Almost a year ago now The Rheingans Sisters released their album ‘Already Home’. It was a Featured Album of the Month on Folk Radio UK, and in his review of the album, which you can read here, Thomas Blake made the observation that “Whereas most musicians simply play their instruments, it’s fair to say that the Rheingans practically live theirs.” Both their level musicianship and pan-European musical scholarship were instantly noticeable on the album. Referring to the album’s title he summed the album up:
The Rheingans Sisters palate is so broad, repertoire so interesting and their skill so refined that, musically speaking, they would probably be at home just about anywhere. Their ability to incorporate threatened or obscure musical forms into their own evolving style means that this is not only a beautiful and exceptional record but an important one.
One of the songs on the album titled Mackerel, a song inspired by a tragic story Rowan encountered during time spent near the Arctic circle, went on to win The Best Original Track at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. Below we have the honour of sharing with you not only the beautiful new video but also the story behind the song and what has happened since courtesy of a guest post from Rowan.
The Story of Mackerel by Rowan Rheingans
I made the trip from my home in Sheffield to the remote island of Senja, in north-west Norway, two summers ago. It was July and never got dark during the two weeks I spent at a tiny arts festival held in an old fishing house called Kråkeslottet, hoisted on wooden stilts above the Arctic sea. The midnight sun burned bright orange as it crept along the horizon just between the edges of the sea and cloudless blue sky. It was difficult to sleep during those bright nights, so I spent a lot of time just looking at one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to. Majestic green and brown rocky cliffs rose out of the clear green-blue waters of the small bay and the sea was teaming with fish. I swam most days, jumping in from the platform just outside the house into the gaps between shoals of big, striped mackerel that darted about and danced just under the water. They were everywhere; I’d never seen a sea so full of life. Over the weeks I learnt (through many delicious dinners) that mackerel had been the main local food source for centuries, since not many vegetables grow well so far north, and were so abundant in the bay because of very localised, small-scale fishing.
Inside Kråkeslottet in July, there was a summer arts festival going on. Pictures were hung in old fisherman’s bedrooms, and along the pier wall, sculptures stood on the rocks just outside the house, films were rolling in wooden huts, and a small shadow theatre was performing in the centre of the house, using some of the ropes and pulleys left over from its fishing days. The cafe was full of families eating huge slices of homemade cake and the wide wooden kitchen table, where we all ate together each evening, was the bustling heart of it all.
But despite all the activity, there was a deep sadness in the air at Kråkeslottet. Just before I arrived, a Belgian musician booked to perform at the festival had died in a tragic accident after falling from one of the cliffs surrounding the bay. His name was Sam Coenegrachts. I sadly never got to meet him but learnt that he was a much loved and a greatly respected guitarist, singer and composer. He was just 31 years old, a husband and a dad, with a great many friends. After a weeks pause to process the initial shock of Sam’s death, it was decided that the festival would become a tribute to him and his music. Hearing this, many more musicians from Belgium and elsewhere made the journey to Senja and we worked intensively over a few days to put together a series of tribute concerts at Kråkeslottet. I found myself the only folk musician amongst a bunch of incredible jazz singers and instrumentalists – it was challenging and a lot of fun to learn some of Sam’s music. Here is a video clip from the final concert, a great tune of his I learned called ‘When They Play’.
Those weeks spent on Senja was a strong reminder for me of the instinct people have to pull together during hard and sad times and the healing power in doing so. The death of a travelling musician just a few years older than me was also a reminder of what I believe is important in life. When times are good and when times are terrible: make more music, make more friends and look after one another. One of my absolute musical heroes, Joe Scurfield, would have agreed with that, I’m sure. Since Joe’s death in 2005 in a similarly tragic accident, I have often thought of his unwavering energy and commitment to music and people and I can only aspire to live my own life in a similar way.
The day after our last concert for Sam, I went out in a little rowing boat with a trumpet player and fisherman called Sturla. I wanted to catch some mackerel as I’d been eating them almost every day during my stay, so it felt right and sort of respectful to understand the process. I had never fished before, so Sturla showed me how to uncoil the line. No sooner had it dropped down into the water, I felt the strong tug and wrestle of a fish. I was surprised at how strongly it fought and pulled, all muscle and determination not to leave the water. But being this time, the bigger and stronger animal, I found myself pulling it out until it flopped into the tray between my feet and thrashed around, gulping in the air. It was one of the most beautiful creatures I’d ever seen, with such brightly coloured blue, green and black stripes. It was so fiercely determined to be alive that I felt an overwhelming urge to throw it back immediately – because I could and because I empathised with that desire to be alive. But, being a human being and able to talk myself out of my instincts, I told myself how I’d come to experience this, and it was after all the reality of being a pescetarian my whole life. So we caught twelve mackerel and, returning with just enough fish to feed us all that evening, I learnt how to wash and gut them back at the house.
During that fishing trip and since then, I have often thought of the boundless energy and sheer life that exists in each and every fish in the sea. It is the same energy, determination and, in some sad cases, sheer luck that all creatures, including us, sometimes need just to stay alive. We are are all part of the same world and ultimately nature is all powerful and will carry on, despite our human efforts to conquer or control it. Mountains will remain big and hard to climb, the sea will be unpredictable and full of a whole universe of its own battles between bigger fish and smaller fish, and the weather will eventually wear away our fishing houses, cafes, and concert halls. But, while we are visiting this earth, the natural world also invites us to delve in, learn from it, look after it and care for each other. Life and death are essentially intertwined, and life resolutely and necessarily carries on, everywhere, even when it sometimes appears to stop.
The song lyrics that came out of all of this are below. I wrote it a few months after this trip, using an open tuning on the viola I like to use to play Norwegian fiddle tunes. In open tunings, the instruments ring out in a completely different way and remind me of big wide landscapes. The beautiful higher fiddle part that Anna plays on the recording is also inspired by Scandinavian fiddling. I recorded the sea sounds that are at the end of the track at a little bay on the Llyn Peninsula, North Wales, where I swam a lot last summer, and where there are also sometimes shoals of mackerel. The short melody played and hummed in the end of the track is taken from one of the songs that were going around in my head after we had sung it together at Kråkeslottet. ‘Mackerel’ was one of the last songs we recorded for our album ‘Already Home’, which was expertly engineered by Dylan Fowler at Stiwdio Felin Fach.
In the morning, we went fishing
A little shadow without a sound,
Slicing the oceans underside,
Silver corkscrewing down
In the house by the sea there was singing,
Around the spitting of a pan,
Faces flicker in the light,
Of a salty midnight sun
In the evening you went walking,
A little shadow by the ocean wide,
Up to the mountain you followed your eyes,
And clutching, climbed towards the sky
In the house by the sea there’s silence,
There’s quiet where there once was sound,
We took the line and pulled together,
Cutting open time
By midnight, there was shouting,
And our voices echoed around,
Into the shadow where you were found,
Lying like a green leaf on a snowy ground
In the morning, we’ll go fishing,
And feel life tugging on the line,
Under a mountain so much bigger,
And an ocean all too wide,
And we’ll pull them up fighting and dancing,
And we’ll pull them up bright and wild,
Slicing the ocean’s underside,
With all of life in their eyes
This year has been amazing and a joyful ride to share with my sister. The night of the BBC Radio 2 Folk Award ceremony back in April came in the middle of our big spring tour (we actually had to postpone a gig that we had booked on the same night as the awards – that’s how much of a surprise our nominations were!) so we were already flying from playing together each night to wonderful audiences and sharing our music – that’s what we love doing the most. It was a fantastic night and also great fun to get back on tour and play a tiny little house gig the night after collecting our gong at the Royal Albert Hall. I felt very lucky that we could enjoy our big night and then get on with playing to small, appreciative audiences which is what our scene is built on and remain our favourite gigs to do. A very nice juxtaposition!
We always felt that Mackerel was a special song, I remember feeling a little spark of excitement when we worked out the arrangement of it in our neighbour’s kitchen… it was always going to be one of our favourites, but what we couldn’t have known back then, before making Already Home, was how much this song would resonate and connect with people. I think that’s the most exciting thing about writing music – a song doesn’t truly exist in it’s fullest form until people have listened to it, digested it and responded, adding their own unique experiences to what any piece of art means. And then the song grows, and I now have a whole new take on it, inspired by other peoples reactions and the things people have kindly offered to us after gigs – little nuggets of precious thoughts! I love that process, it’s like something coming full circle. This song, like many, was born out of something that involved a lot of people. Then it lived just with me quietly for a while, in my head and then it made it onto paper and then finally I shared it with my sister and we brought it to life. And now, through our vibrant and supportive music scene, it lives with lots of people again and is much better for it. I got a message from a friend travelling in New Zealand recently who said he’d been to an open mic night and heard someone singing a version of Mackerel – that’s mind boggling when you think about it. I also received a truly beautiful anonymous painting of the images of the song in the post with a little card that read ‘thanks for the inspiration’, which made my week!
We wanted to mark this special year and celebrate the song in our own way. We felt like making a film for the song would be nice way to do this and immediately thought of film-maker and musician Robin Beatty (we all went to secondary school together in the Peak District) who has a natural flair for nature film and photography and some adventurous ideas! So we met up earlier in the summer in the car park at Start Point Lighthouse on the south coast of Devon, the day after our gig in a sold-out Ham Marquee at Sidmouth Folk Festival. We spent that afternoon and early evening down on the rocky beaches and steep wild-flowered hills making this film. It was very windy and quite cold with bright sunlight, so quite a challenging filming conditions, but there were some special surprises too. The shoals of tiny silver fish that were washing up onto the beach and then back into the sea in their thousands were an unexpected addition – a fisherman friend of mine told me this is a natural occurrence that happens for a few days every year or so, so we couldn’t have planned that but knew when it started happening that we should capture them on film. We were also racing to catch the last light of evening, so the final sequence of us climbing to the top of the hill was the last thing we filmed – again, without planning it, the winking lighthouse behind us added something really beautiful to that scene. I’m really happy with the film and I hope others enjoy it too! It’s a celebration of a wonderful year for us and a thank you to all those who’ve supported us. I also feel it is a kind of closing of one of our musical chapters so that another one can truly begin – it’s time to make new songs, learn old tunes and play in new places.
We’re out on tour for our last 10 gigs of 2016 in October and will surely be singing Mackerel, amongst other material from both Already Home and Glad Gold Hearts, as well as some new material and – as usual – some more improvised surprises! There’s some exciting plans afoot for us next year – we begin with a trip to Ireland for a few concerts in January, then we’ve UK gigs in March and our first trip to Australia in April to play at the National Folk Festival, Canberra. We are also planning to record our third album next year – so watch this space.
The Rheingans Sisters Tour Dates
14th October – BURY, The Fusilier Museum – part of ‘Homegrown Festival’, opening for Jim Causley Trio (Tickets)
15th October – STROUD, The Gallery, Ruskin Mill 8pm (Tickets)
16th October- SHEFFIELD, The Shakespeare, Gibraltar St Dance workshop 5:30pm | Concert 8pm (Tickets)
17th October – BEVERLEY, The White Horse Folk Club at The Conservative Club, Wylies Road (Tickets)
18th October – PEEBLES, House Concert, email for details firstname.lastname@example.org
19th October – EDINBURGH, House Concert, email for details email@example.com
20th October – DUMFRIESSHIRE, Loch Arthur Community Hall, Beeswing, 8pm.
Tickets from Loch Arthur Farm Shop or telephone: 01387 259 669
21st October – ULVERSTON, Coronation Hall, County Square, 7:30pm (Tickets)
22nd October – HARTLEPOOL, part of Hartlepool Folk Festival, 2:30pm (Tickets)
28th October – LONDON, The Foundling Museum, Brunswick Square, 7pm (Tickets)