Josienne Clarke –
‘Our duo is my favourite thing’
Just a few days after the BBC 2 Folk Awards where Josienne Clarke, along with her partner Ben Walker, won the prize for the Best Duo, Shire Folk caught up with Josienne to see whether it had sunk in yet.
SF: Are you still buzzing after your win?
JC: I’m enjoying a little bit of relaxation after all that mentalness, really. It took a while for it to sink in, but now it has it’s pretty good!
I thought it was one of the toughest categories to be in.
Yeah. We certainly didn’t think it was a done deal by any stretch. We felt like everyone had a fair shot at it. There wasn’t any obvious act that had any more chance than any other. Any of us could have won it and none of us knew which way it was going to go.
SF: I take it you were completely in the dark about the result were you?
JC: Yeah. There’s a rumour that goes round every year that if you’ve won you’ll know about it. Somebody said to me that the people who’ve won already know about it, so if you haven’t been told then you haven’t won. We heard that last year as well, but it’s rubbish! We had no idea and because we were playing I was so caught up in the idea that it was going out live on the radio and it was going to be on the iPlayer that we mustn’t mess it up. We were so consumed by the fear of getting that wrong that I hadn’t really thought about the results of the award. We went last year and went home again with nothing, so I was expecting that really. We’d barely sat down when they were reading out the prize: it caught us by surprise.
Ben stayed the strong and silent type and forced you to speak I notice.
Ben doesn’t really do the talking. He’s a man of few words. On a one-to-one basis talking about technical things he’s very articulate, but he doesn’t want to speak in public.
SF: You’re now on your third album – how did you and Ben get together and start working together?
JC: We had a mutual friend who was a sound engineer. Ben was in a crap indie band when I first met him and my friend was doing the mixing for that and Ben had gone round to his house to pick up the files and he was playing on my friend’s old Martin acoustic. My friend said, if you can play an acoustic like what are doing in this band and why haven’t you got an acoustic project? I was currently playing guitar badly for myself, so he introduced us to each other and we have very complementary skillsets. It was kind of a done deal right from the beginning.
That thing about us both being lightly classical – neither of us are classical musicians as such – but in terms of technique that’s our reference. It’s a reference point rather than a cast iron point that we keep, but we have that in common. In terms of tone and timbre and phrasing we do approach things in a slightly classical way, but we also have interests in other things, but the other things are quite melodic. That’s a massive thing that we have in common.
SF: Do you actually see yourself as a folk singer?
JC: I’ve never been that concerned with it. I’ve always done folk songs, but I’ve always wanted to be a songwriter as well. I’m certainly not trying to write ‘folk songs’ because I don’t think that you can write a ‘folk song’. You can’t define what will become a folk song. You’d be chasing your tail there because you don’t know what’s going to get subsumed into the traditional canon, you can only try and write good songs. I know in terms of technique, for a lot of people it’s not really folk singing and for a lot of people a trained voice can’t be an authentic voice, therefore it’s not very folky. I don’t really agree with that, but I’m not really concerned whether I’m a ‘folk singer’ or a folk musician. I do folk material and that is a reference, but it’s not everything, I don’t think.
SF: Do you find it frustrating to be pigeonholed as folk?
JC: I’m not really offended if I’m called a folk singer and when I think of my main vocal inspirations they’re within the folk canon I suppose, like Joan Baez, June Tabor and Sandy Denny, but I think in terms of songwriting, as an artist generally, I’m definitely erring on the Sandy Denny side of doing my own thing, of trying to plough my own furrow, if you will. I don’t want to be in a position where I can only do folk music, but it’s not that I’m in any way trying to distance myself from that categorisation because it’s nice to be included in that obviously.
SF: On the new album the addition of the strings and Ben’s arrangements really stand out. Did you always have this orchestral sound in your head?
JC: We realised when we did our very first album together, One Light Is Gone, in 2010, which is album of fourteen original songs, that Ben started to do some string arrangements on that and they were small – a bit of cello or a quartet thing – I realised then that he had quite a capacity for arrangements and we allowed that space to see what he would do with it. That came into its own with Fire & Fortune. I don’t think we intended necessarily to have a full chamber orchestra on Nothing Can Bring Back the Hour, but those were his ideas. When he responded to the songs he could hear all of these instruments – he can hear them all moving in his head. As we went along he kept adding things and they all added something, so it went that way. We didn’t have the idea that it needed a chamber orchestra – he put a double bass part on, then he put a cello on, then violins, then he realised he had an oboe part in mind! It just went on from there.
Before he was worried about it being accepted as a folk album and toeing a line (whether that’s in our heads or whether there really is a line), but with Nothing Can Bring Back the Hour, we thought – let’s just do what we want, let’s do the album we would want if we weren’t thinking about what everyone is thinking about it.
SF: The strings certainly fill out the sound.
JC: Ben has always said that those are the parts he would play on the guitar if he had four hands! It gives him the chance to have those parts he wouldn’t otherwise have. Also, when you’re a duo it’s hard to get headline slots at things, late-night festival bookings. You’ve got the option of the Lucy Ward Band thing where you add a backline, but that’s not going to work for us. So trying to do something that’s a band in a sense, but coming at it from a different angle, so we make it bigger with the addition of a double bass, strings and a bit of percussion – maybe piano – and that’s what we’re doing at Cambridge this year. That’s something I would hope in the future will be a slightly later evening festival slot kind of thing. It’s never going to be something that people are going to dance to, but it doesn’t mean it can’t be bigger, but with addition of strings and piano rather than drums and bass.
SF: How are you fitting in Ben’s production work and playing other people’s material as well as your own?
JC: It’s important for both of us to have a musical identity in our own right. Ben is wasted as a producer and arranger if he only does our things. There are twenty-four hours in a day! Plenty of time for it all. Because the industry isn’t easy and because you get out what you put in and we’re both a bit inclined to be workaholic, we’ve had to, this year, schedule in time when we’re not doing things. We had to book in time off. We used to say yes to everything because you had to take all the gigs and you had to do it all, but now we’re being offered more things than there are days in the year. So you actually have to say no to some stuff and that’s quite hard for us to override that desperation not to be forgotten about and not to miss out on things. I think it’s good for both of us to do things separately because then you bring something new and interesting when we come back together. I’ve got a few projects that I’m doing without Ben this year – obviously our duo is my favourite thing, but he’s doing lots of production and string arrangements for other people and that all adds to our general technical ability.
SF: When you’re playing live you have a fine line is self-deprecating stage patter. Do you see yourself in a line of slightly tragic singer songwriters or is this a front for the stage?
JC: That’s how I come to terms with the whole thing. I find the music industry swings wildly from one end of the spectrum to the other – on the hand you’ve got 1500 people sitting in silence waiting for you to do something amazing and there are other times when no one can even remember your name or someone’s spelt your name wrong on a poster – that thing of being really important in one place and no one in another. It’s quite strange for your sense of self and I think making a joke out of what I do and trying to see it as realistically as possible is my way of coming to terms with that. Some people go the other way and become total divas, but that was never going to be an option for me, not with my family.
Nothing Can Bring Back the Hour is out now on Folkroom Records