Interview with Ninebarrow
FolkWords talks to Jon Whitley and Jay LaBouchardiere, who are the folk duo Ninebarrow, about their ‘Home Lads Home’ project, their music and folk in general (with lots of laughter).
FW: First off, let’s talk about the single ‘Home Lads Home’ with Louise Jordan, what was the drive behind the project?
Jon: We’ve known Louise for quite a long time and we’ve been working through the idea of doing something musically together for a while. So we were over at her house sifting through books and manuscripts to maybe come up with some ideas. I think it was Jay that first discovered the poem that forms the basis of the lyric.
Jay: I just picked up the poem ‘Home Lads Home’ by Cicely Fox Smith and immediately fell in love with it. There was a resonance through the words, especially with the recent remembrances of the First World War.
Jon: At that point we weren’t familiar with Cicely Fox Smith or her poetry, much less the adaptation by Hampshire based community musician Sarah Morgan, so it was quite new to us. However, as Jay says, the resonance was definitely there.
Jay: As it happened, Louise knew the tune, so she played and sang it to us and it was one of those instant-attraction moments that you just can’t ignore. It didn’t take us long to realise that it could be a project for us to work on together, especially with a link to Help For Heroes.
FW: Although there’s a clear focus on the First World War, this song could almost be from any time and any conflict.
Jon: I think that’s true, and probably why it resonated with us the way it did. The lyrics are very poignant especially with so much conflict in progress around the world right now. Nothing really changed did it with ‘the war to end all wars’. We recently wrote a song inspired by all the conflict going on in Eastern Europe so that was in my mind at the same time – history repeating itself, humanity not learning from the past and somehow being doomed to repeat it.
FW: Why did you decide to record ‘Home Lads Home’ in a church?
Jon: We recorded live at St Peter’s Church in Parkstone, Dorset, which is local to us, and linked to the primary school where I work, because I knew it had beautiful acoustics. When we arrived at St Peter’s and then started to rehearse it became something so magical there was nowhere else to choose.
FW: Recordings in churches often have a ‘magic’, is there something about these old buildings?
Jon: This wasn’t recorded from a religious standpoint. It was the ambiance that these buildings with their history and their special feelings that make them an ideal place. From a musician’s perspective you play festivals, folk clubs and acoustic venues but when you step into a church and perform in it it’s unique. These buildings were built for sound and once you play in them that quality becomes obvious.
Jay: Much of our music is inspired by history, so to be able to play it in a place that has history as part of its fabric makes you feel like you’re getting a slightly more special experience.
FW: Can we focus now on Ninebarrow, where does the name originate?
Jay: Ninebarrow Down is an ancient archaeological site, one of the Purbeck Hills. We’re both from this area and walk the Purbecks regularly, so it was pretty much one of the first names we thought about and it just seemed to make sense.
Jay: The Purbeck Hills are a chalk ridge in Dorset, which stretches from Lulworth Cove in the west to Old Harry Rocks in the east. There are so many magical places scattered throughout the area – the most recognisable is probably Corfe Castle, everywhere we play, people seem to have heard of the place.
Jon: It’s very rare that Jay and I agree on anything (laughter) so to find a name we both liked immediately it seemed as though fate had intervened, so we became Ninebarrow. I have to give Jay credit for it because it was essentially his idea.
FW: So how did the duo Ninebarrow come about?
Jay: We’ve known each other for years, Jon’s dad is a local folkie and we listened to him and his friends.
Jon: We first really started singing together as duo during 2012, we went to a few festivals including The Larmer Tree, which is a festival down here. We were inspired by the music and put together a few songs just to try out at ‘sing-arounds’ and the feedback was incredibly positive. When we got home we decided that we might just give it a go.
Jay: The idea was that we should get together enough money to go to at least on festival the following year. I would say that our initial expectations were quite low (laughter).
FW: I’m constantly reminded by artists that it’s hard to make a living as a musician.
Jon: It’s damn hard to make a living as one act. There are loads of musicians out there in the folk world that either play with multiple outfits or have an alternative career. Going back to the sixties there were a lot more folk clubs in this country so it might have been easier. Times now are very different now and I think the days of the folk musician doing nothing else are long gone.
Jay: The world has changed and it’s difficult to make ends meet being a professional musician, especially when ‘bums on seats’ equals paying your gas bill. We’d love the music to take more of a front seat but you have to be practical.
FW: Do you think folk music has to evolve on a contemporary level as well as retaining contact with the past?
Jay: I think folk always has evolved. Certainly, the tranche of folk that comes from a political background, especially in this country in the sixties and seventies took folk to different places. That’s a clear evolution with a link to the past.
Jon: There’s still a thriving edge of political folk around right now that doesn’t show any sign of decline.
Jay: Naturally, folk has the tradition as its backbone, beyond that there’s a wealth of influences and inspirations that remain as relevant now as ever before, it’s just the situations and names that change. Folk is an incredibly broad genre and it really is impossible to get bored.
FW: Although folk music repeatedly suffers from the perception of limited appeal.
Jay: I think that most people like folk music, they just don’t know they like folk music. It’s constantly changing and it’s wrong to see it as something that belongs only in the past. Of course, the past is relevant but look around and you’ll see folk music in the hands of young artists working with folk in a way that works with today. There may sometimes be a dip in the appreciation of folk music but it definitely endures.
FW: I would say that sums up Ninebarrow, “… the folk heritage is in good hands”
Jon: Thank you, we love the tradition and we love performing it, equally we love taking inspiration from any number of sources and writing our own songs, for us they go hand in hand and we find it hard to separate the two, and indeed why would you?
Jon: I find songwriting to be something of an escape from the trials and tribulations of the world rather than focusing on them.
FW: The songwriter Simon Hopper once told me that songwriting was something he has to do. In his words “It’s like taking a shit. I have to do it.” So how does a song ‘arrive’ with yourselves?
Jon: Does that mean I’m a bit constipated at the moment? (laughter again) Bits and pieces of songs pop up all over the place, I’ve got oodles of ideas for songs, phrases and first lines that just need time for to flesh them out. Some songs have written themselves in an hour while others take months from start to finish, with loads of rehashing along the way. Thankfully, we’re equally at home with either process and people seem to enjoy our songs whether they write themselves or take forever to come to life.
It’s often the case that you begin to write and words start to flow but then again, when you’re in a creative partnership you do encounter: “I really like that!” and at the same time: “Well I don’t!” Then we come back to songs a few days later and work them out (more laughter).
Jay: In truth I think we both push each other and what comes out of the partnership ends up being better for the process.
FW: Wasn’t it Lennon that said the ‘aggravation’ between him and McCartney made the best songs?
Jon: It’s great to hear that other people have the same problem.
FW: Do you subscribe to the view that one of the strongest themes in folk is the narrative lyric?
Jon: A lot of what we do is about the story telling. That’s a difficulty that sometimes makes itself felt when recording an album, in fact exactly what we’re doing right now. So much of our stage performance comes from the music coming parcelled with the introduction and the narrative in the song. We enjoy leading into the songs by introducing the story verbally before we get into the song – not really possible on an album, unless it’s a live album that picks up the introductions.
Jay: Part of the issue is that with lots of songs in the past, telling a true story would involve it being fifteen verses long, so on-stage we tend to introduce or tell the background to the story. That probably makes it easier for the audience.
FW: It’s often argued that folk lyric storytelling is missing from a lot of ‘pop music’, do you agree?
Jay: So many of my friends just don’t listen to the words. They like the music but they don’t listen to the lyrics perhaps that’s one reason why the pop lyric has become secondary. Also, in a great many pop-type songs you actually can’t hear or decipher the words, they’re there but not they’re as important as they are in folk music.
FW: It’s not unusual to hear that ‘folk is the province of old people’ how do you react to that?
Jon: Folk is the province of all people, age is not a barrier or a restriction, old or young. It has always has been so and will continue, it’s only the perception that once again gets in the way. We go to some amazing folk clubs and see they keep on bringing in young performers, sometimes amazingly young performers and I hope they always do.
Jay: Folk has so much talent packed into it, irrespective of age. Just sometimes when we go to clubs we’re told: “You’ve just lowered the average age by thirty years.” That’s brilliant but a little worrying.
FW: A while ago I heard a radio broadcast state: “Folk’s golden years have gone and something has been lost.”
Jay: As we’ve said earlier, I think we have to work harder, but in terms of that spark of creativity it’s as strong and alive as it always was.
Jon: Down here in Dorset you don’t have to look very far to find new and interesting folk artists coming along. There’s a rich folk custom blossoming with tradition and innovation walking hand in hand. And with so many bands making such good music, if there’s any such thing as a ‘golden age’ for folk music it could well be now.
FW: Perhaps, because more than ever, there’s greater opportunity to discover new music through travel, the web and online accessibility?
Jon: Music nowadays is not only far more accessible it’s developing at a much faster rate than ever before with innovation coming from every culture and quarter of the world, and the great thing is that today we hear far more of it.
FW: Have you run into the turn-down that goes: ‘You don’t fit our profile’?
Jon: The one we encounter is: “You’re too traditional.” Then at another venue we’re told “You’re not traditional enough.” I think we try to walk a bit of a balance with that. It just so happens that the balance falls pretty much where our music sits.
Jay: That’s all you can do. Sing the songs we love singing and hope that the way we perform reaches an audience. It’s interesting, there’s been a couple of instances where we’ve been told we’re not good a fit with a club or festival and then meet other people on the scene that know the people selecting bands and they say: “They only need to hear you to know they’re wrong.”
FW: That’s always a problem for artists, getting someone to hear your music before they make up their mind.
Jon: Absolutely, that’s back to perception again.
Jay: It doesn’t need to be like that but it happens.
Jon: That’s the beauty of festivals that adopt an eclectic approach. You can go from stage to stage listening to music ranging from cutting edge innovation to utterly traditional.
FW: You’ve mentioned the new album previously, can you tell us anything about it?
Jon: Well, you could say it’s going well (laughter again).
Jay: It’s learning experience.
FW: So will it follow on from ‘While The Blackthorn Burns’ or go somewhere different?
Jon: It’s in the same vein because it’s what we enjoy doing. It’s a mixture of traditional and our own songs. The biggest difference is perhaps there’s a slightly larger emphasis on traditional, then again that’s something that might change.
FW: And that’s all the answer we're going to get.
Jon and Jay: That’s all the answer you’re going to get (yet more laughter)
FW: Thank you both for your time, it’s been a pleasure.