Performing in a castle probably figures high up on most artist’s bucket lists. Sure enough Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire, with buildings dating back to the 12th century, should provide a near-perfect back-drop for this evening’s performance from Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker. The only downside is, it’s February and castles were constructed long before heat retention was a primary consideration in building standards…the result is a visually wonderful, but extremely chilly evening.
So I’m huddled around a fan heater in Josienne and Ben’s dressing room, chatting to the 2015 BBC Radio 2 Folk Award winners and their manager, Mick Harding, about the year just gone and the year coming up. As we listen to torrential rain battering against the medieval windows, I wonder whether the green-room hospitality they experience has improved as a result of winning the Folk Award?
“When we played at the ceremony, the millennium centre in Cardiff, we had a dressing room next to Cat Stevens.” explains Josienne. “It had a special pin code so no-one could get in there apart from us. The next day I rang up Mick from the car-park of a pub in Garstang going ‘I’m brushing my fucking hair in the car-park…what the fuck is this? Yesterday I had a dressing room next to Cat Stevens!’ Back to earth with a proper bump! You couldn’t have got two more extreme examples. Generally, our experience this year is somewhere in the middle….”
Despite having been nominated in the awards the previous year, the duo have noticed that winning has had a noticeable impact on their profile. “Somewhere between having won it and having played on the night…I can’t tell which of those tipped the balance” reflects Josienne, “but the combination of the two did make an awful lot of difference compared to the year before. When we got to the after-party we had lots of people waiting to speak to us. A few people who’d said no to putting us on at their festival the week before had done a turnaround. It gave us an official stamp of credibility for some people.”
The award in part came on the back of their release of the album ‘Nothing Can Bring Back The Hour’, described by Folk Radio UK’s Helen Gregory as “a work of beauty and depth, deserving to be acknowledged as a classic” (read the review here). Knowing how artists can sometimes quickly tire of previously released work, I wondered how Josienne and Ben felt about the album eighteen months on?
“It’s still a good representation of who we are as an act and what we want to do” Ben reflects. Josienne explains that their plan for Nothing Can Bring Back The Hour was deliberately different to their previous releases; “What we used to do was put one album out a year. I’m glad that we didn’t this time because this one was so ‘dense’ and such a kind of mission statement, that it needed a bit more time to settle in. We hoped that it would still be interesting 12 months later…and I feel like it still is.”
Having previously fought to gain acceptance from the folk community and critics, tailoring their recorded material to suit a specific audience (for example 2013’s ‘Fire & Fortune’ (review here) was produced specifically with that in mind), when it came to Nothing Can Bring Back The Hour the duo felt that they’d worked hard enough to earn the artistic right to experiment;
“It was, like, hang what anyone thinks about it, what do we want to do?” explains Josienne, “So we weren’t thinking about the boundaries of genre and instrumentation. We just threw a chamber orchestra at the ones we thought it would work for.”
Ben continues; “When we’re doing stuff live as just the two of us, obviously people are going to get a different sound, it’s going to feel different. But I think the way that the songs are put together, the way that the songs are written, it’s holds itself together well based on whether or not it’s just the two of us or whether we put a chamber orchestra onto it. People who come and see us who appreciate the song-writing. It doesn’t matter whether we’ve got backwards noises or all sorts of other things on the album…they’ll go with it.”
Not everyone appreciated the divergence from the duo’s trademark ‘stripped-back’ sound, but they were still determined to write the album for themselves first and foremost. “For us the album is the only guaranteed place where you can try out those ideas.” Josienne explains, “Ben has ideas that he hasn’t got enough hands to play! He can only play one guitar at once…he’s got ideas in his head that the recorded form gives him a chance to realise that we’d never be able to afford to realise live.”
Josienne and Ben didn’t come from a folk music background. Before meeting Josienne, Ben was playing electric guitar in indie bands around (as he describes) “the toilet circuit of London”, whilst Josienne was doing singer-songwriter nights having had a less than positive experience studying classical singing at university. As Ben points out, glimpses of their eclectic tastes can still be found in their recorded work; “You’ll find bits of jazz saxophone, weird noises that have been borrowed from electronica, electric guitars…”
Nonetheless, the folk community seemed like the best fit in terms of an audience for the music they wanted to create; “We didn’t set out to make a folk album or be a folk duo” says Ben, “but then we didn’t set out not to do that either. We just wanted to perform nice songs in a setting where people would appreciate it and get it.” However, whilst the folk-scene certainly provided that platform, Josienne didn’t find it an easy audience to write for; “I think to some extent being in that world does make it harder to be primarily a songwriter, because the folk-world wants very specific types of songs and mine aren’t generally that kind of social commentary. So they don’t fit exactly the typical folk song mould.”
Keen as always to get a glimpse into the creative process, I enquire what goes on behind closed doors to produce something like Nothing Can Hold Back The Hour;
“Generally, I’ve got a song” begins Josienne, “it’s usually got three or four chords, with a fairly repetitive finger-picking pattern. It’s usually in waltz time. I take it to Ben. He tries to put it in a different time signature. I usually resist! He fills out the harmony and gives it a much more interesting guitar part plus strings or whatever. In terms of the production we do that together. We argue about certain things, we have differences of opinion on what should be what, but usually in ends up being something that’s half of each other’s idea.
Ben continues “Because we’re recording everything ourselves, demo-wise at least at the moment, it’s quite quick to go ‘let’s try this or that out’. We’ve got the freedom of being able to mess about in a studio environment, to say ‘well let’s try this out and see what works’.”
Their creative process has resulted in a comprehensive catalogue of ballads, the ‘melancholy’ nature of which has become the staple subject of Josienne’s on-stage humour. Her pitch to encourage audience members to buy a CD is that they’ll have an opportunity to ‘take a piece of the misery home with them’. For live audiences, Josienne’s self-deprecating play on this joke has become one of the duo’s most endearing qualities, however it’s something she’s trying to play down;
“I’m seriously trying not to do that now but it’s become this on-running thing. I think in some ways I made it worse for myself by mentioning it. What used to happen is that we’d play the songs, then people would come up and say ‘Oh they’re all so sad’ and do the music-to-commit-suicide-to joke. I got fucking sick of it! So I started making a joke out of it…but of course I’ve just drawn more attention to the fact that it’s all quite melancholy and so now people still come up and tell me about it…but now they do it even more because I’ve drawn attention to it! I don’t know what the solution is. It isn’t to start playing more cheerful music though. I like ballads, that’s it. I’m not that miserable…I just like ballads!”
The melancholy beauty of the duo’s music made them the perfect choice for he National Theatre’s production of ‘Our Country’s Good’. Josienne and Ben performed as part of the production during the Autumn of last year, another opportunity that arose on the back of the Folk Awards and an interview with Cerys Matthews;
Ben explains; “She said that she was curating and helping with music for this show in London and were we interested. We said ‘yeah…suppose we could find some time!’ I think it was our photo on the cover of Nothing Can Bring Back The Hour that swung it.”.
“It’s set in the 1700’s”, laughs Josienne, “It’s our cutting edge sound that got us it! We have no training in drama really. I’ve got an A-Level in theatre studies. When were we ever going to get another opportunity to do a show on the Olivier at the National Theatre? That was never going to happen again, so you’ve got to do it. It was hard…it was time-consuming and a completely different way of working to what we’re used to. It had us both in tears at some points, but I’d definitely do it again. I would love to do more writing for it because they used some of our songs and I had to adapt some of them. It was really interesting and I’d enjoy writing for theatre as much as I would enjoy performing in it…although I would like to perform again as well!”
At this point in our conversation we get onto the biggest Josienne and Ben news of the day (and probably the year). Five days before our interview they’d signed a record deal with Rough Trade, the iconic independent label with a history going back to the punk era of the late 70’s.
“Geoff Travis has been stalking us for a while” smiles Josienne, “He’s made us a good offer and we’ve taken it. The next album’s coming out on Rough Trade in October.”
The duo share that there will also be a limited edition 10” EP that will come out in March containing re-recordings of four previously released tracks. “It’s kind of like an introduction to us which we originally made for the American market”, explains Joisenne, “because we go to New York next week to do a showcase out there and that’s what the EP was for. But then we thought actually, the kind of audience we have, there’s going to be a small selection of people who are going to want to own that because it’s a ‘thing’ and they want to own the whole lot. So we decided on the limited edition 10” as a collector’s record and it will be available here as well.”
Recording for the new album will commence on 7th March at Rockfield in Wales, the advance from Rough Trade meaning that the duo no longer have to record in Ben’s dining room…something that they’re very much looking forward to;
“It’s very difficult to separate your place where you’re working and the place where you’re living” says Ben on the subject of recording at home, “We found that we’d be working on Nothing Can Bring Back The Hour or Fire & Fortune, and the conversations that we have during the making of the album then carry over to the conversations you have while you’re making a cup of tea in your own kitchen”.
“Or like we’re recording something and the cleaner comes on a Wednesday and you get a bit of hoovering in the background of one of your vocal takes!” laughs Josienne, “It’s hard to feel like you’re doing ‘the take’ when you’ve recorded demos in there, you’ve had arguments in there, you’ve eaten soup in that room…it’s hard to feel like you’re doing something really serious. For Ben, it’s hard for him to feel like he’s ever not in the making of his album, because he lives there so he’s ‘living’ his album for the entire time he’s making it. Recording somewhere else enables us to put the project outside of ourselves.”
Talking about how the next album is likely to sound, Josienne explains that the instrumentation will be likely be stripped back slightly; “We went quite big last time and there’s really only one direction you can go in, which is back the other way.”
Ben continues; “Instead of doing the very carefully layered sounds that we were working on before, it’s going to be a much more live sound. It will be much more like what you’re hearing is what was played in the room at the same time.”
The prospect of performing to bigger audiences for bigger stakes will, of course, come with it’s own set of pressures…something the duo are acutely aware of;
“Take the folk awards, for example”, admits Josienne, “That performance. It’s the most terrifying thing of my life because it goes out live on the radio, they film it for the iPlayer…it’s going to be there forever. If you fuck it up, you will never be allowed to forget it. If you perform in a big band and you have a backline and a bassist, tons of reverb and effects on your vocals, other people singing with you, other people playing as well…there’s loads of space to cover up slight mistuning or forgetting of words. There’s nowhere to hide in the music that we play. If you make a mistake…everyone’s going to know about it.”
Ben quickly interjects; “But that’s also one of the best things about it. Having played with drummers and bassists and keyboard players and things…as soon as you remove all of that, the singer has to be bang on and I’ve got to be bang on.”
“When you pull it off it’s great” agrees Josienne, “It’s amazing and it’s all the more powerful and exhilarating.”
As we conclude our chat, considering the year they’ve just had and (what sounds like) an even more full-on year ahead, I can’t help but be curious about the driving force behind Josienne and Ben’s work-ethic;
After a long pause, Ben replies “It’s an underlying need to be out there performing…and you can’t explain it. Some people have a burning ambition to drive cars quickly or throw themselves out of planes, but we really need to get out and play.”
“I think that from as young as I can remember, singing and performing in front of people was a draw for me” Josienne reflects, “I always wanted to do more of it. I did choral singing and I loved it, but I always wanted everyone else to shut up and just let me have a go on my own! I don’t know what that feeling is, but it’s always been there. If I pursued an entirely different career path I would still probably spend time and money on this whether it was my career or not. If I do it as my job, then I don’t have to do anything else…ever.”
Interview and Photography by: Rob Bridge
The version of ‘Silverline’ below is taken from Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker’s upcoming EP ‘Through The Clouds’, out 4th March on Rough Trade Records.
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 and visit him here: www.redwoodphotography.co.uk