I've never done this question and answer thing by e-mail before, but there were a few questions I wanted to put to Rachael McShane, after reviewing her album over the weekend...
Tell me a bit about the musicians you've chosen to work with, why you chose them and what they each bring to the sound of your album?
By the time I actually got round to doing a solo project, I’d done quite a bit of playing with other folk musicians in Newcastle (where I’ve been living for the past eight years) and had done a couple of projects with musicians from outside the folk scene. For my solo album I wasn’t particularly aiming for any kind of fusion project, I just fancied playing with some musicians from outside the folk scene and seeing what we could come up with. I’d taken a booking for a festival last summer but I had neither band members nor songs! Nothing like a bit of pressure to make you get on with things!
Drummer Adam Sinclair was first to be enlisted. We’d worked together on a project with a singer songwriter and he seemed to have quite an eclectic taste in music. He has some great arrangement ideas and is a very talented musician. He’s been pretty helpful along the way too, recording the demo in his dining room and going on to engineer and produce the album. It was great having him as producer as he knew the material so well and understood my way of thinking but was also brave enough to try things I’d never have thought of. He also helped me to put together the rest of the band!
Adam had done a lot of playing with bassist Jonathan Proud before and they’re in another band together called Peculiar Disco Moves. Jonathan was not entirely new to the folk scene, being a member of folk band The Hundred Man Orchestra and his answer was ‘If Sinclair’s in, I’m in!’ They work well together! Jonathan is a pretty cool player, he knows when to keep it understated, when to groove and when to bring out the distortion. He’s also my Internet tech support officer!
I’d met James Peacock playing some cello on an album by a band called Mamacoca, of which he and Adam are members. Having James in the band is like living with a giant seven year old. He amazes me with his musical mind and the way he thinks about chords and similarly astonishes me with his inability to make a cup of tea! His father is actually a Northumbrian piper so he was really up for playing some folk music despite never having played any before. He’s a really inventive player and has an enthusiasm to try new ideas. He has got quite into his folk music too; a little birdie told me he’s even bought a concertina!
How easy was it to put the sounds of Bellowhead out of your mind whilst making the album and to what extent were you trying to create your own sound here?
I’ve obviously been massively influenced by the musicians I’ve worked with in Bellowhead and the style of music we play, but doing a solo project was an opportunity to do something that was more ‘mine’. Doing something stylistically different to Bellowhead was never an issue; it naturally happened that way due to the musicians I’d chosen for the band and the choice of material. I’m very pleased with how it’s turned out.
If you'd not been a member of Bellowhead would No Man's Fool have sounded different, or did you always have in mind a more inventive sound for your music?
I’m not sure I’d ever have made ‘No Man’s Fool’ had I not had the support of Bellowhead band members, and even if I had I’m not sure it would’ve been quite the same! Playing in Bellowhead opened my eyes to new approaches to traditional music and I love what the non-folkies bring to the band. Having said that I made a little demo when I was about sixteen, which had keyboards, bass and drums on it…glad I waited a while before recording an album though!
How did you choose the songs and were there any others that you tried that didn't work out this time around?
There were a few songs that I’d been singing for a while that I knew I wanted to record on the album and quite a lot of songs that were brand new to me for this project. There were songs that I’d always fancied singing, such as Miles Weatherhill, from the singing of Nic Jones, and songs that I found in various books, such as The Highwayman Outwitted and The Shepherd Lad that I liked the story of. It was only after a little while that I realised there was a theme emerging. Writing a set list one day it dawned on me that I had rather a lot of songs about men! I had a shoemaker, a captain, a fisherman, a shepherd etc. but it was the women who were more often the stronger characters in these songs, which is where the album title ‘No Man’s Fool’ came from. Once the theme was established, the rest of the album seemed to fall into place pretty easily. We recorded all of the songs we’d got together in the knowledge that we had a bit too much material and one would probably get cut. In the end it was ‘Gypsy’, a version of the Dark Eyed Gypsy or Gypsy Laddie that didn’t quite fit once we’d got the track order sorted. It’s available to download though so it wasn’t wasted!
What's more important to you in a song: the vocal or the instrumentation?
That’s a tough one! I think as soon as you put instrumentation with a traditional song, it loses something of its raw storytelling element but it also gains the ability to be more powerful and moving with instrumentation. I think instrumentation actually makes traditional song a little more accessible for audiences outside the folk scene too, but for me, the song is the most important thing and it’s important that the story and sentiment of the song are the main focus of the arrangement. That said we had a lot of fun on this album with Rhodes keyboards, percussion galore, a horn section and distorted bass! If instrumentation is used for effect and to support the song then I’m all in favour.
Who are your musical influences and what echoes might we hear of them in No Man's Fool?
There was always an eclectic mix of music listened to in my household as a child. I was always a big folk fan and loved listening to Irish musicians such as Frankie Gavin and the Irish albums that Karen Tweed recorded, and I’ve always loved Nic Jones’s singing and his ability to really tell a story. Being dragged along to folk clubs and festivals from being tiny, the folk influences are not hard to spot, but I also played classical music when I was at school, playing in orchestras and taking the classical grades on cello. My dad was at Huddersfield Uni when I was about 9, so we went to a lot of concerts, not only classical but also a lot of contemporary music gigs. I’m also a huge fan of people like Joni Mitchell and James Taylor and I love a bit of a boogie and a sing-along! I’m not sure which influences shine through but I think being exposed to all kinds of music as a child has allowed me to be quite open minded with my music. I think folk audiences are pretty welcoming and open to new concepts and ideas too.
What next Rachael?
Well we’re having a couple of quiet weeks at home now before we’re off to Shrewsbury festival at the end of August, which is always a lovely festival. Then we’ve got a big launch do up in Newcastle on 31st October at The Cluny 2. I had this great idea that I’d get everyone who played on the album to play at the launch, which will mean about thirteen of us! Bellowhead is a logistical nightmare but at least I don’t have to organise anyone! So I’ll be busy organising that and we’ll be rehearsing for a little while and after that we’re itching to get started on some new material. Watch this space I guess!
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