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At the heart of English folk

Exclusive interview: Alistair Anderson

Alistair Anderson is bringing his new band to Cecil Sharp House on Thursday 15 March. Ahead of their performance, we had a chat with Alistair to find out more about how his new line-up came together, their creative process and plans for the future.


How did the Northlands band come together?

I’ve known the other members of the band since they were teenagers—they are all fantastic musicians. Over the last 10 years I’ve put together bands for specific projects, usually something I’ve written, but for this I wanted a band that would look at the traditional music of the Northeast and bring it to life. That music has always been the wellspring of all I do. Sarah, Ian and Sophy were at the top of the list and they all said yes! Sarah is my favourite singer and a brilliant flute player. I love the way Sophy plays the fiddle, she has a really broad palette. Ian is just an amazing musician on lots of instruments, he has a fascinating musical mind! It’s been great exploring some of the older songs from the northeast, and some of the newer ones by songwriters like Jez Lowe.


Was it particularly important to you that you played Northumbrian tunes?

I’ve always been excited by Northumbrian music. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a lot of the older generation of musicians like Will Taylor and Will Atkinson. There’s just such a richness, you dig into those old books and there’s so much amazing material, but there are also some amazing musicians writing today like Jez Lowe. There aren’t that many people digging through the Northeast repertoire today so we’ve been thoroughly enjoying playing that music. Other people like Rachel Hamer and The Unthanks also explore that region in their music.


On that theme, what do you think of the policy adopted by some folk clubs in the 60s (often associated with Ewan MacColl), that a singer should only perform songs from their own region?

I wouldn’t go along with that at all! I love walking the in hills around where I live, but I’ve also walked in the Himalayas. You’ve known your own hills in every sort of weather and every sort of light, you know them really well. Similarly, the music that I’ve been most immersed in, I’ve seen in so many different context and situations. Every time I take one of those songs or tunes, I hear something new in it. Much as I love the music of Ireland, Cornwall, Yorkshire, Sweden, Quebec, there’s something magical about playing the tunes you’ve grown up with and have been surrounded by for 50 years or more.


How do you go about arranging tunes as a band?

Ian often takes a strong lead on the songs. We tend to sit and throw ideas around, sometimes one of us will come up with something fairly specific and then we sit and play around with it. In my last project every note was written, but with Northlands it’s very much their band. In fact when we came to release the album I asked if they really wanted to call it Alistair Anderson and Northlands, as it’s as much their band as mine!


You play the English concertina—what appealed about that system in comparison to all of the other systems out there?

When I was at school I used to cycle every morning with a mate of mine. One day my mate was a bit late and I sat in his front room waiting, and there in a china cabinet was his grandfather’s concertina. I already played a bit of guitar and a couple of other instruments, so I thought “that looks fun!” His grandma let me have a go on it, and when I started getting pretty good she eventually let me buy it. That’s still the instrument I play most often.

I love all sorts of squeezeboxes but the English concertina is much more flexible and lets you play in all keys. I like to think it has the same dynamic possibilities as the anglo concertina—you can play really driving stuff but also play very lyrically.

Ian and I both play the Northumbrian pipes as well, so we have some pipe duets which are a lot of fun.


What are you looking forward to in 2018?

I’m looking forward to playing a lot with Northlands. We’re playing some festivals, including Sidmouth and Whitby. I’m going to start another “solo” CD, by which I mean a recording of some of my stuff. There will be a mix of quite a few things I’ve written over the last few years which some people have been asking about. For that I will doubtless be using Sophy, Ian, Andy May and various other people I’ve worked with in the past.

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