eFestivals spoke to Jon Boden, fiddle player and folk singer. He plays fiddle as part of the duo Spiers and Boden, the band Bellowhead and up until recently, Eliza Carthy's band The Ratcatchers. He has appeared at countless festivals throughout the UK, and is about to release his second solo album 'Songs from the Floodplain' due out on Navigator in March 2009. As well as a host of appearances at this summer's folk festivals Jon has been announced for this year's Wychwood Music Festival appearing with Bellowhead.
I'm in Wales, we've got a little Bellowhead tour of Wales with six gigs, and it's become a regular thing now, it's a nice way to start the year off, with a little Welsh tour. It's pretty good normally. It's not quite my first gigs of the year I've done a few little one offs with John (Spiers) in January, but it's the first tour of the year.
You're lined up to play numerous folk festivals this year already, plus Wychwood with Bellowhead, what do you like about playing festivals in particular?
Well, with Bellowhead particularly, it's just a really great festival band, and so it's just a privilege to be part of that contract between band and audience that you get at a festival. Where the audience agree to have a wild, crazy time and for the band it's also part of the contract to put as much effort in as they possibly can. Yeah, it's great fun and it's good to have a big dancing audience and try to put on as much of a show as we can.
It's particularly great to be doing festivals with Bellowhead and we're doing a fair few of the duos, and that's great. We tend to get more of a listening audience for duo gigs, which is also nice. So we maybe do slightly more involved long ballads and that sort of thing, but still upbeat dancey stuff.
You played Wychwood last year as that duo, Spiers and Boden, with John what's attracted you to return with the full Bellowhead this year?
Well, they asked us, that's the way it works with festivals, you don't really ask them, they ask you. So hopefully we did a good job there last year, and so they want to get us back but with the full band. It's really great to be asked back, it's a really nice festival actually.
Did you have a chance to stay there for the weekend?
No, we were just in and out, but I did see a few of the other bands. We were actually playing, well I think we were sound checking just as Duffy was playing on the main stage. The band who were playing before us, were playing whilst Duffy was on, were playing to about two people. Which was bad for them, but I was relieved we weren't in the same boat. It's a really nice festival, and it's nice to get that mix of musical styles at a festival and it's good fun.
You've got a new album out 'Songs From The Floodplain' what's the inspiration behind that?
I do, yes. The point of it is imagining life in a world without cars, that's the main thing. There are all sorts of scenarios with us not having any petrol, and it's just something I find myself thinking about quite a lot. Both because I live somewhere quite rural and it's quite easy to imagine life without cars in that context. But also, just driving along motorways I find myself musing. There's something about motorways, and the idea of having motorways without any cars on it has always been an image that has interested me. So it's set in a possible future scenario, and it's lots of songs with that sort of theme really.
But wouldn't a life without cars, make your job as a travelling musician rather difficult?
It would make it impossible, but on the other hand you would probably get back to the situation where music belongs to everyone and everyone makes music. If there were any local musicians who were particularly good then there would be small local scene I would imagine. Not a professional scene, but we would get back to that preferable situation I think, where you wouldn't need a professional tier of musicians clocking up horrendous amounts of motorway miles, supplying music like a commodity, because people would be able to make their own music. But, you're right I would have to get a different job.
Although your caveat there means that you would be able to continue to do that wherever you were based.
Well, yes, you could still make music locally. I love touring and I love playing to big audiences but my first love really is making music, socially in pubs, and singing for someone has always been more of a passion to me than professional performing if you like.
You're touring the album with The Remnant Kings is that correct? Who is in the band?
That's correct, yes. It's a new band that I've put together for this tour. It's got Rob Harbron who people will know from his work with Dr Faustus and The English Acoustic Collective. He's a concertina player mainly but plays the guitar as well. Then Sam Sweeney is a member of Bellowhead, and plays in Kerfuffle and is a fantastic fiddle player, but also on the quiet he's a very good drummer and so I've got him to mostly play drums, but he's doing some fiddle as well. Then on electric guitar Dave Angel who people may know from the Angel Brothers, and a double bass player called Matt Grime. It's me plus the four piece.
Have you got the tour dates lined up yet?
Yes, just seven dates in March, that's all, we might do a few more dates this year, possibly, but my diary is pretty full.
I'm not surprised you're incredibly busy with The Tacet Ensemble, Bellowhead, with John obviously, The Remnants and probably other projects as well, how do you juggle it all?
I've put a cap on the number of gigs I do, basically. So it's a bit easier to keep tabs on really. If a gig comes in and you just say yes, then you suddenly realise that you're doing 250 gigs a year and not seeing your family. So I have to be a bit crude about it and just put a cap on that. That's the main reason why the new band won't be doing much, certainly this year, but it's very nice to have this little tour, just to try things out.
I've got a three-year-old daughter, so it makes sense.
Well, the busiest time of my life was probably when I was juggling gigs and doing a lot of teaching work. I gave up teaching about three or four years ago, but there was a time when I was doing around 200 gigs a year, plus four days a week teaching, so that was pretty crazy. When I was playing in Eliza's band and Bellowhead, and Spiers and Boden, and doing odds and sods it was probably something in the region of 250 gigs a year. So, I've basically scaled it down to 150 maximum now, which is approximately three days a week, which if you're a lorry driver would be what you'd be expecting to do. If you're actually away from home for three days a week it's about right really.
You mentioned you had a young daughter, do you take her to festivals?
Yeah, in fact she was at Wychwood with a celebrity baby sitter while I was on stage, because Eliza Carthy very kindly offered to keep an eye on her whilst I was performing.
I don't think they watched it actually, they were running around outside. But yes, she comes to a few festivals and she's just getting to that age where they start to become fun things to do, and a lot of the folk festivals are very, very good for children. So, I'm looking forward to taking her to Cambridge, at some point, and Towersey which have very good childrens provisions. I think we're doing the whole week at Sidmouth this year, but only playing for two of those days, so we're going to take her along and check out the children's activities.
You played quite a few festivals last year, which one was the most memorable?
God, well they're all different, but I have difficulty distinguishing one year from the next. We did Towersey last year, which was a good one.
I was just remembering you closing the Avalon Stage at Glastonbury but that was the year before last wasn't it?
Yes, that was good although Glastonbury is always a nightmare getting on and off site. I always remember Glastonbury for the nightmare of leaving rather than the for the gig, but that was a very good gig. I can't actually remember what festivals I did last year, but certainly Shrewsbury was a good one, they upped the sophisticated specifications now, so they've got television links and very impressive lighting rigs, so that was all quite good fun.
Have you got any more festival dates lined-up this year?
I do, I'm looking forward to Sidmouth, last year was the first year I didn't go to Sidmouth for about eight years, so it's good to be going back to that it's a bit of an annual thing. We always go as a family to Whitby which is lots of little festivals and very tradi, I don't got as an act particularly, but I do a few gigs solo or with Fay (Hield) my partner, that's good fun.
Oxford is great that's our home festival, and Ireby which is lovely. We've got Tamworth Folk Moots, and Wood festival in Oxfordshire, that looks an interesting one, and that's quite a different crowd I think, nu-folk, we're doing that as a duo, and doing a little workshop too I think. Then as a duo, we're going to Orkney, which I've never been to Orkney, so I'm looking forward to that in May, which I think again is a very tradi festival with lots of fiddles.
Bellowhead are going to Canada for a bit doing a few festivals there. We did it last year, but we're going for quite a bit longer this time. That's mostly it, and we've got some tours in the autumn and stuff.
How do the crowd respond to you over in Canada?
It was great, we did the Edmonton last year to 30,000 people, and it's always quite exciting to playing to that quantity of people, which was lovely. Very nice, and they look after you well, as they say.
You've also written some theatre scores, how did that come about?
Well I've actually been doing that longer I've been a folk musician. I did a lot of it at university, and then decided that's I wanted to do for a living, so I went and did a masters in Composing for Theatre and I've been doing a couple of shows ever since every year. But, it's been in the background really, because the performance has been much more my main thing. But then it's just gradually built up really since I did my composing Masters.
Then this last year I got a phone call a bit out of the blue asking me if I'd like to do a score for the RSC which was absolutely fantastic, because that's sort of at the top of the theatre composers. There are only a few in the country that provide you with a proper live band, mostly you record an audio score, or you might get one musician. I've done quite a lot of scores just using the actors and whatever musical skills they may happen to have and building the score out of that. It was fantastic to work with the RSC where they said, "Who do you want in the band? How many musicians do you want?" It was absolutely fantastic, and that ran from April to October.
How does that process differ to song writing?
It's pretty different. A lot of the scores I've done prior to the RSC involved quite a bit of song writing, in a theatre context, but the RSC show didn't, obviously because it's Shakespeare. I tend to approach scores, by coming up with the main theme that sums up the play, and the vision of the director, with his approach to the play. Then you find a few other things that pull out different elements of the play, and it's quite a dogmatic process really because you end up with forty or so twenty second music cues for scene changes and things. A lot of it is quite laborious re-orchestrating a forty second cue to be a twenty second cus, or a twenty second cue to a five second cue. It's great when you get to the end and hear it played by real musicians in s beautiful theatre, like the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford which in fact is only their temporary theatre but it is a lovely wooden space.
Would you be tempted to do a film score?
Film scores are very different, I'd be a bit nervous of a film score, because it's even more technical. Yeah, it's something art some point in my life I'd like to have a shot at, but I'm in no great hurry.
If you did a film score, I suppose it would have to be something medieval.
Well, no what I've quite enjoyed with the theatre composing side of my career is that I get to do all kinds of different styles. I've done a few jazz scores, and a few classical scores, the RSC score was kind of folkie but kind of classical as well. So I do really enjoy a different genre when I that sort of thing.
Back to the album, when is it released?
It's released on March 2nd, and my website is updated about the new album, that's jonboden.com and there are some tracks on it that you can download for free and all the lyrics are up, so if you're interested in the subject matter they can check that out.
Thank you for your time, I hope the weather in Wales gets better for you.
Thanks, we're sticking quite close to the coast, so there should be less snow. Take care, cheers.
interview by: Scott Williams
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