Jude, unobscured

With a twenty year-long professional music career, including stints in Isambarde, Piva, and Pilgrims’ Way, already under her belt, and with recent session work for high-profile projects such as Tom Kitching’s Seasons of Change, and Will Pound’s A Day Will Come, ringing in our ears, Jude Rees, the West Midlands woodwind wonder, speaks exclusively to Riches.

Photo: Lucas Pitcher / TimeLight Photographic.

Jude Rees is a kindly soul, and a modest one. Asked to provide this writer’s first interview on returning to arts journalism after a lengthy sabbatical, she sought justification for my and my reader’s interest. At that time only vaguely aware of her lengthy career and various achievements, I merely pointed out her recent (2019) activity as a session musician with Will Pound and Tom Kitching as reason enough. I could have mentioned her recording with Pete Morton and touring with Jim Moray, too. Friendly persuasion, you might call it. Ever helpful, she consented. 

Some days – and a few hours’ research – later, we convened in her living room, and in mine. The cathedral cities of Coventry and Winchester were connected not by monkish ink on vellum, or urgent, wartime, telegram (“Are you safe STOP Send word STOP”) , but by that necessity of the 21st century pandemic, the video call. In solitary for the past four months, I trembled in fear at speaking to another person again, in real time, with my actual voice. Somehow I controlled my bowels, as the black screen on my laptop sparkled into vivid life. 

Sitting there, in blue and white, like an unearthed Willow-pattern plate, gleaming from the damp soil, the petite brunette with a porcelain complexion was immediately efficient. Jude had used the software to teach her students, and quickly directed me to the unmute icon. I explained, briefly, my concept of a career retrospective interview, and asked her, initially, about her education, stressing the importance of the informal in particular. What followed was the journalist’s dream – a very forthcoming and co-operative interviewee. Her voice is as clear and musical as her oboe, her accent lower middle-class, with occasional hints of a West Midlands upbringing in her vowels.

Jude explains that it all began with her father’s record collection. 

“I guess my informal education started at the foot of my father, literally at the feet of my father. Although there was no one musical in my family, my dad had a very extensive vinyl collection, and I would watch in awe as he put the disc down and clean the little, miniature thing with the brush, the stylus, and I just loved the whole process.”

The family were annual visitors to Towersey Folk Festival, in Oxfordshire. 

“As a family, we went to Towersey Folk Festival every year, and I believe I went to Towersey when I was in my mother’s womb. [Laughs.] Jude, an unborn Jude, camped at Towersey Festival! We carried on going to Towersey even in an unbroken line, right up until the point where my dad sadly died, fairly early on in my life, and we went for one year after that, but I think it was too much for my mum, so we stopped going. 

“I took up the oboe, and that was relatively late for children, I understand. I was 13. I fell in love with the sound. I knew I wanted to play the oboe, and no one else did, it seemed. I was an awkward and gawky child, and everyone was playing flutes, and everyone was playing guitars, and everyone was playing the violin, and I thought “I’ll play that one, the one that sounds a bit different. The one that no one else wants to play.” 

Sue Harris was a major influence, and Jude recalls practising and improvising to records by the Albion Country Band. “It was the first time I’d heard an oboe, outside of the Classical. So, don’t get me wrong. I love all the music traditionally associated with the oboe, the Classical, the Baroque – I love all of that, but it was the first time I’d heard oboe outside of this setting.”

“First of all I’d learn her lines… They would often have their lines weaving, contrapuntally, around one another, and have highly intricate arrangements, and then I’d make up a third line, and imagine myself in the group, although I’d improvise around it, like a designer going into a blank house and imagining how it could look. I kind of imagined different parts, and how it would sound. 

“It kind of got to the point where I must have been 14, because my dad died, and it was so close to my dad dying, and that year, dad got wind of the fact that Sue Harris was coming to Towersey, and he rang Towersey Folk Festival, and he said, “Would Sue do an oboe workshop?” And they went, “Well, we’ll ask her.” [Laughs.] It’s probably not worth doing an oboe workshop. A general wind workshop, a woodwind and brass workshop… At first I was very “This is so embarrassing.” You know, I was at the cusp of teenage-dom, and then I arrived, and it was the best thing ever. I arrived, nervously, with my oboe in my hand, and they had a little, marquee tent, and at first I was the only one there. And then, all of a sudden, as if from nowhere, there were all of these woodwind players, just emerged, a heap of woodwind players, and absolute loads of oboists! Like they’d suddenly been released to play other music. So we were all so excited, and we had a beautiful – a brilliant – workshop. And that was the last time I played Folk music, until I became an adult really, because I went to music college.

Jude attended Birmingham Conservatoire.

“At the time there was the fledgling Birmingham Folk Ensemble, which they still have today, managed by Joe Broughton, and who’s amazing, but, at the time, he was playing with the Albion Band, as it was back then, and, in a funny way, he was so rarely at College, they sacked him as a pupil, but brought him on as a lecturer [Laughs.] I think I have got that right. He certainly wasn’t attending any of the classes but, all of a sudden, he was a lecturer and, later on, the Folk Ensemble became a major thing, and that was just after my time, for which I’m gutted, but I didn’t really do Folk music. I played a lot of Classical music, and I specialised in Contemporary music – a lot of what people might call ‘Squeaky gate’ stuff, and electronics, but I also loved Ancient music. I loved music college. I threw myself into everything.”

Already a versatile woodwind player, Jude appeared briefly, playing Cor Anglais, on the title track of Jo Hamilton’s album Palace Place, in 2000. In the following year, now a graduate of the Conservatoire, she was hired as Orchestral Manager – “It’s just the person who gets the musicians,” she says, modestly – for the Springtime For Hitler-inspired Stalin musical, KOBA: Man of Steel , written and produced by Kidderminster student Thomas de Keyser, and staged at the Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham. “Whilst I was there, I met – and this is how I got back into Folk music – I met a scene-shifter called Chris Green.”

Jude describes the formation of her first band, Isambarde. 

“I wanted to do all sorts of music. So I got involved with this production and it was defining and amazing and also hilariously bad in many, many ways, but I met some people who became lifelong friends. The show itself wasn’t a hit, but I met Chris. He was scene-shifting, and we… I think we went to a pub and had, like, a session, and I was playing along with him, and then I went to a couple of his gigs. He was in a band called The Band of Rack and Ruin, with a musician called Mick Whittaker, and they would often do a regular gig at The Fiddle and Bone, in Birmingham, which was a musical pub, because it was set up by a fiddle player and a trombone player, from the CBSO – from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. So we used to go and see The Band of Rack and Ruin, and Chris was occasionally playing with the fiddle player, Emily Sanders, who lived in the Black Country, in the Cannock area. And he said “I’m looking to start a Folk band. Would you like to join?” And I kind of looked around thinking, “He can’t mean me. I’ve got an oboe.” But he did, and so Chris, Emily and I… To start with, there was four of us. There was another lady called Lorna Roden, who had the most amazing Soul-Blues voice. She left not long after starting, because she was an amazing musician, but it just wasn’t what she wanted to pursue. So the three of us did – in a fairly sort of underground, folky way – did quite well for ourselves. Our last album was recorded by Phil Beer, from Show of Hands. We played some amazing gigs. 

Isambarde were together for ten years, recording and releasing two albums, 2006’s Barnstorming and 2008’s Living History, both on Whirly Whirl Records, and separated for personal reasons in 2011. Jude reflects on that period.

“It was a defining part of my life. We toured, and we did some great stuff, and later on we had an Isambarde electric version. Some people loved that. Some people hated it. That’s fine. We did loads of silly things, and loads of really interesting things. I have nothing but fond memories about most of my tenure in that band.”

“Hanging around with Isambarde and with Chris, we started getting a lot of sort of side work, and that was work in the Heritage sector, where I’d often be asked to stand in some sort of historical frock, in a damp field, playing background music, to add ambience, or to support a joust, or a tournament, or some sort of thing, so it could be mediaeval as well as renaissance – all sorts of eras. My very first gigs with Chris were kind of almost pre-Isambarde, in that he asked me to play with him at a place in Nottingham, called The Tales of Robin Hood. They were a banqueting halls which, I believe, are closed now. There were two ones in competition. There was The Sheriff’s Lodge and The Tales of Robin Hood. The deal was, hen nights, and football supporter clubs, and office parties would come in, and they’d pay their money, and they would get free booze all night, and a three course, fairly substantial meal, and faux mediaeval entertainments. For me, as a Classical musician, it was a real training. Chris would say, “This one’s in E flat. Go!” And I’d have to find the keys and find out what I was doing, and play. At the end of the night I’d come away with, like, seventy quid, which was a huge amount of money and, to be honest, these days, it still is. Seventy quid, and I got free beer. It was amazing. It was certainly more money than I was getting in Classical circles.”

Naturally, this Heritage work required appropriate costume, so Jude attended TORM, The Original Re-enactors Market, which was held near Coventry. It was there that she met the Early instrument maker and founder of Piva: The Renaissance Collective, Eric Moulder. Jude joined the group in 2013.

“As well as having people selling all the amazing weaponry and food and clothing and this, that, and the other, there was a whole stand of music makers, luthiers, and people that made Early instruments. I stumbled across Eric Moulder by hearing the sounds of a distant shawm. I beat a path to his stall, and then I spent the next few hours at TORM completely pissing him off, by playing all of his instruments and not buying anything, because I couldn’t afford anything. And the next time TORM rocked around, I did the same, and I went, “Look, I’m really sorry. I’ve played all your instruments. I’m not buying anything. I’ll go, because there’s people who probably want to buy stuff,” and there were people buying. And he went, “No. You’ve been a great advertisement. People hear you, because a lot of these people are re-enactors, and they can’t play these instruments, and they hear your sounds, and they’re loving it. And they’re buying my instruments. Keep playing! Come back!” So, the third time, I scrabbled together enough money to buy my first shawm, which I would have got out to show you, but it’s packed up to go busking. It’s my sopranino shawm, and my sopranino shawm is well-gigged. It’s got chips in it. You can see the varnish is worn off from where my two thumbs sit on the back of it, and I love that instrument. I kind of progressed from there. Next to Eric Moulder was a man called Sean Jones, who makes bagpipes. I was playing all of this, and Sean went, “You always buy Eric’s instruments. You never buy mine.” So I came back, and saved up the money. He had a second hand set. I bought his second hand set, which was my first set of bagpipes. 

“After a while, I’d been to a few Piva gigs, and sometimes Piva would do something called Piva Extended, or the Extended Line Up, or the Big Band, and they’d get other musicians to play. I played for a couple of those. They asked me to play for a couple of dates and, after doing a couple, they asked me if I wanted to join the core group, and I jumped at the chance to play Early music, on Early instruments. Also, Eric is the most renowned maker of Early woodwind in Europe, which means, even if I couldn’t afford stuff, I could get to play on all of the stuff, because I could go to his place, and go, “Ooh, I’ll have a go on this crumhorn,” and “I’ll have a go on this curtal, this dulcian,” so I was like a kid in a sweetshop, because I could play on all of the things, and I didn’t feel embarrassed about asking to borrow anything, because he wanted me to practise it for a concert, so I was allowed to take away the beautiful, hand crafted instruments. It’s been like that to this day.”

Jude’s contribution to Piva is valued very highly. Consulted by email, Eric Moulder says of her, “Jude instantly blended into the group, and her larger than life personality combined with her superb musicianship has ensured that she has been a key member of PIVA ever since. Jude is a consummate stage performer and her personality really does light up the stage.”

Jude’s next venture into Folk music as a band member came when she joined Pilgrims’ Way.

“My joining the band was an interesting thing. Tom [Kitching] and the band members do love the drink of Mild, of Mild Ale, and we had this amazing jam together. I was quite nervous, because I didn’t really know any of them. I basically knew Jon Loomes, but I didn’t really know Tom and I didn’t really know Edwin [Beasant], although Edwin knew me, apparently. He’d been to one of my singing workshops. I used to do Catch workshops at Folk festivals. So I had a jam with them and it was brilliant. It just felt electric. It was just me, Tom, Jon and Edwin. This was before we went electric. Then we went to a pub, and it was quite filmic, in that it was one of those proper, Northern pubs, in Stockport. It had arches, and a whippet by the bar. At one point, Tom cleared his throat, and he said, in a slightly tremulous voice, he said, “Jude. Do you like Mild?” And the whole bar seemed to stop, like in a filmic way. The barmen stopped rubbing [glasses], and everybody – even the whippet seemed to perk up its ears. In a kind of way, I felt that there was a lot hanging on this, and I went “Yes, Tom. I do like a pint of Mild.” And everything was fine. And then they offered me the job in the band. I got the feeling that it didn’t matter how great I was musically. If I had said “No,” to Mild, that would have been it. 

“So, for a good couple of years, it was just the four of us. It was Jon, Tom, Edwin and me. And we were still acoustic, so Jon was playing hurdy gurdy and concertina, and Edwin was playing melodeons and guitars, but [now] Jon’s playing the guitar, and Edwin’s gone on to drums. So basically we then recorded our album, Stand and Deliver, and we got a bassist in for the session, Heather Sirrel, and she was so good we didn’t want to let her leave, and Edwin and Heather are a couple, and it was just decided that, if we’re going to have a bass player, then we needed to have a drummer, and it kind of went like that. Pilgrims Way was still acoustic for a good couple of years. As you can see, the cartoon pictures start off with just the four of us, and then we got the same cartoonist to draw a Heather, and put her in. So latterly we did become a slightly crazy, electric outfit, and that is mainly to do with the fact that we are not only absolutely bonkers, but a very fun, good time, band. 

“There’s a lot of craziness onstage. We have costumes, and something called Otomatone, which is a Japanese, electric instrument, and we go through the genres. So we’ll play Folk West End Musical, and we’ll play Folk Heavy Metal. We’ll play Folk Funk. We’ll play… Folk! Sometimes just Folk. We seem to cycle through the genres. We don’t take ourselves very seriously. We take the music-making seriously, but we don’t take ourselves very seriously. We didn’t wanna be a po-faced band, and they never were. So Tom’s always been a very funny chap, as has Jon. They’re very humorous beings. Jon will just recite poetry on stage, about penguins, and Tom is all of the anecdotes. He has some of the best anecdotes the World has ever seen, and he’s a very established anecdotalist, story teller, in his own right, as you know, with his book [Seasons of Change: Busking England, Scratching Shed Publishing Ltd., 2020] . So a fun time, party band. And I love them. They’re like my family. 

Finally, I ask Jude about Lockdown and how she sees the way back. For the first time in the interview, there’s a pause for reflection, and a sigh before she answers. It’s clear that this has been a tough time.

“It is very dependent on how society manages – how we kind of manage the easing of Lockdown and, more importantly, how arts, music and theatre is managed – how that manages to open back up, and if we are going to have a ready supply of audiences willing to come and sit near one another in concert halls and back rooms of pubs and wherever. There’s so many variables. It’s a very kind of “I don’t know. Maybe if this happens, we can do that, and maybe if that happens.” If we’re allowed to have this gathering of people… I mean, as it stands, over the course of one week in March, I saw – like pretty much all of my friends – I saw all of my music teaching work disappear, and all of my gigs disappear, including overseas dates and a lucrative tour with Will Pound’s A Day Will Come. I’m really missing the fact that we never got to play that. I mean, we will get to play it. It’s just going to be dates. A lot of the gigs that I lost – not all of them – are happening. They’re just happening next year. So I lost a year’s worth of income. We have all lost a year’s worth of income, although people like Green Matthews have done really well, because they’re a couple and they live together. I’m so proud of them. Well, they’re brilliant anyway, as well you know. Certain people like Vicki Swan and Johnny Dyer, Green Matthews – because they’re couples and they live together and gig together – I think they’ve managed to weather the storm better. 

“I have never been a soloist. I’ve always been an ensemble player. So, first of all that’s one of the reasons why I decided to have a consort of Judes, so I’ve got a band to play with, but these are skills I had to learn. I didn’t have these home recording skills prior to Lockdown, so it was a bit of a scramble to get online and work out what to do, and how to make it sound not rubbish. I miss playing with musicians. I really, really, miss [it]. Obviously, financially, I’m struggling a little bit – because I don’t qualify for furlough, or SEISS, the self-employed – but, more than that, I miss… It sounds kinda corny, but I am kinda nothing without music. If somebody said I could not do music, and I had to find another job, you know I could stack shelves, and that’s fine. I can clean. I have been cleaning. I’ve been doing a little bit of side work as a cleaner. But, as far as a kind of a calling, a profession, a career, I don’t think I can do anything else. 

“So, if I don’t have music, I’m a little bit useless. What is the point of me? So the actual act of getting together with other musicians, and playing with them, has been a losing of all of that. And also the social. I live on my own, and… yeah. Just the social. Everything about it, I’ve really, really missed. I’ve also enjoyed the fact that there were certain stressful elements of my jobs. That kind of has given me a chance to kind of sit back and assess the stressy elements,  but I would take the stressy elements any day, rather than have an enforced period of not being able to play with people. So my mate, Mary [Mohan], who plays with Piva, and who lives locally, we are going to go, if the weather is not crap – looking a bit crap out there – we are going to go busking in Stratford. We probably will make no money, but the most important part of that is we play something together, and if we make enough money to buy a cup of coffee, or donate it to a charity, then that’s fine. Mary and I have a particular connection. [As if on cue, Mary arrives, and Jude ushers her in.] 2021 is hopefully looking fairly healthy, because hopefully a lot of the gigs that have been postponed will be back on. We’ve got, hopefully, a Spring tour and a festival season to look forward to, if the people turn up, because it might be that people have gone… Of course people have missed live music, but equally people are wary about sitting inside confined spaces. So it is a tricky one. I have got dates booked in the future, which is great.”


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