Just when you were thinking these strange times had wiped out all the decent things about music, along come a band to flip your wig. The Magpie Arc are exactly what’s needed to bring back sunnier days. Simon Jones checks out their fine feathers.
“Alex is the biggest English music fan in Scotland! He and Adam have worked together for years and they approached Nancy and Martin who were already both big fans of Adam’s work. I was working with both Nancy and Martin at the time and, as a former Albion Band member and big fan of all of them, I joined as well,” reveals Tom Wright.
“It was mine I tell you! All mine! No, basically Adam and Nancy are big admirers of each other’s work and they’d expressed an interest in working together in the past so I thought it would be great to try and make it happen. Adam thought so too, so I made a few calls and pulled it together. Nancy suggested Tom, and we all love Martin so we asked him and he said yes. Easy done. Sometimes all you just have to do is ask nicely,” concurs Alex Hunter.
Messrs Hunter and Wright are the boss rhythm section of The Magpie Arc between them they have experience of Adam Holmes & The Embers, The Albion Band, Morris On Live, Glorystrokes and the proverbial loads more. Arc sees them underpinning the efforts of Nancy Kerr on fiddle, the afore mentioned Adam Holmes guitar/vocals and none other than Martin Simpson guitar/vocals. Four fifths of the membership are here to answer anything and everything – if we get round to it – about genesis, inspiration, identity, writing, and rocking in the British Isles.
Why now? Is there something in the air?
“Absolutely!” Tom brooks no room for doubt, “ There is such a resurgence in interest in British Folk Rock across the world at the moment. Bands like Offa Rex (and their constituent parts Olivia Chaney and The Decemberists), Arcade Fire, False Lights and even bands from further back like Hot Chip and The Young Knives have show a real interest in British Folk-Rock and Roots music and those who are from the UK haven’t been afraid to show and share their heritage along with positive, inclusive messages.”
Point taken then. Being an electric band with folk and roots experience you might get some pedantic who claims it’s all been done before.
“If you’re going to dally at all with the concepts of tradition and continuum, you’re always going to be measured in some part by what went before. I was very late to the party in terms of English folk rock forming any significant portion of my listening experience (although Maddy Prior is one of the absolute queens of voice if you ask me) but genre aside I’m starting to feel more and more that although musicians tend to resent comparisons, they can be pretty useful for the wider industry and to some extent the audience – it situates what you do in a set of expectations: then it can be fun to go against those expectations. Or a disaster, possibly,” Nancy has obviously given this lots of thought.
Tom’s digging deep into musical history with his line of thought, “Celtic music as well as English music paved the way for American country music and, along with the African culture the spawned the blues, paved the way for Rock and Roll. By the time the songs and tunes had evolved into the sound coming out of Appalachia and the like,many of the idiosyncrasies that interest us about English music had evolved out. The interesting elements of English music that are apparent in folk-rock are many of the things that didn’t end up in rock and roll so to bring them back in generates a new thing. I suppose the simple way of thinking about it is that there is essentially more Celtic influence in rock music as the default and the English elements that make up the basic folk-rock sounds have to be added back in.”
“I came to the folk world from a different route from the rest of the band. My beginning was bashing out rock songs as a teenager in a garage, and ultimately as a non-music reading bass player coming from that background, the constraints of a genre or whether something was easy or not didn’t matter, you gave it your best shot and found a way. I still apply those principles to anything I work on today, if a song sounds good then it’s happening, if not. Next!” Alex is none too fond of genre specifics either.
Horslips always had a good angle on this in that they took a traditional melody or motif and repurposed it as a rock riff. By doing that you could argue they gave Ireland back to the Irish.
“Yes. I really like Horslips. I thought they were a very, very good rock band and I liked the way they incorporated traditional music into their work. I think traditional music is there to be utilised and I regularly use traditional tunes and bits of traditional tunes in my writing because they are wonderful. In the same way that Ralph Vaughn Williams Percy Grainger used bits of tunes in their music, because they are unbeatably great tunes,” Martin has no qualms about retooling roots and after all if it was alright for a serious classical scholar like Vaughan Willaims, then why not The Magpie Arc who’re serious too.
“Everything is on the table, but so long as it serves the song well. One thing to remember is that we’re 50 years on from the advent of folk-rock and it’s early experimentation. The originators of it only had a few years from the actual birth of rock and roll, so not as much to work with. There’s been a lot of great mixing and matching in music since then, so as well as trad tunes it’s equally possible that we may incorporate a New Orleans rhythm, a blues riff, some new wave’ish urgency or a bit of studio wizardry in there. That’s the cheeky magpie again,” adds Alex.
The rhythm section have got the bit between their teeth and they’re on a roll.
“I feel like, if you look for it, bands are working with traditions and traditional music allthe time in so many genres. I have albums by punk bands Snuff and The Mr T Experience that have versions of Traditional and Folk songs on them. There are a lot of bands out there that use sonic elements of their heritage in their sound. It would certainly be interesting to hear some of them tackle some more traditional material but only if it benefited the band and the song.” Tom weighs in.
“I agree with Tom, the cross-fertilisation of styles has been happening for years. There are elements of rap and hip-hop that are clearly shared with folk, and it’s quite amazing when you open a magazine and find an artist whom you would never associate with folk music citing it as an influence. Bob Mould of Husker Du, Green Gartside of Scritti Politti, Mark Hollis of Talk Talk, even David Sylvian of Japan. Green Day’s song ‘Minority’ is basically them doing The Pogues. But in any genre finding a new angle these days is tricky, and finding new artists with the will to take on the task is even more difficult. Frankly, I’m personally a bit dispirited by the sheer number of “roots” album reviews these days that still describe ‘plaintive vocals over a gently strummed acoustic guitar and the wash of a brushed snare drum.’” Alex’s has obviously been scanning the roots press, on line and printed.
Was it obvious from the off that here was a well-oiled machine that ran smoothly?
“On the practical side, yes, but with various delays due to commitments, which was understandable for such busy people. And yes, on the musical side too. Unlike commissions or projects with musical directors or specific defined aims, we really were “let’s start a band and see what happens” and how many groups form like that and then don’t have some degree of musical chairs until they find a settled line-up?. It‘s amazing how remarkably easy it’s been and how well we’ve gelled,” Alex echoes the hope for democracy.
“We all have our roles within the band and we all have the same goal in our minds so it works well,” Tom concurs.
“Definitely. And that’s reflected in the music that people will hear. One of us brings a song, we all pitch in and the end result is The Magpie Arc. We’re all experienced enough to know what works and what doesn’t work, no-one is precious about their part if there’s a great suggestion to improve a song,” Alex expands.
Maddy Prior once told me writing contemporary songs using traditional ideas was harder than she thought. Any reflections since you have proven writers within the group.
“I think the four of us that are songwriters all approach things quite differently. I think the hardest thing you can possibly do is sit down and go ‘right, I will now write a song about Blah and it will sound like Blah,’ but, for others, that’s how they work exclusively,” Tom’s the first to pitch in.
“I really love the relationships between old and new songs – I use traditional song shapes to help people I teach to write songs, to unlock them, because those ancient structures have been around so long they must have something special about them and often they help give writers a frame for saying something new. One student said to me “well I’m not sure if I’ve written a folk song, but I’ve written a song!” which seems a good point – creativity is more important than some idea of authenticity, to me. I think trying to contribute to the folk canon can come with a lot of pressure, just to be able to give my own work the gravitas and timelessness of traditional songs is a huge ask. But I actually think the same ideas underpin many songs from very long ago to right now. Maddy is a particular inspiration to me when it comes to surfacing those ideas about archetypes, the way universal themes crop up in songs and can mean different things depending on the listener’s experiences and inner feelings,” Nancy chips in as one of the main writers .
“I think it’s perfectly feasible. As the tradition is so strong it’s fine to use elements of it or even whole tunes, there’s so much melodic strength. The ballad form can work in rock music and I find it a very clear concept,” Martin speaks from experience of writing and experimenting with compositional forms.
At the same time as wanting to create a recognisable British outlook as composers you’re all looking to bring more melodic colour to the palette.
“Definitely! And people will hear that from our first EP. There’s a great song of Martin’s on it called ‘Love Never Dies’ and the backing and production is very much like that. It references American themes but the production on it is actually quite Pink Floydian I think,” Alex.
“I think if you look at the breadth of material we’ve looked at it goes from Blind
Willie Johnson on the one hand to Nancy’s really quite Pentangle’esque songs on the other. I don’t think it’s anything but what should happen with a band where people bring elements of what they do on their own and those elements are changed by the fact that it’s not just you working on it any more, it’s the contributions of all these people. I’ve recorded ‘Love Never Dies’ before and sounds nothing like the version that we’ve just done for this first EP, and I prefer what we’ve just done,” the song’s author expands.
They took the unusual step of launching themselves in 2019 with video singles posted on the web, the results of secreting themselves away in deepest Staffordshire at Silk Mill Studios. Before they could blink the music was played hither and yon, word spread like wildfire and the future began to take shape. Quite a start then?
“The people at The Silk Mill are lovely and deserve a big shout out for their support of musicians. They have a wonderful studio and they shoot great live videos for artists to take away and use for promotion. I let them know about the new band and they were excited to have us in, which was in June 2019. It was early days for us then, and we’d only spent a short time together overall, but the two videos we did for our songs ‘Darling Charms’ and ‘Autumn Leaves’ turned out brilliantly. They gave us something to show people and shout about and the response to seeing them was fantastic, which gave us a real boost,” Alex settles back with a smile of satisfaction.
A debut album is currently being polished up, before that they’ve a series of download EPs coming out across the autumn and – circumstances permitting – they’re going to be launching a big push early in 2021.
“We did some work with the great John Wood last year. John engineered and/or produced Fairport, Nick Drake, John Martyn, Richard and Linda Thompson, Sandy Denny etc. back in the classic folk-rock days and we’ve used some material from those sessions, but in the main we’ve worked on 95% of the material at my studio and at Yellow Arch Studios in Sheffield with me in the producers chair, and with Adam, who is an experienced producer in his own right, as the main immediate sounding board,” Tom gives out some background.
Before I know it time has flown and The Magpie Arc have to err…fly. One last question though you’re a crew with experience of performance at all levels, that gives you flexibility in terms of venue and stage. I take it you’ll be using that to full advantage?
It’s Alex who again reveals more of the game plan. “Yes, we will! We’re working with a great agency team and word seemed to spread quite quickly about us as lots of well-known venues on the folk scene were on to them to book us for this year. So yes, there will be plenty of opportunities to see the whites of our eyes. On that point people may be happy to know that our live shows will be “An Evening With,” setup, so not only will the band play but there will also be a first set of solo, duo, trio, whatever from Martin, Nancy and Adam. So no support, just us in various permutations for the evening. Value for money!”
Never mind five for silver, The Magpie Arc are pure gold!
magpiearc.com has lots you need to know and lots more to learn.
Pictures by Ellie Lucas