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.

https://www.melbiggsmusic.co.uk

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Perfect Pitch: An interview with Green Matthews

 

Chris Green and Sophie Matthews are two of the most impressive musicians you will ever meet. Their strength as performers of Early, Historical and Folk music lies not in individual virtuosity, though they are extremely well-rehearsed and more than competent on an entire van load of instruments, but in their precision and their professionalism, in everything they do. 

This polish was immediately evident in their first response to the 2020 Covid-19 Lockdown – the Keep It Local tour – a daily online video concert tour of their house and garden. The obvious humour in this also appealed, but more of this anon. It was also a Genius Level act of self-promotion, which certainly had this writer well and truly hooked. 

From Bitesize Green Matthews, the duo went on to stage monthly live streamed concerts, further cementing a growing fan base. As ever, these were not merely played into a smartphone, but fully miked-up and professionally lit. They do not do things by halves. This comes from a decade-plus of touring and performing as Green Matthews, and even longer experience playing in the Heritage sector, as Blast from the Past, with a regular booking with English Heritage, at Warwick Castle. Chris has also appeared in the BBC television series Poldark and at Shakespeare’s Globe, while Sophie is an accredited lecturer with The Arts Society and an instrument maker.

Rich Turner: One of the things that’s immediately intriguing is that you’re both largely self-taught on your respective instruments. Could you talk a bit about that practical aspect of your musical educations, and whether you feel there are any “lessons,” as it were, for other people? 

Sophie Matthews: I took flute lessons, when I was at school, to Grade 4. Now, the thing about me and my kind of usual school music education is that I was really rubbish at music as a kid. I had lots of friends who were really good at music. We did everything together. We were in all the same classes. We did Dance together and there were lots of extra-curricular things that we did, and I seriously fell behind in the music thing. I was pretty rubbish at it. So, when I moved schools and did A levels, elsewhere, I sort of left that friendship group. Then actually I did a lot more dance. I then went to theatre school for a year, after A levels. So I sort of left playing behind. And I really didn’t miss it, ‘cause it wasn’t something I was very good at. But then I met Chris and we started playing again, because, when I was in my GCSE years, our Head of Music decided that she wanted to take up the accordion, because the Deputy Head also played the accordion, and they basically went to Folk sessions in the town, together, up in Lincolnshire. So I had had a small introduction to English Folk music at school. And then I met Chris and we started doing some sessions together, because he was playing, at that stage. We then started running our own Mediaeval banquets and murder mystery evenings, and I sort of started playing as part of that, as well. And then we were at a historical market, and somebody had a second hand set of bagpipes. I picked them up and I kind of found my instrument. And I never really looked back. It turns out that I was always really much better at music as a grown up, then I ever was as a kid. 

Chris Green: From my perspective, I started playing guitar when I was about eight. My dad played guitar. My uncle played clarinet, as well, and he played a bit of piano. I never really had formal lessons, but one of my earliest musical experiences was that my dad and my uncle, on Saturday nights, my dad would go round to my uncle’s house and they would drink beer and they would play Trad Jazz on their respective instruments, and that’s what they did. Then, when I was sort of nine or ten, my dad started taking me along, as well. So really, my first introduction to music was social, more than anything else. I had had cello lessons, at school, concurrently with this. At the end of two years of cello lessons, I was still on Book One, page five. Which kind of proves rather well, that there wasn’t much happening, at all. It was kind of quite a useful thing because I do believe very firmly that anyone can play music. It’s just a case of finding the right instrument. I actually had quite an unpleasant cello teacher who was like, you know, basically, “You will never be able to play a musical instrument, because you can’t do this.” And I was like, “But I can play the guitar. I can play the guitar. I can play the piano…”

RT: I think we’ve all had those people. 

CG: Yeah, well exactly. I think they are less frequent now than they were formerly. I’m going back to the mid ‘80s, at this point and, in fact, the cello teacher did indeed leave the school, under a cloud, shortly afterwards, so, even by the standards of the time…

RT: [Laughs] Nobody was learning cello!

CG: Yeah, exactly. But I didn’t learn to read music until I was about 18. I taught myself, for the very pragmatic reason that I realised it was doing me out of a load of work that I could otherwise get. I did quite a lot of work in pit bands, for theatres and stuff like that. The deal with that is that you have one rehearsal and then the show is on. So being able to read is really important. I still come across, occasionally, that tension between “I’m an improvising musician and I play by ear.” “Well, I’m a musician who plays by reading.” And I sort of go “Well, why wouldn’t you want to do both? Why does one exclude the other? Surely, the more skills you have, the better the musician you are.” I’ve done quite a lot of work with people who have been to music college. I have a lot of very good friends who went the music college route. My feeling is that music college is a really good way of getting to the point of being a professional musician. They exist for a reason. But it isn’t the only way. There are other ways of getting to do it. So, yes. That’s really kind of where I come from, really. 

RT: Your touring stage shows, and your albums, are primarily based around narrative folk songs and themes, albeit often refreshed and enlivened in various ways. Could you tell me about the division of labour, and how you put these together, because you’re quite unusual in being a couple, as well?

[Chris and Sophie both laugh.]

CG: Yes. I mean, that is the thing. Generally speaking, the way that Green Matthews was set up is that, if it is possible to do it in-house, we do it in-house, because we worked out, quite a long time ago, that paying other people to do things – and, actually, you should pay other people to do things. It’s not reasonable to expect someone to design your album cover for free, or anything like that. That costs money, and when we started out with doing this, we didn’t have very much money. Learning how to do these things yourself costs time. And we had a lot of time. So we were time-rich and asset-poor. So I, mostly, write and compose. I also, mostly, design our albums and posters, and maintain our website. 

SM: And I am Admin Queen. So the deep, dark, Winter months, for me, are spent on the telephone, and at the computer. I do rather often flippantly answer, if somebody says what’s my first instrument, my reply, usually, as a professional musician, is “The telephone.” 

So we have a big database of venues. So January, February, for me, is usually spent ringing people, saying “Will you give us a gig?” 

CG: We’ve looked, at various points, at getting an agent to represent us. We’ve always come up against the fact that we can’t find an agent to represent us who will do as good a job at representing us as Sophie does. It feels a little like keeping a dog and barking yourself. 

SM: Certainly for the theatres and the arts centres. So a lot of the shows that we do go down really well in the soft seat venues. And we’re really too small for a theatre agent to kinda take us on. And, although we play a lot of Folk music, actually we play venues that most Folk musicians don’t play. So the traditional Folk agent wouldn’t usually explore the sort of venues that we play. We sort of straddle these lines that we manage to kind of – I think we manage quite well, ourselves, but we don’t sort of really fit into any one camp for anyone else to manage us. 

CG: I mean, actually, our two big models, role models, for putting this together were Show of Hands and Blowzabella, who are two completely different acts in terms of the music that they play. I spent some time, ten or so years ago, hanging around with the Show of Hands axis, and came away with this utter admiration for Show of Hands as a business plan. It’s just superb. They literally set themselves up from scratch and, from the word go, they said “We’re going to have proper light. We’re going to have proper sound, even if we have to pay ourselves thirty quid at the end of the night and sleep in the car, if we want to get large venues, we have to look as though we belong there.”

And actually, again, Blowzabella. I mean, Paul James from Blowzabella is a really good friend, actually. His whole thing was that, in the early Eighties, Blowzabella, for one reason and another, felt as though they didn’t quite fit the UK Folk circuit, or that the UK Folk circuit didn’t quite fit them. 

RT: They were a bit radical, to be fair. 

CG: Well, yes. I suspect that is the case. And, basically, they decided to create their own circuit. When he told me that, I was like “That’s really obvious, actually, but quite an amazing thing to do.” So we very much kind of try to – It’s not that we have a problem with the UK Folk circuit at all. We absolutely don’t. It’s just that, for one reason and another, we’ve never spent that much time there, because that hasn’t been where the gigs have been for us. 

RT: That’s a surprise, because I thought that you would be adaptable to both your own shows and doing some Folk club gigs, as well.

SM: It’s never really been out of choice. It’s just sort of that’s been the way it’s panned out. If anybody’s listening, we’re available for Folk festivals next Summer. 

RT: The Keep It Local tour was one of the early highlights of Lockdown – if you can have highlights of Lockdown – when it was all rather surreal and frightening, initially. You cheered everyone up, and must have gained many new fans and followers, as a result. What was that series like to make, and how was the reaction, from your perspective? 

SM: Oh, we had a wonderful reaction. Even before Lockdown, we had a sort of really depressing fortnight, where basically every morning we would open our computers to a barrage of cancellations. Every day was just more and more cancellations, pushing further and further into the year. 

CG: And this was also before any kind of government support had been announced for the self-employed. It was a month before that happened. 

SM: A long time. So we had a pretty low couple of weeks, and lots of uncertainty about what was going to happen. Would we actually get locked down, or would it just be this kind of weird limbo, forever? Then we did get Lockdown, and everything sort of stopped. Obviously lots of people took to putting music online. We really wanted to do something. We really knew that it was important to kind of keep us out there, to sort of remind people that we were still here. Lots of people were putting loads of music online. It was fantastic. So much difference, from all over the world. We were really conscious that we wanted to do something different. So I came up with the idea of playing in the loft, and doing a tour of the house. 

CG: The idea was that we’d normally, in happier times, tour. We see no reason to stop touring, just because we’re stuck at home. 

SM: Initially I counted 13 spaces in our three bedroom house, that we could play in, and we were really pleased to find that we’d missed the car. So we managed an encore, in the car. 

The response was amazing. So many people sent us amazing messages of compliments and solidarity. It was really nice to hear from our audience, going “We really love what you guys do. Please keep doing it.” That was so important at that stage, because we’re still not quite sure when we’ll get in front of real people again. That was really, really nice. Also we found that we could reach a much more international audience, than we ever could. In terms of silver linings, we’ve managed to reach different parts of the World that we couldn’t ordinarily get to. So we now have a handful of really amazing fans in Canada, in Madrid, in Brittany. That’s been really cool, to start talking to people in other places and say, again, “Maybe we will see you, one day.”

https://www.greenmatthews.co.uk 

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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.”

https://www.judereesmusic.co.uk/

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