Interview with Simon McKechnie
FolkWords recently reviewed the album ‘London ReBorn’ the brainchild of musician and composer Simon McKechnie - “a collection of ‘old-new’ folk songs that encapsulate the variety of life and wealth of histories that permeate London.” When the chance came to speak to Simon about the album and find out more about his take on folk songs about London, we couldn’t let the opportunity slip by.
FW: ‘London ReBorn’ intrigues from the start. The melding of old and new - ancient tunes and instruments, modern treatments and programming plus a variety of soundbite accents - and focus on London itself. Where did the inspirations come from?
SM: The concept began a couple of years ago or so. I was flitting through some folk songbooks for enjoyment, some practice and a little bit of study. I just kept stumbling across songs about London – some were outstandingly beautiful and many I’d never heard of before. I began looking into those songs and started to play with a couple of them to see if I could put a seed of my own music into them and at the same time still retain the integrity of the original song.
‘Sadler’s Wells’ was the first one I played with. I could feel my music coming out of that song yet it still retained its historical perspective. Mind you, all the time I’m working on a different take on the tune there’s a cautious note playing in my mind: “This is a bit naughty. You’re messing with tradition. Will people like this approach?” But it fitted so well and I was hooked, so I carried on. One reason for the album’s existence was that it had no guidelines, no time constraints. I was free to do what I wanted – the only thing was that it should be the best it could possibly be. So if the music felt right I decided to go with it.
FW: There are strong folk elements here but inside each song there appears a seething undercurrent of contemporary progressive material bursting to get out.
SM: I wanted to use the historical roots but for me the album had to have something resonant of contemporary London intertwined within it. The history is still there and it’s still relevant, it has forged much of what London is today. The city is also modern and contemporary at the same time. There’s still the mix of good and bad. London is complex, convoluted and evolving - some aspects of the city are even ugly. The first track on the album ‘Oh London is a Fine Town’ sounded pretty but it didn’t really ‘chug’ along until I added a noise synth in there. I kept driving the sheer noise of it - the living background soundtrack to the city.
FW: The song consists of many layers and elements - each time you listen there’s another sound in the mix.
SM: That was a deliberate action on my part to create texture and depth.
FW: Did you have any doubts about the alliance between traditional instruments and tunes, and synthesised sounds and programming?
SM: Yes I suppose I did. I felt that some traditional bastions would feel that I’d taken a step too far in the folk world. Luckily these things do work out – those that don’t like it will throw it in the bin and those that come from the more broad-minded folk side will like it. There’s also the question of what category is it? Everything is categorised but what category is this. It’s definitely more ‘folk’ than anything else but to my ears, and hopefully those of people that hear it, everything just fits. Whether it’s the music of the 16th or 17th century music or music from today – if they work together they work together, simple as that.
FW: Do you think that taking old themes and adding new effects, instruments and influences is healthy for folk?
SM: Yes I certainly do. I’m a mixture myself, I grew up abroad and my mother is from another country. So there’s a certain mix of cultures and influences that I feel completely at home with. There should be no resistance in putting together what works – whatever its influence, whatever its origin.
FW: The female voices on the album, how did you find them?
SM: I wanted to find the right voice with the right tone. I knew exactly what I wanted to hear and knew the vocals needed a feel of voice that not too many contemporary voices provide. Johanna’s voice worked perfectly on ‘Oh London Is A Fine Town’. In the case of ‘St Paul’s Steeple’ finding the physical essence was almost an accident. I knew the vocal I wanted and when I heard Helen Dodd singing a song to herself – the fit was immediate.
FW: 'A Trip To Highgate’ and ‘Graies Inne Maske’ emphasise the mix between the old and new, ancient instruments and programming. Did that mix come together as a whole or grow through experimentation?
SM: It’s a bit of both really. I have a classical background studying orchestration. A little bit of that element comes in when I’m hearing in my head some sort of texture, I try to realise that with sounds. Often it ends up being completely different but there was just the starting seed of what I had in my mind buried in there. Perhaps it’s a calm high end or staccato low down, an electronic or a woody sound – whatever it is, it evolves and becomes a piece. The plan was always to add a modern edge while all the time respecting this wonderful collection of melodies.
FW: The ‘textured’ feel you're aiming for - is it more than overlaying sounds on simple melodies?
SM: The intention is to make my music an expression of me and my chosen subject. The music needs a ‘face’ that’s instantly recognisable – quite often that is a simple face. So I wanted an immediate hook to engage listeners, but when you listen some more you find details and elements moving right, left, backward and forward. I did that to give it something to keep the ear excited and integrating the multi-layered sounds into the basic fabric of the songs is for me the right way to do it.
FW: How did the interesting conglomerate of ambient and sounds on 'The Exhibition of 1862’ come about?
SM: I was rather wary of that one at first. I asked myself a few times was it a step too far? It began when I went around the Science Museum recording a load of sounds, in fact anything that had some character. The rhythmic backing is made up of over thirty of those recordings integrated with each other. I found two exhibits in The Science Museum's interactive ‘Launch Pad’ that form the greater part the percussive sound collage.
The idea was to recreate the feeling of being at the exhibition. The high tech of the day just happened to be clunking away with a group of musicians in front of it playing a dreamy melody. And of course, there’s the electronic drums played by Adam Riley.
FW: Where did you find the street criers on ‘Street Cries Of London’ ?
SM: Years ago, I read a poem on the Tube when London Underground ran a programme called 'Poems on the Underground'. They put up posters with poems inside underground trains and on station advertising boards and this one just stayed with me.
The street cries you hear are an on-site recording from Catford Market. I walked past this fruit and veg seller, heard him calling to the crowd and thought what a great character. I asked if I could record him and initially, he didn’t want to take part, in his words ‘being too shy to do anything like that’. Then he said: “Perhaps if I didn’t know you were there that would be alright.” So I ended up sneaking from behind the Jamaican patty stall to record him while he was working. There were some other ambient sounds recorded around a shopping centre.
FW: So is ‘The Old Glassy Junction’ a tribute to modern London?
SM: Yes it is I suppose. It’s also in some way, maybe a quarter of it, is a little joke or a twist about London. With the album I’m trying to show different versions of beautiful songs - songs that other than those people who have studied folk music in depth - most people will not know. Ending with this outlandish version of London Bridge is Falling Down, a folk tune that everybody knows, is a celebration of the multi-culturalism of the city. I live in a part of London that couldn’t be more multicultural and this song celebrates that.
There are world elements dribbling away throughout the album but this makes them more obvious and projects the multi-cultural melting pot that London is today. I mention on my web site that watching a movie in India, in a small town in the middle of Maharashtra, in one scene the actors were walking past Tower Bridge – the exotic foreign bit – and this tiny little kid stood up and started singing ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ at the top of his voice. That made me think - an iconic London song had made its way to India. So I suppose that image ran through my head when I was developing this song.
FW: Did you ever entertain the idea of setting out the songs chronologically?
SM: Not at all. They just fit together they way they sound good. The historical perspective, interesting though it is, was always secondary to the way the music sounds.
FW: Do you think people will try to categorise this album and will they have a hard time doing that?
SM: It’s a natural impulse I suppose. People like to know what genre it is, what’s it like, how do I pigeon-hole this music? I suspect it will find a natural home in folk music but hopefully it can transcend too much categorisation. I created this album as a labour of love but it’s steadily getting a momentum of its own, which is good and along the way people will doubtless put it in brackets or invent brackets for it.
FW: How did you work with the other artists on the album?
SM: Mostly, once I had the songs and sent them the arrangements, they came over to record their part and I did whatever was needed to create the final piece. One difference was with ‘Graies Inne Mask’ – the nyckelharpa piece played by Clare Salaman. Because she is such an early music and English folk specialist I wanted her to have the melody straight out of the book, play it however she wanted three or four times and then I arranged around it. Working with Adam on the electric drums I played him the track and he improvised around it.
FW: So what about the follow up to ‘London ReBorn’ or is it too early for that?
SM: Strangely enough I’m already working on that. The idea is that rather than the historical perspective seen through modern eyes, I’m thinking of London’s ‘new heritage’. Again, it will be my music but an interpretation of immigrant songs. I’m currently considering Jewish, Portuguese, Maltese, Chinese, Turkish and whatever music else takes my fancy.
FW: What’s to prevent music from anytime and anywhere mixing together?
SM: Nothing at all. Folk music, however you define it, is something continuous. There’s a couple of songs on the album that were in ‘The Beggars Opera’ – ‘Oh London Is A Fine Town’ and ‘Greenwich Park’. They were the popular songs of the day, so the composers could present their lampooning lyrics and everyone would know the tunes. All that really matters is that it‘s good music.
FW: Will the complexity of ‘London ReBorn’ restrict you should you have to meet a request to deliver it ‘live’?
SM: The chances of exactly reproducing the sound of ‘London ReBorn’ in a ‘live’ environment would be tricky. If it came to that, and I’m not sure it ever would, I’d have to think about it carefully. It definitely would not be trying to repeat the actual sound. It would be trying to create the expression the album creates with whatever instruments or electronics I chose to use.
© FolkWords - 2012