Monday, 10 March 2014

PHILLIP HENRY & HANNAH MARTIN

Interview

It does sound a little like a script from a musical for Exeter-based duo Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin who were "discovered" busking as part of Sidmouth Folk Week. Fast forward a few years to The Royal Albert Hall and they are being handed the Radio2 Folk Award for best duo.

Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin receive their award
But like all good fairy tales it's as much about what isn't told as what is. The couple have put their time in and deserved to be in the running although they were up against some tough and equally worthy opponents so didn't take anything for granted.

"I think winning the best duo folk award is probably the pinnacle of what we have done so far," said Henry who still seemed to be enjoying the afterglow of the ceremony. "It was a shock really. I thought we were in with a chance and the album was really well received. I still wasn't prepared to count my chickens but, yes it was a bit of a shock. However, when we saw Phil Beer and Steve Knightley up there we thought we were in with a chance.
"We thought it would be a head-to-head between us and Catrin Finch & Seckou Keita because they had made a really great album which had also been really well received by the media. We thought they were our strongest opposition."

Martin was a little less optimistic but no less overjoyed to be named winners.

"I was surprised perhaps even more so than Phil. I think in my head I had convinced myself we hadn't got it and the suspense was driving us mad so we were very surprised when we won, very happy of course, but very surprised.
"It wasn't something we were particularly expecting, and all the other nominees were thoroughly deserving of it. I wouldn't say we didn't deserve it but there is so much great music out there. So you don't want to get your hopes up too far.

So what is the real story behind Steve Knightley finding them busking at Sidmouth Festival, did he really come across the duo by chance?
"Yes it was really," explains Henry. "Obviously geographically it was likely to happen because we live quite close to each other, but it was at Sidmouth that he spotted us busking on the sea front, and we were playing in a band at the back of one of the pubs there.
Phillip Henry who plays slide guitar and harmonica
"Steve bought my first CD which had Hannah on a few tracks. Then he contacted me and said they had about three openings on their cathedral tour they were about to do in the autumn.
"Jackie Oates was doing the support but there were three dates she couldn't make and so he asked would we like to fill in the gaps?

"The biggest one we did was Bath at Wells Cathedral, which was in front of about 800 people so we were straight in at the deep end. From there they asked us to join them on their spring tour the next year so we did another 12 concerts with them and then about another 10 or 12 festivals.
"We also played on Steve's solo live album. It was a big learning curve for us. It was all a bit of a blur but it was what we wanted to do, so we knuckled down and made sure we were up to the challenge, but we were quite nervous."

The exposure and accolades have started paying dividends almost instantly as Martin explained.

"We have had wonderful emails and messages from lots of different people who have been lovely and supportive. Our agent is telling us that lots of bookings offers are coming in which is fantastic news.
"Hopefully it will raise our profile and we will continue doing what we do, but hopefully with bigger audiences and better opportunities, fingers crossed.

She is hopeful more of the same will be coming their way too.
"A lot of things are booked up in advance that much of this year is already sewn up, but I think some of the summer festivals wait for the results and see what's going to be good to fill in their last slots. We already have a busy festival tour but we might get a few more and then we have the autumn and into next year where we might be going to South Africa which will be very exciting. We started first night back two days after the awards in a sold out venue. So it's going really well."

The duo who are an item, should you be wondering, both have an impressive musical track record with Martin being encouraged from an early age to follow her musical leanings while Henry has travelled to Asia to study classical Indian music. Martin puts down one of her earliest influences as her parents.

Hannah Martin chose the violin
"They always encouraged me and always played a lot of music when I was growing up and they are both fine singers and we used to do that a lot at home. They were into folk but I suppose more folk rock of the 1960-70s, people like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, that kind of thing. They encouraged me to play an instrument and they let me pick. I wanted to play the violin.
"They also had some friends who were professional folk club singers who did a lot of gigging and they got me playing with them.
"I was exposed to a lot more of traditional and English stuff and I was hugely inspired by people such as Peter Knight, Maddy Prior and Eliza Carthy, so it gradually went from there. I started gigging with them and from there I haven't really stopped.

This early influence meant she was almost pre-destined to become a folk singer.

"Growing up with it (folk music), it becomes ingrained and I was always drawn to the stories. I remember sitting down and listening to a Joan Baez song and trying to unpick the story of Lily Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts which has about 50 verses and being completely drawn into that world. It's the same with ballads such as Tam Lin, I just love that sort of music and it's such a rich tradition."

Henry's influences were slightly different on his path to folk stardom.

"I started on a more bluesy side of things, the first band I got into was The Beatles but there was also all that 60s music like Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton's early stuff. From there I got into the acoustic blues and then folk blues stuff and from there it spread out into traditional music from the British Isles but I am very into Indian and world music. I studied Indian classical music in India for a period.
"We both have eclectic tastes but we are very much drawn to the folk side of things these days. 


The award winning couple
They ended up in the same part of the country after Henry moved to Exeter to study at the city's university and from there, there was quite a bit of moving and shaking before they actually ended up as a duo the catalyst was Henry's move to India and the break-up of their band Roots Union.

"That's how Phil and I met. When he left to study music in India he actually left behind a duo with a guy called Toby and the duo was called the School of Trobar and when Phil went Toby was looking for someone to hook up with that's where I came in, but then when Phil came back from India I had kind of nicked his job so, instead of breaking things up again we decided to get together and form Roots Union. It was a really good band and we had a lovely time working together.
"It was the logistics which killed it, just trying to keep five people on the road and fed was really hard without mega-backing, and then various people had their own lives to go and lead so it sort of fell apart. But we are still good friends and we have worked with a couple of them on different bits as well."

With being both a working couple as well as traversing the North South divide (Hannah is from Devon and Phillip Lancashire) do they work well together? Henry has little doubt about it.

"Well I am very sarcastic and Hannah is very well spoken so I think it is quite a good dynamic on stage, we have a good laugh. Hannah brings a lot of West Country stuff to the act but we have yet to explore more content from the north of England. but I think the next album will feature a bit more. It's good we have kind of a north and south inspiration.
"We are writing really well together these days and with each album we find new approaches to what we are writing and so the quality of our writing is improving.
"Words aren't necessarily my specialty," admits Henry. "Hannah is good with words and she is a student of English literature and has a very good grasp of the literary side of life. I write a lot of music and am in charge of shaping the songs, arranging and producing so I thinks it's a good balance of lyrical and musical content."

With the "well spoken one" as the major lyricist from where does Martin derive inspiration and start the process?

"There is a balance between inspiration and sitting down and writing something regularly. Inspiration is pretty vital and Steve Knightley said to me once that it's a craft as much as an art and you have to be in the habit of sitting down and picking up your instruments and keep making notes when something occurs to you.
Henry adds: "Inspiration can come from different places. Sometimes stories she or I have heard and we get to write a song about a certain subject. Often the music comes first and then I will take it to Hannah, and sometimes I have an idea of what I want the song to be about and sometimes she will have a story which needs some music."

If you go by their latest collaboration which produced their acclaimed and second album Mynd then the team work seems to be paying off.

"We put everything we had into it, and it was whittled down to those songs from a wide selection. We spent
two years on and off recording it and put a lot of time, money and effort into it," explains Martin.
"We are both really proud of it. I think we spent long enough making it and we gigged doing the songs long enough before we recorded them, so they kind of evolved before we recorded, so when we put it to bed we were happy with it.

Was there any problem with the so-called second album jinx?

Their second and latest album Mynd
"Not really, I think we've had a strange evolution because although we have only made two albums as a duo we were in a band first and made a couple of albums with various and enormous problems associated with it and then after that we made a live solo album with Phil," says Martin. "We were constantly hampered by logistics, we didn't have a record label paying for everything, we were trying to scrape the money from here and there, and get it all together and get all the people in the right room.
"Then we made our first album Singing the Bones, which we recorded at home, we used all the proceeds from that, so by the time we got to the second album we actually had a budget to work with. We had our wonderful producer Mark Tucker and could hire a recording studio and all the stuff - it felt like a complete breeze by comparison."

When you are so involved in such a project is it difficult to be objective?

"Yes totally, but working with our producer Mark was a real revelation. It's a funny relationship or can be. I have spoken to people who in the past have found it really hard. But we hit on exactly the right person who really understood what we were trying to do and had the means and the knowledge to realise it, but also have an objective ear and so his input was great," explains Martin.

Has all the new recognition they have received, the award, the successful second album changed their horizons or ambitions?

"Not really," says Martin, "we are both trying to keep our minds open as to what is possible. I think if you decide in your mind that something is impossible then I suppose it does very quickly become impossible. I suppose it's given us a nice boost of confidence and hope for the future."

Henry & Martin are playing the Kitchen Garden Cafe, Birmingham B14 7SA on March 30. Call  0121 443 4725 or visit www.kitchengardencafe.co.uk/. Doors open 7.30pm and tickets are £10.

For a full review of the album Mynd follow the page link http://folkall.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/cd-review_3.html