This September 8th sees the debut release of Alchemy, the debut album from The Emily Askew Band featuring Emily Askew (The Askew Sisters, The Elizabethan Sessions), Jamie Roberts (Gilmore Roberts, The Dovetail Trio), John Dipper (Dipper Malkin, English Acoustic Collective), Simon Whittaker and Louise Duggan.
Alchemy ‘A seemingly magical process of transformation, creation, or combination’
The album is an exploration of folk and early music, and what can happen when you remove the boundaries between the two and look upon them with a fresh eye.
I’ve since heard the finished album, and in short, I never thought I’d find myself dancing around the room to music from the 13th and 16th Century but from the opening tune Bransles it’s impossible to resist. As Emily points out in our interview below “some of the tunes that add up to 32/48 bars etc. work well in ceilidh dances.”
I didn’t expect to be so drawn in by this album, but it’s been on repeat for most of this week. There are many highlights including Miri it is, one of the earliest surviving secular songs in Middle English. Likewise, some of the tunes have a gorgeous pastoral feel such as the 13th-century French love song Quant Voi La Flor Nouvele (When I See Fresh Blooms Appear). The singing is top class as can be heard on the unaccompanied Pase El Agoa Ma Julieta, a 15th Century song sung in Galician-Portuguese on which they are joined by James Patterson on vocals.
The tunes and songs have a modern appeal, so much so that I found, after just a few listens, I’d suspended any mental references to the past that these tunes are taken from. Considering the strong historical context of these tunes and songs that’s no easy feat, and it’s the talents and remarkable vision of those musicians in the project that have made this possible. John Dipper recorded and edited the album, and Emily explained to me beforehand how this was so useful to the project as he understood the music and had lots of good production ideas. The Emily Askew Band have given a new life to this music that I would never have otherwise discovered. Despite its rich historical, cultural interest, this album shouldn’t be treated like an artefact. It has a very modern place and is one of the most original and engaging albums I’ve heard this year.
To shed more light on the project we caught up with Emily Askew to talk about Alchemy.
FRUK: When did you first become interested in medieval and Renaissance melodies?
Emily Askew: I first became interested in medieval and Renaissance melodies through my recorder playing, which I started at the age of 4 – my Dad was teaching himself so he could teach me, so he was a page ahead in the beginner recorder book! I carried that instrument right through to music college (Guildhall School of Music and Drama) where I further explored medieval and Renaissance music and also took up the vielle (medieval fiddle), early bagpipes and shawm (a double reed instrument of the Middle Ages and Renaissance).
FRUK: What is it about the music that attracts you and where has this interest led your music?
Emily: I love the melodies from these periods as they are often modal with have beautiful lyrical lines or catchy tunes. I have been performing in early music world since college which has included productions at Glyndebourne, Shakespeare’s Globe, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and the Apollo West End as well as work in ensembles such as The Artisans, Dufay Collective, Joglaresa, Mediva and The Telling. I was also part of the Elizabethan Session project by EFDSS and Folk by the Oak which involved creating new music inspired by the Elizabethan age with a group of eight other folk musicians.
FRUK: How do you go about researching tunes and melodies?
Emily: Over the years I have purchased many recordings of medieval and Renaissance music and when I was at college we had access to lots of resources in libraries to help research repertoire. The British Library was also nearby which has a fair amount of early music too. At college I studied how to read early notation which helps – although I am not fluent. Nowadays there is so much of the music easily accessible on the internet – including copies of original facsimiles.
FRUK: You mention that the gap between this early music and folk is not far apart. Do you feel like you’re maybe lifting a veil on the music to audiences?
Emily: One of my aims is to publicise this music with folk audiences who may not have come across them before. I’d like to encourage them to play the tunes themselves – which is why we have also made a tune book to accompany the CD. They are a lot of fun to jam in sessions, and some of the tunes that add up to 32/48 bars etc work well in ceilidh dances.
FRUK: Tell me about some of the period instruments you play and how they maybe compare to their modern counterparts.
Emily: My vielle is a medieval style violin. It has strings made of gut, and a shorter more bouncy bow with a bigger gap between the hair and the wood. There is no sound post (so it’s quieter) and the bridge is flatter. Some makers think the instrument had a totally flat bridge so people couldn’t play single strings and it was more of a chordal/drone based instrument. Mine still has the ability for single string playing, but because the bridge is flatter I can easily play up to three strings at once.
My recorders have a wider bore than modern recorders which makes them louder and gives them a different tone – but they have a narrower range than modern recorders. My bagpipes are quieter than a lot of modern pipes and I have one instrument that just has the single drone. My shawm is like an early oboe without all the extra key work and a less subtle sound!
FRUK: What was the most challenging/exciting part of this project?
Emily: The most challenging part of this project was working out ways of mixing the old and new instruments without one dominating or being lost in the overall sound. At the time, early instruments were often separated into ‘Loud bands’ and ‘Soft bands’ for this reason. We had to be careful to make sure instruments like the vielle were not drowned out, and on the other side, we had to watch out that the shawm didn’t completely take over! The most exciting part of the project was creating new sounds by mixing old and modern instruments together and experimenting with using these old melodies in a new more modern folk style. Both Jamie and John had no experience playing music this old, so it was interesting hearing their ideas, without them being influenced at all by studying this repertoire in a more ‘historically informed’ way.
FRUK: How have the rest of the band found it?
Emily: I think the rest of the band have enjoyed exploring a new genre of music and exploring a new style mixing modern folk and medieval/Renaissance music. John has been to see medieval concerts recently so I think he has been inspired :-)
Emily has launched a Kickstarter campaign for this release where you can not just pre-order signed copies of the CD but also receive other fantastic goodies including scores, lessons, house concerts and more.
Get involved here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1015033708/emily-askew-band-debut-album