Our Artists of the Month for August are O’Hooley and Tidow whose new album Shadows (read our review here) is out now. In between their busy tour schedule (see dates at the end of this article), I managed to catch up with Belinda to talk in more detail about the new album as well as some new and exciting future plans.
Following the release of their 2014 album The Hum, which was produced by Gerry Diver, they took the brave step of self-recording and independently releasing Summat’s Brewin. Although it was a welcome move which led to them playing 30 micro-gigs in 30 real-ale venues (some might call this heaven), it felt like they were momentarily stepping back from the limelight – maybe even taking some time-out from the usual daily grind. I asked Belinda whether this was a fair assumption.
“The success of The Hum meant that we were on the road touring for nearly two years without much of a break. We love making music, but that much time away from home and away from the things that ground you can do things to your brain! We both decided to step away from what was starting to feel like a treadmill of putting out an album every two years and all the hype that comes with it and concentrate on making something small and independent which would reconnect us with our roots. Producing and touring Summat’s Brewin’ was a truly joyful and grounding experience that has rewarded us with much-needed energy, recharged enthusiasm and space to write and record our new album Shadows.”
Belinda and Heidi were both recently married, for which I offer my heartiest congratulations. She enthusiastically offers her thanks and I remind her that Tom Robinson once commented that they both sang together with a ‘closeness that families do’. She’s keen to point out the big part that harmony plays in their life.
“Heidi and I met through music and the first time we sang together, something just clicked for both of us. Harmonies are a big part of what we do both vocally and as a partnership, privately and professionally. Our lives intertwine just like two melodies in a song, reflecting our individuality and also our togetherness. We love to experiment in harmony singing and enjoy the closeness of a semitone right up to singing an octave and a half apart.”
We get to talking about how long they’ve been together and how that bond affects their music. It turns out they’ve been together for ten years now and she tells me “With our foundation of closeness and trust, we’ve been able to explore new directions in our music and also individually. Musically, we encourage each other to take risks, and push the boundaries of songwriting, lyrics, subject matter and arrangements”. With never too many steps away from humour she adds “As long as one of us does the washing up!”
The press release for Shadows states the run-up to the album was a time of repose, reflection, listening and sharing. Factors which fed into the album. I ask her about the “alternative path” also mentioned and what was foremost in their minds in tackling the new album. “I can be very driven in terms of planning future projects and booking gigs, often leaving myself no time to relax, reflect and recharge. Heidi has helped me stop for a while and rediscover the things outside of the music business that interest me.
“Both Heidi and I are passionately into poetry, nature and the outdoors, so we encouraged each other to invest time in other people’s words, music, theatre, cinema and also go walking, spend time away from social media and live outside of our profession. This has brought new things to our songwriting and the way we interpret the world, to the sounds that we want to make on an album. Lots of space. I highly recommend it!”
Although the piano has always featured prominently in their music, I ask Belinda about the reasons for using the Steinway grand piano which they use for the album and recorded at MOMA in Machynlleth.
“All our albums apart from Shadows have been recorded using our Yamaha U3 upright piano at home. It is a beautiful piano that has a particular voice. We performed at MOMA a couple of years ago and sitting down and playing their Steinway grand was a revelation to me. All pianos have their own unique voice but this one spoke to me like no other had. The acoustics of the wood-lined Tabernacle where the piano is located (see image above) really compliment and enhance the richness of the piano sound. I felt a deep desire to play and play and play so Heidi suggested we ask Raymond Jones who runs the museum if we could record our album using this piano. Raymond was delighted to have us there and it was an incredible week that will remain with us forever.”
The guest musicians on the album are something of a supergroup, with a selection of highly expressive and sensitive artists. I ask Belinda to talk me through that selection process and how they built up the recording process with those musicians.
“During our period of reflection before recording Shadows, we immersed ourselves in other people’s art. On this journey, we had the pleasure of hearing Kathryn Williams performing alongside Michele Stodart from the Magic Numbers at The Trades Club in Hebden Bridge. Both are incredible songwriters and performers. Since then, Kathryn wrote the beautiful song ‘Small Big Love’ about us and performed it at our wedding, which we recorded a version of ourselves for Shadows. We loved Michele’s sensitive and highly expressive electric guitar playing that night and Heidi asked her if she would play on our album which she agreed to. We travelled to the Magic Numbers recording studio in London, and over a period of 8 hours, Michele contributed so many gorgeous, warm electric guitar and bass guitar parts to our songs. She is amazing.
“Pete Flood has been on our radar for quite some time because of his fabulous drums on Lisa Knapp’s last album ‘Hidden Seam’. We love his unique style of playing. He actually sampled his daughter’s bicycle to create the percussion track for ‘Beryl’ and it has a really Belleville Rendezvous feel to it.
“Andy Seward’s brilliant double bass playing came to us from working with him on ‘The Ballads of Child Migration’ album and concert at Celtic Connections last year.
“During the making of Shadows, we were touring with Lady Maisery and Grace Petrie as part of Coven and so it was easy to set up the recording equipment in a hotel room for guest backing vocals from that lovely lot.
“Rowan Rheingan’s viola and fiddle playing is so free and organic; just like her, so we travelled to Sheffield to record her in her bedroom and she thought up those fabulous string arrangements on the spot.
“Jude Abbott is a good friend of ours and also runs the No Masters Co-operative record label. We’ve always loved her trumpet playing with Chumbawamba and had to have it on ‘Made in England’ and her flugelhorn on ‘Blanket’. She has a style of her own which is utterly fabulous.”
Belinda also reveals that the process behind creating the musical contributions from their chosen artists and musicians is quite an organic process without a rigid plan behind it. She adds “That’s how we like to work, nothing too formal or restrictive so that artists can contribute their ideas and music without inhibition or too much direction.”
Turning to the songs we talk about the opening track Colne Valley Hearts which was inspired by the valley where they both live. I ask whether it’s stirred up a lot of local interest.
“Colne Valley Hearts was played on BBC Radio 2 recently and highlighted on Folk Radio UK too, and we noticed people commenting on social media about how much they miss Huddersfield after hearing the song. We’ve had local people asking us about the characters portrayed in it and whether or not they’ve identified the correct people. Also, we’ve been asked to translate ‘lighting up the cut tonight’ quite a few times. ‘The cut’ is the canal that runs right through the Colne Valley.”
We move onto some of the harder issues tackled in the album and the current climate of scaremongering and misplaced fears over immigration which the likes of UKIP seem to have exploited. I ask whether there was a particular event or moment in time that sparked the song Made in England.
“Yes. It was when the BNP were getting a foothold a couple of years ago with an aggressive flyer campaign in our local area. We were receiving more and more leaflets highlighting the dangers of immigration and suspicion of the incomer whilst those posting the flyers were also enjoying curries and kebabs in our local takeaways and guzzling European lager. This hypocrisy sparked our song; never imagining it would still be so relevant two years later.”
Earlier this year Belinda and Heidi did a tour for International Women’s Day with Lady Maisery and Grace Petrie who also feature on Shadows. I suggest that these concerts must have been a very rewarding experience to which Belinda responds “It is no exaggeration to say the Coven tours have been life affirming. Touring and making music with those fabulous women is incredibly rewarding as is seeing the effect on the audiences too. I think all of us have benefited from spending time with each other, seeing how each artist works, the differences, the diversity and similarities too, all enveloped in a great sense of purpose and fun.”
With such a positive response I ask if more collaborative celebrations are planned and she reveals “We are recording a Coven EP in the near future and will be touring again in March 2017.”
With International Women’s Day in mind and taking gender parity further and celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women I mention it was great to hear the story of Beryl Burton. I ask Belinda to tell me more about the inspiration for writing about Beryl.
“We went to see the play ‘Beryl’ by Maxine Peake at the West Yorkshire Playhouse having known nothing about Beryl Burton. We felt inspired to write about this house wife from Leeds, who despite having health problems, working full time and raising a family, won more than 90 domestic championships and seven world cycling titles. Maxine describes Beryl as one of the ‘criminally ignored’. We’re starting to get a bit of a reputation for writing songs about women who have been excluded from the history books and we’re hoping with Maxine’s play and our song, Beryl Burton’s achievements will become better celebrated.”
The album also tackles some dark subjects which often do remain in the shadows – from child abuse to animal cruelty. I imagine that addressing such issues can be personally very painful, to then go on and perform them in public must take tremendous resilience and courage. I ask Belinda if that ever comes into the thought process when choosing songs or whether they follow their hearts?
“We follow our hearts which can mean writing and performing songs about very painful, distressing subjects. The song ‘Reapers’ comes from a children’s hymn I found in a book from the 1900’s called ‘Silver Songs’. We felt the hymn had a brain-washing purpose behind it which was deeply unsettling. We decided to incorporate the first couple of verses of the hymn into a wider commentary on the horrific way child abuse by priests has been dealt with by the higher church and also from the perspective of the child trying to make sense of what has happened to them and their right for justice which so often doesn’t happen. Performing songs like this in public can feel very painful, but we believe we have a responsibility as public voices in our community to speak about the unspeakable.”
Their current tour takes in both big and small venues offering a range of intimacy. I ask if they have a preference and whether the dynamics of their performance change based on the venue. I was half expecting the answer Belinda gave, but it still ratified my belief that they both give 110% when performing, something I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing at Purbeck Valley Folk Festival last year.
“Every venue and audience is different. We both love the challenge of bringing everything together for one performance that incorporates the energy of us and the audience and the music in that room for that particular moment. One of my favourite gigs was to 12 people in Matlock Bath, as it felt so stripped back, intimate and honest. Another favourite was to a couple of thousand people at Cambridge Folk Festival this year with our full band. So exhilarating!”
Looking ahead highlights Belinda reveals “We’re looking forward to performing some of the shows for Shadows with the band. After launching the album at Cambridge Folk Festival, we know that we work together really well and it’s exciting to see how that will develop. Another highlight is returning to MOMA for the Welsh album launch in September and playing that beautiful Steinway grand piano one more time.”
Beyond the Shadows tour Belinda also confides “We’ve a small Winter Folk tour coming up in December with dates to be announced soon. Also look out for a couple of exciting collaborations coming up next year…”
We can’t wait!
In the meantime, make sure you get the album and catch them on tour!
Shadows is Out Now via No Masters
O’HOOLEY & TIDOW ‘SHADOWS’ UK TOUR
21 SUFFOLK FOLKEAST Festival
06 CAMBRIDGE Junction 2
09 BRISTOL Folkhouse
10 MACHYNLLETH Y Taberncl
11 MENAI BRIDGE Victoria Hotel
15 GT TORRINGTON Plough Arts Centre
16 WIVELISCOMBE Silver Street Sessions at Cotleigh Brewery
17 WHITCHURCH Talbot Theatre
23 CHIDDINGLY Festival
24 BARTON-UPON-HUMBER Ropery Hall
05 LONDON Kings Place *
07 AYLESBURY Limelight Theatre
08 LEEDS Morley Arts Festival
10 COLCHESTER Folk Club @ Arts Centre
11 BURTON Brewhouse
12 LIVERPOOL Philharmonic Hall
13 BURY Homegrown Festival *
14 CHESTERFIELD Folk Club
19 BIRMINGHAM Red Lion Folk Club
21 WESSEX Acoustic
23 HARTLEPOOL Folk Festival
25 SHEFFIELD Greystones
28 LEEDS All Hallows Church
29 HUDDERSFIELD Marsden Mechanics Hall *
01 YORK National Centre for Early Music
02 EDINBURGH Voodoo Rooms
*Band – Michele Stodart (Magic Numbers), Pete Flood (Bellowhead) & Andy Seward (Kate Rusby)