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At the heart of English folk

Exclusive interview: Edgelarks

Edgelarks duo Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin released their long-awaited fifth album 'Feather' earlier this month. Ahead of their launch show here on 30 May, we caught up with them to discuss the concept behind the album, their musical approach and their thoughts on the folk scene today...

How did you both come into playing music? And at what point did you become interested in folk?

Hannah: I was lucky to grow up in an area (south Devon) with a lot of live music. My parents brought me up listening to lots of 60s and 70s classics, generally on the folk-rock spectrum. They had some friends who were more traditional folkies, and one day we went round to theirs and I had my violin with me. They persuaded me to take it out and start trying to improvise along with their folk songs. Before I knew it I was playing gigs and going to sessions with them – I was about 12. And I haven’t stopped!

Phil: I started playing guitar at the age of 15, I am self taught and my first influence was blues. I became fascinated with the other worldly sounds of early Delta blues players like Robert Johnson and Son House. I did become interested in folk quite early on through the playing of guitarists like Bert Jansch, Davy Graham, John Renbourne and started going to folk clubs in the Preston area. Later moving to Devon I started going to Sidmouth Folk Festival. The first gig I saw there was Martin Simpson and I thought to myself, OK this is where it is at, I can do this for a living.

When writing Feather you retreated to a cottage in the Cumbrian countryside surrounded by fantastic landscape. And this is very much reflected in the album’s concept: the appreciation of the natural world and the hope that it can give us. What was the motivation behind this? Was it a response to the way society and culture function today?

Hannah: Yes, absolutely. I write a lot of political songs but was feeling quite despairing, and so decided to deliberately search for themes of happiness and hope in what I was writing. This was definitely helped by being in such an inspiring place. However, the album is still deeply engaged with modern political concerns – in ways I didn’t even necessarily realise at the time – it’s just more subtle!

Can you talk more about the balance between representing the often-depressing reality of modern life in music, and the more optimistic approach which you seem to take in Feather, where you focus on appreciation for the natural world? Leading on from that, what are your thoughts on music as a medium for escapism and to what extent do you think that’s a good thing?

Hannah: Well the optimistic approach taken on the album was a definite, deliberate choice. And I think it’s good to realise that it is an available choice, despite depressing realities! It’s so easy to feel ground down, but I think realising you can still find hope, and that you have the choice to be more optimistic, gives you a sense of agency, a sense that change could happen. And without people feeling that, nothing will change! Music is a wonderful and welcome vehicle for escapism, but for me that doesn’t equate to a lack of content or meaning – instead, it’s a powerful imagining of a better place, strong enough to transport the listener.

Where else do you get your inspiration for the subject-matter of your music?

Hannah: Everywhere! I do love stories, and pick them up from the radio, podcasts, people sharing things online, or people at shows pointing me in the direction of something interesting (please come and tell me your interesting stories!) I read a lot, and especially like nature writing – in fact, I credit three books in particular for informing a lot of this album: Findings by Kathleen Jamie, The Seasons by Nick Groom, and Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit.

Would you like to talk more about the balance between tradition and innovation in folk? To what extent do you like to experiment with traditional music and add your own take to particular tunes?

Hannah: We are so lucky to have such a rich and varied tradition. I feel it is intimately connected to the landscape we are living in, and so taking inspiration from the landscape feels like a way of tapping directly into the tradition, for me. I think our tradition is a wonderful launch pad for innovation, and shouldn’t be seen as rule-bound or confining. There are so many great acts recreating very traditional styles, we shouldn’t feel afraid of experimenting and creating – we’re not trying to historically recreate the past, but instead extend and stretch the tradition to reflect the world we find ourselves in. New with old surely keeps the music alive and fresh.

What music are you listening to at the moment?

Hannah: I’m really enjoying Greg Russell and Danny Pedlar’s Field and Dyke – it’s a fascinating Radio Ballad style work for modern Britain. Also Rory McLeod’s Gusto! – he’s just brilliant. And The Little Unsaid’s new album Atomise, it’s beautiful.

Phil: The Gloaming 3

What are your thoughts on the folk scene at the moment? It’s often seen as a genre that’s associated with an older audience. Why should young people be interested in folk today?

Hannah: We think the folk scene here is great and feel very lucky to be part of it. The structures in place through folk clubs and festivals provide a fab way for young musicians to start out and establish a career. However, it does sometimes feel like a secret club, with our non-folkie friends truly mystified about the world we live in! It would be nice to find ways to open it up more.

It would be great to see more diversity at festivals, more awareness in their programming – you do tend to see the same headliners year after year! We’ve really enjoyed festivals in Australia and Canada where there are a much greater range of musicians embraced by the folk banner – and a much more varied and younger audience reflecting that. 


Edgelarks will be performing at Cecil Sharp House on 30 May. 

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