Folk music’s Green shoots

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JAMES Green makes a brave admission ahead of releasing his band’s new album – that he doesn’t know much about folk.

Not a staggering revelation, perhaps, except The Big Eyes Family Players & Friends’ new record is called Folk Songs II, and he’s in charge.

Then James reckons that’s a positive as he overlooks folk’s potential constraints while arranging some of Sheffield’s most sophisticated ‘human’ music.

“I reckon it’s definitely an advantage,” he concurs. “To be weighed down by such baggage would have been pretty counter-productive. I like some folk music, don’t get me wrong, but I just don’t subscribe to the whole Ewan MacColl ethos of preserving folk in amber.”

And, perhaps, like any other genre of music, folk isn’t exempt from adapting to stay alive, or to entice a new audience to music made my people rather than machines.

“I couldn’t give a flying truckle about purity in folk music. It is a tedious idea,” says James, whose band embrace chamber music and even pop ideals.

“For me, it’s all about the stories, and if they are carried on that is great. The fact there is some resonance now with a song written 500 years ago is wonderful. Concerns then are similar to concerns today, albeit there are fewer sword fights.

“I don’t really think adapting is something that should be a conscious thing for those working with folk music – or any music for that matter. I’ve come across plenty of musicians who use the genre in fascinating and different ways, commercial and otherwise, and it’s great to hear – Nalle, The Family Elan, The One Ensemble, The Fence Collective, A Hawk & A Hacksaw, Trembling Bells, and, of course, all the people I’ve been lucky enough to have worked with on these folk records.”

And that’s a fair few. Folk Songs II took three years to complete with retrospective record Family Favourites emerging in between.

“There were 14 contributors in all to Folk Songs II, so it took a while to get things organised. I didn’t feel in a tremendous hurry; it was much more important to make sure the record sounded right.

“A lot of new people feature, but James Yorkston and Nancy Elizabeth, who also featured on Folk Songs I, contributed again.”

The ‘Sheffield’ core was Brian Ellis (bass guitar), Paul Fletcher (percussion), Lindsay Aitkenhead (viola), Heather Ditch (vocals) and David Jaycock (synths/organs/percussion), who also helped James mix the album in his Cornwall studio.

New contributors, who chose the folk songs and sang, are Alasdair Roberts, Elle Osbourne, Adrian Crowley, Mary Hampton, Sharron Kraus and James William Hindle.

With all that talent to hand James says there wasn’t a specific ‘aim’ with the new record, which gets its official launch at The Riverside, on Mowbray Street, tonight.

“I did find it a challenge,” he admits. “Prior to these I had worked very little with vocal-led song; most of what I had done previously has been purely instrumental.

“I don’t really think of folk records in a vastly different way. Songs start as ideas, I put them through the Big Eyes ‘blender’ and they come out the way they do. I didn’t aim to create a new folk genre or convert people to folk who might have not listened otherwise, but I guess this might happen.

“It’s funny, some reviews have stated it sounds quite a traditional-sounding record, and others said it sounds just the opposite. I try not to think about it.

“All lyrics are traditional, and the arrangements are done by us. I deliberately try not to listen to other versions of traditional songs, as this might influence our versions. The songs were chosen by the singers, and I like that idea as it brings more than just the voice to the collaboration.

“A couple were chosen by me and sung by Heather, and she certainly made those her own. The Clyde Water is a monster of a song at nearly seven minutes and about 20 verses. She managed to transform it into a proper adventure.”

Then the band has surely become a more ambitious affair while playing shows with collaborator and British folk star Yorkston.

“It certainly introduced us to much bigger audiences, and it took us to places we hadn’t played before. We played a huge Rolling Stone festival in Germany and live on Clive Anderson’s Loose Ends Radio 2 show, both of which were pretty surreal.

“It was a lot of fun and I feel very grateful we had that experience.”

The live line-up has recently changed again and now features Sharron Kraus (on bass guitar, vocals), Gemma Green (percussion, harmoniflute, vocals), Juliun Ryan (guitar, drums), with James on guitar and vocals and Heather lead vocals, flute and drums.

The result on record is something rich yet organic, by turn lavish and stark. There’s an honesty to the delivery and a relevance to much of the lyricism, in much the same way as a Shakespeare play can speak to a 21st century audience.

In an age of recession and fractured family life sound-tracked by mainstream music, one might suggest folk re-acquaints us with simpler times.

“Folk music from the past covers similar issues to current day life – heartbreak, poverty, social injustice, death, politics and so on,” counters James, who began Big Eyes in 2000 as a bedroom project directed at classical music.

“That is why I find it interesting; I guess I feel like I can relate in some way. We like to make out we are so sophisticated in current times but when it comes down to it, and we take a step back from the technology, we are not so different from those people sung about in traditional material from the last few hundred years.

“I think of folk music in the same way as good literature, films or modern song-writing. When you strip them down they reveal a similar shape; from the heartbreak of trad ballad Bonny Boy (on our new record) to James Kelman’s novel How Late It Was, How Late, to Robert Wyatt’s Shipbuilding to Ken Loach’s Raining Stones.

“I’m not equating us to those legendary figures, by the way.”