One of the notable folk releases of the year to date has been Toby Hay’s ‘The Gathering’. Released on Hay’s own Cambrian Records label, it’s a refreshingly cinematic instrumental album with the uncanny ability to conjure up stunning imagery in the mind of the listener, a virtue repeatedly remarked upon by reviewers. “A beautiful, frank and mysterious statement” was how Thomas Blake summed the record up in his review for FRUK. Keen to find out more about the creative process behind the album, I sat down with Toby ahead of his performance at Leicester’s Guild Hall in the early stages of his UK tour. Our chat started with Toby explaining how the shows have been organised.
“The way the tour’s going, I’m doing different sections with different people. Over in Ireland, I was playing with Gavin Prior, in Wales, I’m playing with David Ian Roberts and then around England with Jim Ghedi. Then I’m going to Scotland with Douglas McGregor. So, the tour is in little sections. It’s nice having different people on the bill; they’re all friends as well.”
Interestingly, the set list for Toby’s UK tour is as much made up of new tunes as it is material from The Gathering. Improvising around new ideas and then judging audience reaction is key to his creative process.
“I love working on things when they’re not finished and playing them live, I get quite a thrill from that. When you’re making creative decisions about something it seems to help when you’ve got a bit of pressure. I think you can make decisions quicker and more effectively; it’s like ‘that clearly didn’t work’ or ‘that’s gone down well’…you get a feeling for it. I tend to semi-improvise a lot around the tunes; they do change each night. Even some of the stuff I recorded was improvised on the record. I almost wouldn’t be able to go back and play it exactly as it was because it was just in the moment.”
Toby explains that this organic approach was very much the philosophy behind The Gathering, with all the guitar performances recorded live and quickly as a whole take. The album was recorded at Toby’s home in Wales with string parts added later at his brother’s house in Leeds.
“There was no splicing or taking ages over takes” Toby explains, “it was just trying to capture the performance. Then we did that with the strings as well, tried to capture a whole performance. Some of the parts were composed but some of it was very loose, I wanted to see how the guys would react to the song. I was very keen on trying to capture energy, and I think working quickly helps with that.”
The almost universally positive reaction to the release of The Gathering has clearly come as a bit of shock to the twelve string guitarist; “You work on something for so long, both on the music and the promotion, sending emails and speaking to people, then there’s a gap because you work a few months in advance of when you want everything to come out. You have no idea if anyone’s going to write about it, play it on the radio or anything, so when those things start coming in it does feel nice, knowing that the work was worth it after all.”
Growing up in a house where there was always music around, Toby’s teenage years were spent playing in bands and experimenting with guitar pedals and big sounds, almost polar opposite to his current creative work. Discovering Bob Dylan was the start of his journey towards folk music; “Buying a harmonica holder when you’re fifteen seems like the coolest thing in the world!”. Later, the ability to create solo music on the guitar became Toby’s solution to a practical problem.
“The bands I’d been in gradually stopped being bands, I was just left with a guitar. Then, all of a sudden, fingerpicking made sense; you could do a lot more and write all these tunes. At the same time as I was looking for other people to play with, I ended up just recording lots of guitar pieces, never thinking I would release them or play them live. Then it struck me that I could actually just do that and didn’t necessarily need other musicians. I started doing shows as a solo guitar player and recording little EP’s. I set up the label, really to put out my own music, then really quickly people started coming on board.”
Reading reviews of The Gathering, it’s striking the extent to which reviews concentrate on the imagery created by the album, all the more remarkable given that it’s an instrumental record. Toby’s biggest musical inspiration comes from locations;
“Landscape is a big thing for me. The Gathering is based around mid-Wales where I live, the landscape and history. After I moved back home and started working on those tunes, it dawned on me how important the place was. I needed to go away almost to come back and discover how important that was, how connected I was to it. Everyone knows that feeling of being somewhere pretty special, somewhere new or somewhere familiar. It doesn’t necessarily have to be on the top of a mountain or in an incredible forest, although sometimes that helps. It’s those kind of feelings, it’s like an energy.”
“A lot of the music” he continues, “comes from the inability to find words to describe places and people. I always felt like my music was almost a frustration at not being able to find ‘the words’, and instead, I would pick up a guitar and music would come out. It was great with this record; I was able to work with Robert Macfarlane, a great nature writer, I was reading a lot of his books. There he was finding ‘the words’ in his books. I thought wouldn’t it be nice if he could write the liner notes for the album, not thinking it would happen. I sent him a message and straightaway he was like ‘Yes, let’s do it’. He filled in that gap I suppose; he found ‘the words’ where I was struggling.”
Unsurprisingly, location plays a big part in the latest tunes that Toby is developing through his current tour.
“I spent some time in America last year, so I had a couple of new tunes when I got back. I didn’t have a guitar with me on that trip; it was kind of a holiday seeing my brother. I had a lot of music buzzing around in my head; normally I don’t get to that stage because I have a guitar and it goes straight onto that, so it’s interesting to have these ideas and to then come back home and have to try and work them out. Even more recently, on the tour, I drove all the way from Galway up the West coast of Ireland, across Donegal and through to Northern Ireland. It was a seven-hour drive of coast and mountains and moorland. There was so much music on that drive, it was incredible. So I’ve got something brand new that I’m trying to do, to sum up that trip.”
Travelling has become almost a necessity to feed Toby’s creative process; “If I’m not going to places and doing things, I can’t sit in a dark room and compose. It doesn’t work. I need to move around, then come back, and hopefully, something will happen. In the past, I’ve tried to force things, but it doesn’t work. Getting out into the world is super important.”
The tunes formed from Toby’s most recent travels will form the basis of his next album, along with another key feature; a new guitar built specifically for Toby by Roger Bucknall at Fylde Guitars.
“It’s part of a project” Toby explains, “a label in London has commissioned it for me. It’s stunning; it’s a unique twelve string guitar. The songs that I’m working on now are going to make up the bones of the next record. It’s very much going to be based around this guitar…that’s going to be the thing that holds it all together. It’s nice to work on something that you’ve been given to do. They gave me this guitar and said ‘make some music on it’. That’s a nice feeling; it doesn’t tend to happen very often! I’m hoping by the end the tour some of these pieces I’m working on will be finished and then that will be the start of the next album.”
Looking forward, the opportunity to play at a specific festival is likely to be one of Toby’s highlights from an already remarkable year.
“One of my favourite things was performing at Green Man festival which is kind of my local festival. It’s only about 40 minutes away in the Brecon Beacons. I went there five years in a row before I played it, just going as a fan. I love the place. In your head you think ‘it would be nice to play here’, so when that happened it was a nice feeling, things almost coming full circle from starting to think I could do music to playing at that festival. I’m playing there again this year, that’s going to be a real highlight of the summer…I’m looking forward to that.”
If you want to know what Toby was listening to while on the road then listen to his playlist here.
The Gathering is out now via Cambrian Records
Toby Hay Upcoming Tour Dates
29th May – Aboyne – The Boat Inn – (with Douglas MacGregor)
30th May – Perth – The Green Room – (with Douglas MacGregor)
1st June – Elgin – The Drouthy Cobbler – (with Douglas MacGregor)
2nd June – Glasgow – The Glad Cafe – (with Douglas MacGregor)
4th June – Fire in the Mountain Festival – Secret Location
9th June – Hereford – Koffie Pot – (with David Ian Roberts)
10th June – Small is Beautiful Festival
18th June – Unearthed in a Field Festival
23rd June – Swansea – Cinema & Co – (with David Ian Roberts)
24th June – London – Union Chapel
7th July – Bristol – All Hallows – (with David Ian Roberts)
17th – 20th August – Green Man Festival