Maybe it’s the working history or the wilderness on our doorstep but Sheffield and the Peak District are becoming a haven for some of the world’s top folk musicians.
The ‘Folkie Triangle’ from Sheffield to Barnsley and across the Peak District is home to some of the industry’s biggest and most productive names.
Guitar genius Martin Simpson, Jon Boden and his wife Fay Hield, James Fagan and Nancy Kerr, Barnsley’s Kate Rusby, Dave Burland and Ashley Hutchings and son Blair Dunlop in Chesterfield have made the region a hot-spot of creativity.
Then there’s Julie Matthews and Chris While who share a house in Cubley and are about to draw all these top names to their village.
They will flock to Cubley Hall next month to help celebrate Julie’s 50th birthday.
One of folk’s most prolific and respected musicians, Ecclesfield-born Julie has been a major influence in the folk world for 25 years and on March 15 she will be reunited with Pat Shaw, her former singing partner for a reunion birthday party. It promises to be quite a do.
Julie said: “We have always been a bit unwilling to do something local, but we thought this is a special occasion and we ought to make it a special event. It will be great to get back together with Pat again too, it’s been a long time.
“People will be coming from Devon, Cornwall, Brighton and all over and it will be a public do as well as well as a special party for us.”
Literacy teacher Pat is equally excited: “It’s just a one-off for us but we’ve had a couple of rehearsals and already it feels like we have never been apart. I think it will be a good night and I will get to see a lot of people I haven’t seen in a long time.”
Julie’s music career goes back to her schooldays at Colley Comprehensive via the Albion Band and years spent playing in piano bars all over Europe.
“I stayed on at school and had a lot of fun but didn’t do much studying so A levels didn’t really go well but after a couple of weeks out of school I got an offer from a London recording company offering me a songwriting contract for £250 a week.
“I had always played the piano and sang and one of the teacher’s husbands worked at Radio Sheffield and she took me along to meet him – Dave Shearsby – and I recorded a couple of sessions for the radio. “A guy called John Leonard liked my stuff and got me writing and I built up catalogue of songs and he set up meetings for me and it went from there.”
The writing job was short-lived and Julie was soon out in the real world.
“I played in my first piano bar at the age of 19,” she said.
“It was a real baptism of fire on a 18/30 holiday destination in Tenerife and I had to take my own PA and electric piano. I did that for a short while and after that I played in hotels all over the world, Athens, Cyprus, Sweden and the Middle East.”
Life in the fast lane was a hoot for a while but Julie got a bit too used to the high life.
“I had to stop drinking at the age of 22,” she said.
“I was getting addicted to it and I didn’t handle it very well. I went to Alcoholics Anonymous and that really helped but I did not want to be swapping an addiction for drink to an addiction to AA. I threw myself into work.”
By this time Julie and Pat were singing together and Ashley Hutchings was looking for a new member for the Albion Band.
“Ashley Hutchings was watching us one night and I broke a string and just carried on and he thought it was really professional.
“He asked me if I wanted to join the Albion Band. I had never heard of them at the time but I joined and I will always be grateful to Ashley for that chance.
“They are known all over the world and being associated with them opens doors.”
Julie left the band to sing full-time with Pat but rejoined in 1995 and teamed up with Chris While until an overheard conversation in a toilet in 1997 changed everything.
“One night during a break in a gig we went into the toilets and heard two women talking saying ‘those to girls are really good but who are the blokes?’”
Since then their partnership has gone from strength to strength, releasing seven major albums together and touring each year throughout the UK, Europe, Canada and Australia where they have a huge following.
Their new album Infinite Sky, has just been released.