Ninebarrow are emerging as a force to be reckoned with in the UK folk scene, winning rave reviews for their recordings and gigs – Kate Rusby has described the duo as ‘absolutely amazing!’
The thing that sets Jon Whitley and Jay LaBouchardiere apart is the strength of their singing – Jon leading with Jay’s exquisite harmonies, performing powerful new songs (often about their native Dorset) and sensitive interpretations of traditional material. Helen Gregory’s Folk Radio UK review of their latest album, Releasing the Leaves, described it as, ‘…an intricately woven display of light and shade which is sure to become a firm favourite of every folk music fan, and deservedly so.’ (Read the full review here).
We caught up with them at an unusual time for a gig – brunch! It’s part of a regular series of concerts at The Riverhouse Barn, a beautifully converted 18th century barn in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, which is now a thriving local arts centre.
Its popular Brunch Barnstormers concerts feature the very best new folk acts (recent highlights include The Emily Portman Trio, Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker, The Sam Kelly Trio and Greg Russell & Ciaran Algar). Brunch (and beer) is served in the cafe. Acts take the stage at 12 noon – the often bleary-eyed performers bemoaning the fact that they are usually still in bed at this hour…
Ninebarrow enthralled the crowd as they munched on bacon butties and slurped lattes, listening to songs about aching for your heart’s desire, an abandoned Dorset village, the Napoleonic Wars and drinking…
What did you think of playing a brunch concert at the Riverhouse?
Jon: It had more of a festival feel – that’s where you get most used to playing during the day.
Jay: It was lovely. People were really into it. They seemed to chuckle along throughout.
Jon: And the guys here at the Riverhouse were really great.
You’ve just recorded your second full album. What did you learn or do differently on this one compared to your first? Bands always talk about their difficult second album…
Jay: It was about as difficult as the first!
Jon: It was equally difficult! We learned a lot from the first one was – that was a proper shoestring. But the second one we built a studio in a spare room and invested more in equipment. We set aside 12 months to record it and we used six of them to do the recording. Where we invested more was in the mastering.
Jay: It was quite a learning curve.
Jon: The other thing we developed was the arrangements. The first album we called up some great Dorset musicians and said, ‘We’re recording an album – fancy coming to play on it?’ And they’d say, ‘Great!’ So they would turn up and say, ‘What do want me to play?’ We go, ‘Oh, we thought we’d play you this track and you would come up with something amazing!’ And we’d get a slightly withering response! So for this one, we had a much clearer idea of what we wanted. So we scored the arrangements.
All the songs on your current album are connected to Dorset where you live. Do you think Dorset is slightly overlooked compared to nearby Devon and Cornwall?
Jon: I think in terms of the folk community, probably. Devon is renowned for its amazing folk scene – people like Jim Causley and Show of Hands.
Jay: Holidays as well. Dorset tends to be the place you drive through to get to Devon and Cornwall. We’ve been doing gigs further afield, but when we ask if people knows Corfe Castle, there’s always somebody that says, ‘Yeah.’
Jon: There’s always a childhood holiday at some point.
The usual rock’n’roll story goes, ‘I was born in some small backwater town, and I couldn’t wait to get out…’ But you seem to love your Dorset roots…
Jay: There’s so much to see, so many reasons to love Dorset. We’ve seen so much of the country now and there are so many places we’d be happy to move to. But there’s always this lovely feeling when you you see the Dorset countryside and you just go, ‘Yes!’
Jon: Both of us went to university elsewhere – I was in Cardiff and Jay in London. But I don’t think there was any doubt that we both felt we wanted to be back in Dorset. Whereas my friends and siblings have gone off to far flung regions of the country and the world.
Your harmony singing is the backbone of your albums and performances, how did you discover you could sing together?
Jay: It was all at Jon’s dad’s folk nights. I’m not a folkie by blood. Jon’s dad is, so he was brought up with it – I definitely wasn’t. As we were growing up together, John’s dad ran the folk night ‘sing around’ with all the local artists. I would come and sing along and I learnt to love all the songs.
Jon: In a folk club environment you’re encouraged to sing along in a non-threatening way. It’s accepted that you’re going to have a bash, and have a go at singing harmonies.
Jay: I was in the clubs and I loved singing along – quietly at first!
Jon: We have so much support from Dorset folk clubs. From the start they were accommodating – really wanted to help us develop and happy to give us floor spots. They would encourage us to put together 45 minutes for a feature spot at the end of the night. We’ve got a lot to thank the Dorset folk scene for. They have been incredibly supportive.
Your music is built around the vocals and – compared to some other folk acts – there are much less instrumental interludes, is that the plan?
Jon: It’s because neither of us are instrumentalists. Piano is my instrument. I spent university dragging around a digital piano, venue to venue, in a flight case. So I got a ukulele, thinking, ‘That’s smaller than a piano!’ I’ve been playing the uke and the mandos for about four-and-a-half years. It’s ever developing but totally self-taught – watching YouTube and talking to people. It was always going to be about the vocals, because that’s what we are very good at. The instrumental side of things is something we’re always developing.
Jay: It’s something we’d like to do. As we write more stuff, in the next year or so, we wanted to incorporate more instrumentals.
Jon: For the album launch we put a few more instruments in – playing with other musicians. When you play with other people, they force you to think outside the box and challenge the way you think about your own songs. When someone suggests doing things a different way. At first it’s a surprise because you’ve never done it before. But then you go, ‘Okay!’
Jay: Nick Wyke and Becki Driscoll played with us at the launch concert in Poole, and had a practice with them beforehand. They we noodling over our songs. We just said, ‘Keep going! We love it! We need more of that!’
At the gig you described writing Blood on the Hillside during a walk together in the Purbeck Hills – inspired by seeing seven crows in a tree – is that typical of how you come up with ideas for songs?
Jay: That was the quickest and easiest song we’ve ever written.
Jon: We wrote it on the iPhone, which I don’t usually do. It was the only thing I had.
Jay: We wrote all the verses, and then we had the idea for the chorus on the walk.
Jay: There are times where we have ideas for melodies – we’ve got the same melody on our heads, and go away for weeks, humming and thinking about it. We write our own words to it, then we show each other and amalgamate the two. It can be a long, drawn out, process.
Jon: Recording the album, preparing for the launch, means we’ve left many songs that we want to arrange. We’ve got a big whiteboard in our studio with ideas. It’s probably enough for another album, but we haven’t arranged any of it. We need time to sit down. It’s a bit of a wrestling match for us finding time to write and arranging songs.
Alongside your new songs, you re-interpret traditional songs like Dark Eyed Sailor – how do you select which songs to tackle?
Jay: It’s always the stuff that grabs your attention first of all. With Dark Eyed Sailor, it was the Olivia Chaney version. It’s beautiful. So we thought it would be a great if we could try to do our own. There are so many songs which have captured our attention.
Jon: It could be at a sing around, or on the radio – wherever. My first port of call is to get online – YouTube and Spotify – to find as many different versions, and listen to all of them. Then you think, ‘I really like an element to that one or how they’ve interpreted that.’ We’re trying to amalgamate the best things that we find. Then it’s always about the vocal.
Jay: I start noodling with harmonies until I find something that you like.
Jon: Jay is the harmony singer. I generally sing the melodies, apart from these horrible occasions where it goes out of Jay’s range and I have to take over. I find that really hard. It comes much more naturally to Jay. The process of working out harmonies is usually me going, ‘No, I don’t like that… don’t like that.’ Then, ‘That’s it! That’s it!’
You seem like quite jolly chaps both onstage and off, but original songs like The Pinner and some of your traditional tracks delve into quite dark territory – what draws you to these sad stories?
Jon: We make a joke of it on stage. Because, sometimes, you don’t want to come across just like they’re totally maudlin. It’s not an even split, it’s probably a 60/40 between happy and darker ones.
Jay: It’s not like we’re drawn to the dark side. It’s more about the emotions–
Jon: We’re interested in those types of emotions. The Pinner, starts with five/four fingerpicking before the words. It doesn’t lend itself to, ‘You get your wish, your heart’s desire.’ It’s more lilting.
The UK folk scene seems like a welcoming place, as emerging artists, have you found it easy to be accepted?
Jon: There’s something different about the folk scene. Generally, it is altruistic. People put on folk clubs because they want to share music. It’s not about making money.
Jay: It’s about sharing. People want to see their songs passed down, and they encouraging younger people to take it up. They want to hand their traditions and their songs to the next generations. They want them to write new songs in that style.
Jon: That’s why we enjoy it so much. Because the people that you come across are so supportive and are absolutely thrilled that young people are involved. Folk music desperately needs more young people to get involved. Without them the tradition will fizzle out.
Jay: I’m not a natural artist – I care very much about what people think. But in the folk scene people are very warm. In other areas of music it’s harder – you take more knocks. So it’s lovely that the people we play and sing to are so warm. It’s a pleasure.
Jon: The thing that isn’t keeping up with the amount of new folk artists is the clubs. Go back to the ’60s, and the volume of folk clubs was astonishing. It’s harder now for up-and-coming folk acts who want to make a living out of it. You get more semi-professional acts because there aren’t a enough of venues. That’s why we’re branching out into arts centres like here at the The Riverhouse.
Now you are a few years and two albums in, what hopes and dreams do you have for Ninebarrow?
Jay: Up until July we both have day jobs as well to keep us going–
Jon: But we’ve both handed in our notice. Which is exciting!
Jon: So from September we’re going to be doing a lot more music…
Jay: And maybe we’ll have to do a little bit collaborating with other people. Fingers in lots of pies. But, at the moment, all we can do to do our own pie!
Jon: The immediate next step is making this a viable way of life. We’ve both been working for eight or nine years – Jay is a doctor, and I’m a teacher – but we’re not going to be doing that any more. We’ll still need to do a little bit–
Jay: We definitely need to. Flexibility is the thing that we need more of. In a perfect world we’d love to do lots of gigs. And bring in a few extra instrumentalists to really fill out the sound.
Jon: Oh, gosh, yes! To have a band would be absolutely fantastic. We dream of being able to play with the string section, a double bassist and a percussionist… that would be wonderful.
For details of their upcoming tour dates and to buy their new album visit: www.ninebarrow.co.uk