Bella Hardy wants to kill the entertainer. If you’re wondering which one, it’s herself. If that sounds counter-intuitive, there’s a perfectly rational explanation, one that goes to the very heart of her life as an artist. For all the assumed violence, Bella is one of the nicest people on the circuit, as she proved to me in a wide-ranging interview at Cambridge that travelled from the festival, through her childhood and first steps as a singer, and on to future experiences, as yet untasted, in China.
We settle down outside The Hub, of which more later, and I start by asking her if she thought her latest album, With The Dawn, was different from her past output.
‘Some people say With The Dawn is a departure – but I wonder if people have really listened to the other records. I’m very eclectic in my writing and my musical tastes and I believe you shouldn’t edit your listening, though you should of course edit your writing when you’re recording – but when it comes to deciding what to do, I do whatever comes to me and when I’m writing…’ It just comes out? ‘..it just comes out, as all kinds of stuff. I don’t think we should tailor our minds or our gut instincts to be a kind of factory machine that produces a certain type of music. You can’t please everybody. You have to do what feels organic, I think.’
Has she ever felt led, rather than leading?
‘I have been encouraged in the past to do other things and possibly there would be more commercial success if I tailored the process, and what I’m doing, for a sound that someone’s looking for right then. There’s no longevity to that because people’s tastes change and the fashion for music changes and..’ And the next time those people will want the same album? ‘Well they will, or looking back, your album will sound rubbish because it will have dated.’
Bella looks up at the very blue sky Cambridge has graced us with. ‘I’m not able to do that. For me, writing is very much a part of who I am. I don’t do it with an aim or an outcome. I’m probably like a lot of musicians, I never really planned any of this. It’s what I do.’
Is it a calling? ‘Maybe – I’m very lucky to get to do this for a living, but I would be doing it anyway – I do it because I have to.’ I ask at what point Bella gave up the day job, which, as becomes increasingly clear, sends her off on a number of tangents, within which the answer to your original question is secreted – the purview of an organised, but very busy mind; ‘When I talk to young people about music as a living and being self-employed, I often use Songs Lost and Stolen as an example. When that was released it got good airplay, people really latched onto it and enjoyed it. It led to bits of radio and TV, and I was waitressing in a café in Edinburgh at the time. I would have to run down to London… I remember going to London to do Terry Wogan’s radio show, and I was back as a waitress on the Sunday when the radio show aired, listening to myself talk about me! At that point, I was a waitress wanting to be a musician – I’d never not had a day job.’ And you stopped…? ‘I stopped that in January 2012. I’ve done little bits of admin for other people since then – three years then; three years I can claim to have been living as an artist.’
Hardy is highly articulate. Though she speaks in long, involved sentences, her answers are measured and thought through – even if there are a dozen thoughts fighting for priority. She stops mid-sentence often, exclaims at her own train of thought then drops back in without losing the thread. It makes for engaging conversation and is indicative of the extended workload she considers normal. How did this drive start? ‘When I was 13 I went to the Folkworks Summer School in Durham. My parents sang around the house. Dad sang washing up shanties; Whisky In The Jar and Wild Colonial Boy – he was a teenager during the 60s folk revival. Mum sang and played piano. It was more about being around music rather than being part of a ‘folk family’, more about community song, not a ‘folk’ scene.
It occurs to me that had it not been Durham, it could just as easily have been a rock school – could you have ended up a rock chick? Hardy laughs, ‘It was the people I met, not just the music. My sister and I joined the school ceilidh band and they all went to this Summer School…’ Fate, then? ‘In a way. I loved the people, they were really enthusiastic about the music but they loved hanging out and I loved hanging out with them – it was a community. It was the social element that got me into music.’
A potential irony, given all the stories we hear of musicians wanting rooms painted purple and separating the M&Ms on the rider… ‘When you’re thirteen you do not go around saying you like folk music, you don’t tell people your dad used to be a Morris dancer! These people weren’t the cool kids – they didn’t care what people thought of them’
Because it wasn’t about that.
‘It wasn’t about that. The people I hung out with were genuinely lovely people getting on with something they loved. We wanted to go to festivals to see each other but we couldn’t afford the tickets, so we had to form bands to get free tickets. And that’s how I became a musician!’
You became a musician so that you could hang out with your friends? ‘Without a doubt, that’s why I became a musician! I spent my teenage years playing fiddle in a band called The Pack. I was the youngest member of the band. We played at Cambridge when I was 18. We were asked to put on a series of workshops at that first festival by Eddie Barcan because we were young, so we did that and he rang back the next year and asked us to do it again. The Hub had just started. It was fourteen years ago, and I’ve been programming the workshops ever since. This is my last year this year, sadly, but I’ve loved it.’
We agree that one of the many great things about Cambridge is the compact nature of the site. We’re sitting three hundred yards from the main stage on the grass outside The Hub, and the glitz and glamour of the main boards could be a world away. ‘We were trying to create a space for young people to just ‘be’ and exist. The Hub hosts a late night session after the stages have finished so that they have their own thing. It’s how I got into it. Just connecting younger people to each other.’ And those are the times they’ll remember, when they sat up until 1AM learning chords. ‘Yeah, do you remember when we went and played that tune? I hope that’s what we’ve created here. It’s not giving back, it’s just being part of the community that I joined as a teenager.’
We move onto more contemporary things – is Bella pleased with the new album?
‘It’s funny. I don’t have those sorts of feelings about it. I don’t feel happy about it. If I baked a cake, I’d feel happy about it, but the music is part of me – it’s like asking am I pleased with my foot; it’s just my foot. My album is part of who I am and I’m very proud of it.’ Do you reflect upon it now the process is finished? ‘You can’t help but do that, though there’s a school of thought that says you should start something before the other is finished, to avoid stewing over it.’ And they’re still your songs, once they’re out there in the public domain? ‘Absolutely.’ A lot of artists don’t look forward to letting songs go, but it turns out Hardy doesn’t see it like that. ‘I’m lucky – I get to perform a lot. We did a 25-night tour for With The Dawn, and I feel I get to reclaim the songs every night. I sing them slightly differently, think my way through them again. I get lost in songs when I sing them and I never feel like I’ve lost them; its what I love about singing.
‘I was talking to my mum about the Singing Together project (British schools used a BBC radio programme for sixty years to encourage communal singing) – everyone used to listen to the same radio show and sing from the same book. Mum says she can remember the smell of the classroom and the children’s faces when she hears those songs; it’s music’s ability to hook us back to memory. I’m a terrible archivist of memory and thought, so I never feel like I’ve let my songs go. They’re always with me.’ Hardy is one of the first artists I’ve spoken to who has approached the release of their songs in this way. ‘One of the things I’ve enjoyed about With The Dawn is trying to be as blatantly honest as I have ever been. I spent the end of my twenties re-evaluating a lot of stuff; the way I was behaving, the way I processed things, and I hadn’t realised that prior to then my music had a thin veneer, a façade on it – I’d always tried to be as honest as I could but it was there.’
Doesn’t sound easy…‘It wasn’t. You’re writing and then you edit yourself out a little bit, and that’s a good way to write, but with this album, I didn’t want the songs to be about made-up characters, I wanted the songs to be about me. Breaking down the façade and becoming the conduit for all the emotions I’d had and was having – I wanted to be as much of an artist as I could possibly be. I wanted to kill the entertainer and become the artist.’
Hardy’s passion for that process is tangible, a passion that stretches from the studio to the stage. ‘I’ll be playing with the band that we put together for the album. I collaborated with the producer (Ben Seal) much more on With The Dawn than previously. Ben and I became ‘the band’ in the studio, though we’d become friends prior to that – he was so suited to the album from a production perspective. He encouraged me to be as honest as possible and engage as emotionally as I could, so we started this process of having the music express what’s going on at the time it’s being made. It doesn’t have to be pretty, it doesn’t have to be shiny and engineered, just real; it can be ugly and visceral.’
I wonder how that transfers to the stage? ‘It was the two of us in the studio, so not easily. The album was written with the two of us bouncing ideas back and forth. At least two of the songs started as iPhone recordings and they made the record, most notably on Lullaby For A Grieving Man – the singing and plucking of the fiddle at the beginning and end of the songs was straight from the iPhone recording. So I’d written in that way and I didn’t want to lose those recordings, because that’s where the honesty gets lost. I think some of it was recorded in my bathroom!’
How do you articulate that to a band? ‘It’s great fun! Before we went on tour, we had to learn how to do what was on the record. There’s lots of programming and electronic sounds, so we have a laptop on stage which Ben uses to help reproduce some of the vocal distortion you hear on the record. Anna Massie, who’s toured with me since 2009 is with me, but usually plays guitar and there’s no guitar on the album at all, but there is lots of banjo, so poor old Anna gets to play banjo – I’m cruel.’
I’m not sure I’d realised there was no guitar. ‘I know! It just goes to show that you don’t need a guitar on every record. Anyway, we’re doing lots of songs from With The Dawn and a couple of oldies if we have time. It’s going to be visceral; dark in places, experimental, but hopefully it will be… Bella Hardy!’
If workload and passion alone were enough to kill the entertainer, she’d have committed the perfect crime long ago – Bella must be one of the busiest artists around. Despite needing to grab something to eat, she has more to impart, particularly about her plans post-Cambridge.
‘I’m off to The Durham Folk summer school, the same one that triggered my interest as a child; I’m co-directing the adult programme this year.’ Where do you find the time! ‘There’s always enough hours in the day! Then I’ve got a couple of months off to relax, then I’m on tour across the UK from October into 2016. And then I go to China for 6 weeks… Hardy has recently been selected as artist in residence by the PRS For Music Foundation and the British Council in Kunming, south China. She’ll spend time engaging with traditional Chinese folk music and trading experiences, and, as she says, ‘..writing new music as a result.’ A hint of future recordings then? ‘Well, maybe. I finish at a city festival, playing in front of thirty thousand people on Christmas Eve. I’m flying home on Christmas Day.’
I’m worn out for her, but there’s a twinkle in Bella’s eye and a ready smile at the thought of the trip. But first, the small job of a Sunday lunchtime Stage One audience at Cambridge, so I thank her for her time and she practically skips off towards the backstage area for sustenance. Me? I’m full.
Sunday’s Live Performance
Her set showcases all that’s good about her work. Largely taken from With The Dawn, there are understandable comparisons with the carefully arranged and orchestrated Unthanks, both in the pacing and the boundary-breaking. True to her word, Bella’s crack team reproduce the expansive sound of the album with the odd bit of computer trickery, but this isn’t the folk equivalent of the Pet Shop Boys, it’s music designed, as Bella said, to lay bare the honesty at the heart of her songs, an honesty that assaults as well as soothes the senses.
You can see Bella feeling her way through, gauging the responses on stage and in the crowd. She had stood for a full ten minutes before the set began, relaxed and unhurried, whilst final touches were made to the sound, and you could see her mentally preparing to deliver as much of herself as possible to a crowd shaken from their Sunday AM reverie by De Temps Antan and the boisterous Lone Bellow. Her voice, a clarion of incredible clarity, is note perfect throughout and her whole body lives each moment as it passes, adjusting to the angular melodies, a foot stomp here, arms in supplication then embrace, head thrown back to the sky.
Picking out highlights feels somewhat churlish, but Good Man’s Wife features some lovely piano throughout it’s stop-start rhythm. We’re also blessed with the magnificent Jolly Good Luck To The Girl Who Loved A Soldier, her song commissioned by Songs For The Voiceless, capturing the loss and hopelessness of the untold World War 1 stories that brought many a lump to throat. The crowd loved her and she looked like she was having a great time. Another few years at this pace and we’ll have to start bandying around phrases like ‘national treasure’. Let’s hope she never feels voiceless.
Review and Interview by: Paul Woodgate
Free Live Track from Bella’s performance at Cambridge:
No longer available
Listen To Cambridge Festival Highlights:
This year at Cambridge Folk Festival, the team behind the coverage on BBC Radio 2 and Sky Arts also made 90+ minutes of highlights for 7digital.com.
No longer available
There are 3 streamable shows, including some of the best music heard on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Live music comes from:
– The Unthanks
– Rhiannon Giddens
– Nick Mulvey
– Treacherous Orchestra
– Bella Hardy
– The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain
– The Proclaimers
Presenter Carla Battisti also speaks to The Unthanks, Danú, Nick Mulvey, Bella Hardy, Éamonn and Innes from the Treacherous Orchestra and Adam and Jack from Rura.
7digital are also offering a free download of a song from Bella Hardy’s live set at Cambridge 2015. The beautiful version of ‘Oh! My God! I Miss You’ can be downloaded as an mp3, or you can take the chance to try 7digital’s crystal-clear FLAC downloads.
7digital.com is also the perfect place to buy tracks from the Delphonic Music compilation ‘Cambridge Folk Festival: Celebrating 50 Years’, which includes performances from previous years at Cambridge.
And Delphonic’s ‘Mark Radcliffe Folk Sessions’, including some of the best live sessions recorded for Mark Radcliffe’s Radio 2 Folk Show, are also available in the store.
Find all of 7digital’s Cambridge offerings here: http://bit.ly/1IPd8iM