Following on from our review of The Space Between, the new album from Jamie Smith’s Mabon (read the album review here), we have an interview with Jamie himself. At the moment the band are making the most of a break in their busy tour schedule, which includes a further 20 live dates in the UK and France and a live session for Radio 3’s World On Three in mid-march, so it seemed an ideal time to quiz Jamie on the concept and inspirations behind The Space Between, the band’s approach to writing and recording the album; and their enviable reputation as one of the most celebrated live bands on the trad music scene.
First – to the concept behind The Space Between. There’s far more than an album title in there, it’s a concept that encompasses the whole album, perhaps even Mabon’s whole approach to the music. The idea that their music fits in the gaps between Celtic cultures, rather than reflecting them individually. I started by asking Jamie whether this concept informed and inspired the music, or was it the other way around?
“The Space Between seems to describe the band and its music quite well, so in a way the title is simply an observation on what we do. Our music doesn’t fall comfortably into any one tradition. The band’s origins are rooted in Wales but the current line-up of musicians comes from, or lives in, various places these days; I myself live in the Isle of Man at the moment. I was brought up playing Welsh folk tunes, but became inspired in my teenage years by other Celtic music that I was exposed to at festivals such as Festival Interceltique de Lorient in Brittany. My head became one big melting pot of tunes from Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Brittany…all the Celtic countries! And of course like most people I’ve always had my favourite popular music influences as well. Similarly, all the band members bring their tastes and styles of playing into the mix. All this together makes us what we are: a band operating in the gaps between styles and traditions”.
There was another aspect to the view that music can somehow reflect that mix, and that involved the recording process itself. On The Space Between Jamie took a completely different approach from the ‘recorded live in the studio’ method that so many recording artists, especially in trad/acoustic circles, lay great store by. Sessions were recorded at four different locations then mixed by Jim Moray. The approach certainly echoes the album’s concept. Was that part of the plan or necessity?
“It was partly for logistical reasons, trying to record musicians close to where they live, and partly to get what we wanted out of the different studios. I wanted to try it out to see how it went. I’ve not hit upon the ultimate recording process for Mabon so for each album we try a different approach. I’m sure the next one will be done differently again!”
Did this present any particular problems regarding rehearsal, writing or John Eeles’ availability as producer?
“The rehearsing was all done together beforehand and during that week we recorded live band takes together to use as guide tracks in the studios. John was able to oversee it all even if he wasn’t at every session”.
A final thought on the recording process. As before, Dylan Fowler’s Stiwdio Felin Fach in Abergavenny was your own favoured recording location. There must be something special about the facilities there.
“Yes there is: Dylan Fowler! It’s a lovely sounding, relaxing place to record acoustic instruments, and Dylan’s innate musicality gives you another pair of ears you can trust when you are trying things out in the studio”.
Of course, a huge part of Mabon’s reputation is built on their live performances. Do you think the modular approach to recording has changed the sound?
“I don’t think so because much of what you hear on the album was the direct result of the arranging and rehearsing process. Everyone knew their parts to a large degree before stepping into the studio. There are some guest musicians, added overdubs and effects etc, but when you hear the tracks live they don’t sound hugely different to the album versions because they are based on the same core band performance. I really like studio albums that push the production further away again from a band’s live sound, but many of our CD sales come straight from gigs so we wanted to make sure fans got an album that reminded them of the live show they’d enjoyed watching”.
Listening to the excellent mix of songs, tune sets and instrumental tracks on the album left far more questions that could be covered in a single review. For instance – The Accordionist’s Despair follows on from a challenge you presented on Mabon’s debut album. Was Fiddlers Despair not enough of a challenge, then?
“This new tune is definitely more challenging for me, but disappointingly I think our fiddler Oli claims it is easier on the fiddle! So what was initially intended to be the Accordionist’s Revenge, a response to the Canadian fiddlers Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy’s recent recording of Fiddlers Despair, ended up as the Accordionist’s Despair!”
The Space Between includes two of your own songs, and a Welsh language song from Iolo again. Vocal, including of course, Welsh language vocal, first appeared on Windblown – has your approach to song writing, and to vocal performances, changed since then?
“Yr Ennyd was approached the same way as Caru Pum Merch was on Windblown: I gave Iolo the melody to work from and then we arranged it to suit the lyrical direction he took. That’s why it went epic!”
And the title track?
“The Space Between song marked a change of approach for me because I started with the title; I fancied having a title track for the album and there was plenty of scope in that title for songwriting. The song I ended up writing was about my feelings on being a traveling musician away from my family and home, having to spend countless hours on the road, on the water, in the air! However much you love touring, inevitably you miss your home and family. And living on an island only adds to the challenge!”
Writing from personal experience as a musician is one thing, but Returning From Where I’ve Never Been unveils a far more politically-inspired side of your song writing. Was the song a gradual response to a changing political landscape or was it influenced by more definable events?
“The song is based on an earlier idea for a song I had from quite a few years ago, which I returned to and reworked. I left in a couple of original lines that loosely hint at what time the original idea was written, but the finished song came together after the Scottish independence referendum. Some of my friends were totally gutted because they had genuinely started to believe in the final run up to the vote that the Yes vote would prevail. They had already started living their dream and then of course it didn’t happen and they were left feeling totally devastated.”
I know the feeling! How did the song relate to your own views?
“I felt very disappointed myself about how it turned out and the song is about trying to get over those feelings of disillusionment and helplessness and back to a place where you feel positive and pro-active again; to a place of hope where you believe that there can be a better, fairer future for more of the people living on this planet, and that maybe you can play a part in achieving it.”
Again, the tune sets on The Space Between are all original, and yet inspired by so many traditions. Are you never tempted to experiment with traditional tunes? Perhaps your own inspiration is inexhaustible?
“I have always loved writing tunes and many years ago Mabon became my outlet for doing that. Like everyone in the band I play in other line-ups that focus more on traditional material and I love doing that too. Mabon began many years ago as a band playing predominantly welsh folk dance tunes and I would never rule out turning back towards traditional material again in the future, although not just because I had run out of inspiration I hope!”
And finally, to those live dates that are such an important part of Mabon’s relationship with their audience. The tour has been underway since early November and carries on until March. That’s a fairly punishing schedule, but you and the band thrive on live performances, don’t you?
“The band’s very existence hinges on us playing live, it’s as simple as that really! It’s the only way to maintain momentum and continue to build on it. This is a particularly busy two-part tour for us I’ll grant you, but we’ve had a good break in the middle and now we’re looking forward to getting underway again in February!”
I’m sure the fans are also looking forward to the rest of the tour. With venues ranging from Wales, up through England, a visit to Scotland at the end of February (one for my diary!) and even a few dates for the band’s French audience, it’s obvious how important that relationship with their live audience is. And no wonder – Jamie Smith’s Mabon are, indeed, a band that truly shine in a live setting. With an album as strong as The Space Between to draw on for those gigs, I can see that audience continuing to grow for some time to come.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
For full details of Jamie Smith’s Mabon’s upcoming tour dates visit:
Photo Credit: www.justsimon.com