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At the heart of English folk
Joshua Burnell

Joshua Burnell

Ahead of his gig at Cecil Sharp House on 22 May, we caught up with Joshua Burnell to discuss his approach to creating music, wider influences, and more:

Tell us about your process with writing / arranging and recording your music. Your ‘Seasons Project’ saw you release one arrangement of a traditional song every week for a year which must have been quite something to juggle! How did you go about this, and how do you approach making an album more broadly?

When working on an album of original music, I go through the process of writing, playing live to check the songs work, then chipping away at the arrangements until I’m happy. With the Seasons Project, I didn’t have this luxury! I spent an enormous amount of time listening and working out which songs would work in which season and which kind of arrangements would work. I tried to make each season work cohesively as one album, both in terms of instrumentation and thematically. It was then a mad process of constant recording to try and get as ahead as I possibly could! I’m really grateful that over twenty local musicians added their magic to the project. When you’re doing fifty-two tracks, you have to change things up to avoid monotony, and one thing I think I am proud of is that every track sounds distinctive.

“What’ll be great about playing at Cecil Sharp House is the fact it is so closely linked with the English songs we play. There’s going to be a really unique, buzzing atmosphere.”

Your album artwork for ‘The Road to Horn Fair’ is very distinctive – what was the inspiration behind it?

I knew I wanted something that looked ‘olde worldy’ in a tongue-in-cheek but also authentic way. I liked the idea that someone could pick up the album and think, “gosh! This is an actual piece of Renaissance artwork!” until, that is, they notice the band frolicking along with electric guitars and a Hammond organ on wheels. After trawling the internet, I found Randy Asplund, who delivered a cover that is fun, yet respectful and authentic.

Leading on from that, how important is the visual element of being a musician for you? Does it extend to how you dress and present yourself onstage?

To many music fans, the ‘look’ of a band is far more important than possibly even they realise. It sort of frames the music in a social context and says what the music stands for. When it comes to live music, for me, presentation is certainly a key factor. Music is fundamentally something you listen to, so if you’ve convinced people to come to watch you play it, you need to give them something to look at! I’ve got a couple of fabulous coats I like to wear and, as a band, we try to coordinate to some extent. We’re just beginning to forge a ‘look’ so it’s a very exciting time in that sense.

What sort of venues do you enjoy playing at? Do they impact your live performance differently?

Honestly, I enjoy all manner of venues so long as there is an attentive audience who are enjoying the show. Big stages are great fun because there’s room for more prancing about, but in small venues it’s great having the audience right there in front of you so you can build on each other’s energy. What’ll be great about playing at Cecil Sharp House is the fact it is so closely linked with the English songs we play. There’s going to be a really unique, buzzing atmosphere.

There are a lot of folk songs out there which contain very controversial subject matter. Do you think it’s important to rework them for modern audiences and how far should this go? I’m thinking about your reworking of ‘Two Magicians’. Do you feel a responsibility to be reworking these sorts of songs and is that better than simply letting them fade into obscurity?

With Two Magicians, my reworking was driven by the sense of great injustice I felt for the female character in the song. It’s a moment of triumph over misogyny. There are occasions when controversial or non-PC topics appear in folk verse, and although I see it as important to address these issues, I don’t think we should be writing modern versions just to make them palatable for modern audiences - they should be able to handle the old versions too, and indeed should hear the old versions. If you shut out old songs because you disagree with their subject matter, you remove the opportunity to look back and see how far we’ve come as a society, and you shut out the awareness that these issues might still be ongoing to this day. Censorship of art is often unwise in my view. If you hear something you don’t like, ask yourself why, then go out into the world and do something about it.

You live in York - How has this impacted your music? Does the history of a place, or just the experience of living somewhere in general, influence your music?

Like many other people lucky enough to live in York, I’m very interested in history. There are so many terrific stories, and being able to walk into the actual buildings where they took place is incredible. I think this is also part of what appeals to me about traditional folk music. The songs are not just about historical events, but they themselves are historically artefacts. Singing them gives you a kind of portal into the time they were written. I don’t think I can pretend York hasn’t influenced me creatively. When you open up The Road To Horn Fair, there’s a giant die-cut, cardboard castle that pops out at you!

Does anything else inspire your approach to music? Any books or art for example?

I’m a huge fan of fantasy literature and the works of Tolkien had a big impression on me growing up. This has certainly influenced much of my original work, and also led me to pursue traditional material dealing with themes of the supernatural.

A lot of Scandinavian material is interesting for this reason, as it is directly descended from many of the sagas that inspired Tolkien. More recently, I’ve been looking to old folk tales, Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales and a few actual historical accounts of some lesser-known English scallywags. Since there’s also been a lot of interesting news on space exploration, that’s been finding its way in there too.

And what was your background of getting into folk music more generally?

I lived in Scotland for five years from the age of seven, and I recall Scottish traditional music was fairly ingrained in the culture around me. Although I don’t think I was ‘into’ folk music at that age, it certainly sowed the seeds.

I was only properly introduced to folk music when I moved to Kendal to study A-levels. My friends and I (including Nathan, who plays guitar in the band) went to sessions around the town, a couple of which were folk sessions. Around that time, I was also taken to Whitby Folk Week by some friends and that had a big impression on me.

My interest in Tolkien had sparked a fascination with stories of bygone times and places and alongside that, Tolkien’s own folk songs of Middle Earth play a big part in the books. Finding the English folk scene was a bit like finding the real deal.

What music are you listening to at the moment?

Bowie, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, the latest Norma Waterson & Eliza Carthy album, Nick Cave, Her Crooked Heart…the list goes on! I was recently introduced to Darlingside and also The War On Drugs which I’m really enjoying.

Obligatory follow-on question from that: favourite Bowie album?

Blimey, that’s tricky…The Man Who Sold the World and Diamond Dogs are up there, but very tricky to pick one.

What are your plans for the rest of the year?

There are plenty of festivals left on the current tour; then we’ll begin an Autumn tour, and in the meantime, there’s lots of hard work to do in the studio, preparing new material and getting the Seasons Project ready for a proper release. Busy busy busy!

Finally, if you weren’t a musician, what else do you think you’d be doing instead now?

I’m currently a part-time musician and part-time class teacher at Fishergate Primary School in York. It is a uniquely wonderful school, full of the most amazing people. If things had turned out differently and I weren’t a musician, I’d like to think I’d still have found Fishergate.

Interview by Romana Ashraf

Joshua will be performing at Cecil Sharp House with his band on 22 May. 

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