Having won the BBC2 Folk Award for Best Live Act three out of the last five years, plus a prestigious appearance at the Proms in 2008, Rachael McShane has already achieved phenomenal success as a member of 11-piece folk big band Bellowhead. As the group’s only female member, she has always stood out from the pack, and now she’s finally indulging the dream of a lifetime by releasing an album under her own name. No Man’s Fool, out through Navigator Records on August 17th, spins 10 traditional yarns with a golden touch. Recorded with a trio more accustomed to playing jazz, soul and funk than folk – James Peacock (keyboards), Jonathan Proud (electric bass), Adam Sinclair (drums and percussion) – the album reimagines classic material like ‘The Drowned Sailor’ with surprising results. When compiling the album, it occurred to Rachael that she had been subconsciously drawn to picking songs in which strong female characters outwit the men at their own games and turning their dastardly deeds inside out. How could Wears The Trousers resist?
Piano-led preview track ‘The Gardener’ tells the tale of a proud young woman named Margaret who spurns the romantic approaches of a gardener who works in her father’s garden with a biting riposte. He wants to make her clothes from the herbs and flowers that grow in the garden; she wants him out in the cold, naked or dead! Lyrics like “The milk white snow will be your shirt / that lies your body next / and the night black rain will be your coat / with the wind all at your breast,” are hardly sweet nothings. “And every time that you pass by / I’ll wish you were away,” pretty much sums her opinions up. Wears The Trousers caught up with Rachael while on tour in Canada to get the inside story on the album…
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How did you first get into folk music?
I had little choice in the matter really! I got taken along to folk festivals from being a baby. My dad’s a musician, he plays guitar, banjo and mandolin and so he was a big influence on me when I was growing up. He played for dancing so I grew up with festivals, Irish dancing and ceilidhs.
Do you ever get people asking if you’re related to Lovejoy?
Haha! Not recently actually. Having said that most members of Bellowhead have a nickname (not all of them know about them so I won’t disclose too much here) and my nickname was Lovejoy for a while…it’s not now, and no, I’m not related to him!
You were one of the first graduates to complete Newcastle University’s folk and traditional music degree. How much of an effect did that course have on your career?
Well, I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t be doing what I am now had I not done the folk degree in Newcastle. That said, the folk degree course by no means has a guaranteed job at the end of it! For me it was a fantastic opportunity to meet other musicians and play with them and travel to other countries and experience music from other cultures, which I probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do had I not been on the degree course in Newcastle. The degree course gets a bit of stick from purists but I think it’s an invaluable thing. There are nationwide jazz and rock courses, so why not a course that encourages people to play and research traditional music?!
You’re about to release your debut solo album after five years in Bellowhead and, unusually, they were the ones who’ve been encouraging you to make it. What made you finally decide to seize the day?
Well, it was something I’d always wanted to do and I thought I might never get the opportunity. I’d been a member of CrossCurrent, which was formed during my time at Newcastle University, and when that ended it seemed like the perfect opportunity to give it a go. Shortly after CrossCurrent split we were on tour in Wales with Bellowhead and the boys gave me a bit of a kick to get on with it…so I did!
You’ve taken the slightly unusual approach of working with jazz/soul musicians on your arrangements of traditional folk songs. Did you go into the studio with any sort of touchstones for the sound you wanted? Maybe Hejira by Joni Mitchell?
I’d worked with a lot of the folk musicians in Newcastle and knew them pretty well, but I just fancied doing something a bit different. I’d worked with Adam Sinclair, the drummer on a project with a singer songwriter and he recommended Jonathan Proud – bass and James Peacock – keyboards. People that know my taste in music think the album is very ‘me’. I’m a big Joni Mitchell fan and love all kinds of different music but I wouldn’t say I knew what sound I wanted when I started out. It was quite an organic process and we all drew on our own tastes and influences when we put the album together.
Do you feel that jazz and traditional folk styles have a lot of commonalities? What were the main challenges in getting these arrangements to work?
I think fusion of any kind can be a total nightmare if it’s shoehorned together, but we didn’t really see this album as a fusion project. I’d bring a song along and we’d see what happened with it. It took us a while to realise what we could do as a band and what sounds we could make together. The other guys hadn’t had a great deal of experience playing folk music and I think it actually benefited from that. We had free reign really. I think the traditional songs stand up in their own right, they’re great stories and are part of an aural tradition where songs are passed on and changed, so whatever way you feel is appropriate to tell the story is up to you…not everyone will like it and it might not always work, but it’s all part of the process.
You recorded the album over Christmas and New Year just gone. Can you tell us a bit about the process? Were you fuelled by eggnog and sherry?
I’m afraid there was no eggnog or sherry to be seen, it was a pretty sober festive season for us this year. I’m actually a big Christmas hater so it was great to spend time working in the studio rather than watching ‘E.T.’ for the 20th time and eating sprouts. We had fun though, we wore party hats every day at mealtimes and even had the odd mince pie! I was even kind enough to give the band Christmas Day and New Years Day off.
Does the turkey get an album credit?
Well I’m a vegetarian, so no!
Did you get involved in the production side?
We thought about who would make a good producer and in the end decided that our drummer Adam Sinclair was the man for the job. He had a good idea of what I wanted and what I would hate and it worked really well. We talked through most of the ideas and it was great to have someone who knew the music well and could take charge on certain things. He did a fantastic job and also engineered a lot of the album…I think I owe him a pint actually!
I think it’s fair to say that the women wear the trousers in your songs. Are there any characters you particularly identify with yourself?
There are some cool characters in there, but I’m not sure morally I identify with any of them! There’s quite a bit of theft and dishonesty. I think my favourite character is ‘The Maid On The Shore’. She sings so beautifully that she sings the Captain and all his crew to sleep, then robs them and sails back to shore.
They’re not all bad though, the men, surely? Tell us about the nice ones.
The ‘Shepherd Lad’ is quite a sweet fellow, I feel a little sorry for him really. He sees a girl skinny-dipping in a river and he takes her home like a good boy…she’s a little disappointed and gives him the elbow!
You’ve mentioned that you recorded with some special guest musicians – who dropped by?
We were lucky enough to have some guest musicians, yes. The fantastic Emily Portman (formally of The Devil’s Interval) came in to do some backing vocals; fellow Bellowhead band member Sam Sweeney played some violin and viola; we had Julien Batten on piano accordion; and Tom Oakes (of the Arvo Quartet) on flute and a brass section. The recording process was quite full on at times!
Were you careful not to repeat any songs previously recorded by Bellowhead?
Not really, it didn’t present itself as a problem. There are songs I’ve done in the past that are now Bellowhead songs and songs I’ve recorded which may become Bellowhead sets, but there are so many different versions of the same song and so many ways they can be arranged that I don’t think it’ll ever be too much of a problem.
Were there other tracks that didn’t make the final cut?
There’s a song called ‘Gypsy’ which will be available to download. We knew that we had a bit too much material for the album and when we came to organise the running order we ended up leaving that one out. It’s a great story though, the girl leaving her rich husband for a far better looking man.
How are the audiences reacting to the jazzier feel of your solo material?
It seems to be getting a great reception, although it’s still pretty early days and the album hasn’t been released yet, so we’ll have to wait and see. But the great thing about the folk scene is that audiences generally seem to be pretty open minded and are supportive of new music or different approaches to traditional songs. It’s a very friendly scene.
Finally, you’ve recently worked with Karine Polwart and other up and coming folk artists on the Darwin Song Project, and I read that you were particularly interested in the story of Charles Darwin’s wife. Can you tell us a bit more about your interest in her?
It was a funny old project actually. None of us knew each other or had worked together before but were suddenly thrown into a remote 16th century farmhouse to write songs about Charles Darwin. The first evening there was spent with Randal Keynes, Charles Darwin’s great, great grandson and foremost authority on Charles Dawin. The BBC spent a lot of time there too and it felt a little bit like a ‘Big Brother’ type social experiment at times!
I knew very little about Charles Darwin before the project so the best place for me to start was to find out about his family life. Myself and Emily Smith were both keen to write about the struggle that his wife Emma felt about whether or not they would be reunited in heaven after death following Charles’s discoveries and theories. Emily and I joined up with Karine Polwart to write the song and spent an afternoon walking the lanes in rural Shropshire, much to the amusement of the locals.
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