Filed under: feature, voice on the verge | Tags: alan pedder, interview, mary epworth
voice on the verge #41: mary epworth & the jubilee band
One of the difficult things about constantly listening to and writing about new music is keeping an open mind and finding the time to give everyone the chance to impress you. Not necessarily artists who arrive fully formed, they’re much easier to spot, but those with something more subtly unique to bring to the table…it breaks our hearts to overlook those, no matter how meandering their approach might seem. So it’s with a mouthful of humble (pumpkin) pie that we belatedly turn our attentions to East Anglia native Mary Epworth and her Jubilee Band. Perhaps it was just that the promotional photo which came with her 2008 debut single ‘The Saddle Song’ looked so much like a Joanna Newsom ripoff – seated, elfin-faced woman wearing a vintage dress gazing into the middle distance in faintly grand surroundings with a (auto)harp at her feet – that it totally wrong-footed us and the song, a concise, prog-folk/Pagan march stomper, didn’t quite live up to such a comparison. But then few songs do, so go figure.
Anyway, let me be almost the last to tell you that the follow-up, ‘Black Doe’, is much, much better. Since its release back in August, the single has found Mary being championed by the likes of Cerys Matthews (on her BBC 6Music radio show) and The Sunday Times, while her performances and ambition have impressed enough to secure her Arts Council funding to record her debut album, the process of which starts in 3 weeks’ time. If the songs are as good as ‘Black Doe’, we could be looking at one of the highlights of 2010. This self-confessed ’60s/’70s music obsessive has turned our heads at last, so allow us to atone for the delay with an insightful little interview, courtesy of our trusty questionnaire.
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If you were the answer to a crossword puzzle, what would be your clue?
Big haired autoharpie (4,7).
What’s your favourite poem and how much of it can you recite from memory?
The only bit of any poem I can recite is a bit from ‘Kubla Kahn’ by Coleridge, because it was on a big board when I went to Wookey Hole as a kid and it fitted so perfectly with the surroundings. I used to love poetry, writing and reading, but since I fell in love with music, poetry without song doesn’t do much for me. I’m a philistine.
What was the last good book you read and how did it affect you?
Either Dracula by Bram Stoker, or The Dunwich Horror & Other Stories by HP Lovecraft. I loved both of these, and quite enjoyed being immersed in that old gothic realm. I read a couple of other Stokers just after. I keep trying to make my friends read them so I can discuss how odd they are.
What’s your earliest memory?
Playing in the sandpit in my garden and finding dead spiders and things. I remember being interested rather than scared. All my family are quite inquisitive about nature, alive or dead!
What was the first band you saw in concert?
What did you want to be until you decided to become a musician…if you ever did ‘decide’ that is!
An author and illustrator, and then later I wanted to draw comics. As soon as I got to college to do art I fell totally out of love with it. The lessons were so uninspiring, and by then I was in my first band and the deal was done.
What would you be if you weren’t a musician?
A printmaker or speech therapist/dialect coach. I like the sounds of words.
What would you tell your 18 year old self if you could go back in time?
Don’t spend the money you are getting soon, don’t assume it will always be easy to make a living from being in a band. You are going to be waiting a long long time.
Tell us about your favourite instrument…
At the moment (until I buy my dream guitar, which hopefully will be quite soon) it’s my Oscar Shmidt autoharp. I got it on eBay a few years ago, for a stupidly low price. It would cost me as much to buy two sets of strings for it in London as it did to get the whole thing, including shipping, duty etc. I call it the beastie, as it’s got many many teeth.
Which female musicians have most inspired you?
I generally listen to men more than women (letting the side down, I know), but female artists that I love are Shirley Collins, Judy Henske (and Jerry Yester), Judee Sill, The Shangri-las, Margo Guryan and Sandy Denny. Otherwise it’s Ramases and Selket, The Blossom Toes, The Beach Boys, Curt Boettcher, and at the moment I’m in love with The Locomotive and Mighty Baby.
What’s your favourite song to cover and why?
‘Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse’ by Aphrodite’s Child, because it’s immense and wondrous, and I love to see the flash of recognition from people of all ages.
What’s been the best moment of your career so far?
It’s a toss up between opening the Sandy Denny tribute at the Southbank Centre, and having P.P. Arnold hold my hand and sing along with me, or being flown over to Germany last year to play the Orange Blossom Special festival. So much good stuff is happening at the moment, so ask me again in 6 months!
What’s your funniest studio memory?
We (producer Will and I) made my guitarist, Horse (don’t ask) bring his massively heavy pedal steel all the way from Hackney to the studio in Westbourne grove, by public transport. I helped a bit, pulling the trolley, but it was a really exhausting herculean effort, lugging it on and off tubes, and up and down stairs. We did the session, then chatting afterwards, Will remarked that if we needed any more pedal steel we could just pop round to Horse’s house with our Mac to record it. I can’t quote Horse’s response, as he is the poet laureate of swearing, but we ended up crying with laughter.
If you had to pick one song from your repertoire to represent your entire body of work, which one would you choose and why?
‘Two For Joy’. It’s a close harmony duet, about singing. I tried to sum up how special that feeling is when you are singing with another person.
Which artist would you most like to work with – your dream collaboration?
I’d love to work with Colin Blunstone from The Zombies, he’s got one of the most beautiful voices on earth. Or Van Dyke Parks, a hero of mine. I might be doing some collaborations with some other people I really admire, lesser known artists, but legendary to me. Watch this space!
What’s your top household tip?
Olive oil, aspirin and honey are a billion times better for your skin that anything you can buy in a shop.
What are your pet hates?
Newspapers that rile people up into a state of fear and panic that breeds racism and islamophobia.
What’s your biggest fear?
Something bad happening to my loved ones.
How would you describe your new single/album in 10 words or less?
Single: Black Doe – Spectral Deer Stomp Your Face.
Album: Hopefully finished in the next two months.
What’s your favourite quote?
“There is many’s a dark and a cloudy morning / turns out to be a most sunshiny day” – lyrics from ‘The Sweet Primeroses’ [a traditional folk song popularised by Shirley Collins].
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Mary Epworth & The Jubilee Band play London’s Betsey Trotwood on November 7th, and at Norwich Arts Centre, Norwich on the 11th.
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