BELLA HARDY: ‘There’s a separate revolution going on in folk music at the moment’
2015 was quite a year for Glasgow-based Bella Hardy. After releasing her seventh and arguably best solo album, With The Dawn, she was chosen as one of three musicians to spend six weeks in China as part of the British Council and PRS for Music Foundation’s Musicians in Residence programme, which is part of the 2015 UK–China Year of Cultural Exchange. We got onto With the Dawn in due course, but first Shire Folk asked her about her trip to China …
SF: I’ve enjoyed reading and listening to your Chinese blog. So how was China for you?
BH: I found the part I went to absolutely incredible, that’s been my response to most people when they’ve asked. I really don’t know China at all – it’s such a big country. We all know it’s big, but from the outside it’s hard to get a feeling of what that means, but it means that with China everything is very different. It’s like saying, ‘how was Europe?’ or ‘I went to Europe on holiday’. The part I was in was in the South-West – Yunnan province. Yunnan means ‘south of the clouds’. It’s very mountainous, very green and lush, and the city I was based in was called the City of Eternal Spring, which has got this really spring-like vibe to it. I enjoyed myself and I learnt an awful lot. It was my first trip to China and I’ve only ever been to Asia once before – to Japan maybe six years ago to do a very quick six-day support for LAU. It was great fun, but I was jetlagged. Six weeks is a much better time to get the feeling for a place. I was very inspired by the music – the traditional music was incredible.
SF: Have you integrated that traditional Chinese music into these songs you’ve been working on?
BH: Mainly just learnt from and inspired by this kind of music because … I took a trip to the countryside for eight days, I went round right down to the border with Vietnam and it was amazing, glorious countryside, but of course I was with Chinese speakers most of the time. I had this really lovely friend who was with me and interpreting for me. I only met her on the trip, but we became really close friends and it was lovely to have her with me. Still I was very much a tourist. I tend to write a lot when I’m trying to take the world in, to make sense of it and things, so I was doing a lot of notebook writing. I wrote a pile of new lyrics and poems, which are turning into songs, so some stuff is inspired by what I saw. So that’s the new music I’m doing. I met the traditional singers from the minorities out in the countryside – over 30% of the population in that part of China is ethnic minorities – so I was listening to their singing and I learned two of the songs and turned them into English. I’m afraid I’m not going to sing in Chinese! Hopefully in the not too distant future it’s going to be a possibility, but I’ll practise first!
SF: So is that next?
BH: The Chinese residency hasn’t got any long-term plans, so I’m trying to put the songs I wrote and learned there into my usual set. I’m really hoping to go back because I enjoyed it so much – there’s so much left to learn. For now I’m back in Derbyshire for the next few days, another Celtic Connections gig in Glasgow next week, a Radio 3 gig next Thursday, then a bit of time to myself before I do my spring tour, which is my finale for With The Dawn. I’ve adored playing the With The Dawn songs, so I want to give it a last hurrah. I’m writing so much at the moment, but I feel that I want to have a really good final concert with these songs, then I’m going to get my head down for a little while and see what happens next.
SF: Given With The Dawn was your seventh solo album, it’s sonically different. Was that something you were consciously working towards, a natural progression or a deliberate decision to change?
BH: I’ve never really been too aware of the sonic crafting of stuff until I’m right in the middle of it. What I always try to do is create the songs and then do what the songs are asking for. And really every album has been quite different and this one is noticeably so because of all the electronics and things. It varies from album to album. The first album I made, Night Visiting, didn’t have any guitar on it, it was very much just fiddle, my friends playing different things and very much the instruments that I knew. With this one it was largely because I had starting working with my friend Ben Seal, who produced the record. He asked me to sing on something of his a couple of years ago and I loved what he’d done with it. I try to capture the emotion of a song, whatever that emotion is, without trying to guide the song in any direction and really just going ‘what does this song want?’ and trying to find the sonic way to the emotion of the song. We messed around with ‘Another Whisky Song’ and decided this is what we should do with this album. He has this electric knowledge that I just don’t have and because we’re such good friends we were able to have an honest chat about the music. I’m not very good at planning the next steps, but that’s what I really love about music and songwriting. I like to see what the song wants – let’s do it like this.
It’s a good time for experimentation, what with yourself, Lisa Knapp and Emily Portman. Do you feel part of that?
BH: Yeah I think there’s a separate revolution going on in folk music at the moment. I’ve never said it in those terms before. I became very aware at the end of my twenties of an interesting and slightly skewed role for musicians and players. I became very aware of my job really. I became a little bit uncomfortable with the balance that you’re trying to walk all the time between being a songwriter and an artist, being someone who says ‘to be honest, audience, I like you, but I’m doing this for me. I’m trying to evoke a response and I’m trying to share something, but I’m not trying to be pretty. I’m not doing this to be appealing to you’. The balance between that and being entertaining … we’re all very much in the folk scene brought up to entertain and to be funny and happy and smiley and make the audience feel good. There’s a really interesting line to walk there. I hadn’t realised how much I was trying to be happy, even though my music has generally been miserable I’m afraid! The stage persona of ‘be cheerful, keep a smile on’ … as women and especially young girls there’s encouragement even more to do that – be pretty, look good on stage, wear your Sunday best. I wanted to throw all that to the wind a bit and just try and be as honest as physically possible. I think that’s going on across the folk scene at the minute. It’s embracing the ugly side, it’s embracing the rough, scratchy sound; any sort of sound that’s art and evocation and emotion, rather than try to play in a pretty way. I think it’s a really good thing – a thorough embracing of art as what we do rather than always falling on entertainment. I hope that’s not too cynical [laughs].
SF: I’ve always been inclined to the musically difficult and awkward. I find it much more entertaining.
BH: I think people do because it’s much more honest. It really speaks to people. That in itself is enough entertainment – true entertainment, rather than pantomime.
SF: You took issue on Twitter with my review of With The Dawn. I called it a ‘folk break-up album’. Was I just being glib or did I miss the point entirely?
BH: I think whatever a listener takes out of something is absolutely fine. It’s the listener’s right to read any song in any way they choose to. As a songwriter and singer you don’t get to choose how people hear things or relate to them. The fact that anybody is relating at all is an absolute blessing and a wonderful thing. It’s not my job to tell people how they ought to be hearing stuff. Once you’ve created a song you let it go out into the world. It’s like having children – you can’t then dictate what they’re going to do with the rest of their lives. For me, though, the album isn’t a break-up album. For one thing, I didn’t break up with anybody at the time! Now Battleplan was a break-up album! I think I managed to hide it. I used to do a lot more writing where I would write my own feelings into other protagonists, so I could sing them without feeling I was putting myself out there too much. With With The Dawn I thought, to hell with that, I’m just going to stick myself out there! There was an awful lot going on my life. It was like the diary-keeping of a fourteenth-month period. I dated a few people and they didn’t work out, but that was fine! I was touring all the time. I turned thirty. A lot of life experiences happen to people at that point in their life. A sort of re-evaluation might happen. There’s a lot of stuff to work out. I’m considered a quite sorted person: I’m quite zen in many ways. I realised I really didn’t have a clue what was going on in the world! I felt very confused about a lot of things and I was exhausted because I was on the road all the time. I started to evaluate relationships and the way society works: that’s really a large part of what was going on in that album. Not directly a break-up album, but a lot of the emotions you go through when you go through a break-up – I was just going through them without the break-up!
SF: I also said that With The Dawn would be one of the best albums of the year, so at least I got that right!
BH: I remember it being a very kind review. Every song on the album is about something wildly different – ‘Gifts’ is about friendship and why we do it and why we’re attracted to certain different friends. ‘You Don’t Have to Change (But You Have to Choose)’ is actually about a friend deciding to have a child or not and then finding herself unexpectedly pregnant. ‘Jolly Good Luck’ is about the First World War, but somehow they all seem to hang together.
With The Dawn is out now on Elm House Records and Bella Hardy will be touring through March, April and May.