Brighton-based singer Mary Hampton is among the new crop of artists taking an experimental approach to the traditional folk style. Her most recent album, My Mother’s Children, was among the top 50 albums of 2008 as voted for by Wears The Trousers readers, and her songs have been described variously as unnerving and enchanting, sensual and unsettling. Currently on tour with James Yorkston & The Big Eyes Family Players in support of their recent Folk Songs album, we took the opportunity to have a quick chat with Mary. This is how it went…
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When did you first start playing and writing songs?
I first started writing music at the piano when I was about 14. It was mainly chamber music that interested me, the powerful interplay of a small number of musicians always did something immense to me and still does, so I wrote a bunch of small ensemble pieces over the years that followed. I eventually began singing at the age of 22, when I became really interested by words and their possibilities when combined with music.
Do you come from a folk singing background or is it something you’ve discovered that suits you?
Sadly no. Some Buddy Holly may have transpired in the kitchen at some point, but that’s another story. I grew up in West London in the ’90s, and despite having a voracious appetite for all kinds of music, I didn’t have the good fortune to hear any folk music until quite late on. It’s true to say I’d had a earful of serialism, freeform jazz and Japanese death metal long before I ever heard a traditional English song, and it certainly sounded pretty exotic to me when I did hear it. In fact I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Anne Briggs for basically blowing everything else out of the water.
Is there any particular record or artist that you feel has influenced your style?
Here’s the long answer…I feel like it’s usually something very small that influences me most, often just a gesture. It might only be a few notes run together in a particular way, or a certain way one lyric is inflected in a song. When I hear it, such a musical moment seems so complete that it can feed my imagination for many months to come. There is rarely any way of knowing when or where such a phrase might occur, so I try to keep my listening pretty broad.
The short answer is probably Bob Dylan.
Are mainstream music fans more open to folk music than they used to be? Do you think people are receptive to the simplicity of more traditional music?
Maybe so. For me, folk music at its best is immediate and meaningful and doesn’t obscure its own content with ostentatious arrangements or space-age production values. It is unapologetic about being what it is. You don’t need a 4 million dollar studio to make a song sound genuine, you just need to fetch it out to people and let it do its work. This is maybe the simplicity you are talking about, a certain baldness of intent. Right now, that might be quite refreshing for listeners who are used to all the hooks and eyes of more mainstream commercial music, I don’t know. Maybe it’s just good to hear a person sing an interesting song they know.
You appear to share influences like Anne Briggs and Sandy Denny with James Yorkston. Will you be performing together on this tour?
Yes, I’m really excited about that…There are definitely some group efforts afoot!
Catch Mary and fellow support act David A Jaycock opening for James Yorkston & The Big Eyes Family Players tonight at The Arches in Glasgow, or on Monday at the Bongo Club in Edinburgh.
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