Interviews at FolkEast can be memorable even before a word is spoken, sitting on straw bales in a teepee, and The Young’uns, Sean Cooney, David Eagle and Michael Hughes were already in high spirits. And so they should be, as patrons of the festival they knew just how great a weekend lay ahead, plus, at the time of this interview, they had a new album, Strangers (reviewed here), ready and just waiting for release. I’d been listening to a sneak preview while waiting for them to arrive on site and was keen to hear more about it.
Are all ten songs your own compositions?
Sean: “Nine of them are originals”
Are they all written by you?
Sean: “Yes, it’s me that writes the songs and then I take them to Mike and Dave and we arrange them together. The only song that’s not an original one of ours is the Maggie Holland song, A Place Called England. That’s the first track and something we’ve been meaning to sing for years. It’s a fantastic song. But everything else is original stuff, written over the past couple of years. We made a concerted effort with this album to really take our time, hopefully, capture the power of our live sound properly for the first time. I wanted, as a songwriter, to give myself enough time to have a full collection of songs that all could link together in some way and could share a common theme. The idea is that it’s about real people… well, I suppose folk songs are all about real people… but real people who have overcome certain things, who have achieved and who have inspired people in the last few years and longer ago.”
There are some absolute belters of songs on there. You said you developed them over a couple of years and that pre-empts one point I was going to ask. I was sure I’d heard some of them before in live performance.
Sean: “Well yes, that’s part of the idea. In previous albums, we’ve written songs or collected traditional songs and we’ve recorded them. And then a year down the line after performing them, we’ve thought, oh, they’d be so much better if we could record them again. So, with this one, we wanted to really bed the songs in, so last year at FolkEast and throughout the year we sang maybe 4 or 5 of the songs before going into the studio. Then we knew that we knew them inside out. We knew we could give a good account of them. Although, saying that, the other songs were written more recently, in fact, one of them has not been performed live yet. We’ve really put a concerted effort into making this album the best it could possibly be.”
The subjects of the songs, they’re quite specific, focusing on a particular figure. In some cases, did you know them personally?
Sean: “No, but the great thing about it is that since writing the songs about these inspirational people, we’ve started to get to know them personally. It’s a very daunting thing as a songwriter, to write a song about someone who’s very much still alive and who very much wants to tell their story. Then for an outsider, someone like me, to come in and try to write a song… It’s with great, great trepidation you approach the moment you tell that person ‘Oh by the way I’ve written a song about you because I think you’re great’. But we have developed these wonderful relationships with the people. Like the man who inspired the song Ghafoor’s Bus. He’s a humanitarian champion, called Ghafoor, from Middlesbrough. A couple of years ago he spent thousands of pounds of his own money converting a bus into a food kitchen and he’s been back and forwards to Europe feeding migrants and refugees across the continent. Yesterday we went up to Teesside and we met him for the first time. We sang the song on the bus and it was just so emotional, meeting him. And he said it’s an honour to have you here, and all we could say was well it’s an honour to write the song about you. He said when he first heard the song he had to hold back the tears. So, it’s just really special to be able to share a story like that. Of an ordinary person who’s achieved remarkable things.
David: “We wrote the song Be The Man about Matt Ogston who’s an anti-homophobia campaigner following his fiancé taking his own life due to religious prejudice about homosexuality. So, Sean wrote Be The Man about him, the song is from Matt’s perspective. Sean had read a lot about him beforehand, it wasn’t as if he was just making things up, but there’s still that daunting thing. Sean waited for ages, for weeks. We kept saying, we need to get in touch with him, we need to get in touch. The album’s coming out, the songs now released, we’re about to perform it at Glastonbury. So eventually, Sean got round to plucking up the courage and contacting him and we just got the most beautiful response, saying he’d listened to it over and over again, crying and, I suppose, it was just a cathartic release. But what was really weird is that he’s just been so supportive and really behind the song. He’s been promoting it on his Facebook page, he runs a charity, a foundation (The Naz and Matt Foundation). Within a few weeks of him hearing it, it was on Radio 2, Mark Radcliffe played it, then we played it at Glastonbury a few days after. So, it must be quite strange for someone like Matt to have a song written about them and then to hear it, then find it’s been played on national radio, then find it’s played at Glastonbury. He’s been really brilliant, so we’re going to meet him as well.
So that’s two, I know you’ve got a few lined up.
David: Matt’s in the video incidentally that we’ve got for Be The Man. The video is just Matt Ogston looking through a series of photos.
Sean: “So the idea is, the next week we’re doing something called “The Young’uns Talk To Strangers”. We’re going on a road trip and meeting all the people who have inspired these most recent songs. So yesterday we met Ghafoor in Middlesbrough, on Sunday we’re driving to Paris and we’re meeting a man called Mark Moogalion who was one of the heroes who tackled the terrorist on the train from Amsterdam to Paris in August 2015. He was wounded in the attack, he was shot through the neck and survived and it’s just going to be incredible to meet him. We actually didn’t tell him we’d written the song. We intended to, but he beat us to it. We’d been singing it for over a year before we recorded it and someone took a video of us doing it in Canada at Calgary Folk Festival last August. Someone from the American Embassy saw it and sent it to Mark. He sent us an email saying he’d seen it and it was just a beautiful email, saying he’d never actually shed tears over what happened to them on that day until he heard the song. What an amazing thing.”
David: “So, it is weird. The music, Sean’s song, is acting as a release valve. We should be on the NHS.”
Sean: “The trip’s then going to take us to Berlin, where we’re going to meet Hesham Modamani, he’s the Syrian refugee who swam across that 5-mile strait of the ocean 2 years ago on his journey to freedom. It’s going to be wonderful to meet him. We’ve told his story so many times over the past 18 months and to meet him, I think, will be really, really special. Then we’re coming back to London and we’re going to meet Matt Ogston. And we’re going to talk about Be The Man.”
Hearing your version of these stories and chatting with you now, I’m beginning to think, oops there was a little tear there. It is a very cathartic experience all around. What sort of wider reaction have you been getting?
Sean: “Oh it’s been incredible, particularly with the Be The Man story. We’ve been singing it in Canada over the last few months and we’ve been encouraging people to get in touch with Matt through his Facebook page. He’s been delighted that he’s been getting all these emails from Nova Scotia, Ontario, because nearly every time we sing it there’s someone who comes over at the end and says thanks very much for sharing that story because I know a similar story, this happened to a friend of mine. Or this happened in my family. So, these stories, even though, as you say, they’re about specific people they’re actually on themes that many people can relate to.”
David: “A great thing about folk music is often you’re told what the song is about. People will give a bit of preamble about the song. So, we tell the audience what Be The Man is about and what Dark Water is about and there’s been a few places, Canada particularly, where we’ve told the story and then people have stood up and given an ovation just for the story. Not for the way it’s been told, just for the actual story itself. And you just know that’s the power of the story before you’ve even sung the song. It’s not as if they don’t applaud after we’ve sung but they applaud before it as well. It’s brilliant that it’s such a powerful story regardless of anything else. But if that was just on the news, people might overlook it because they’re just awash with other stories. So being able to say we’re going to take this one thing and do a song about it works. People respond to music in a different way to how they respond to a news story.”
Are you conscious that in doing this you’re continuing in the 21st Century something that folk music has done for centuries?
David: “When we first started listening to folk music, when we first started going to folk clubs, we were overawed that people were singing about Teesside, where we came from. They were singing about industry, they were singing about things that happened 20, 30 years ago and were still happening. Maybe there was this idea in our minds that folk music was about history, and we had to sing about historical things. But I suppose as we became more confident as a group and Sean blossomed as a songwriter, we’ve thought, no, why can’t we sing about things that are happening today? That’s what folk music is, it’s about people and there’s no reason why we should just sing about farm hands defiling virgins. There are enough people doing that, we’ll sing about other things.
Listening Strangers this morning, there’s some extra voices coming in on some of the choruses?
Michael: “They’re very local to here actually. On a couple of songs, we’ve got the Aldeburgh musicians, who are a junior conservatoire. They’re based at Snape Maltings down the road. We did a project through FolkEast, maybe a couple of years ago now, and we were just enamoured by the voices. They’re among the top 1% of musicians in the country. They were just wonderful and when we taught them the songs, they just loved them, for one, but, they came up with new arrangements, strings and things. So, we thought it would be really good to have them on the album, just to have something a bit different.”
Anything else happening in the world of the Young’uns?
David: “We’re bringing out a book. It’s a mix of the songs, the lyrics, a lot of detail behind the songs that we may not go into on stage and interspersed with that, just random weird stuff that’s happened to us while we’ve been on tour. How we met, how we got together as a group. It kind of bridges the gap between an album and the live show. Lots of people love the albums but say they miss the jokes, the banter and the spontaneity. So, this book will sort of do that. We’ve got the serious songs and you turn the page after reading the heart-warming letter from Matt Ogston that he sent to Sean after Sean had shown him Be The Man, you turn the page and you read about what happened to us on tour once, hopefully, that’ll make people laugh. So, it’s like a gig in a book. That’ll be out for the tour in October.
ORDER STRANGERS – http://smarturl.it/ox0wmn
…And that strength and courage is what Strangers is all about. Despite the hardships it describes, there is barely a moment on this album that doesn’t hum with positivity. The Young’uns have perfected a sound that is as unique as it is uplifting, and it would be no surprise if their already burgeoning popularity were to rise to even greater heights. Thomas Blake from the Folk Radio UK Album Review here.
The Young’uns Strangers Album Tour
4 LANCASTER Dukes Theatre
5 SHEFFIELD City Hall (Memorial Hall)
6 GLASGOW Oran Mor
7 SHREWSBURY Theatre Severn
8 OXFORD The North Wall Arts Centre
9 COLCHESTER Arts Centre
10 BURY ST EDMUNDS Apex
11 BRISTOL Colston Hall Lantern
12 LONDON Union Chapel
13 SHOREHAM-BY-SEA Ropetackle Arts Centre
14 LINCOLN Drill Hall
15 NOTTINGHAM Glee Club
17 BRECON Theatr Brechyneiog
18 SOUTHPORT Atkinson
19 LEEDS City Varieties
20 MANCHESTER Home – Folk Festival
21 BIRMINGHAM Mac
22 CANTERBURY Cathedral Lodge
24 DUBLIN The Sugar Club
27 GATESHEAD Sage 1
Photo Credit: Elly Lucas