Saturday, 18 April 2015

FAY HIELD

Interview

The Full English

When the English Folk Dance and Song Society(EFDSS) was putting together an impressive, online and searchable archive of folk music it took on a mammoth task. When it then decided it wanted someone to promote and take the project to the masses there was only one person on the list, musician and academic Fay Hield

Fay Hield
They entrusted the Sheffield singer, who had been on the ground floor with the scheme, with promoting the archive through playing some of the songs at gigs, but Hield had bigger ideas for the collection.

"I felt very lucky to have been offered it and grateful for it. They (EFDSS), would have happily had me turn up with two musicians and sing some stuff but that's not what I wanted to do. I wanted to get other people in so the band turned out to be a collection of voices and of people doing it in very different ways that would hold together as a group.

With such a mammoth collection to choose from and a diverse range of musicians around were you clear on the people you wanted to be part of what would eventually became The Full English or did you throw it out there and see who showed interest?
"Oh God no!
"I couldn't just throw it out, I knew then I would be inundated and I would have to turn people down. No, I decided who I wanted in it and then approached them individually and I did it by looking at what I wanted to be represented first.
"So rather than thinking who's out there, I had the female folk singer traditional thing covered, that's what I do, that ticked that box.
"Then I thought, OK I want someone who can take this in a sort of pop direction, what have we got there? I wanted someone who will take things in a slightly more American protest type direction and I want someone who does song writing as well as working with traditional material.
"I want blokes and women, I needed backing musicians; headliners and big names, so what have we got?"
The Full English

Did you match the music to the people or let them choose for themselves?
"The archive has 58,000 scans in there so I needed some kind of divvying up mechanism and work out what to do.
"I looked at who the collectors were.
"Martin Simpson was very keen to look at Lincolnshire collector Percy Grainger, so that was fine, bang, he can go off and do that.
"Nancy Kerr was very keen to look at the women collectors.
"I wanted some broadsides as well as ballads and thought Seth Lakeman would be great at them, which can be very narrative and very driving, so he took Frank Kidson.
"I wanted tunes as well as songs so Sam Sweeney and Rob Harbron did some tune development. Ben came up with his own songs, he just dug around and found some things and I kind of scooped up the rest really.
"I wanted Alfred Williams represented definitely because he was a working class collector where all the others were pretty much highly educated and of a very different class.

Were you able then to take something of a back seat and let them thrash things out before you got them together to see what had been created?
"I sent Seth a dozen broadsides and Martin some recordings and things, and I sent Nancy some stuff as well, which I thought would be helpful, but nobody really used anything I sent," she says with a wry laugh.
"It was quite interesting really, I thought it was brilliant because it meant they all stayed in the same area they were interested in but they all wanted to find their own songs.
"The people really did invest in their songs and then they worked on them pretty much individually, I think Seth and Ben did a bit when they were on the road.
"Nancy, Martin and myself did a bit because we all live in Sheffield, and Rob and I did a couple of rehearsals when we were in a band so, we did little group things.
"Then we all came together and the material had quite a backbone to it by that point, everyone "owned" their own song and they had a feel for it, they had written a tune for it or a riff and then we just jammed it out and pulled them together."

Hield is still something of a rarity in that not only is she a highly respected and award-winning folk singer she is also a doctor of folk music, or ethnomusicology if you want the technical term.
She comes from a family whom she says were always into folk music but her academic interest was sparked partly by a thirst for knowledge about what she was involved in and partly by being looked down on by the "old guard".

"I have always sung as part of my social life and my parents were always interested in the folk club scene, they were the Morris dancer types.
"I am not a classically trained musician so it was quite a surprise when I went to study music at university. I did it because Newcastle set up a degree and by then I was a singer, singing floor spots and was big into the festival scene.
Hield and the Hurricane Party
"So when I was 23 I wanted to know what folk music was, what the folk scene was.
"I was getting quite a lot established folk singers telling me I didn't understand the music, and would get comments such as 'you'll understand that when you're a bit older', or 'this is the traditional version'.
"I wanted to know more about what tradition meant and what it was all about.
"The folk scene can be quite cliquey at times and that's what I went on to do my PhD in, the sense of community.
"People who are inside it care so much about what they do that sometimes they don't see how difficult it is for new people to come through because everybody already knows so much about it when they are already inside.
"I wanted to understand what they meant, because I maybe didn't agree with them but I didn't know anything myself to be able to contradict them. I am quite a critical person, I like to think about things.
"Because I born and brought up in the scene I love all those people, they are like family to me so it's not like I want to turn my back on them, or tell them off or say what they are doing is wrong in any way.
"What people do in the folk scene is phenomenal and they care so much, but it can be a bit of a closed shop."

To begin with, The Full English was in two distinct strands, there was the database and setting that up and then the creation of the group to promote it but there was a third string added to the bow.
The EFDSS put up a learning programme with an education database as well. So they did a lot of work with schools around England and now almost as an extension to the final tour some members of the The Full English will be running workshops based on the database through Hield's own scheme Soundpost in Sheffield.
With all this going on was it something of a logistical nightmare getting everyone together because all the musicians had their own careers?
"It was quite difficult finding dates that were suitable for everybody," she admits.
"We had to do it intensively really, but the good side about everyone being so professional and busy is that everyone is professional, so if they say they are available for those dates, they turn up and work very hard.
"Everyone was very committed to it, so we didn't have people letting each other down, or turning up unprepared or anything like that. In one way it was difficult but in another way I would much rather work with good, busy people.
"People think you must rehearse for hours, but a day of good, intense, focused rehearsal is much better than sitting around for three weeks and not getting on with anything."

Because there were quite a collection of different personalities, did you have to take charge or were there clashes over the material?
"Everything worked remarkably and surprisingly well. I had never met Seth before the first rehearsal so he was a real wild card.
Seth Lakeman one of The Full English
"Some people there are leaders, and it's quite characteristic of leaders of bands to have egos, so put four egos in a band and what have you got, a recipe for disaster but it didn't go wrong.
"There were a few artistic differences, but there was never any real conflict because everyone had ownership of their song, so it never had to be discussed really, personal issues never came into it.
"As a model for putting a collaboration together it was good," she admits with an obvious sense of pride in her voice.

So as it came together, was there a point where you listened to what they had done and thought Wow! This is going to work?
"Yes," she states emphatically. "We started playing and it worked so well. I knew the gigs were going to be good. But I didn't think we would still be touring now, so I think that has taken us all a bit by surprise."

So was The Full English always going to be a short-term project?
"It was, and it was going to be much shorter than it has been. We have always had to extend it a little bit because of success.
"When I turned it into the size band that it was I decided there was no point in getting enough material for just one gig, so we must make an album. If we are going to put all that work in we are going to record it, and if we are going to record it then we have to do a tour. So early on I knew we would do a launch gig, record the album quite quickly and then tour in the autumn and that would be it, that was all anyone had signed up for.
"Then because that tour went so well people agreed to another the following spring, but before that tour we got nominated in the folk awards and won that as well, but we also knew it was going to end because everyone has so many projects and irons in fires."

Nancy Kerr
Were you surprised by the reaction you got?
"I was overwhelmed by it but I don't want to take the credit for it, it's because it's tied to the archive and to the story, the response is for the project, it's not just for our music.
"It's a totally different kind of band, it's not just me going out and making an album and everyone adoring me. It's not even that everybody adores us, it's that they get that those archives and collectors are so significant to preserving this music, and they got to know the collectors a bit better through the shows."


Were you aware there was a danger the band could become bigger than the project?
"The sole purpose of the band was to tell people about the archive and get people to visit it, to me that was the only reason for doing it.
"If I wanted to be in a "super group" I would have started a super group, the band was about sharing the information."

What sort of people is the archive aimed at?
"Anyone who is interested in folk music can get to it. It's huge for social history, for education; for looking at how people lived; for evidencing the kind of songs people sang.
"It's a real document of bits of history. You can type in the name of your village or your town and things come up and kids love that, they love to see songs recorded here which their grannie might have known.
"They really get that and it helps them connect to an otherwise random kind of music, you know something from 200 years ago means nothing unless you give them a way in."

Has there been any way to gauge how successful it has been in pointing people towards it?
"One thing I would be interested to know from EFDSS, I know they have had a lot of success with it and they have had a lot of hits, is to see when we've gigged or toured if that's had an impact on how many hits they got."

Martin Simpson
With the amount of material available to the band it could have gone on, why stop now?
"We have got enough material to record a second album, it would be very easy for us to pull it together.
"We discussed whether we should do that and we decided not to. We would make a quick buck out of it and would sell loads, but the point of it was to show people what they could do with the archive and we don't want The Full English to be seen as the only people who can do stuff with the material.
"We wanted it as an example of what other people can do, that was one of the messages in the live shows, it's over to you now, go and look at the website; dig it out, find it and go and make your own music.
"We decided to be happy with what we've done and go out with a bang and just leave it there as a springboard for other people."

As it comes to an end, what has it been like touring with the band and what will you take from the experience?
"It's been phenomenal, everyone has got on so well. Living on the road with nine people and the techies as well can be quite stressful, but it's been a real giggle, it's been really fun.
"In terms of logistics it was a bloody nightmare because we didn't take a tour manager so because I was head of the project I did everything.
"I took on the merchandising and completely underestimated how many CDs we would sell, so I was completely knackered because at intervals and post gigs selling around 200 albums is hard work.
"I can't fault it and I am really looking forward to getting back on the road with them again. I haven't seen them really since last summer.

Did you become something of a matriarch of the group?
"I was the one who knew everything. I knew where the hotels were, how far it was to the next gig, what time we needed to leave, so in that respect yes, I suppose I was."

Is this then the end of The Full English?
jon Boden
"We (that's Hield and her partner Bellowhead's Jon Boden) run a workshop festival called Soundpost in Sheffield where people can learn folk music skills and we will be running workshops on The Full English and about half the band are coming and some people from EFDSS."

What would she like to see happen with the archive?
"That people keep using it and people keep finding out it's there and EFDSS keep getting money to improve it.
"If people don't use it then it will be just another website which nobody uses but people need to keep going there and building projects around it. It's been a phenomenal achievement."

As a special request, after being asked many, many times she would like it pointed out that Fay Hield is her real name.
"Yes, I was about eight when someone pointed out it was a Spoonerism. I get asked at least once at every festival."

As part of their farewell tour, The Full English will be playing Town Hall, Birmingham on Thursday May 7, tickets are £21.50 plus the usual booking fee which is on all transactions except where bought direct from the venue or the Symphony Hall. The show starts at 7.30pm.