We don’t really know how to start this piece of writing. It came about after a little chat with Alex the editor of Folk Radio. He kindly offered that we could do an ‘extra’ piece on our brand new album, Utopia & Wasteland, as well as the review Folk Radio published recently here. After a few emails, it was decided that we would write a ‘get to know you’ piece. But not about us the artist, instead, we’d write a little about the songs; what inspired them and what they mean to us. Maybe on listening, they meant something else to you. Therein lies one of the great joys of music. But here’s a few thoughts on the album from our perspective.
The album starts with Line Two. It was written just after Greg had read the news that HS2, the new high-speed rail link, was apparently going to cost £403 million a mile to build. Much of the ‘analysis’ surrounding the project seemed a little baffling, spurious or false. But more frustratingly, the whole issue appeared to be reduced to figures and numbers, taking the names and real lives out of situations in the hunt of black and white grand decisions. The world doesn’t work like that.
There seemed to be so little mention of the 16 families in Mexborough who were to lose their homes so the track could run its chosen course, for instance. ‘Look, we’re taking your house but don’t worry you’ll be able to get to London 15 minutes quicker.’ Line Two is therefore about HS2…sort of. It’s also a more general plea for community and humanity.
We like to kick off our live sets with a driving set of tunes and Warwick Road, the next track on the album is our new show-opener. The first tune is composed by Ciaran, with the second and third tunes (The Barrowburn Reel and The Bank of Ireland) being traditional pieces. The set is named after a street in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, which we’re hoping will become a shrine to us after the album’s release, much like the Abbey Road zebra crossing.
Then there’s Lock Keeper. Stan Rogers. What a writer. And he got all those belting songs into 33 years, his age when he tragically died. Life on the road is often glorified in songs. Some of that glorification is, we feel, justified. But the Lock Keeper manages to plant the idea that ‘home’ should be celebrated too. ‘Home’ has some benefits, we shouldn’t be disappointed about spending time there.
So it seemed that Seven Hills was a good place to follow the sentiments of Lock Keeper. We’ve been really quite lucky recently. Music has taken us to Spain, Portugal, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and later this year will take us to France. We’ve had some brilliant experiences in those countries. It can be easy to get carried away….you come off stage in Denmark to people going wild and there’s a nice smiling person there immediately with a crate of beer, food tokens and to remind you that you’ve got a massage booked with the artist masseur at 15:45 behind Artist Reception. We’re just showing off there, but its a nice tonic after months of having your seventh sausage roll of a tour in the car park of Bridgewater services at 1.00 am on a damp, cold, Wednesday evening in November.
We digress. Seven Hills was the result of an internal struggle in Greg’s head. “Its bloody great here” vs “I should probably go home at some point”. Or, could home not come to me?
And so to The Moving Cloud. We tend to record a few tune sets on each album, but for the most part, they’re double tracked and produced to make big walls of sound. With this set, we were extremely keen to have a set of tunes with no frills (but some thrills), that was just guitar and fiddle. This is a sort of homage to the traditional Irish music Ciaran grew up listening to and aspiring to recreate.
We Are Leaving is a song written by Ciaran for all of the families and friends of those who lost their lives in Grenfell Tower on the 14th of June 2017. It is impossible not to be saddened, frustrated and angered by the way in which the tragedy has seemingly been swept under the carpet, and the initial treatment of the newly-homeless people of Grenfell by the government and their wealthy Kensington co-inhabitants was sickening. This song is a way of saying ‘we don’t forget’.
1908 comes next. People can get quite passionate about what defines folk music. For us, its the music of real people. A document of society and life. Thus, old folk songs are a lens to view what life was like for real people. At this point, Ciaran often likes to point out that John Henry (the American worker of railroads and mines for whom there are numerous songs in the tradition, including The New Railroad which we sing) wasn’t a real person. Quite. Yet the stories of his life and why they were sung about tell us about society.
The Broadside Ballad that forms the large part of 1908, originally called The Liberal March, is exactly that. Its a description of life for real people in 1908. It tells us what real people were thinking. There are parallels with 2018, we think. That’s one of the reasons we spent time resurrecting it and putting it on the album.
Thankfully at the proofreading stage, an unnamed hero stopped Greg looking like a complete whazzock (not for the first time) and noticed that the sleeve notes read; “a comment on life in 1908. What sort of society do we inhabit now, one hundred years later in 2018”.
Walter Tull has been in the news a lot recently. To write a song about Walter Tull on an album which was released the same week as a national campaign, led by sports journalists, historians and MPs, to have Walter Tull posthumously awarded the Military Cross was not (as has been suggested) an immensely well-planned piece of marketing. We really do wish we were that commercially switched on.
Instead, about 18 months ago Greg was asked, by musician extraordinaire Fred Claridge, to write a song for an arts project which was being put together called ‘Write for Walter’. Write for Walter was to ask a load of people from various different arts disciplines to create art for Walter Tull. Various sources and materials were sent over so we could get to know more about him, and the song sort of wrote itself. Orphaned at the age of nine, the first black outfield footballer in England’s top flight, the first black officer to command white troops in the British Army and then denied the military cross for bravery, ultimately because he was black. Tull’s life is amazing at every turn.
All Fall Down Greg learnt from his dad’s band Full House, who have been active for many years on the North West folk scene. A song about a man who lives in a big white house but doesn’t deserve to be there. Once again, we try to sing songs about the world around us today and the issues within it, big or small.
All The While was, quite simply, an attempt at writing a real love song which didn’t rely on frustrating and cliched hyperbole. What a romantic, eh?
The final track on the album is De Gule Huis. A waltz written by Ciaran that was nameless until the aforementioned tour of Denmark, booked by our Danish agent Henrik who lives in a lovely Yellow House (De Gule huis in Danish). It’s followed by a lovely traditional slip jig Ciaran learnt from the playing of Lunasa, a band who have been a huge influence. This track seemed a fitting end to the album, going from the delicate hush of the beginning to the all-guns-blazing conclusion.
A final shout out, to Mark Tucker. Mark produced and engineered the album and ended up adding bits of percussion and bass. We loved working with Mark. He got the best out of us, we think. He was immensely patient, wise, helpful, kind and most importantly; found a constructive way to say ‘thats shit sort it out’.
Anyway, thanks for reading. Thanks for listening. And if any of these songs mean something completely different to you; that’s just fine with us.
Upcoming Tour Dates
20th April 2018 – THAMES DITTON, The Ram Club
21st April 2018 – Nr STROUD, Under the Edge Arts
22nd April 2018 – WALTHAMSTOW, Folk Club
25th April 2018 – SHOREHAM ON SEA, Ropetackle Arts Centre
27th April 2018 – SHEFFIELD, Live at Sam’s
For ticket links and more details visit: http://www.russellalgar.co.uk/
Photo and Video Credit: Rob at Redwood Photography