“I don’t think I can talk about that!” laughs Ciaran Algar when I ask him how his University freshers’ week went (he’s studying history by the way). “The highlight was this festival called Pangaea that Manchester has where they turn the whole student’s union into a party with a theme. The theme was Neverland, Peter Pan. I’ve never seen or read Peter Pan but I thought Captain Hook had a parrot. So I dressed as this flamboyant parrot. No-one got it! There were no other parrots…”
Greg Russell listens and sighs “That story actually sums you up perfectly”.
I purposely recount this moment in our interview because it illustrates in part just why Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar really are so popular. Of course they’re both phenomenal musicians in their own right…fiddler Ciaran has just released his solo album and is currently working with Sam Kelly, whilst guitarist Greg is also doing solo work, working with Rex Preston and touring with Nancy Kerr and the Sweet visitor band. However when Greg and Ciaran are together as a duo, there’s a humour and chemistry between them that not only shines through in their music, but also makes them…well, extremely likeable.
It’s a likeability that’s led to two BBC Radio 2 Folks awards and a nomination in this year’s awards for ‘Best Duo’. With two albums already under their belt, the pair are currently adding the final touches to their third album. When I meet up for a chat with with Greg and Ciaran at a photo shoot in Birmingham, the over-riding impression they create is of two young blokes who are just thoroughly enjoying what they’re doing.
“We had a fantastic Summer” Greg reflects, “This year we started going abroad for the first time as a duo. Probably two of the highlights of the Summer were Dranauter Festival in Belgium and Tønder in Denmark, but we did a load of festivals here as well.”
“When we did the gigs in Belgium and Denmark we learned that our show can translate with foreign audiences.” Ciaran explains, “We were a bit worried because a lot of our live show is talking and engaging with the audience, so we weren’t sure how it would go down, but they absolutely loved it.”
“The Belgians even laughed at jokes about Stoke” Greg smiles. Ciaran laughs back at the reference to to his hometown “They must have heard….”
I learn that over their busy Summer schedule, material for the new album was gradually creeping into the duo’s set ahead of recording. “Over the last couple of months of the Summer” explains Ciaran, “we started adding things into our live set that were going to be on the album. I think there are only three things on the album that we’ve not already played live.”
“It’s really interesting” Greg reflects, “with the first two albums there was a lot of stuff on them that we hadn’t done live really. It was getting finished as it was being recorded. With this album we can certainly hear a difference in just having the material absolutely bedded in. It’s had time to naturally change and develop.”
The impetus for the third album came from the duo wanting to share their progress as artists and musicians. “I think in the last eighteen months as players, musicians and singers we’ve developed so much” explains Greg, “so we’re just really itching to do this album.”
“We actually did it a lot quicker than we thought we would” Ciaran adds, “not just because we’d practiced and played it in already but even with the guest musicians we had, they just came in and did it so quickly. I also think we weren’t afraid to mess around with it a bit. On the first two albums pretty much what we did live we recorded and put that out. I think that was a good thing, but with this one we tried to be more creative with it…not necessarily to reproduce our live sound but to enhance it I think. I’m really happy with it.”
“You want something that’s representative of what you do live” Greg explains, “but it’s almost impossible to capture that even if you do the recordings live in the studio. You’ve got to add things and change things to get that extra spark. As Ciaran said, for the first two albums it was pretty much straight off the bat what we do live. This time there’s a bit more going on.”
“It has the same core” says Ciaran, “but we’re not afraid to experiment a bit more with it. I think we’re more musically able to experiment. If we’d have tried it on the first album we wouldn’t have got away with it.”
Greg agrees, “There are things on this album that we couldn’t have done technically before and more thought has gone into the arrangements. Also we’ve spent the last four years sat in the car listening to music. So there are a lot more influences, we listen to all sorts. Technically we’ve got better and musically we’re a lot broader as well, but the core is very much still there.”
The duo have also taken influence from the people they’ve worked with, including the Mischa Macpherson trio who teamed up this year with Greg and Ciaran to form ‘The Tweed Project’. “For me, just playing with other people has made me such a better player” says Greg, “You learn from seeing how other people do things.”
“Live we’re being more technical as well” Ciaran adds, “because we’ve both got pedal boards now. We never thought we’d get to that stage! So if we’ve got a bass part on the album, we can recreate that with Gregs octave pedal, things like that. So yeah we’re bursting into the 21st century…”
I ask them how their creative process works. “As a crude rule, Ciaran brings the tunes and I bring the songs.” responds Greg. “When one of us brings something to the duo, whether that’s a contemporary song, a traditional song or something we’ve written…it inevitably changes because each of us has ideas that the other wouldn’t have thought of.”
Ciaran continues “What we did a lot of was that Greg would bring a song and play it in soundcheck and I’d say ‘Oh I like that’. After a few soundchecks and quick rehearsals we’d play it in a gig and try it.”
Greg smiles, “Just as Ciaran has started to learn a song I’ll stop playing it at soundchecks and move onto something else, just to be annoying!”
As I listen to the banter between the duo, I get an insight into how Greg and Ciaran’s relationship underpins their live act. Take for example this excerpt from our conversation:
FRUK: What’s the hardest thing about being in the duo?
Greg: Having to spend 90% of my life with Ciaran Algar
Ciaran: I thought that would be a bonus?
Greg: Actually we get on pretty well
Ciaran: I’m amazed we’ve never fallen out
Greg: I think we know if one of us is getting there we’ll back off. We know the signs.
Ciaran (to Greg): No you don’t! If he knows I’m annoyed he’ll just pick at me…
Greg: Actually yeah. The best way to deal with Ciaran being annoyed is just to take the piss out of him!
On a more serious note, Ciaran returns to the subject of progression, “I think in the last twelve months we’ve made the transition from…not beginners, but we were just starting out and I think we’ve made the transition to professionals. We’re more knowledgeable in general about how everything works…just more life experience.”
“I love the music we play, I love travelling, I love meeting people” says Greg when I ask him what the most positive aspects of being a musician are, “One of the great things about the folk world is there is an eccentric around every corner. Some of the things we’ve seen and experienced…”
“It’s got to the point where I don’t think we notice” laughs Ciaran, “It’s normal to us. But if one of our friends was with us in the situation, they’d just think what on earth is going on!”
“That’s the great thing” continues Greg, “we’re just having such a fantastic time. However long this goes on for, if it stops after this album or if there’s another twenty years in it or even more…even if I stopped tomorrow I’d know that I’ve just had the best time and some amazing memories. And some things I simply won’t be able to ever forget even if I want to.”
The likelihood of it ‘stopping tomorrow’ for these talented young gentlemen is of course highly unlikely. “It’s folk music” concludes Ciaran, “we’re in this ‘til death!”
As my time with Greg and Ciaran draws to a close, we return our attention to the forthcoming album release and I wonder whether the success experienced by the duo to date has created any pressure of expectation around the new record. “I think the pressure will come when it’s going out for reviews” considers Ciaran, “when you’re waiting to hear back from people the first time it goes out. But for me it’s exciting because hopefully there will be more people interested and looking forward to it.”
“Every thing we’ve done so far has gone in the right direction” Greg concludes, “I highly doubt this is the last album we’ll be doing and we’re so proud of it…it’s the best thing we’ve done by a mile. I just want it to go well…we’ll see what happens.”
Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar’s third album is due for release in Spring 2016. Look out for an announcement from the duo in December…
Interview by: Rob Bridge
27th Nov – AYLESBURY – Queens Park Arts Centre
13th Dec – SOUTHPORT – Bothy Folk Club
17th Dec – BASTON, LINCOLNSHIRE – Barn at Baston – SOLD OUT
This article is part of an ongoing 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