Drawn to Cornwall for the sun, surf, romance and unique culture our Artists of the Month, The Grenaways, tell FRUK about the magic they have found and channelled into the excellent Be Still Young Heart.
“I grew up around Glastonbury, spent ten years in London and finally made the break for Cornwall in 2000 for romantic reasons really – I had just got married, we honeymooned in Italy and came back to start a new life together. We kind of threw caution to the wind and went for it!” So The Grenaways’ drummer Henry Cavender tells me. I only manage a brief exchange, but in one way at least, he could be talking for several of the other band members too, as there’s a romantic lure, albeit not generally the wedding kind, that has brought them to Cornwall.
Of those others, it’s Isabelle who has probably come the furthest and she too has married into the county as she reveals, “I was born in French speaking Switzerland but have lived in UK most of my adult life. I came as an18 year old as an au pair to learn English in order to get a job I wanted in Geneva but instead I fell in love and stayed here to marry a Cornishman.” Showing an obviously naturalised grasp of the subtleties of the English humour, she quickly adds, “But not just any Cornishman!”
The main contributors for this piece, however, are the two singers and also songwriters of The Grenaways, Kris Lannen and Laura Garcia. Laura too had fallen for Cornwall from afar and she explains, “I’m originally a Norwich girl but moved to Lindisfarne at 14. During a year working and travelling in Australia in my early 20s I was wondering what to do when I returned home. My sister reminded me of a childhood dream to live in Cornwall and that was that. Seven years on and I’ve never felt as at home anywhere as I do here.”
If not the de facto leader, then Kris is certainly the catalyst for the band although his good friend Henry was also part of the start-up plans as Laura recalls, “Six years ago I remember taking my son as a baby to watch Kris and Henry in their previous band Narrowpath. A few months later Kris told me Henry and he were thinking of starting a folk band and asked if I’d be interested in being part of it. I’d never had the chance to be in a band, except the family band, which didn’t really count, and never thought I would so I said yes straight away. I remember driving home from Polzeath thinking all my Christmases had come at once!”
Kris had been a part of the Cornish music scene for a while, but as he also reveals, “I’m not from Cornwall, I’m Scottish, but I feel a deep connection with Cornwall because of its Celtic heritage. My wife, Ness is an artist and we moved down here just over 20 years ago simply because we felt it would be an inspiring place to be, live creatively, immersed in natural beauty and of course to surf!” He continues, “I didn’t form a band until I was around 28, when I fronted a Cornish surf-rock band called, Narrowpath, with Henry on drums. I think you can still listen to, Rise, the EP we released on Myspace. Shortly after releasing that EP, however, we called it a day and went our separate ways, although Henry and I continued to play music together and experiment with different sounds.”
With the idea of forming a folk-rock band, Laura seemed a natural recruit, she’s already hinted at the family band of her youth, revealing a little more and telling me, “My parents are both musical and as a child I remember them singing in a folk group with two other couples at a school fair. As me and my siblings got older we performed around Northumberland as a family band. I’m not sure how good we were, but we had the cute factor with my six year old brother behind the drums! I always loved music and went on the study it at university in Brighton. I was always nervous of performing but after I left university I would play open mic nights in Norwich with my brother Tom. I was never very ‘cool’ or aware of current bands, it was my family who inspired me and passed on their love of folk music. They still do.” At some point Tom followed her to Cornwall too and is part of The Grenaways story alongside his sister, although was unavailable to contribute here.
It may sound a familiar tale amongst the younger generation of folk musicians, but Laura explains, “Growing up my dad was always playing Ralph McTell and took us to see some brilliant folk artists live including Tom Paxton, Jez Lowe and Shetland band Rock Salt and Nails. We even spent a random evening with Maddy Prior whilst living on Lindisfarne, when she came round to sample dad’s home brew!”
Kris also started his musical development early, but nowhere near as productively as Laura as he admits, “I was taught the bag pipes from a young age, but lost interest and went the route of sport, in particular skiing, which I took to a professional level, but then broke my back in 1996. I was 22 and all my dreams had been shattered, but it was during my recovery that I picked up a guitar and discovered a love for song writing.”
His influences are more eclectic than Laura’s as he tells me, “Since starting to really appreciate music and buy records, my major influences, to name a few, have been The Jam, The Pixies, Nick Drake, The Tradgically Hip, REM, Neil Young, Sugar, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Live, The Screaming Trees, Soundgarden and then more recently Fleet Foxes, Avi Buffalo, The Head And The Heart, Bombay Bicycle Club, Band Of Horses and The Oh Hellos.” He quickly adds, “And of course spending time with good friends The Fisherman’s Friends!”
Kris picks up the story of the band’s formation in Polzeath. They debuted with a bluesy, Christmas charity EP in aid of Shelterbox called Star Of Wonder, and Kris recollects, “We recorded in two days on a shoestring. The band’s original line up was, Laura on lead vocal, keys and flute, Laura’s brother, Tom on bass, me on lead vocal and acoustic guitar with Henry of course on drums and the super talented Will Brawn on lead guitar, who had a natural touch like John Martyn crossed with John Frusciante from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and a unique voice too.”
Were you prone to wild conspiracy theories, you might suggest the curse of the EP struck again, as Kris explains, “Shortly after releasing, Star Of Wonder, and a string of live shows, Will headed off on his adventures, chasing perfect waves and the space to write his own beautiful, soulful songs.” This time, however, it wasn’t terminal and they regrouped as Kris continues, “So, Tom stepped into playing lead guitar and Isabelle Roberts joined the band on violin.” It was then that the band really started to take shape, working on original songs written by Laura and Kris. Their first EP with the new line-up was recorded in Wadebridge and released in 2012.
The recording solidified the band as Kris tells me, “You often learn so much about yourself and the band you are part of through the recording process, it’s intense, there’s no hiding, it’s a reality check and in some ways it can feel quite brutal. But, something happened in the recording of that EP that has shaped us into who we are as a band today.”
Shortly after that guitarist Joff Phipps joined as Kris tells me, “Tom was leaving us, and Cornwall to marry a Californian girl! So, at his last gig, a wedding in Polzeath, we were left thinking and talking about who would take his place on lead guitar. But, it just so happened that, Joff Phipps, was managing the bar that night and we got talking with him because we’re friendly like that and he said he liked our style and music. He also told us that he plays lead guitar and well, the rest is as they say, history!” Tom would return, however and features as bassist on Be Still Young Heart.
I ask both writers about their approach to composing and Laura tells me, “I get an idea for a song, which usually starts with a couple of words or phrase sparked by a person I’ve met, a situation I’ve heard about or personal experience. I then immediately write down my ideas for the song,” she adds as an aside, “I have a very patient husband!” Laura continue, “I roughly record it and play it to my husband and my brother, both are very honest and have great musical taste. If they give the thumbs up I then send it to the band to listen to.”
Kris also reveals that inspiration can strike him in different ways at different times and he tells me, “For me a new song always starts with words, something will inspire me to write, like the smell of the ocean at dawn or catching a glimpse of snow in the dark lit up by a streetlight. I then do a mixture of writing more words and phrases, working out guitar parts and song melodies.”
That’s not the end of the process as Laura explains, “At a practice it then goes through the process of being re-arranged, parts added and tweaked until we’re happy with it. I don’t think any of my songs end up much like the original version I email but I love that because the new version is always better! We’ve recently been working on a new song of mine that has felt more collaborative than any we’ve done before. All the band members have added new parts and given the song a completely different feel and I don’t think I could claim sole credit for the song as it is now. For me, the most exciting part of a new song is when the rest of the band begin to take it on as their own, and bring their creativity to it.”
Kris adds a slightly different spin, “As a band we always see what Laura and I bring to the table as the bare bones, yes the essence of the song, but something that we can all shape together to produce harmony. This is certainly not without its moments, as sometimes it’s hard to let go, and yes, we all have different opinions, but it’s only out of creative tension that beauty if created. It helps that there’s a lot of love and respect between us.” He admits that testing the material can be beneficial confessing, “I’ll quite often play a song live a few times at a folk club or open mic, before I even take it to the band, as I feel a song should still be able to hold it’s own in it’s rawest form.”
Following on from the EP, The Grenaways quickly started to develop a local fan base and it was then, at a summer festival in 2012 that, Chris Palmer, from Soundbytes Media in Sheffield heard them play, which led to the recording of their full length debut, Be Still Young Heart.
Kris tells me about the making of the record, “Recording Be Still Young Heart was an amazing experience, probably helped in many ways by the unbelievable weather we had over the course of the week we recorded at St James Church in St Kew, North Cornwall using a mobile recording studio, as we felt that we wanted to record as much as we could in Cornwall. The venue was recommended to us by the Fisherman’s Friends. It was such a memorable experience, a glorious week of hot early sunshine and as we brought each song and laid it down at what felt like the offering table of an ancient building. Some of the late night sessions felt deeply spiritual, like we were connecting with something way beyond ourselves, embodied in the beauty and history of the old building.”
Laura echoes the feelings saying, “The week recording at the church was brilliant. I’m not sure if in the long run it was the most efficient way to record, but the atmosphere, setting and weather were incredible and it was a really special week. We even had a three course meal brought over by our good friend Max, which we ate outside the church in the sunshine.” Kris picks up the point about making the most of the wonderful setting telling me, “While we waited for fellow band members to put their parts down, we relaxed together on the grass in the churchyard surrounded by nature and the old graves.”
It all found its way onto the album quite literally as Kris continues, “Chris and Ryan recorded this sample down by a stream that flowed through the beautiful valley. Even inside the building, nature seemed to flood in as shafts of light through the huge stained glass windows and we had to work around the sweet sound of swallows nesting in the ancient porch. But, they had more of a right to be there than us, as they have most likely nested there for generations, maybe hundreds of years! It’s the sound of the natural environment we were immersed in together that starts the album off with Joff playing that lovely, gentle riff over the top.”
Laura explains a little of how they worked, “We had the rough versions of the songs worked out but Chris and Ryan gave creative ideas as we recorded. The pair are such perfectionists and recording with them felt like we were in very safe hands. I find the recording process very nerve-wracking, but they had endless patience with me, coaxing and cajoling and building my confidence until we had achieved the final result.”
As Laura has suggested, there were challenges to recording in this way, but as Kris says, “It just showed us how professional Chris and Ryan were, as they worked tirelessly, running up and down the bank from their makeshift studio in a van in the church car park! I remember standing listening to the album come together by the van in the sunshine after a quick surf with Joff and Henry at Polzeath with tears in my eyes, just feeling how blessed am I to, not only to have the belief, support and investment of Soundbytes Media in our music, but to live in Cornwall and somehow be given the chance to write and record an album that somehow captures something of this magical county.”
Kris certainly passionate about his adopted home and reveals, “We have a bunch of shows coming up back in London at beginning of March, which our manager has organised, including playing Kernow In The City, a celebration of Cornish Culture at Rich Mix. We’ll be playing our new song, Cornish Girl, which we have written in the Cornish language.”
This suggests new material is already in the pipeline and Kris confirms, “Yes, although we’re still playing tracks from our album at shows, it’s way more exciting to be playing new material, which we’ve been working on over our winter break from gigging. We’re hoping to record a four or five track EP soon, which we may release at the beginning of the summer, ready for festival season. In fact, we’ve decided to try and do two EP’s in relatively quick succession this year, as we feel it’s perhaps more insight into our journey and keeps things engaging and fresh. The new songs are definitely more progressive and have pushed us musically, but they are already going down well at gigs, so it’s definitely time to put them down.”
Kris sees thing building on last year as he explains, “2014, was the year where we felt it was important to invest in our live show, so we decided to employ two session musicians; Paddy Purnell on double bass and Claude Lamon on trumpet to achieve as close a live sound our album as we could. Over the course of the year we played some of Cornwall’s biggest stages, supporting the likes of Fairport Convention, The Fisherman’s Friends, 3 Daft Monkeys, even opening up the stage for 90’s legends, Happy Mondays! The line up still remains the same, except unfortunately Paddy has had to rest up through injury, but Claude seems a regular part of our sound on trumpet. So, we are pulling Tom in on bass where we can for live shows and we’re looking for a permanent double bass player in Cornwall.”
Laura adds, “We have a new manager Bunney from UrbanKelt working behind the scenes on gigs. As a band we discuss set lists and try to prepare as much as possible before hand, although you never know what to expect! We love playing live and try to convey this at our gigs, we want everyone to enjoy the music and have fun. We’ve added an accordion and have been working on lots of new songs and are trying to find the best way forward for everyone with their own situations and commitments. We’re looking to take our music further afield starting with our weekend of gigs in London.”
Kris concludes in typically upbeat fashion telling me, “Then it’s just waiting to see what festivals and venues book us this year. Bunney has applied to loads on our behalf, but we still need to earn our stripes on a National level, so we’ll just have to see where the ride takes us. So, if you run a festival, folk club or venue and are looking for a unique alt-folk sound, we will not disappoint!” Now there’s a promise.
Interview by: Simon Holland
05 MAR – THE WORKSHOP, THE ROAD TRIP BAR – SHOREDITCH – LONDON
06 MAR – KERNOW IN THE CITY, RICHMIX – LONDON
07 MAR – THE HARRISON, LONDON
02 MAY – GIG IN A FIELD, Chapel Porth – Cornwall
16 MAY – THE ACOUSTIC LOUNGE, Poynton
02 AUG – SIDMOUTH FRINGE SESSIONS, McBuzz’s Barn
Be Still Young Heart is Out Now