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heir latest release Watershed is a complex, intriguing and thoroughly absorbing affair of many different lay- ers, meanings and hues. Very, very different, too, from Mynd, the album exploring the idea of the modern folk tale which effectively resulted in their quantum leap into serious prominence. And if you haven’t heard it, you need to make the instant acquaintance of their brilliant, inventive and inspi- rational The Nailmakers Strike, surely one of the finest folk-related constructions in recent years, reggae-inflected rhythms and all.


T


“We didn’t want to make the same album again, we wanted to change the whole sound,” says Hannah, still a tad shell-shocked from the massive traffic jam which caused much teeth-grinding on the M3 on the way back from last night’s gig. “It is a change of direc- tion and it takes a bit of getting used to. It’s probably a bit less folkie, but that’s just the way it went. You just have to follow where these things lead or else you end up creating a parody of something you have already done.”


Phil, the technician, talks earnestly about sonic sound improve- ments and production values, but every which way – songs, arrange- ments, melodies, lyrics, Mark Tucker’s production – it is an unusual album laced with subtlety and guile that never goes quite where you expect it. Then again, they are an unusual outfit with an unconven- tional mix of instrumentation.


“It’s not for everyone. Not everybody wants to hear banjo and harmonica together,” concedes Henry wryly.


Hannah looks mortified by this comment. “Phil’s not in charge of our PR by the way!”


You know what he means, though. Dobro, harmonica, fiddle, guitar, percussion, banjo, beatboxing… it’s a strange old mix…


Henry: “You wouldn’t think it would work. The high frequency instruments we use don’t necessarily fill the sonic stuff but we do a lot of work to fill out the whole picture, which involves a lot of multi- tasking. I fill in a lot of the bass frequencies with my thumb on the dobro so it creates a full band sound plus the percussion and beatbox, and I’ve modified some really low-tuned harmonicas so they’re really juicy and low and not the traditional high range. And Hannah has a five-string fiddle with a low C like a viola and a subtle octave in with pedals. It’s taken a lot of work and we’re still trying to develop it.”


The songwriting is unconventional too. Hannah has developed the habit of writing on instruments she doesn’t really know how to play in order to create freshness and originality. Her lyrics, too, offer intriguingly mysterious takes on subjects ranging from childhood games (Conkers), gay marriage (Stones), life on the road (Taxis) and lost children (Foundling).


“I did an English degree and studied quite a lot of writing so I’m desperate to avoid any obvious cliché. You can get quite lazy with writing and I never want to go for an obvious rhythm or rhyme and I try and craft something a bit different. It would be easy to end up with a three-chord trick so if I sit down with a piano accordeon I don’t know how to play, it suggests things.”


A case in point is the title track, Watershed, which is ever so slightly weird and a little bit off-kilter, yet also unequivocally beauti- ful with an irresistible slow-burn chorus.


Hannah: “Most of the other songs were written specifically about someone but that was written about everyone. It’s not specifically about the last election but it applies that idea of feeling overwhelmed by things you can’t control, yet still have the chance to live your own life and make your own choices, so don’t despair. That seems quite rel- evant at the moment. We could probably make it more catchy and sin- galong and Phil could do more blistering stuff with it, but we’re just trying to make music that we ourselves like to listen to.”


You can almost imagine the most alluring track, Tonight, being drenched in strings and presented as a fragrant love song that would clean up on Radio 2. Naturally, Henry and Martin don’t take this approach with Hannah’s richly emotive voice driven along by Phil’s pounding harmonica. While most of their songs are painstakingly constructed with minutely-crafted arrangements born of a long ges- tation period, Tonight was improvised on the spot as they tinkered with instruments in their living room. “We took it away and tried lots of different arrangements and then came back to the one we’d started with in the first place!” remembers Henry.


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