Yogi and Yeti
31 December 2017
It’s new years’ eve and I’ve left it right to the last minute to write my 2017 blog! Well, hey, it’s been a busy year. Even this week I’ve been busy composing and recording some new tunes over the Christmas holiday, making the most of my time away from the day-job. I needed a break from the recording – it was getting a bit intense; so here I am instead, recording my reflections of the year. And what another great year it’s been, again taking me on an interesting journey, only this time much closer to home!
The year began with a lovely Twiggs Gigs gig in January – playing with Border Tales (from Somerset) along with Greg Hancock, supporting Peter James Millson who I am currently composing some cello parts for his new album.
February was a quiet and sad month as we said farewell to Martin Hodge – a great supporter of local music, radio presenter and Ceilidh caller. Mudskippers performed at Martin’s memorial gig at Exeter Phoenix and it was there I stumbled across Samantics. Martin had spotted him a few weeks before, and he is something to see. Rapping and looping with a uke, he delivers jaw droppingly emotional performances about mental health and the ‘little things in life’. He’s made me cry twice. Go check him out.
In March, I joined Fly Yeti Fly for their album launch. The Yeti (Darren and Lorna Fisher) contacted me in the autumn to play cello on their debut album, Shine a Light in the Dark, and I now consider myself an ‘honorary Yeti’, gigging with them when I can. The album launch was at the Offshore Bar in Torquay and we were joined by fellow contributors Alex Pearson (The Model Folk) on double bass, and Gareth Jones on keyboards. The summer followed with some great Yeti gigs – Glas-Denbury (garden stage and BBC Introducing Stage), Sidmouth Fringe Festival, Purbeck Valley Folk Festival, and the Brook Inn, Plympton. I also joined them for a BalconyTV Exeter appearance (see my Videos).
I think my highlight of the year had to be playing in the barn at Purbeck Valley Folk Festival. The audience were fab and the stage manager was moved to tears (so was I). A lovely festival, and my first trip away in my newly acquired and much loved VW T5, who I have named George. A van with a bed + cello. What more could you want in life?
The springtime took me down a new and unexpected musical avenue. I had started attending Vinyasa Yoga classes at Powderham Castle last autumn. I live quite close to the castle, and its inhabitants – breathing new life into the place and connecting with their local area since taking over two years ago – are Charlie and AJ Courtenay, the Earl and Countess of Devon. In the winter, the yoga classes are set in the State Dining Hall with a huge, roaring log fire and candlelight. In the summer it is in the Libraries or outside in the gardens, usually beside the lake. It is utterly beautiful and most probably the best place for yoga in the UK. It’s run by the wonderful Gillie Sutherland, Flow Yoga Devon.
Knowing that I play cello and that Vinyasa (Flow) Yoga is set to music, AJ and Gillie suggested ‘live cello’ to accompany the class, marking the Spring Equinox. I have never played solo cello to people before (other than to those who suffer listening to me practice, family members getting a little performance at Christmas, or during soundchecks…) so this was a kind of scary but exciting challenge. I combined some of my self-penned tunes, tunes I knew (mainly Scottish folk, including tunes I’d picked up at Skye Fiddle Camp – the waltzes work well with the flow yoga, particularly warrior/triangles), and some improvising, including whale-sounds which I discovered went well on cello when recording Sure with Ryn in 2015. The idea being that I play to the movements and energy levels of the class. It went down a treat and I was asked to play again at the various summer yoga retreats and the midwinter class (which sold out in hours…so we’ve having to book some more in for 2018!). The classes have also inspired me to write and play some new tunes, including my latest Breathe/Let Go (for Nicola).
I had a lovely big dose of the musical medicine that is Natalie Haas and Alasdair Fraser, who came to Topsham Folk Club in May on their Ports of Call tour. Utterly fantastic gig, followed by much laughter in the bar afterwards. Lovely to catch up with them again…and I’m hoping to go Skye Scraping in 2019.
It was a quieter year for Mudskippers. In addition to Martin’s memorial we also played at a Twiggs Gigs show and Moreton Music Day in June, Exeter Street Arts Festival in August, the White Hart Hotel, Exeter in September and finally the Bike Shed Theatre in November. We’ve got quite a few things lined up for early 2018.
I also joined Swedish folk singer/songwriter Rosa Rebecka for a gig at the Plough Arts Centre, Great Torrington in June and later in December at Kingskerswell Parish Church, both beautiful and special gigs. Rebecka is a joy to work with.
I also mustn’t forget to mention that although I didn’t perform much with Greg Hancock this year, his popular and very engaging album A303 was released and it was a pleasure to play on five of the tracks, and to sing on one.
In November a rather special commission came my way. Local singer/songwriter, Laura Loft had been asked to compose and perform a song (‘Rising’) for an event at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum called A Conversation Between Floods, and she invited me to add cello. Artists, authors, ecologists, scientists and engineers came together for an afternoon of conversations and presentations about the history and context of flooding in Exeter, the ecology of flooding, the aesthetics of catastrophe and an exploration of how resilience to flooding has evolved to become the preferred response. Here’s Laura’s fascinating blog about how Rising came about.
Favourite live shows 2017:
Natalie Haas and Alasdair Fraser (Topsham Folk Club)
Broadside Ballads – Sam Lee, Lisa Knapp, Nathaniel Mann (Exeter Phoenix)
Public Service Broadcasting (Exeter Cathedral)
Lau (Exeter Phoenix)
Samantics – various places
Ramblings of a part time cellist
Those of you reading this who know me will guess that my 2016 blog will feature my awesome trip to the Isle of Skye for Alasdair Fraser’s 30th fiddle week. But as that’s not til July, let’s start at the beginning in January where I had my first gig of the year with Mudskippers playing at Column Acoustic – a great music club in Devonport, Plymouth that promotes local artists. It was not long after the first of the “WTF 2016?!” deaths happened, and so Bully (lead singer for Mudskippers) wowed us with a memorable cover of Bowie’s Five Years. We’ve lost some great musicians this year. I’ve just listened intensely to Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker and, like Bowie’s Blackstar, they have not only left a lasting legacy of years of great music, but have left us final albums that confidently say ‘it doesn’t get much better than this’. Bowie’s Blackstar video had me in awe and on the edge of my seat when I first watched it; the song is a masterpiece. And Cohen’s string arrangement in Steer Your Way is simply awesome.
Continuing through the winter, Mudskippers then had a gig at Kingskerwell Church (World Unlimited events) supporting a great band called The East Pointers, from Canada. A great evening which involved me and Corinne spinning down the aisles to the headliner’s lively tunes. This was followed by two radio interviews – one with Trevor Lloyd of 10Radio (Somerset) who has just broadcast his final Songwriters Circle and will be much missed, and Jackson Cooper of Riviera FM. Both really engaging DJ’s who have done a super job of promoting local artists. Then the spring to summer months, for Mudskippers, involved some well received gigs at the Brook Inn Plympton (open mic), Milverton Music Club and Moreton Music Day as well as some private bookings and parties.
All these venues and small festivals are so important for local musicians. The pubs usually want covers bands or solo/duos and the signed artists often tour with their own supports. So, it’s really hard to get gigs as a band doing original stuff unless you’re prepared to put on your own, which usually means the added off-putting hassle of lugging and setting up a PA and hiring a hall (if you don’t want to be playing in a noisy bar).
Meanwhile, I had a run of gigs and vids with Greg Hancock – first an intimate Twigg’s Gigs event at Hope Hall, Exeter. Another pillar of local music, Simon Twigg who puts on great acoustic nights promoting both local lesser knowns and bigger acts. We then supported one of Devon’s finest folk musicians, Jim Causley at Starcross Church and I get my hands on another favourite album for 2016 – Jim Causley’s Forgotten Kingdom. Full of humour, local history, beautiful tunes and a voice like the best cup of hot chocolate.
One Friday evening in April I get a call from Greg saying “can you do Balcony TV tomorrow?”. Oh heck…I don’t ‘do’ Saturday mornings and I’d already tucked into a glass of wine. So I killed off my relaxing Friday evening for our early morning show on Exeter Quay, beating the cold with hat and gloves. We played a favourite of mine, Three Conversations. It was great fun -and credit again to another local pillar, Matt Calder of Sculpture Music for putting Exeter and more local acts on the world’s stage by hosting a Balcony TV. So far Three Conversations has had over 1,700 views, reached 2nd in the world ranking and 1st in Exeter (sitting in first place for some weeks I seem to recall)! This was followed in early summer with a trip to Somerset for South Petherton Folk Festival where we played in the gorgeous David Hall with it’s very pretty ceiling. I also saw Kitty Macfarlane perform for the first time (my first time seeing her that is) and quickly grab myself another favourite EP for 2016 – Tide and Times. Stunning stuff. We then played at Starcross Church again, this time supporting the lovely Hannah White and her band who include husband Keiron Marshall. Such a lovely bunch of people who do so much for their local community in London including running The Sound Lounge music venue and made regular trips to support the refugees at the Calais camp. Hannah and Keiron also took a video of me and Greg performing Buckles and Buttons.
So now, I have reached July in my diary…I pause as I consider whether I will be able to sum up my Skye experience in one paragraph…. *long pause*…. OK so I need to set some context first…about five years ago I attended an English folk cello and fiddle workshop at Dartington Summer School. It was the first folk workshop I’d attended, I thoroughly enjoyed it and got a lot out of it, but always felt that Scottish music excited me more. Someone on the course suggested I check out celtic cellist Natalie Haas who performs with fiddler Alasdair Fraser. If you don’t know these two, check them out. Natalie, now an associate professor at Berklee College, Boston is the most amazing folk cellist in the world today. When you see her play for the first time, your eyes go wide, your jaw drops and you scratch your head wondering ‘how did she do that…?’ It is from watching Natalie that I learnt a new and exciting technique called the ‘chop’ which now features in many Greg Hancock and Mudskippers tracks. So anyway, to try (not very well) to cut a long story short, I’m a massive fan of these two beautiful people and planned for some years to attend their workshops on the Isle of Skye at the Gaelic school, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig.
Life is a journey, but a journey must have adventures in it. This was my adventure; a week on Skye learning from the best Scottish/folk fiddlers and cellists. I decided to drive rather than struggle with my cello on a plane or train. The furthest I’d driven myself before was Bristol, so to set off from Devon to a place almost at the top of the British Isles was some venture in itself! I made it and I was greeted by the warmest, friendliest and happiest of people – and we all formed (about 120 of us I think) a big musical family. Our heads were filled with inspiring talks from Alasdair and tunes, tunes, tunes….and more tunes. The tutors included Adam Sutherland (Peatbog Faeries/Treacherous Orchestra) and Ciarán O Maonaigh (Donegal) on fiddle, and Seylan Baxter and Trish Strain assisted Natalie Haas with the biggest cello class on the course so far. It was a joy to meet so many other cellists from Scotland (incl Shetland Islands), America, France and north England. Many of us now keeping in touch on facebook. The evenings involved sessions and ceilidhs til the early hours. I learnt some Scottish step dancing with Màiri Britton, on Wednesday afternoon some of us took a trip out the Old Man of Storr in the pouring rain (good excuse for whisky), and Friday culminated in a concert, or as Alasdair put it, a Happening, in which we attempted to remember and play all the tunes we had forgotten, I mean learnt, that week to a paying audience! I captured some of the week’s moments on video. If you play fiddle or cello…plan a trip to Skye fiddle week. It’ll bring your bow to life and fill your heart with sheer joy. The week introduced me to some tunes I now play regularly including The Sleeping Tune (Gordon Duncan) which was played by the ceilidh band late on the final night, Spootiskerry (a great tune from the Sheltand Islands also played by the ceilidh band – there wasn’t one band by the way, the ‘band’ consisted of musicians on the course and was never fixed), Eilean Beag Don A’ Chuain, Windblown (by Seylan Baxter) and many others.
That’s the edited down version!
But lastly, I have to mention that coming out of the fiddle week bubble, which took about 5 days from which to recover, I couldn’t help noticing as I drove further away from the ‘family’ I had been with on the Scottish island, past the built up English towns and cities, the false and shallow ‘happiness’ of the consumerist society, which struck me more than ever before.
So, onwards into the autumn.
Oh, hang on, I forgot to mention, I’ve been playing music on the Isle of Skye without being there….how? Steve Clarke’s a DJ on Cuillin FM and has been regularly playing Greg Hancock and Mudskippers songs!
With my new ‘lease of life’ I decided to invest in a cello strap (the Block Strap) so that I could move around (and maybe even dance!) while playing the cello. No more slippy endpins and problem chairs. I’m liberated!
Other musical projects this year were influenced by the heightening refugee crisis. Led by Greg Hancock who rallied together local musicians to produce a CD to raise funds for Syrian refugees on the camps in Lebanon, the album For Syria with Love raises money for the charity From Syria with Love and I play with Greg on the Usual Suspects and Mudskippers on the poignant Teenage Soldier. Greg and I also played at a refugee fundraising even in Topsham, with Phil Beer and Paul Downes in the line up.
In September I was approached by local Swedish singer Rosa Rebecka to play cello with her for her Balcony TV appearance. Rebecka contacted me on the Tuesday and by Saturday morning I had learnt the piece and we had a quick run through that morning before filming Jonah’s Song. In return I asked Rebecka for a singing lesson so that I could develop my backing vocals. She’s a great teacher and managed to help me find volume in my voice that I didn’t know I had.
I rekindle some of my Skye spirit by seeing Afro Celt Sound System at Exeter Phoenix in November and picking up a copy of their awesome album The Source which features Angus R Grant of Shooglenifty, another shocking and sad loss of 2016.
A third play at Starcross Church, this time with Mudskippers as we supported Cosgrave and Banks.
Frustrated at hearing people say “oh, you play cello? I was looking for a cellist to play on my album but didn’t know any” I decided to advertise myself as a session cellist and within a few weeks, in November, I heard from Darren and Lorna of Fly Yeti Fly who wanted me to play on five tracks of their forthcoming album due to be released in 2017. I fell in love with their gorgeous tunes and it was a real pleasure composing and recording for them.
The year ends with a midwinter single from Greg and his merry band of elves, The Longest Night recorded in a favourite studio of mine, Rapunzel. I also put my singing lesson to the test!
To end the year, I’ve finally got round to composing a couple of solo tunes which I hope to post to Soundcloud soon, so keep an eye out for those.
Thank you for reading.
Be happy and fill your day with music!
Three Albums and a Video
2015 is drawing to a close and so, on this warm and rainy Sunday post-Christmas morning, I drag myself away from experimenting with my Cello and Loop and take to my blog in an attempt to reflect on my musical moments of the year. Coffee anyone?…
The start of 2015 was relatively quiet, a few open mic sessions to keep us toned up and then things really started to kick off late spring. While Bully was busy mixing and finishing the long awaited Mudskippers album, Greg Hancock whisked myself and bassist Lukas Drinkwater off to Rapunzel Studios in East Devon to record Comfortable Hatred. One day, five songs. Boom bang. Mini album.
Now if you don’t know Rapunzel Studios, it’s a treasure trove of top microphones and the talented George Arnold. I was especially pleased with the message “bring your togs, there’s a pool!”, so when Greg was recording his vocals, Lukas and I went off for a splash. I have to say, I do love Rapunzel – a log cabin with views of fields and horses (cue a girlie moment), and a chilled out atmosphere that helps you relax straight into the song. But it’s not just the setting, it’s the quality of the sound. Cellos are very difficult to mic. I’ve read various blogs saying don’t do this, do do that. None of them exactly the same, although there does seem to be some consensus about needing two mics, one slightly further away and no or minimal compression. Although my DI works very well for live gigs (I have a semi-acoustic cello), it doesn’t capture the warm, growly and woody tones in the studio, so getting a good mic set up is essential. Working with Lukas and Greg was fun – especially as Greg counts every song in at a different pace to the one intended. Me and Lukas would look at each other, grin, and get on and play. But by the fifth song we burst into laughter.
If you’ve not heard it yet, Comfortable Hatred has been likened to Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left – my Kirby inspired cello playing sneaking through there methinks. Greg’s style is, in an attempt to genre-lise, jazz folk and each song is a richly woven story. A story with real characters that fill your head and make you smile or want to reach out and hug them.
Meanwhile, the two-years-in-the-making Mudskippers album disappeared up the arse of a crashed hard drive with no recent back up!
So, without dwelling on that little episode I shall reflect on the summer of gigs and festivals.
In June, Mudskippers were happy as pigs to have been invited back to play to a small, intimate audience on a Cancer Lifeline SW retreat at Sharpham House. Set in beautiful surroundings overlooking the river Dart, we are invited to dine with the ten or so residents and then play to them. The food is always scrummy, we’re always made to feel so welcome, and it’s lovely to get to know the residents; it’s a heart-warming experience.
Festivals this year involved a trip out of county for a slot at the well known Village Pump Folk Festival with Greg Hancock, and a return to Bradninch Music Festival and a first at Tiverton Balloon Festival with Mudskippers; we loved watching the hot air balloons take off at dusk! But I think a Mudskippers highlight has to be Moreton Music Day (Moretonhampstead). A usually quiet town in the middle of Dartmoor was absolutely kicking – what an atmosphere! We played in the front bar of The Horse and not only were the audience great, but the sound engineer delivered a superb sound for us. We thoroughly enjoyed the other acts – the Hot House Four being a favourite of mine. Hoping to go back there in 2016.
Mudskippers were mightily relieved to find the data from the crashed hard drive could be recovered. We were back on track, albeit a couple of months behind schedule (what schedule? That was blown last year!) and I set back to work on the artwork for the CD. Although I have a fine art background, using graphic design tools was a new venture for me. I didn’t count the hours and evenings I spent developing the album cover, but I think it was worth it in the end. My old school friend Rachael also designed our lovely new logo. We busked at Sidmouth Folk Festival, had a couple more cosy gigs at the Bike Shed Theatre and Studio 36 in Exeter to air some new material as well as songs from our forthcoming album. We have enough songs for a second album now!
In August I was contacted by Ryn who was working on her second mini album, Coincide and wanted cello for two of the songs: Sure and Winter Bird. With only a few days’ notice and never having worked with Ryn before I had some loose ideas, but we pretty much composed and recorded on that day, experimenting with sounds. For Sure, I gave Ryn samples of whale song, long notes and heartbeats. It was great fun working with Ryn, she is a beautiful songwriter, delicate singer and very clever guitarist. Coincide is a great album and deserves a listen.
In the autumn, while Mudskippers’ album was being mastered and pressed, Greg whisked me off again (I like being whisked) to Rapunzel to record two new songs, one of which (Fremington Beach) was turned into a video a week later – recorded on location in North Devon. The song is about a little memorial to a man called Kenny, after a 20 minute walk along the point we were thrilled to see the memorial was still there, with new toys and messages added. I’ve never featured in a music video before so this was a great experience involving much wind, hair, miming, mud and ‘trying to look natural’ while someone is circling you with a camera. Top work again from George at Rapunzel and Margarita who did the video. We also enjoyed a gig in a tiny tiny bar (the Drewe Arms) in which squeezing a cello in was a challenge, a trip to Riviera FM for a live play on Jackson Cooper’s show and a magical night in Kingskerswell Church (supporting Tobias ben Jacob and Lukas Drinkwater), plus I double-billed at Oxjam Exeter with both Mudskippers and Greg Hancock! What a tart.
The year ended on a well deserved Mudskipper’s high (cue horn blows) with us finally releasing our first album Replacing the Stone, a hilarious radio show with Corinne (if you missed it you can hear an edited version of us introducing songs from the album on You Tube), and a superb gig at the Phoenix (you can also watch videos of the gig on You Tube).
I was shaking when the CD’s arrived. I still keep checking them for errors. Despite it being proofed in OCD style a thousand times. I’m convinced I’ve made a mistake in the text or image somewhere, even though I haven’t (*checksagain*)! A quick scramble to set up the online shop on our website, supplies of padded envelopes ordered, an afternoon in the pub pre-signing a bundle ready to be delivered to willing customers, and suddenly the orders started coming in! We don’t have any written reviews for the album yet but from what I’ve heard from others so far I would say that it’s a lo-fi (apparently that’s fashionable) diverse mix of indie, progressive and folk songs, its strength is its strong song-writing and interesting instrumental arrangements. Make my day, go check it out…
Other musical highlights for 2015:
New discovery: Alex Seel
Old re-discovery: Loaded – Velvet Underground
Favourite live performance – Lau at Exeter Phoenix, November
Other albums mostly been listening to: Lau, lots of. Burning Low – Tobias ben Jacob and Lukas Drinkwater. The Fine Art of Hanging On – The Leisure Society. The Race for Space – Public Service Broadcasting. Alexandrine – Grice. Watershed – Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin. Spark – The Waxroom. Tankus the Henge. Django Django.
Bye for now, thanks for reading!
A look back at 2014
Isn’t the recipe for a fulfilling life to always be trying something new and pushing yourself? Well, I think 2014 has certainly been a year of new ventures.
The first half of the year involved a continuation of recording the cello parts for Mudskipper’s debut album. Roughly one track a week – tucked away in Bully’s spare room with a mic, DI and headphones. I really enjoy the studio recording side of things – the challenge of aiming for the perfect take (jokingly competing with myself to do it in one or two goes). As I became more comfortable with the process we actually went back and re-recorded some of the first tracks, because my playing had developed. Even little things like how I wear the headphones made a difference (I’ve now worked out it’s best to have them slightly off my left ear so I can also hear the cello ‘in the room’ and be more responsive).
Gigs started to pick up in the spring and we even had some radio play….a first for me. Our song Twins was chosen for a BBC Introducing Devon ’round table’ session and actually hearing a panel of people discuss our work was fun and nerve racking. We then ventured to Somerset for a live radio interview and play with Trevor Lloyd at Somerset’s Radio 10 and down to Paignton to chat with Jackson Cooper at Riviera FM. Both great new experiences and super DJs.
Mudskippers gigged at regular intervals in the summer and autumn, and played at some private parties. We also started to venture out to Open Mic nights – the first one was John Gandy’s in Exeter which is run like a competition, and we won!!
This summer was also very special as it was the first time I went to WOMAD. Two acts in particular stood out for me (both involving cello’s of course) – Linnea Olsson (Swedish cellist/singer) and DhahkaBrakha (“ethno chaos” from the Ukraine).
Over the summer I had the pleasure of getting to know and play with Greg Hancock. Greg’s songwriting is very different to Bully’s – they’re more softer songs, slightly jazzy. When I hear Bully’s songs for the first time, it’s like I already know them (and love them); I think the years of us working together has created this familiarity. So working with a new singer/songwriter is an exciting challenge, as it makes you push boundaries. Greg’s lyrics are cameo’s, touched with humour in places, and as I learn the song I get to know the story and the characters – it’s like reading a book. Working with Greg has introduced me to a whole new load of people including the superb Lukas Drinkwater and Sophia Colkin, co-members of the Greg Hancock Quartet. Again, another first for me – playing along with an upright bass and violin. Working together has been a lovely experience. So far, we’ve composed four songs as a quartet and plan to record these in 2015.
On 2nd November I took part in a very exciting evening of folk music, in aid of Oxfam, with Nic Jones, Greg Russell, Ange Hardy, Jemima Farey, Lukas Drinkwater, Greg Hancock, Emily Howard, Devonbird and The Appaloosas. Videos of the Greg Hancock Quartet and me performing Straightjacket with Lukas and Emily are available on Greg’s You Tube channel. This was then followed in December with another gig at Exeter Folk Project; again playing alongside the likes of Nic Jones and Greg Russell as well as BBC Folk Award 2014 winners, Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin. Awesome! A top finale to a year of really great, intimate gigs at Starz Bar from the EFP team. Playing in a line up with these top performers certainly tested my nerves – folk club gigs are pretty intense anyway, but when musical heroes are sitting close and also listening intently you do feel the pressure to play your best. Greg also landed a new song on me two days before! You can hear our two songs via my SoundCloud site/Listen page.
The year ended rather quietly, but much needed as it’s good to have some space and time to reflect and revisit technical aspects as well as work on new songs with Mudskippers and Greg. I’ve also been designing the artwork for the Mudskippers album (all will be revealed soon!).
A big big thanks to Bully, Corinne, Greg, Lukas and Sophia for being such great musical partners. Trevor at Radio 10, Jackson at Riviera FM, James Santer (BBC Intro), Gerard Edwards (Bradninch Folk), Martin Stork (Topsham festivals) and Hannah Partridge (JGs) for being so supportive; and not forgetting all our friends, family and fans for continuing to come to our gigs, comment on our posts and put big smiles on our faces. *hopenotforgottenanyone*