Feature: O’Hooley & Tidow

We’ve evolved into a punkier sound ...

In an anteroom next to the ballroom of the Randolph Hotel, Oxford, familiar to many a Morse tourist, Shire Folk met with Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow to chew the fat over being a folk strategist and what it’s like being signed to a record label that’s run as a cooperative. First we asked about a description that’s been following the duo around for years ...



O’Hooley & Tidow

SF: You’ve been described as ‘Chamber Folk’ in the past. What do you think that means and do you think it’s accurate?

Heidi: I think it describes part of what we do as there’s a classical influence to some of the music, with Belinda being a pianist and we’re writing folk songs, so I think that’s where chamber folk comes from. That was a quote that came very early on with our first album, which did sound a lot more classical, but since then our sound has moved on a bit, it’s got more of a punk, folk rock feel to the new album – less classical. There are still hints of classical with songs such as ‘Like Horses’ and ‘Peculiar Brood’.

Belinda: I think there’s contemporary classical influences in my piano playing – people like Rachmaninov – but I think we’ve evolved into a punkier sound ... on the last album anyway. I think that’s translated into our performances as well.

SF: You sound very structured, but how do you work?

Heidi: We’re very much lyric-driven, so we start with lyrics first. So that might come from an idea, something we’ve heard on the radio or it might be something that presents itself to us in our environment, when we’re out walking. A lot of our ideas come from nature, our landscape. We do a lot of talking, a lot of chatting and discussions and then a few months later lyrics come. We make ourselves sit down and write the lyrics and often from the lyrics the tune comes. You tend to get a rhythm, a feel from the words. Then we sit down at the piano and have a go ... see what happens really.

Belinda: Ideas can come from anywhere. Sometimes people tell us stories after gigs and occasionally something just pricks your ears up and you think: that would make a great song. Always looking for different angles, different perspectives. Real people stories. For example, on The Hum the title track comes from our neighbour, Mrs Peace, who was talking to us about the factory at the bottom of the road and its gentle humming sound. She’s lived on our street for a long time and she’s got a lot of wisdom and knowledge.

SF: You’re signed to No Masters and you’ve always had a political element, but The Hum feels more Political with a big ‘P’. Do you find yourselves becoming more political as time goes on?

Belinda: It’s not an accident; it’s because of what’s been happening in our country – if an album is a record of what you’ve been experiencing during the time you’ve been making that album. While we were writing the songs there was so much happening in our society, incensing me and Heidi, we seemed to be talking about it and reading about it a lot. The cuts: how it was affecting people, how it was affecting the community we live in. We both felt really passionately that we wanted to do something about it. People were marching and standing up for what they believe in, but for us it was, what can we do to show that we feel so passionately about what’s happening? So I think it just came into our songwriting. We couldn’t ignore it really. It just seemed those were the topics that were pertinent at the time and in our minds, so I think it is a bit more political – people are saying that, but it’s directly as a result of what’s been happening in wider society.

SF: What’s No Masters like to work with as opposed to a different sort of record label?

Belinda: A big record label, which I was on with Rachel Unthank and the Winterset – EMI – that was a very different kettle of fish to a cooperative, which is what No Masters is. We love it. We’ve been nurtured, mentored and they are people who have been in the music business a long time and we trust their judgement and I think we’ve brought some new lifeblood into it as well.

Heidi: This might sound funny, but we’re the babies (both laugh).

Belinda: We love it when we meet up over tea and biscuits and we all have an equal say, so if someone wants to bring out a record we all discuss it. It’s very organised. And it’s not for profit, so any money that anybody makes goes back into the cooperative to fund future projects. It just feels like the right home for us, with our politics and how we want to be in the music industry.

SF: You must be the busiest people in folk. How do you fit it all in and prioritise it, so your music doesn’t suffer?

Belinda: We’re very lucky that the folk world seems to be quite organised. When somebody wants to do something they do tend to have a year planned. So, for instance, Jackie (Oates) had her lullabies idea quite far back, she was looking at funding and she’d been mentioning it for a while and so that’s really helpful when you’re planning what you want to do. Having said that, Jackie, Nic Jones and O’Hooley & Tidow in one year was a bit full on.

Heidi: Yes it was a bit much last year!

Belinda: It was. This year is feeling just as hectic. We’ve just been on tour and then we went straight on tour with Lucy Ward Band and we’re back to doing our music now, but we’re doing both things at the festivals. On paper it just looks ridiculous really, but if it’s a really good opportunity and it’s somebody you really want to play with, we talk about it ... we don’t agree to everything or we’d be run into the ground, but it’s an exciting time for us and it’s lovely to be asked. There could be a time when nobody wants to hear us any more!

SF: So you have a 12-month plan? You’re very organised.

Heidi: Sometimes further than that. People are booking further and further ahead. Some folk clubs book 18 months ahead, so if you want to make a go of it you have to get organised. You have to get into thinking very far ahead into your life, which is a bit strange actually.

Belinda: I think that’s one of the things about folk music: it’s much more hands on.

Heidi: It is. It’s a full career. It’s a full-time job.

Belinda: A lot of people like us are handling our own bookings; we’re our own managers, our own PR company, so it is a full-time job and part of that is being able to look 18 months, two years in advance and see whether you can do something and even further into the future than that, which is scary. You don’t know what’s going to happen in those two years.

SF: This is the second time you’ve played Oxford this year (the first was with the Lucy Ward Band) and you’re playing Wood Festival in a few weeks. How do you feel about playing the Folk Weekend?

Belinda: I love Oxford. I lived here for two years, so I’ve got a real affection for Oxford and I’m looking forward to the Folk Weekend because it’s come from a really small acorn, but however she (Cat Kelly) manages it she always gets really good acts.

Heidi: Apart from the Sunday headliners! (laughs).

Belinda: It’s got a real community feel to it and you always bump into people you know at Folk Weekend Oxford. We were at Wood Festival last year playing with Jackie. I’m in love with that festival – very special. It’s all Jackie’s fault because she lives in Wallingford.

SF: The Hum is out now on No Masters.

Jonathan Roscoe