about Girl And Guitar?
What an honour that was…to be asked to contribute to a BBC program about Joni Mitchell! I was in discussions with Trevor Dann having been shortlisted for a BBC 4 programme, and then one day he rang and asked if I was a fan of Joni Mitchell. “Of course!” I said. So I found myself on the train to London with my guitar (coincidentally, it was made in 1971 – the year Blue came out) to demonstrate some alternative tunings and talk about her genius. Other contributors included Judy Collins, Cerys Matthews, Eddi Reader, and Joni herself, so I was in great company.
What have you got planned and what are you looking forward to?
I have just landed back home after our Trio UK tour which has been amazing. There are still some more dates this year, including a performance at Carnforth Station itself! In the Heritage Centre not on the platform I hasten to add. They are selling the CD in the gift shop there and it will be very interesting to see the place that sparked the song, and the title of the album. Would you believe I’ve never been…
We will be touring again in 2015 and I am looking forward to a couple of side projects composing new music. I also have another 2 albums ready to go when the time is right…..but first I think I am most looking forward to getting the wood-burner on and having a few cosy nights in!
Interview by: Simon Holland
Carnforth Station is released on Transatlantic Roots
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28/11 – Malton at The Milton Rooms
29/11 – Carnforth at Carnforth Station Heritage Centre
07/12 – Horsham at Horsham Folk Club
15/02 – Salisbury at Salisbury Arts Centre
18/02 – Ely at Ely Folk Club
21/02 – Corsham at Pound Arts Centre
22/02 – Shrewsbury at Henry Tudor House