Taranaki really know how to bring the cheer! With the mountain looking over us, we were treated to three days of music from around the globe, and I managed to get a sneaky chat in with five of the folkies when they weren’t on stage! I’m going to be getting each of those interviews up over the next week or so, and at the beginning of each one I’ll try give a little tidbit of what my favourite moments of WOMAD were.
Today’s tidbit – my favourite evening of WOMAD was lying back on the grass in the natural amphitheater of the Bowl Stage listening to Marlon Williams & the Yarra Benders blast some new songs out to the world. 18,000 people enjoy the main stage of WOMAD.
I had the sincere pleasure of sitting down with Martin Hoyland of 9Bach and having a chat about the Welsh language, the definition of folk music and instrumentation.
My favourite quote from our interview was when Martin says, “It’s Bob Dylan all over again!” We were midway through discussing the nature of folk music and how 9Bach have been received after winning the Best Album at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2015 for their album Tincian. There’s a lot of contention here in NZ as well as back in Wales it seems over what folk means.
“The reason we’re in the folk bracket was because our first album was all traditional Welsh folk songs but musically I wouldn’t call us folk necessarily. But folk music is folk music, people especially in the folk scene like to put it in the box. Surely it doesn’t matter how you do it, as long as you’re doing the folk songs.” I compared that to some of the discussions I’m part of here about traditional folk clubs, indie folk music and the Best Folk Album Tui we have.
“Bob Dylan all over again,” Martin says. “The Welsh folk scene is quite rigid as well, they didn’t like what we were doing that much. But, we’ve got a nomination again this year for Best Group.”
9Bach are very conscious of the way they arrange and write songs, and a lot of their music is sparse, and almost deliberately arranged to be close to a capella. “Keeping it sparse is definitely conscious, because you have Lisa’s amazing voice, three part harmonies, and harp. So if you fill it up with a rhythm section too much, you’re drowning out the voices. Let them speak. And I guess that is in the folk tradition because although we write our own songs now, Lisa does write in the folk tradition of telling a story. Every part has to justify itself, so if you want to put a part in, we ask, “Is it brilliant?” and if it’s not it doesn’t make it in. I don’t want to put in a rhythm guitar just for the sake of it.” He refers to the term padding, as if the sound needs to be filled in. “Why put it in there if it doesn’t make the sound amazing? It can be more interesting, so when a killer hook line comes in you can pick it out.”
Lisa sings, writes and thinks in Welsh. It’s her first language and she couldn’t speak English until she was 9. “There are lots of Welsh language bands but in Wales, and there aren’t many taking it out. Wales is lucky, in the 50s and 60s people fought for a national Welsh language TV channel and radio station. We are extremely lucky to have those, but it’s still a battle, because English always dominates. 27% of the population speak Welsh in Wales. It’s a continual battle, you’ll find a lot of Welsh artists are very inward looking, 9Bach want to do it to show the rest of the language there is a Welsh language, and maybe to give other artists confidence to do it as well, as we are well received, and maybe that’ll make the language stronger in Wales. There isn’t that confidence at the moment.”
“The interesting political statement is just doing it, it becomes normal. Where we live everyone at the pub speaks Welsh, our children go to a Welsh language school.” To Martin the question is not why sing in Welsh, but why not?
“What we try to do with our instrumentation is move people. So a lot of the time when we play out of Wales people come up to us and say, ‘Blimey I didn’t understand what you were singing but I felt the emotion.’ So we try to pull people in that way.”
Lisa, although she has been a singer all her life, had never really been in bands. She sung the traditional folk songs, and then 9Bach were invited to Australia by the British Council to collaborate with The Black Arm Band Company as part of the Cultural Olympiad. She’d never written songs for 9Bach at this point.
“So we were sitting on the plane and Lisa said, what am I going to do? Am I expected to write songs, or play the folk songs? What do I do? I just said to her don’t worry about it, whatever will happen will happen.” They arrived in Melbourne, started with lunch and sake, listened to stories and Lisa wrote songs. “She could not stop writing, in that moment. It was largely inspiration from Lou Bennett, showing us videos of aboriginal children. In Lisa’s words, she just started vomiting songs. She couldn’t stop writing.”
9Bach are returning home, Martin and Lisa are excited to be getting back to their two young children, after a first time visit to New Zealand. I’m sure we’ll see them back again!