Hannah James is a well known name to many on the folk festival and folk club circuit. She’s a multi-talented performer and, as well as being a singer and musician, is also a champion clog dancer. It was with Kerfuffle that I was first introduced to Hannah with whom she spent nine years touring before they split. She still performs with ex-Kerfuffle fiddle player Sam Sweeney as a duo and she’s also a member of the folk trio Lady Maisery. Her dancing has also placed her in high demand, many of you have will have no doubt seen her flying feet on The Demon Barber Roadshow. In her time as a performer she’s always struck me as being someone who’s not afraid to push the boundaries or shy away from a challenge. We were offered a small flavour of that on her Chatterbox album with Tuulikki Bartosik which we reviewed back in May. Thomas declared it was “one of the freshest and in its quiet way one of the most spectacular albums I have heard this year… Bartosik and James look to have created an entirely new platform for the accordion, but more importantly the have created a beautiful set of recordings.”
Even with that track record behind her Hannah looks set to take on her biggest challenge to date with her new show JigDoll, ‘the culmination of Hannah’s career thus far.’ It not only incorporates all those elements she is known for: singer, musician and dancer, but she’s performing it all solo. The show features newly-composed music in a magical setting woven around percussive dance. She took some time out before heading out to tour JigDoll (dates below) to give us a personal insight into the show.
A JigDoll is a wooden dancing doll that been popular for at least two centuries throughout the UK and Ireland, they could be found in pubs, on board ships, and anywhere that people gathered to make their own entertainment. They were originally hand carved, each being unique in character to that given by the hand of the maker. Hannah likens their image as a kind of metaphor for the show. “These strange little puppets that move in a slightly alarming way and create rhythms with their movements. They draw people in instantly and I think the same can be said for lots of types of Traditional dance – particularly percussive dance. It doesn’t surprise me that these dolls have stood the test of time, just like percussive dance has, there’s something very immediate about them and they appeal to people on quite a basic level, without spoken language.”
Hannah is not really known as a solo performer, the group or duo has been her mainstay until now so I was naturally curious as to what drover her towards a solo show.
“I’ve been working in bands and duos for a long time and I love doing that, I love collaborating with different artists and picking up new skills, and with each different project I get to use a slightly different set of skills. Eventually though, I always wanted to have a show where I get to bring it all back together and use everything I’ve learnt along the way. I wanted to make a show where music and dance are one and the same and where the lines between the different disciplines are blurred. This is my first attempt!”
On the website for JigDoll Hannah mentions that the show also explores the life of the travelling player, something she’s no stranger to.
“I’ve always moved around a lot and many of my best musical experiences have happened when I’ve been travelling – either at Ethno music camps, in India with the Folk Nations project or just around the UK music scene. I feel like I’ve picked up a lot of ‘tricks’ for my tool box whilst moving around, and when you are moving so much, the tool box becomes the only constant thing you have. I think this is a good way to see people working in the folk genre, we are working within a tradition but we are all individuals and our experiences and encounters will feed into our music, I think the best way to be authentic – whatever that really means – is to absorb what’s around you and find ways to weave the skills you have together.”
She reveals that the life of the travelling performer is not only part of her life but also in the blood. “I also have an ancestor who, my great great Grandad, who was a travelling performer and we’ve recently been finding out more about the pretty tragic life he had, so that’s been on my mind whilst I’ve been creating the show.”
Whilst JigDoll is a solo show Hannah called upon a number of mentors to help her bring the show together, including the well known and respected English traditional musician Karen Tweed.
“Karen was one of my first ever accordion teachers. A few of us, including Amy Thatcher, Shona Kipling and Harriet Bartlet, used to go to her house every few months for a day of lessons and teaching tunes to each other. This has a huge impact on my music and my enthusiasm for playing. A few years later I worked on an accordion trio project with Karen Tweed and Becky Price. When I decided I wanted to work with some mentors again, Karen was an obvious choice, and our first get together reminded me what a huge influence she’s had over my music right from the start. She continues to inspire me and fill me with ideas and the confidence to find my own musical path, I can’t think of a better teacher.”
Hannah also called upon Bush Hartshorn, an international choreographer she previously worked with on the Demon Barbers’ Time Gentlemen Please. This was another fortuitous partnership as she reveals it was Bush who helped to solidify the concept for the show.
“I had a Skype meeting with him very early on in the development process, when I only had the idea of bringing everything I do together, and a vague idea of a travelling performer theme. Through asking lots of quite probing questions, he helped me to ascertain what I really wanted to do, and not long after our conversation I came up with the name and concept of JigDoll.”
The show has not been without its challenges, I was curious as to what those challenges were and how she overcame them. Because this is a solo show Hannah has resorted to using loop pedal technology to allow elements to weave and overlap. She reveals that this was by far the steepest learning curve.
“I’d only ever messed around with a loop pedal and never been that interested in using technology. But I realised that if I wanted to be able to do everything then that was the only way, so I threw myself in at the deep end! I’ve had some fantastic help from a man called David Scarth who makes fantastic tutorial videos on YouTube about Ableton, which is the software I use.”
Hannah reveals that there are deeper challenges in preparing mentally for the performance as, hinged again on technology, there is little room for mistakes.
“The mindset is definitely different for this show. I have to really prepare myself and be a lot more focused than I often am in a gig! Because all the tracks where I use Ableton are done to a click in my ear, if I’m one beat out then the whole thing is buggered! So there’s less margin for error! In a way though, I think that helps me to stay in the moment. It also makes me very appreciative when everything works! I still don’t entirely trust the software so in the performance I have to just be in the here and now and not worrying about whether the next track is set properly and if it’s going to work.”
In any project like this there are always memorable moments, points of breakthrough where the project comes closer to reality. Hannah was more than happy to share some of those with us.
“There have been a few breakthrough moments, one was when I started to work on one of my accordion compositions with Karen and she just helped me to transform it from a tune into a proper solo performance piece, it made me start to think about what I was doing in a very different way and set me off down a much more experimental path.
“The next one was on my second visit to Cormac [Cormac Byrne – international percussionist], he’d recommended a microphone I could use for my dance board to make it sound more drum like and it had just arrived in the post that morning, so when I got to his rehearsal space we put it through his PA and I played him one of my pieces with foot percussion, it sounded exactly how I wanted it to and we spent the session tweaking the rhythms I was doing with my feet, it just felt like everything was falling into place and that I could actually do this!”
And of course there was the technology and reaching the peak of that learning curve…
“Then I suppose there was another breakthrough when I managed to program one of the ‘pedal free looping’ pieces on my own in the studio, I’d had a couple of sessions with David, this would be the proof of the pudding! And I managed to get it to work, which was a relief.”
Whilst these were all pre-show moments there was the first live performance…
“The first gig at Shrewsbury was a big breakthrough. I’d been planning and discussing and writing and rehearsing in my little studio for months but I had absolutely no idea what people were going to make of it, so to perform it in front of a crowd and to get a reaction was a huge relief and reminded me why I’d set out to do this in the first place.”
Although Hannah has only performed the 45 minute preview of the show, the full show is longer. Despite this, the reaction so far has been very positive.
“In general the audience response has been quite different to anything I’ve had before. People are usually very positive about the music I’m involved in, but the response to JigDoll has been seemed very heartfelt somehow. I think people are really appreciative that I’m trying to do something new and different with traditional dance, and they realise how personal it is to me. I’ve had a lot of lovely emails and there’s been a fantastic online response.”
Hannah is touring around England from November 4th. JigDoll promises to be an exceptional show, one that not only breaks with convention but also brings audiences a new experience. In his review of the show at the first Hartlepool folk festival, fiddle player Tom Kitching described it as “brilliant, utterly engaging, and it needed to happen.” Don’t hesitate in booking a ticket to see it.
Find out more by visiting: Jigdoll.co.uk