Granny’s Attic: high-energy trio take a tuneful new turn

Granny's Attic
Granny's Attic: from left, Lewis Wood, George Sansome and Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne. Photo: Will Killen

Granny’s Attic have been playing and performing together as a trio for well over a decade. Their third album, The Brickfields, is purely instrumental and comes out on 8 October. “Three people playing together in a room is how we first started in 2009, and it’s exactly how we recorded this new album.”

They have all released or are working on solo albums and other projects and have completed music degrees. Their live performances are great fun, full of energy and enormous respect for the music.

Granny’s Attic are Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne (melodeon and anglo concertina), George Sansome (guitar) and Lewis Wood (violin) and they all sing. They met at secondary school in Worcester and we should thank the music teacher who, Lewis says, first got them to play together.

Lewis remembers it as a collective music experience “that didn’t seem forced in any way. It just worked, and still does.” They remember early performances as “the school folk band” for various “boring things” such as school assemblies, concerts and events.

Their first out-of-school performance was at a village fete at Claines church, Worcester, in 2010. Although it’s a dim and distant memory Cohen thinks it went quite well. George says they can’t have been too awful because they were asked back a few times.

It was this fete that supplied the name Granny’s Attic, possibly suggested or inspired by the name of a bric-a-brac stall. They seem somewhat ambivalent about the choice. Lewis describes their performances at that point as “glorified sessions”, with one of them starting a tune and the others joining in.

The first gig with “a proper name and set list” was a pub gig, opening for a local band. Lewis describes their approach as “all the notes, all the volume, all the time”, adding: “We’re a bit more restrained now!”

Cohen and Lewis learned the violin from an early age. In both cases their teachers included traditional tunes in the lessons which inspired them, with Lewis making the violin his first instrument. Lewis remembers the only folk album his parents had, a Topic compilation CD. “I was hooked. There was an energy there that I couldn’t find in classical music at the time.”

By the age of 10 Cohen was going to various folk events and playing at open sessions. Fascinated by the various squeezeboxes he found himself surrounded by, at 11 years of age he got his first toy melodeon for Christmas. “After a lot of saving up I got my first proper concertina aged 12, followed by a melodeon aged 13.”

For George the interest in folk music developed through playing the guitar, which he started around the age of 12 or 13. He remembers listening to a couple of folk compilation CDs belonging to his parents, who then agreed to take him to local sessions. The interest developed even more so once he started playing with Lewis and Cohen.

All three went on to university to study “conventional music degrees”, Cohen and George at Leeds and Lewis at Southampton. For his dissertation George made a study of folk clubs but his practical music-making focused on playing the euphonium – “lots of brass band music and contemporary classical music”.

He believes that he continued to enjoy playing folk because he was not directly studying it and “getting sick of it”. However, he has learned “how far some well-structured practice can take your playing”.

As far as performance is concerned, George has gained most from watching other performers at folk clubs, as well as “playing gigs and making mistakes!” For Cohen the three years at university, making the study of performance on concertina and melodeon one of his specialisms, “saw the biggest development in my concertina playing which has fed directly into the way that I play in the band”.

‘We try to give people a good night out, with some smiles, singing along and maybe a few tears. And that’s just from the band’

It has also informed his approach to finding and researching songs and using archive sources. He has recently contributed the notation to the Southern Songster songbook, a selection of songs from the Hammond and Gardiner manuscripts.

Lewis says: “The main thing for me as a composer was really learning how to actively listen to music.” While what he was writing at university is not like what he writes for the band, he notes a link in “a genuine appraisal for how others write”. He feels he now has an increased knowledge of harmonic progressions and “maybe writing more economically”.

Asked to name one performer who has inspired them over the years they each chose a folk great for a wide range of reasons. Cohen describes John Kirkpatrick as his biggest all-round influence. “An amazing melodeon/accordion/concertina player, wonderful singer, performer, researcher, composer and arranger.”

Nic Jones has had the biggest impact on George. “His guitar playing, both when accompanying and when playing solo tunes, is inspirational, as is his singing and approach to arrangement.”

For Lewis it is Dave Swarbrick, as much for his tune-writing and his arranging as his playing. “Anyone who wants to write tunes needs to listen to My Heart’s In New South Wales. It blows me away every time I hear it.”

The material on their first two albums, Off The Land (2016) and Wheels Of The World (2019), gives a more accurate reflection of the live performances. The songs are traditional “with liberal edits and occasional rewrites”. Likewise the tunes are a mix of traditional and new traditional style tunes composed by Lewis.

“It is always hard to describe music!” George says, adding: “Get the album … come to a gig.”

Cohen describes their material as focusing on English traditional song, “spanning historical events, social commentary, death, love and loss … group vocals and harmony singing” and “choruses for the audience to join in”. Add in a “smattering of tunes, traditional and self-penned, and a good sense of fun and humour” and that is a live performance.

Lewis suggests that their live performance style “can get a bit silly, perhaps as a reaction to some of the heavy subject matter in the songs”.

“We try to give people a good night out,” says George, “with some laughs, smiles, singing along, foot-tapping and maybe a few tears. And that’s just from the band.” They share the role of frontman, with each of them introducing songs, leading vocals, sharing comments and jokes with each other and with the audience in a natural way.

Until recently Cohen and George brought the songs and Lewis provided the tunes, but for The Brickfields both Cohen and George have also written tunes. Cohen suggests they have got much better at selecting their material, describing their first album as a “broad hotch-potch”. Now he feels they have a much better idea when something is working rather than trying to force things.

Balancing the feel or mood of a gig or album, George suggests, has been more important for them than a conscious effort to balance traditional and original material. Lewis, noting improvements in his own tune-writing, points out that “we all have increasingly different musical tastes … I certainly think that will be a strength going forward.”

While they agree that both they and their music have changed over the years, George says: “The main thing is that we have continued to play music we enjoy, and to have fun together.”

There is a hope that they are able to attract a younger audience than the usual folk demographic. As Cohen points out, the folk scene is so broad with a range of concerts, ceilhs, dance, singarounds, sessions workshops – something for everyone. He has noticed younger people in their audiences over the years.

For George it was hearing the music that drew him into folk and he suggests that having friends to go to events with also helps. Lewis acknowledges the challenge of getting people there in the first place and doesn’t deny that folk has a bit of an image problem: “White, heteronormative, male-dominated, especially on stage and for instrumentalists.”

But once people are there they have a great time. Lewis mentions a Balfolk weekend in 2019 when the average age was around 30. He thinks that the performance scene could learn from the social dance scene, which has in the last decade “made a conscious effort to increase accessibility and diversity across the board … which has paid dividends tenfold”.

The last 18 months have brought many challenges but they are all quite positive and philosophical in their approach. Cohen says: “The idea of an instrumental album probably would not have occurred to us in a normal year, but the desire to try something different in lockdown made it seem like the perfect project.”

Individually they have all found new lines of work and projects to keep busy and generate a little income. Cohen has focused on teaching, developing his portfolio of one-on-one lessons, workshops with schools and instrumental groups.

Lewis, who had planned a solo album, realised that this could not be done with an external producer and decided to see how much he could do himself. “That was a massive learning experience,” he says of developing his recording, audio editing and mixing skills.

George released his solo album in lockdown as well as writing tunes, working on his playing, taking part in virtual gigs with the band and solo livestreams.

Both he and Lewis acknowledge the need to have lower expectations in these rocky times. “We need to be easy on ourselves,” says Lewis.

George adds: “I’ve not learned to bake sourdough bread, nor have I written a novel, and that’s OK.”

At this stage their lives might be quite separate from each other, but they acknowledge the support they gave each other – “lots of Skype chats” even before they were working on the album.

For the moment, they are totally focused on promoting The Brickfields and, after months of cancelled gigs, are enjoying just “getting back out there gigging”. There are plans brewing but nothing concrete yet.

Having worked on this album in a very different way from the previous ones, “a quick material turnaround as opposed to bedding everything live”, they will have more options in how they work. But they all agree that there will be songs next time.

The Brickfields is available from grannysattic.org.uk. This article appeared in Folk London 315, October-November 2021