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At the heart of English folk
Miranda Sykes & Rex Preston

Exclusive Interview: Miranda Sykes & Rex Preston

Ahead of Miranda and Rex’s visit to Cecil Sharp House on 10 September, we had a chat with them about their enchanting live performances, approach to creating an album and plans for the future.


Double bass and mandolin is an unusual instrumental combination for a duo; how did you go about crafting your sound?

Miranda: It was an accident! Rex and I were jamming after a party and we realised what a great pairing the two instruments were. We each have space to breathe musically. It really works well.

Rex: It's unusual but not without precedent - Simon Maya and Hilary James, or Edger Mayor and Chris Thile are two such duos who share that instrumentation, and there are others. I should add that Miranda also plays guitar, I play bouzouki and we both sing, so the bass and the mandolin only form part of the sound palette of our show/recordings.


Both of your duo albums are self-produced; how important is it for you to maintain full control over the final sound of your records?

Miranda: I felt that Rex did a wonderful production job on our debut album, so I had complete trust and reassurance that he would do a fantastic job on our following album Sing a Full Song. I feel we have a ‘sound’ now…but wouldn't be averse to working with another producer if that was a possibility or direction we wanted to take.

Rex: Actually, Joe Rusby played a big part in producing the first album - we recorded a sizable chunk of it at his place (Pure Studios). But Sing a Full Song was pretty much my baby in terms of producing it. I'd say it's as much necessity as anything else in choosing to self-produce and record. Like it or not, that's the way the industry has gone. However, I do have very clear ideas about how I want my music to be presented on record and thoroughly enjoy being at the helm of a recording project, so it's hardly a chore.


Boo Hewerdine contributed two songs to your latest album; how did that partnership come about?

Miranda: I gave Boo a lift a few years ago and he asked me what I was up to the following week. I said that we were going into the studio to record our debut album. He quite simply said "are you doing any of my songs?” I said "erm…no…" he said "why not?" and I quickly answered "because you haven't written us any yet!".


How do you go about choosing material for your records?

Miranda: It is a long process. Songs tend to find us. We will both bring ideas forward and try them out. Most often, I will suggest/sing a song to Rex and then he will go away with a recording and mull it over for a while. He will then present me with some ideas in the form of manuscript or an audio file and we'll play around with it from there.

Rex: I need to connect with a song on an emotional level before it goes into the set or onto a record; if my heart’s not in it I can't sing it. Like many modern artists we're not afraid to hop genres. Again, it's as much necessity as it is a reflection of modern music culture as a whole; I get bored easily.



What do you enjoy most about performing live?

Rex: I love interacting musically with Miranda on stage. She's a rock from which I can leap forth into the unknown of a solo but crawl back to for respite if something goes wrong. Mostly though, I just love hearing her sing - I think she has one of the best voices in the folk scene. Her versatility depth and range hold me spell bound always.

Miranda: Every gig is different - staging, lighting, sound, venue layout/location, so the dynamics on stage will be different each time, making for an exciting show every night.


You have both lent your talents to larger ensembles in recent years. How does your approach change when playing in a duo, both in terms of your relationship with your respective instruments and how you relate to each other as performers?

Miranda: Playing in a duo is far more intense than with a larger ensemble, where my parts tend to be more rigid. There is more room to improvise in the duo, which makes for a different approach.

Rex: The duo show is a democracy and an amalgamated expose of what we do as individuals. It's our show and we do whatever takes our fancy. When you're a hired hand it's different. Whoever hired you did so because they want a piece of what you do in their recording or show. But you have to listen to what they want (if they tell you) and reinterpret that through the filter of your own musical experience. Even if the result isn't what you might otherwise feel compelled to play, at the end of the day you’ve got to toe the party line. But it's always that way; we recently did a run of gigs with Steve Knightley as the Wake the Union Band. The band featured Martin Simpson, Andy Cutting, Phillip Henry, Hannah Martin, Leonard Podolak, Matt Gordon, Miranda and me. It was Steve's baby but he pretty much left us to do what it is that we do. We made a right old racket as you can imagine, but a very pleasant one and it was an absolute blast. I hope we do more of that in the future.


What music have you been listening to recently?

Rex: Snarky Puppy, Eldar Djangirov, the new Nickel Creek album, John Mayer, Foo fighters, Imogen Heap’s newest effort, anything but folk!

Miranda: Karine Polwart, The Chair, Snarky Puppy, Jim Croce, Sarah Jarosz, David Kosky and Damien O'Kane, Amos Lee, Kate Rusby, Kathryn Williams, The Duhks…I could go on and on.


What are your plans for the next year, both as a duo and individually?

Miranda: Rex and I will be touring as a duo at the beginning of next year and appearing at summer festivals. Show of Hands are back on the road playing at festivals next year too.

Rex: Our third duo album is in the pipeline - we should have that ready by next spring. Aside from that, more session work. I'm looking at starting a new collaborative project but it's still too early to give any details. Generally onwards and upwards...hopefully.

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