There is something markedly exciting happening to Welsh traditional song, and it's not necessarily surfacing from where one might expect. Driven by an unbounded love and enthusiasm for a collection of songs from the Welsh tradition, yet free from the constrains that might result from an immersion in the traditional music scene, 9Bach create genuinely original and vibrant interpretations that hold true to the spirit of the songs, whilst allowing them room to grow and reach out to a whole new audience. At the heart of 9Bach's ethos are husband and wife, Lisa Jên and Martin Hoyland, who come from backgrounds that are as diverse as the musical styles they bring together.
Lisa, having spent the years since her teens as an actress, barely considers herself to be a musician, despite having worked on music projects with Gruff Rhys and The Big Leaves: 'I've never been in bands really at all, and it's not been my lifelong ambition to do so, but I've always sang with other bands; people are more likely to know me as an actress. I was often around studios as a teenager, but nothing that was my own project'. And for Lisa, there is certainly no musical history that has seen her immersed in the traditional cultures of Wales: 'My taste in music is really odd, when I was younger I used to listen to a lot of music that my Dad would listen to, like Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. As a teenager I was in to Björk, happy hardcore and techno, hip-hop and soul, but never really anything that was in the charts'. She is however quick to assert her passion for the songs to which she brings so much colour and character, with a visible enthusiasm and intensity: 'I am obsessed with old traditional Welsh folk songs. Some of them I've known and I have grown up with. I'd love to say there's some romantic story and that my Grandmother used to sing them to me, but I come from a very non-musical family. Some songs I've known since singing them in school or at drama school, and some of them I've taught myself from old folk books. I'm on a quest now to find some more obscure songs. I always say that we're very lucky as a nation to have these songs, because they are beautiful, and some of them are true stories. I get quite drawn in to these songs about these poor women who fell pregnant out of wedlock and were rejected by their family, and ended up killing themselves; I fantasise a bit about being these people'. When you're in the company of Lisa talking about these songs it's almost impossible not to share in her passion, but you really have to see her perform the songs to see how uncompromisingly she inhabits the lyrics and lives the drama, doubtlessly drawing on her acting skills, and undeniably aided by her powerfully evocative voice.
Despite growing up in North West Wales, an area that takes great pride in its Welsh identity, and where the majority of inhabitants will be first-language Welsh speakers, Lisa expresses some discomfort with the way in which aspects of Welsh traditional culture are zealously protected: 'We've had a few people who don't really get what we're doing and think we're spoiling the songs. As a child I was forced to sing in Eisteddfods and I wasn't enjoying it because I was never successful singing the folk songs, because they'd say things like "she's got a nice voice but she's not keeping to the rules, she's taking her breath in the wrong place, and not holding that note for long enough." And I just thought that this was bollocks, this is Welsh soul music, I should be able to do what I want and interpret them how I want'. Ultimately, it's this distance from the cultural establishment that seem to allow Lisa the freedom to breath new vigour in to the traditional material, and to invest in her performances a very personal and palpable spirit.
Adding further to the musical divergence is Martin Hoyland, hailing from London, and until recently a complete stranger to the traditions and cultures of Wales: 'For me it's a massive departure. My background is rock music or indie. Lisa started singing me these folk songs and with an idea that she wanted to change them, move away from how they're traditionally performed. It wasn't really a plan to make a band, Lisa just said "listen to these songs," and I was amazed by them. When Lisa sang them to me, as a guitarist, it demanded to me straight away to pick my guitar up and play along, it just inspired me, the music was just going round in my head from listening to the melodies. I was amazed by these beautiful melodies and even though I didn't understand the lyrics, I could feel the emotion in the song. The only thing I could think of was that it wasn't enough to just listen to it, I had to get my guitar out straight away'. Buoyed by Lisa's enthusiasm, Martin has been instrumental in fashioning the dynamic arrangements that breathe new life in to songs of old. Bringing together the rock sensibilities afforded by Martin's electric guitar, a prominent rhythm section, and augmented by the more traditional sounds of Esyllt Glyn Jones' sparkling harp, 9Bach present a powerful fusion of the old and new.
Their departure from a more conventional traditional sound, possibly coupled with the fascination of singing in a language other than English, means that 9Bach are well received outside of Wales, in the wider British or international music scenes where Wales isn't quite as well represented as some of their Celtic cousins, as Martin concurs: 'It's surprising that what we think are amazing folk songs in Wales, aren't as represented on the international stage, as Scottish and Irish music is. When you look at big festival line-ups, you wonder where all the Welsh artists are'. Martin perhaps feels a particular affinity with audiences outside Wales, as he well understands how these songs were able to move him: 'I think people listen more to the whole thing. I think me not understanding the lyrics has made the arrangements of the songs maybe more interesting or more emotive because you're trying to get across more. When we were first working on the songs Lisa said that somehow the arrangements I was coming up with were fitting the lyrics, so somehow the message is getting across even when there's no understanding of the lyrics'. Lisa has different reasons for her enjoyment of playing outside of Wales, referring back to the discomfort she alluded to earlier with the Eisteddfod movement: 'maybe this is where my unease with performing to a Welsh audience comes from, it probably still makes me feel a bit tense. I feel we get a better reaction outside of Wales. On a totally personal level, I don't like doing gigs to a Welsh audience. I'm not saying we haven't had good gigs in Wales, I just prefer to perform to a non Welsh-speaking audience, because I think there's more appreciation there. I usually explain what's happening in the songs, and you always feel that a non Welsh-speaking audience really listen then to the actual song, whereas a Welsh audience might have heard these songs before and just switch off before even starting to listen to them'.
As a first-time listener to 9Bach, before I was aware of the stories behind the songs and the band, I just remember sitting there in total awe of these wonderfully expansive arrangements, of the clarity of enunciation inherent in Lisa Jên's delivery, and the raw passion that she evokes on stage. 9Bach may well prove to be as influential to Welsh music as Fairport Convention were to English music with their 1969 folk-rock opus, Liege and Lief, or they may well take Welsh language traditional song to the international stage in the same way that Capercaillie did with their inspired interpretations of Gaelic music. Their eponymous début album certainly lays down the foundations for further exploration of this unique path that they have carved out for themselves, and Martin certainly seems to suggest that this is a foundation that they will build on: 'When we were working on the first album, we thought we'll do our own songs on the next album, but I think the last few songs we recorded convinced us that there's still a bit of mileage and we're still exploring'.
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