Folk London readers may well be familiar with your phenomenal duo with Eddy Jay, but this show is a much larger undertaking. How did the idea come about?
The idea originated quite a while ago, probably about a year and a half ago, or maybe even longer. I had just completed Through the Seasons [a celebration of the year in folk dance, featuring Benji Kirkpatrick, Ross Grant and storyteller Debs Newbold].
That collaboration had been successful and I was thinking about what to do next. Brexit was in the news a lot, and, while I’m not a political singer, I do have political views. But how would I put that across in music? So I had this idea of music from Europe.
I didn’t think I’d be mad enough to try to do some music from all 27 states but then I was mad enough, and I did! It felt pretty timely and a great way to bring people together, having musicians from other nationalities all playing together, both for recording an album and doing a live show. And here we are!
Have you actually learnt a tune from all 27 countries?
Yes, I have included a tune from all 27. There’s a song from Croatia, and the rest are instrumentals. But to do this, I had to rethink the way I learnt music. Usually I would learn by ear on the melodeon or harmonica, but for this I learnt everything on the piano.
It’s a quicker process, it is very visual and it means I could write out chords for the musicians for rehearsals, so it was quite a different way of working.
What country’s music was the hardest for you to pick up?
I would say the most challenging to play, in terms of keys, was one of the first tunes I learned for the project, a processional dance tune from Luxembourg. The recording I learnt it from was in Bb, and it is a five-part tune, so it’s a bit of a wild one, but luckily the brass band on the recording were playing it quite slowly, so I was able to learn it on my D/G melodeon.
It was fun, actually, learning to play in Bb but it really made me rethink how to play the box. It made my brain hurt for a while! But the most challenging tune was probably one of the Greek tunes: even though it doesn’t sound stereotypically Greek, it was just the way the melody was. I still had to learn it, to transcribe it, so that was a bit of a nightmare.
You’re bringing the show to Stanley Halls in south London in May as part of a national tour. We’re generally quite cosmopolitan round here, but looking at some of the other places you’re going to on the tour, might there be a few more people in the audience who are more Brexit-inclined?
The project isn’t really pro-remain or pro-Brexit; it is more neutral than that. Actually a lot of the places we’re touring are pro-leave areas, and I deliberately planned that, because I’m a great believer in wanting to bring people together, and the country feels very divided at the moment.
That’s partly why I’ve developed this project, to try to bring people together. I’d quite like people who voted leave to come to the show, to hear another side of things, to see another perspective on European culture.
The country feels like it is in a damaged state at the moment: the mere mention of the B-word makes people go mad
In the show we’re going to have some testimonies by people who are EU citizens who live here, and who are going to share their stories, and I think that’ll be powerful. I hope it makes people on both sides think.
The country feels like it is in a damaged state at the moment: the mere mention of the B-word makes people go mad. One of the project’s aims is to give voice to those who aren’t usually heard, people who are in the trickiest situations, such as families where grandparents aren’t eligible to stay. It’d be good for both sides of any audience to hear that.
Did you notice anything different about the status of traditional music in the countries you visited? Here it tends to be seen as somewhat niche, if, indeed, people are aware that we have any traditional musical cultures at all.
Bulgaria was the most interesting for me because they support the music there a lot. Each region of Bulgaria has its own classical orchestra and folk or traditional music group. I did a little documentary with them which you can watch online.
It was fascinating because they really support it and a lot of the general public in Bulgaria listen to traditional music. They listen to pop, blues and jazz, but they put it alongside the trad.
Seeing how it is funded compared to here is ludicrous. They have a whole orchestra to do trad and they are funded to go all over the world to represent Bulgaria as well as playing at home to 12,000 people in a stadium. That’s how much people like it. If you put on a folk concert here you’re lucky if you get a hundred people in the door.
Yeah, that’s more than even Bellowhead would ever have got (laughs). Whereas Malta was completely the opposite. They have traditional music but it’s basically been lost. There are still a few people doing it, so I interviewed this young pipe-maker called Francesco, who’s quite young, younger than me.
You go from one extreme, Bulgaria, which has hundreds of tunes, and then you go to Malta, which hardly has anything left
He told me there are only about eight remaining recorded Maltese tunes left. He’s got recordings of all of them, and I’ve put one that he shared with me on the album. You go from one extreme, Bulgaria, which has hundreds of tunes, and then you go to Malta, which hardly has anything left, it’s just been lost. It’s fascinating.
It’s interesting that you say that about Bulgarian music. Recordings like Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares were very popular here in the 1980s but there is an academic view of those records that they were very fake and it was the communist leadership’s imposition of “this is what it means to be Bulgarian”, similar to the way Franco imposed flamenco on all of Spain even though it’s irrelevant to Catalonia or the Basque country.
That’s interesting. The German track was fascinating to do because their tunes are currently being rediscovered. Gudrun, the German musician I worked with on the album, told me that, obviously, doing music from the war was a no-go area.
She said the problem is that the music is quite nice, but because the Nazis took hold of it people just don’t play it, so you have to look for stuff from before. So we researched together and found tunes in manuscripts in old collections and the funny thing is that the tunes we did from Germany and Austria, particularly Austria, actually, were more like Scandinavian tunes.
It wasn’t the way she was playing them, it was the tunes themselves that sounded really Scandi. When you listen you’ll know what I mean, when you hear the tune.
Were there any people you approached who didn’t want you to meddle in “their” music? Anyone who made you feel they were thinking: “Why is this English guy coming over and trying to play our tunes?”
No. Before I went I worried a bit about that, but actually they were incredibly open. It surprised me how open they were because they were like: “Yeah, use our music, it’s amazing. We’re so glad that you’re coming over and researching,” and I think they were quite proud.
I remember meeting a Latvian guy who played melodeon, a really good box player called Oskar, and he said: “I really hope you use one of my Latvian tunes.” And I did. I told him that I really liked a certain tune and he showed me all the history of it.
Has the project made you start thinking about non-EU cultures whose music you’d like to go and explore? I’m thinking specifically of Serbia, and its fantastic music, which is in the landmass of Europe but not in the EU. There are plenty of others!
Yes – I’ve mooted an idea about doing a follow-up, exploring the music of Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. Maybe the EFTA states, or some of the micro-states like San Marino and Vatican City.
I think there’s another European album in me, but not necessarily based on the EU. Because that’s been done now!
Yes, but each country has more than one tune, you know!
Yeah, they’re not rationed!
Lots of Folk London readers are keen musicians themselves, and may well enjoy having a go at some of the tunes you’ve researched for the project. Do you plan to publish the dots?
Jude from the band [Jude Rees] is going to transcribe all the tunes, and they will be downloadable off the website as pdfs for a fiver or something, so people can learn the tunes.
You’re a fantastic player – will they be really difficult for us mere mortals to play?
No. When I was doing my research, I deliberately didn’t take tunes that were really complicated, because I want everyone to be able to learn them, to play them in sessions around the country.
Last summer I was playing some of these tunes out [for morris], and people were picking up on them, recording them, asking me what the tunes were, and when I told them that they were tunes from, say, Latvia, they were quite surprised because they didn’t sound as different as they expected.
The Greek tune that I learnt, that actually sounds like it’s from Sussex. It’s bizarre. And the tune I took from the Czech Republic sounds like a little British nursery rhyme, but it really is a Czech tune from the 1920s. There are lots of little links like that that people may recognise.
I enjoyed that, actually. I enjoyed the fact that the melodies are generally quite simple, and it was nicer to arrange, because then you’re not having to worry about actually playing the tune. You’re just enjoying playing the arrangement. And also I had to learn 27 tunes, so I didn’t want to have to learn 27 concertos!
That’s what we try to do in our session here in Croydon, Oval Tunes. We’ve got a Czech banjo player, a Venezuelan clarinettist, I bring Northumbrian tunes, so rather than obsessing with English tunes because we all happen to live in the south of England, we learn frm each other, and music’s such a beautiful thing to share.
Well, yes, I totally agree. And that was another side of the album, to make sure that people feel they can still share the music even though politically it’s going all over the place.
Are there any collaborations in the future for you to come out of any of this? Are you going to play with any of the musicians again or record with anyone?
I am hoping I will do something with Evelyn Glennie again: she recorded on the Bulgarian and Romanian tracks. I’m doing a podcast with her next month. I’ve kept in contact with my host in Croatia, so I’m sure we’ll play some music together again at some point.
I’m going back to Latvia to play at a folk festival in April. I’m taking a friend of mine, Ross, who’s a great fiddle player and singer and we’re going to be the only British people there, so that’ll be fun. So, yes, I’ve made some really good connections.
Are you thinking of touring the show to Europe?
The Arts Council of England has supported us to produce the show, so we need to tour it in England first.
Taking seven people on the road around Europe would be a laugh a minute, and I think we’d get the audiences there, but we really don’t know what the situation will be for touring musicians from next year.
It could, logistically, be an absolute nightmare. If the opportunity came up in the future and it looked like it would work, then yes, definitely I’d want to do it. We’ll have to see how the English tour goes first: hopefully we’ll sell lots of tickets and make it financially viable.