If there was a league table for extremely cool addresses then ‘No. 1, Shakespeare Street, Stratford-upon-Avon’ would have to be right up there…
Well this just happens to be the address of the venue that plays host to the Stratford Folk club, now in it’s fourth year and going from strength to strength under the leadership of local musician Tori Rushton. Situated just a stones throw from the birthplace of the great playwright himself, the club is attracting some of the biggest names in UK folk…and they don’t come much bigger right now than Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin.
Following a remarkable period of success built on their highly acclaimed 2013 release ‘Mynd’ culminating in last year’s BBC Radio Two Folk Award for Best Duo, Phil and Hannah are showing no signs of resting on their laurels. With a relentless touring schedule and the promise of a third album later this year, the exciting and innovative duo seem all set to continue mesmerising audiences across the UK and beyond for the forseeable future.
I met up with Phil and Hannah ahead of their performance in Stratford for a chat over some noodles (their choice) and kebab and chips (my choice). Amongst other topics, I was keen to find out more about the new album…
FRUK: You’ve had a crazily successful few years…have you had any chance to sit back, take stock and reflect on what’s happened?
Hannah: No! We haven’t got any time at all at the moment.
Phil: It’s been flat out this year. We were expecting to have a bit of a respite in the winter, but it turned out that January and February became the busiest period we’ve ever had. We went to Japan and America, did the tour with Seth…and we did a week at Cecil Sharp House as well. So we weren’t home for two months. It was all great stuff, but that was when we were supposed to be resting!
FRUK: You went to America for Folk Alliance International…what was that like?
Hannah: It was amazing. It’s the biggest folk music conference in the world I think. It was this enormous hotel…everything in America is enormous anyway…but it was this enormous place full of musicians and they take all the furniture out of the hotel bedrooms across three of the floors. They have concerts in every single room. So obviously we were playing and running around trying to meet people, have some meetings and make contacts a lot of the time…but once we’d finished for the day we’d wander around and just get to see amazing concert after amazing concert. It was wonderful. It was a festival as well as a conference…it had that kind of vibe.
FRUK: In your current live shows are you still performing songs from your first two albums or are you starting to preview material from the new album?
Hannah: A mix really.
Phil: It’s always a good idea to gig new songs in a bit before you record them. We’ve been playing about five tracks off the new album…not every night, alternating a bit. But there’s going to be some stuff on the new album that no-one’s ever heard as well which we haven’t had a chance to gig yet, or that might not be possible for us to gig as a duo because we’re doing some work with a band for the new CD.
FRUK: So how’s the new album progressing?
Phil: Good…thankfully, because we’re recording it next week. It’s sounding good.
Hannah: We’ve been doing all the pre-production at home. We draft everything out at home in quite a lot of detail and because we’re working with a band there’s even more parts to work out than usual, so we’ve been doing some remote stuff with them. We’ve had some rehearsals with them as well so we’ve listened to recordings of rehearsals and thinking “we want that bit and not this bit”. In a way it’s the most intense period because for the actual recording, an awful lot of the decision-making process has happened already because we have to economise. We don’t have the luxury of going into a studio for three months. We’ve got like, a couple of weeks, so everything has to be ready before we go in..or most of it has to be.
FRUK: Do you find your tracks develop further though during the recording process?
Hannah: They develop hugely over the course of it. It’s a mix. Some we totally co-wrote, but often one of us comes up with an idea and then brings it to the other so then it develops again when the other contributes. Then through gigging it in we’ll say to each other “well actually it’s a bit funny at the point isn’t it?” or it doesn’t work or whatever…and then when we’re drafting it, once you start adding other instruments…I might have written it on the violin and it’ll be like ‘it’s not really working, I’ll try it on the banjo instead”…it can completely change. We work with Mark Tucker as a co-producer. Phil produces and Mark does as well…
Phil: So we get a new fresh set of ears when we actually get into the studio so then a new set of ideas can come along, just an extra brain to bounce ideas off. Because you drive yourselves mad when it’s just the two of you, so bringing Mark in there at the last minute and at the final stages is a perfect bit of relief. He’s very calm and got lots of experience.
Hannah: He’s got a good knack for going “I just think you need to not repeat the chorus for that many times”…that kind of objective thing that you lose sight of when you’ve already heard it a thousand times…
FRUK: Having received such accolades for the previous work that you’ve recorded, do find that you’re putting pressure on yourselves to make this one as good or even better?
Hannah: Yeah. I don’t like to think about it but definitely it’s in the back of our minds…
Phil: Well we want it to be better, yeah. I think it will be. There’s a bit of pressure, but also we’ve been a lot busier than when we’ve worked on previous stuff so finding the time to do all the fine tweaking has been a bit harder…but we’re getting better at it so we need to take less time anyway, so it kind of balances out.
Hannah: But it’s more nerve wracking because you feel…Have we put enough time in?
Phil: You feel like you’ve not put enough time in if you haven’t driven yourself mad with it. The first album we recorded it all at home, all ourselves in the front room, and we did drive ourselves completely mad with that one. We turned the front room into a studio…I don’t think we went outside for about a month..
Hannah: Well not apart from going to the supermarket in the middle of the night! We were completely nocturnal.
Phil: We were recording at night because it was quiter…
Hannah: We switched our body clocks and it was a strange experience because we were really isolated.
Phil: So each time it’s getting easier and we’re learning how to do it better…
FRUK: From your perspective as artists, do you feel a sense of progression with the material you’re about to start recording?
Phil: Yeah we wouldn’t be recording it if we didn’t really. I think I’d give up if I thought it was getting worse…look for a different career path!
Hannah: You have to really want to do it! It’s nerve-wracking I suppose because when you know that people have liked the last thing that we did and you know that you’re not just doing that again…you’re changing certain fundamental things about what you’re doing…or it feels like you are, it’s probably not that noticeable to other people but to us it feels like quite a shift…so it’s a bit “Oh God, what if no-one likes this one?!”.
Phil: As long as we like it that’s the main thing I think. You’ve got to be able to listen to it and not cringe!
FRUK: The diversity of influences underpinning your music is something that everyone comments on…do you still actively push to find new sounds to influence you, or is it just what you naturally get exposed to?
Phil: We just both listen to lots of different stuff really.
Hannah: Also I think, having been manically busy, we’ve heard lots of new stuff but in a different way. We went to South Africa last year. I wouldn’t say I’m incredibly familar with the music of South Africa but we were definitely exposed to stuff that I’d never heard before. There was one incredible thing…I couldn’t tell you how it’s worked its way into our music but there was a particular group that held churches on the side of the road and there’s a type of singing that goes with it that was just amazing. Then in Japan, we ended up doing a workshop in a school where the kids were doing taiko drumming and we joined in with them…once again I couldn’t draw a direct link but we’re definitely hearing things…
FRUK: As artists striving to make a living from music, what’s your take on the folk and roots scene in the UK right now?
Phil: It’s a good scene. There’s some fantastic music coming through…the standard is really high. It’s not the biggest country in the world so I think it’s good to look at expanding beyond just playing in the UK, but it’s a fantastic scene and we’re very lucky. Lots of international artists come here because it’s such a good scene for acoustic and roots music…
Hannah: …and also because they’re able to. Going to America it was very interesting because touring in America on the grass roots scene is virtually impossible for international artists because of the visa situation. Whereas here, we let people in to come and do stuff which is great because it means everyone gets to see international artists.
Phil: There are some great young musicians around on this circuit. It’s a fantastic standard…frighteningly good.
FRUK: So when you get the odd minute to reflect on your musical careers so far, what’s the biggest thing you feel you’ve learned about being successful artists?
Phil: You just need to keep developing really. Don’t stagnate…always be thinking about the next gig and how you can make it better than the last one. What’s the new technique that you can pick up…or the new influence that you can adopt into your playing…
Hannah: Yeah. Just keep working!
Phil: Keep grafting. And drink lots of coffee.
FRUK: What’s next?
Hannah: Recording…a lot of Spring tour dates…I suppose you could say it’s like a farewell to the Mynd album that we did…after this tour we’ll be playing less of those songs, so if people want to hear them they should come. We’re going to Norway which is exciting…then Summer festivals, and then the new album is out in October.
Phil: And then a little tour of Belgium, Holland, Germany and Denmark in October.
Hannah: Yeah, we’re getting around!”
Interview by: Rob Bridge
Visit Phillip and Hannah’s website for all their tour details and festival appearances here: http://www.philliphenryandhannahmartin.co.uk/
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