It’s amazing to think that given the quality of the songs, the obvious chemistry between the players and the complexity of some of the arrangements that less than a year ago, the two principal players of The Changing Room, Tanya Brittain and Sam Kelley had not actually met. The first time that they stood face to face was in the recording studio with the ambition of creating the three track, The River Runs Between, an EP of songs written by Tanya about her adopted home town of Looe in Cornwall. Now with their first full-length album imminent, the excellent Behind The Lace picks up the pace, suggesting both the vibrant blossoming of a most fortuitous meeting of musical minds and offering a great set of songs, with a sprinkle of magic.
There’s a real sense of momentum and Tanya sounds like someone in a hurry as we get a brief opportunity to talk. I’m trying to sort out the back-story and the timelines, but everything has happened so quickly. It’s not undue haste, however, just the sense of things falling into place and opportunities being grasped quick-sharp as they occur. Behind The Lace is actually due out at the start of May, but that first EP release has already been followed by a second, Splann. It collects three of their original songs translated into Cornish, in turn highlighting The Changing Room winning the right to represent Cornwall musically at the Pan Celtic Festival in Derry this coming weekend.
The songs that make up Splann were translated by Dr Ken George, who lives locally to Tanya. She credits him for managing to keep the meter, find rhymes and still keep the narrative sense of the songs. It all came about following an approach from the Cornish Language Society, who recognised Tanya’s songwriting abilities and interest in telling local stories. Whether it be the river that runs to the sea and divides the east and west sides of Looe, economically and socially as well as geographically, the seine boat fishermen in Row Boys Row, or their needs to respect the power of the waves in Deep Beneath The Sea, these are themes that run through Cornish life.
Although both Tanya and Sam jumped at the chance to learn about and work with the Cornish language, Tanya has only lived in the region for 10 years, while Sam still, at least theoretically, calls Norfolk home. Even more unusually it was Tanya’s job as a scuba diver that took her there. She’d been living in the Midlands, not the ideal location for someone of her profession, escaping with her diving club at weekends. When the opportunity to move to Cornwall permanently was offered, she grabbed it with both hands. Sam meanwhile has a Celtic connection, albeit with the Gaelic Irish side of his family lineage and the foggy childhood memories of his grandfather’s singing. Nevertheless, both have found inspiration and a connection that strengthened their musical bond, with further Cornish language songs already planned.
Tanya was introduced to Sam Kelly via Sam Lakeman, who she’d asked for recommendations for a male folk voice for her songs. Tanya had got to know the Lakemans through the work she does organising festivals in Cornwall and followed his recommendation with an email and a few phone calls that quickly found a receptive ear. The pair rough sketched a few ideas down the wires, before Sam jumped into his car, headed southwest and the serious work began.
Also in the mix is Boo Hewerdine, who firstly offered Tanya encouragement at a songwriting retreat, then stepped up to produce the The River Runs Between EP. Boo introduced Jennifer Crook’s harp for those recordings and although he was only able to oversee things from a distance, gaining an executive producers credit for Behind The Lace, he’s also introduced John McCusker and bassist Kevin McGuire this time around. While both those two recorded their parts remotely, McCusker has already offered his services going forward if and when they are required.
That offer may well suit Tanya and Sam’s purposes very well. They have agreed to move forward with the idea that The Changing Room is a place that any number of guests can be invited into. On the records so far you’ll find both the Polperro Fisherman’s Choir, a robust and fulsome group of singers and the more musically refined Oggymen, a 10-strong singing group with a more sophisticated grasp of harmony. Live, The Changing Room have settled down to a five piece with Sam singing and playing guitar, Tanya on accordion and vocals, with Sam’s regular trio members, banjo player Jamie Francis and percussionist Evan Carson and also Morrigan Palmer-Brown taking over harp duties. A recent gig in Falmouth found them taking the stage with the full Oggymen choir and the 3 Daft Monkeys joining them. The latter’s Tim Ashton guests on the recording as does another local big voice, Fisherman’s Friend John Cleave.
With it’s release set for the start of May, Behind The Lace starts appropriately with Hal-An-Tow, referring to the Helston Floral Dance, or to give it its proper name the Furry (as in hurry) Dance. The festival signals the end of winter and the official start of spring and although it hasn’t survived in an unbroken line, there is certainly enough about it to call it one of the oldest British folk customs still practiced.
The song is one of the two co-writes between Tanya and Sam that captures the sunny disposition, with some of the fine detail of the day. To a steady bass drum step, the banjo and accordion lift the melody and Sam’s soft yet purposeful tones are given a big boost on the choruses with the Oggymen and John Cleave joining the fun. It’s a joyous thing right down to the middle eight with Sam and Tanya’s close harmony and the lovely little flourishes from banjo and whistle, before the rousing, all-hands finish. It successfully banishes all thoughts of Terry Wogan and for that alone, should be in the running for Folk Award status.
It’s an upbeat start, but this is a record of many moods and I’ll Give You My Voice slows things down with a wistful Gaelic scented air, emphasised by the subtle interplay between fiddle and whistle that John adds. The tremor in Sam’s voice adds to the heartfelt ache and the sense of someone dearly missed, whose gift of music is nevertheless, gratefully carried forward, sweetening the sorrows with reminiscence.
The mood progressively darkens, as Journeyman is more reflective in laying out a course on the road less travelled, away from the routine that the title suggests. With that direction there is an element of uncertainty mixed with the defiance, the bass adding a brooding tone, while the gentle patter of percussion gives movement. Through The Mill looks back on life rather than forward, but here it sounds like the race is run and a working life with no great rewards has come to its logical end. The clever use of brass adds to the lament for a life unfulfilled and hard times and ultimately the final breath to come. Economically written, but poignant stuff, there is also the palpable sense of loneliness as one partner leaves this life before another.
Wreckers is proper dark and stormy, featuring the deep growl of John Cleave. Wrecking was of course a profitable pursuit in coastal regions, with Devon and Cornwall in particular benefitting from ships brought back laden with goods from the Americas and Caribbean, sailing the Gulf Stream. It happened around the world, however, and whilst the periodic windfall unquestionably fuelled a black market, there is little or no evidence anywhere to suggest that ships were ever really lured to their doom. Still the shadowy figures, nocturnal activities and scare stories created to deter the curious have added greatly to the legends.
We stay at sea for the more legitimate job of fishing, but A River Runs Between also documents the social divide of Looe. A fisherman landing his catch spies a pretty maid on the harbour side, but she comes from the west side of the town and even a bridge across the river won’t bring them together. The harmony between Sam and Tanya is sublime and the Polperro Fishermen add a tidal surge to the minor key lament, with the harp adding a forlorn grace. The Fishermen’s Choir also add some heft to Row Boys Row, giving it the fullness of a shanty through the chorus. The references to the shoal spotters, or huers, and the hevva cake they bake after directing the fleet, locate this right at the heart of Cornish fishing. There is one more fishing song as the penultimate track, featuring Tim Ashton, is the lively tale of the trophy catch being devoured by sharks before it can be landed, leaving the fisherman with a bold tale, only to be met by disbelief.
Before that however comes the other co-write between Tanya and Sam that gives the album its title. It’s a story of bridal veil to widow’s weeds, although the tears and the joy are the wrong way around, with an unhappy marriage and domestic violence at the heart of the story. It’s the one song that Tanya sings lead on and she does so very well. It’ll be interesting to see whether there is more of a share in future, although it’s also easy to see why Sam has Tanya’s blessing to lead the lion’s share. The final song, the moving and loving Tired Smile, emphasises the subtle, emotive power in his unique tremolo inflected tones.
The Changing Room a combination of talent that unquestionably works and whilst Tanya is correct when she suggests, “It probably seems like we’ve come out of nowhere, but something’s just clicked,” one or two wise heads have already spotted the nascent talent that she and Sam clearly possess individually. When you put that together it’s win-win, although as Tanya also tells me, it will be the autumn before there is any more serious Changing Room activity, as Sam has a busy summer with his trio and she has a festival to produce for September. As their website says they’ll be looking to tour in November and December and Tanya even hints that they are writing furiously, with a view to hitting the studio again post tour. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves as Behind The Lace is one of those delightful little gems, beautifully played, arranged and sung, that quietly slips into your ears and sticks like glue, never outstaying its welcome. A bit like Mr Benn’s adventures, The Changing Room is where the magic happens.
Review by: Simon Holland
Photo Credit: Jim Peters