From Darkness to Light: Mel Biggs interviewed

When melodeon player and teacher Melanie Biggs opened up about her history of anxiety and depression in blogs to explain her debut album, she struck an empathetic chord with this writer. A largely passive appreciation of her long-standing online video lessons did a complete 180 and became a request for an interview. Mel – her analytical mind well to the fore here –  was kind enough to oblige. 


Rich Turner: Could you talk generally about the status of your instrument in folk music today, and what attracted you to it, 14 years ago? 

Mel Biggs: I actually saw and took notice of the melodeon in 2001. John Spiers, he was my original inspirer. I was lucky enough to see a very young Spiers and Boden, when they were very – I think they’d only been going a year or so. It’s coming up to twenty years of their collaboration and it’s exciting they’re coming back. But I didn’t do anything with it. At the time I was in a Morris side. I played my flute and I danced. Flute was my first instrument. It’s what I learned at school. It wasn’t super-practical for Morris. I mean it fits in with the part of a big band which, at the time, we didn’t have. It grew to be a big band. 

RT: It doesn’t carry very much on its own, though. 

MB: No. And I do remember a dance-out where it was just me, and it was really naff. We had a laugh with it, but it was not very good. But I picked up the spare melodeon when I went to university. I honestly can’t remember what made me think “Oh, I’ll just give it a go.” Other than I had just been listening a lot to Spiers and Boden between those years, and I’d grown up with that sort of sound, and Bellowhead obviously taking off, and Andy Cutting and… Yeah, so that sound had been in my ears, in amongst Rock and Indie, and more mainstream music as well. And I think it must have just been that there was one sat [sic] there, spare, and I thought “Let’s give it a go.” And I just asked to borrow it. I’d made friends with the new morris side in Chepstow. I just really got on with it, like a house on fire. It really is my instrument, more so than the flute. I feel that I can really express myself through it. It kind of speaks my language in that way. 

RT: Could you take me through the journey that led to you playing and teaching professionally, and joining Moirai? 

MB: Yeah. So I started teaching after I left uni. It was that Summer, which was kind of a bit of a limbo period, because of the way that I ended my degree – so I ended up having to go back and complete some exams. But that Summer was an odd time. I mean, I put so much work into my music at uni, more so than my degree. I got good pretty quickly, and I worked out a lot of the basics of the instrument. I started doing a lot more than just the basics, and really enjoying exploring that sound, playing a lot in sessions, learning a lot, just by watching other people, and regularly meeting up with them at Folk events throughout the year, living for the weekend. So the weeks were hard for me, but the weekends were the golden moments, where I’d be at festivals with the morris and meeting lots of people, having conversations. 

I started teaching. It started really small. It was just a family friend that wanted lessons. I found my way and started low-key advertising. It was mostly just word-of-mouth, through morris. Just teaching at home, at mum and dad’s. I started going to workshops. That was something I did. I can remember going to a Spiers workshop, one Oxford Folk Festival. I can’t remember when it was. I’m pretty sure it was while I was still at uni. Simon Care – I went to one of his workshops at Cheltenham – and John Kirkpatrick – I went to a couple of his workshops at Shrewsbury. And I grew up in the Tuneworks Sessions at Shrewsbury, actually. I bet they had a big influence on me. I feel indebted to them now, because I do teach there now, when I’m able to. Obviously, this year was online. 

So I was always a hobbyist, just an amateur player, just playing for Morris, but I think just through socialising on the scene and not being afraid of striking up a conversation, you know, you just get to meet people. It’s just the nature of Folk. You just meet lots of people, and people know people. And I think it was sessions at Shrewsbury Folk Festival. I used to stay up until the wee, small hours – four or five o’clock in the morning – and I attracted the attention of some guys that played. At the time they were called All Blacked Up. They’re now The Ironmasters. At the time they were looking for a new box player, because they’d had a dep for a little while, between Lisa McDermott leaving, and they were looking for a replacement. So I got asked to be part of that, and I went and auditioned, and it seemed that I  fitted that gap quite neatly. But it was my first, professional job, in that sense. I took it very seriously. I did three years with the band. I learned a lot. Being in that band was the first chance to learn how to prepare for a gig, get in the car and head off. I loved playing. I always have loved playing for dance. That really is where I’ve grown up from. It’s where my heartbeat, my passion, really lies. 

That would take me up to 2012. I’d already started, at this point, going to workshops in Wantage. There was a pub there that used to host weekend-long sessions. There was an English-flavoured one and a Continental-flavoured one, with Blowzabella members. I used to go to both. And I went to that for four years running. It was 2011 and 2012. Two years running, sorry, but the four events. And I got to talk to Jo Freya, Andy Cutting, Dave Shepherd and Ian Dedic. And it was such a niche event. The pub was tiny, but we all crammed in there. Really good beer, really good food, amazing music. It attracted some really talented musicians and I’ve still got loads of recordings of those sessions. I became really well-known and sort of grew up a little bit more at those sessions, and it was nice. I suppose that was where I was really found. I was kind of discovered a little bit, and Jo Freya took me under her wing. I think it was the second or third Blowzabella workshop that I’d gone to. She approached me and said “Would you like to be in a band with me?”, which is not something you can refuse. It was a big honour, so yes, of course I took that up, and that was 2013. 

So we met up and chatted about the sort of band that we wanted to make. We didn’t at the time know who would be the third wheel. I’d been in sessions with Will Pound and his then wife, Nicky, and that was the first iteration of Moirai. I didn’t really know her that well, and that was a big learning curve – just trying to suss out who’s best to work with. We weren’t a good fit. Me and her didn’t hit it off, and it was tough for a little while. We ended up changing our line-up, just five weeks before our first gig, so Nicky stepped down from the band and left us in a position where we had a gig in the diary, our very first gig and, by this point, I’d got to know of Sarah Matthews. I don’t think we’d shared that much in sessions, but I knew she was local. I’d recently moved to the area. So I left a message on her voice mail, and she was really interested and it was just perfect. The first rehearsal we had was just, like, very tight. It just worked from the go, really, so that’s been us ever since.

RT: Visual art has been an interest of yours since childhood, and you now run workshops through the Stroke Association. Could you tell me more about your own art? 

MB: Yeah. So I studied Art at school, to GCE A Level. I was always in the Art Room at any spare period. From those school experiences, The Futurists really stood out to me, as a group of artists that were trying to capture something that can’t be captured – light, movement, speed, sound – all of that kind of 1920s rejuvenation of technology and engineering, and obviously that had a knock-on effect socially and in the War. So many influences and so many incredible bits of Art that were made through their Movement. I think that really stayed with me. I visited the Futurist Museum in London and the pieces of work there just really stuck with me. I loved the feeling I got from looking at that work. 

As a dancer, and as a musician, I have an intrinsic link between the movement and the music. Whenever I’m playing for dance, I’m always watching the movement and trying to respond to it or, as a dancer, I’m trying to respond to it, in my movement, so I love that interplay. I think that’s a really interesting place to study, visually. I am on the Autistic Spectrum and I have some form of synaesthesia. These connections in my mind just seem to form shapes when I hear sound, or they make me want to move in a certain way, which isn’t uncommon. A lot of us have that. But, for me, it kind of overtakes. It can be a very overwhelming experience, to the point where I have to remove myself from it, but most of the time it’s just this really lovely place to be. I can kind of escape to it, and it blocks the rest of the World out, in the bits that I don’t really understand, or the bits that hurt or upset, or whatever. 

So it became an escapism, and learning the melodeon was part of that, because of the world of sound that you can create through the melodeon, through the reeds and things. When I left university, I did a job for three years, and went to Art college. I couldn’t get away from this thought of bringing the two together – audio-visual art. So I just went crazy. I just explored what that could mean, listening nuerotically, round and round and round, to the same tracks, all instrumental tracks. I get distracted by lyrics in the wrong way, but instrumental music – trying to visualise that. Trying to draw it and explore it in different ways, and conceptualise it in different ways. Also, the scientist in me could never leave that alone. I’m always trying to draw in other philosophies, and therapeutic tendencies, for the creativity and the science to go together. 

I did do some training as well, locally, with Opus. They’re a group of musicians who work in hospitals. Sarah’s one of those, and I did some training with them, and that helped me to see the therapeutic benefit of music. And then the Stroke Association – I was put in touch with them through a friend who did some massage work for them. They have an annual conference. A Stroke survivor’s conference. They have a breakout space where you can go and get massages, and just relax, away from the conference talks and things, and the delegates can come in and just have some free time. I went and set up there, just as a space to come and do some Art, essentially. That’s how it started. 

I bought loads of stuff. I bought cotton buds, twigs, – anything that wasn’t really traditional Art materials, I guess. The idea being that not everyone has motor skills enough to hold things. It’s just kind of other ways to make imagery. The music playlist worked as just a background sound. That first year I did this workshop, I got talking with an Aphasia specialist. I’m not sure if you’re aware of Aphasia, but it’s where a lot of people with Stroke have issues speaking, so that you lose your voice and it’s that process of forming speech and actually delivering it. She was really interested in my work. We teamed up the next year and we did two days of Creative Conversation workshops, where we were actually timetabled as part of the Conference that year, so it had been brought out of the breakout, into an actual workshop, which was a fantastic opportunity. Lots more tables, lots more delegates, and I put together a playlist of some of my favourite instrumental music – that I find very visually stimulating. Again, tables full of paints and drawing materials, and delegates would come in and I explained the situation. “I’m going to play these tracks three times through. It’s just for you to sit and listen, and just respond to what you feel.” It was really interesting watching the artwork come out. 

The artwork itself is part of the process but, for me, the work was them having a conversation, or being able to express something that they would normally struggle with. The science behind that is that when we’re creatively stimulated, our brain is able to unlock things in our subconscious that we might struggle with, so that things like speech become a lot more easy, because of the release of Oxytocin and just the synapses connecting in a different way. I’m so passionate about taking that forward. That’s where the album is going to be helping me to develop that work. So there is this link. I’m not a music therapist. I’m not an art therapist. But I do use my creative skills in a therapeutic way, to help other people, and it is beautiful to watch, because it really does help. 

RT: Finally, with From Darkness To Light, you seem to have reached a place where you’re relatively comfortable in your own skin, and taking pride in your achievements. It’s perhaps a moment for standing back and taking stock. Have I understood correctly? What else would you like to say about the album? 

MB: Totally, you have. It’s been a long road. I’ve not believed in myself for most of that journey. I still have moments of it. I’ve had a really good network of people around me that have bolstered me, and I can turn to them. You have to believe those things yourself. You have to take on board what they’re telling you and believe it, and I didn’t for many years, and couldn’t work out why all this praise was coming my way, you know, when it’s just little old me, but I am seeing a sense of that myself, now. Being in the studio the last few days, you know. Just kind of sitting back and hearing the other layers that people are layering-up, and sort of seeing the overall picture emerge. It’s a real moment just to go “I did that. I helped that happen. I’ve initiated that process.”

RT: Very satisfying.

MB: Yeah. For me, the battle in my head is always that fine line of arrogance and confidence. I’ve always shied away from the confident me, because I never want to be seen as arrogant. I’ve been accused of it, in the past, and it’s really hurt me. I’ve not played for six months, because of it. 

RT: You’ve never come across like that, to me.

MB: Well, thank you. I don’t think I do. There is a very humble part of me, which I can’t get away from, either, but I see myself developing this confidence, being able to talk about these things in a way that I haven’t before. I always want to maintain humility and authenticity, and I think that helps ground you in the reality, rather than just this cocky person that nobody can relate to, you know, ‘cause that’s definitely not who anyone likes. [Laughs] 

RT: What about the music, specifically? Is it all your own compositions? 

MB: It is, apart from one track. I’ve got one trad track, token trad, but that’s the track that relates to the festivals, the Morris, the Folk network, if you like, and where I feel I’ve grown up, and where I speak from as an artist in general, really. The Folk scene, for me, is not just about the music. There’s so much more to it than that. It’s the spaces that are created in the middle of fields every year. It’s that kind of familiarity, where the tents get set up in the same way, and there’s that navigation around that space, that interaction with that space and the people that it attracts. There’s something really special about all of that. The conversations that you have. I try and kind of speak from that sort of place. 

So there’s one trad track, but other than that it’s all mine, which feels kind of phenomenal. We were saying, being able to sit back and listen to what we’d captured so far, yesterday in the studio, and just sort of try and listen to it and detach from it. It’s not easy to do. I don’t think I managed it entirely, because there’s always that feeling that these are all my children, and look at them. Aren’t they… 

RT: [Laughs]

MB: There is that sense of pride at these creations and because, for me, they relate to such specific moments in my life, I can’t walk away from it entirely. There is this feeling of non-formulaic approach to playing and arranging, so everything feels kind of quite unique in itself. I think that’s really especially important for me. I never want to feel like I’m approaching an album for the sake of it, or to sort of just follow a formula. For this very deeply personal work, there’s always got to be a kind of reason that each of those tracks is on that album. 

The reason it became a seasonal approach is because I realised that a lot of my tunes relate to light, and light states, and changes throughout the year. Other people have done that concept, you know, of a seasonal album, but I haven’t seen one linked to moods and mental health. Most of the pieces on the album were written or came to me in times of depression – the darkness. But they in themselves are the light. My melodies are the treasure I found in the cave. Some caves were darker and deeper, some less so, but I have found I do my best work in my darkest times – although it is important to say I can write when I am well, too! It has become my creative superpower.

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