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Pianos, performance and Peter Gabriel: an interview with Will Lawton

Playing Arlington Arts Centre on Thursday 11th February, Will Lawton is a pianist and songwriter of outstanding quality. We chat to him about family legacy, bizarre instruments and his one man quest for the perfect sound.

1) I’ll admit, I had to google “hang” when you first mentioned it as one of your key  instruments. It’s a rare concept, a “rare” instrument. [The hang was produced by a company in Switzerland who were only producing around 80 a year, you had to write directly to them to explain why you wanted to buy one. They are no longer in production] What drew you to it, and how would you describe the sound?

The look of the instrument first drew me to it.  I saw one hanging on a friend’s wall in his house.  I didn’t get the chance to play it but was so intrigued that I ordered one before playing it.  I knew it was both melodic and percussive and played by fingers and hands so my piano skills would hopefully be transferable.  It had a very mystical feel about it.

The sound is vaguely similar to that of a Caribbean Steelpan perhaps mixed with an Indian Tabla.  I play the central bass note in a sort of African Djembe style.  It is a very unique sound.  The tuning is roughly in Dm but not in perfect pitch and there are a couple of notes in it that you wouldn’t usually associate with a Dm scale.

2) In a beautifully written recent blog post, you credit your Grandmother, Mary Louise, with the beginning of the musical legacy in your family. What effect did she have personally on your musical journey, and how do you think she felt about your work?

The most significant thing she (and her husband) did was to buy a new, upright piano in the 1950s and then encourage my father to learn how to play the piano.  She used to get him to play the new songs from America, published in ‘The News Of The World’ on a Sunday so that family and friends could sing along to them.  As a result, my father learnt how to play the piano using his ears and by chords rather than from scored music.  This talent was passed to me during my early years.

My grandmother used to sing a lot to the classic, wonderful tunes from the wartime era.  They are very simple songs, with simple messages and lovely chord progressions – something I try to bring into my own compositions with varying degrees of success.

She was always very supportive of my music work.  She didn’t question it, just accepted that that is what I did – like she did with my father too.  She understood the power and importance of music.

A “no frills” tribute Will recorded for his Grandmother when she passed away recently. 

3) What would you say have been the highlights of your career so far?

I love playing real pianos.  So performing on a real grand piano in a venue with good acoustics is my perfect gig.  I opened the show for my friends ‘Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin’ a couple of months ago at The Chapel Arts Centre in Bath playing a beautiful grand piano.  That was a real treat and it was an honour to open their first gig touring a new album – they are two musicians that I really admire.

My recording highlight must be recording an album in Peter Gabriel’s ‘Real World Studio’ in Box, Wiltshire.  My band, ‘The Home Fires’ secured funding for the album through an online crowd funding campaign which in itself was a huge achievement.  The reward of then spending a week at Real World was pretty special.  We recorded an album that I am very proud of and I felt very privileged to be given the opportunity to record in such a magical environment with such a professional sound engineer as Patrick Phillips.

4) You bring your own upright piano to gigs – what do you feel this adds to the performance?

Ha!!  I DID bring my own upright piano to gigs for a number of years.  Unfortunately I recently cracked the sound board on the back of my upright gigging piano.  I think I dragged it through one too many fields and up one too many sets of steps.  Pianos are not really designed to be treated as roughly as I treated that poor thing so alas I now tour with an electric stage piano when the venue does not have the real instrument in-house.

When you sit at a real piano, you are totally engulfed by the sound.  The piano vibrates as the hammers hit the strings and it makes the wooden casing sing.  This is a lovely space to be.  When I sing, my voice locks into these vibrations and I give a more natural and enhanced performance.  When I play an electric piano, the monitor mix is often several meters from me and is often quite trebly which feels less natural to play and sing along with.  However, I just have to accept that many venues do not have real pianos these days and if I only play real pianos then I limit my opportunities of performing live.

5) Is there anyone you’d really love to collaborate with?

I have been blessed to play with some amazing musicians, almost all have been pretty unknown and undiscovered as there are many seriously talented musicians around that don’t really venture in the limelight.  I have always enjoyed collaborating with Bethany Porter (Cello) and would like to work again with Phillip Henry (Slide Guitar).

In terms of someone new, and well known, I would love to work with someone who can add beats, drum and bass to my music – such as LTJ Bukem or Nitin Sawhney.  This is a direction that I am yet to properly experiment with taking my music in.

You can book tickets to see Will Lawton on Thurs 11th February, 8pm by clicking here. Or you can call the box office on 01635 244 246 between 10am-4.30pm Monday-Friday.


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What’s on OCTOBER

Krapp's Last Tape PEO image
Krapp’s Last Tape

Theateregoers this month is for you: Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (Thurs 1 Sept) as performed by Tom Owen (Last Of The Summer Wine) tells the tale of Krapp, an irascible chap who spends each of his birthdays recording a tape to himself. Join him as on his 69th he listens back on the follies of his prideful youth. As can be expected from Beckett, a witty and thoughtful tale. Our other one man show has less to say on the pitfalls of aging and is much more riotous in its humour – Will Seaward’s Ghost Stories (Thurs 22 Oct) will be arriving at Arlington with bags of ghouls, gremlins and growls for a halloween dreadtacular.

Fans of the folk will do well to check out up-and-comers The Rails (Fri 2 Oct). Giving off the vibe of a London pub in summertime (this does seem to be where the majority of their videos are filmed) the duo have been signed to the same label (it’s Pink) that gave us records from Nick Cave, John Martyn and Fairport Convention. At the less rocky end of the spectrum are The Shee (Fri 16 Oct), a sextet of folk aficionados featuring harp, fiddle, mandolin accordion and flute for a gaelic & bluegrass fusion. Mixing even more genres together is the Urban Folk Quartet (Fri 30 Oct). Back on the Arlington stage their influences are too numerous to list, but you’ll find it hard to miss the distinct middle eastern and afrobeat vibes. Put all this in context with Simpson & Flemons (Thurs 8 Oct) as they take you on a journey through England & America’s shared folk traditions. Comprised of English guitarist, songwriter and multi-award holder Martin Simpson, and American guitar, banjo (and bones!) player Dom Flemons, of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, present the unsanitised bigger picture.

Joanne Shaw Taylor
Joanne Shaw Taylor

Moving away (sort of) from the folk we’ve got International Guitar Night (Thurs 15 Oct) bringing together luminaries from across the globe to play solos, duets and quartets. Like the A-Team of the guitar scene, the night will feature Brian Gore, Mike Dawes, Lulo Reinhardt and Andre Krengel. Another guitar star Mark Nevin (Sat 24 Oct), of Fairground Attraction, will be performing his beautiful collection of narrative driven songs towards the end of the month, and Joanne Shaw Taylor (Fri 23 Oct) is a firecracker of a blues guitarist that we’re thrilled to finally have with us.

Double headliners The Christians & Roachford (Sun 4 Oct) are already a very popular choice too, for good reason. The infectious melodies and warm harmonies feed on accusations, protest and despair and strike a deep chord to listeners. Joined by long-time friend Andrew Roachford best known for hits “Cuddly Toy” and “Family Man”, Roachford has something of a maverick take on the singer-songwriter genre.

Tom Robinson (Weds 28 Oct) is back in the studio after 20 years since 2-4-6-8 Motorway and Glad To Be Gay. Inspired by the acts he’s encountered whilst presenting for BBC 6 Music and BBC Introducing, Tom’s new album features full band and all of his raw spirit. Finding innovative ways to collaborate between disable and non-disabled artists, Stopgap Dance (Mon 12 Oct) company also make their debut at Arlington Arts with their show Artificial Things. Slowly suffocating in each other’s company, a group of individuals seek escape in a bash of riotous rock-n-roll.

Stopgap Dance
Stopgap Dance

To find out more or book online click here. Or call 01635 244 246 between 10-4.30pm Monday-Friday.

Krapp’s Last Tape – Thurs 1 October 8pm, £12 (Concession £10, School Groups £8)
The Rails – Fri 2 October 8pm, £12
The Christians + Roachford – Sun 4 October 7.30pm, £27.50
Simpson & Flemons – Thurs 8 October 8pm, £16
Stopgap: Artificial Things – Mon 12 October 8pm, £14 (Concession £12, School Groups £8)
International Guitar Night – Thurs 15 October 8pm, £15 
The Shee – Fri 16 October 8pm, £14
Will Seaward’s Ghost Stories –  Thurs 22 Oct 8pm, £11
Joanne Shaw Taylor – Fri 23 Oct 8pm, £20
Mark Nevin – Sat 24 Oct 8pm, £13
Tom Robinson Band – Weds 28 Oct 8pm, £20
Urban Folk Quartet – Fri 30 Oct 8pm, £12

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Interview with The Rails

Kami Thompson & James Walbourne took some time out to answer some questions about their experiences as BBC Folk Award Horizon Award winning band – The Rails. They’ll be playing Arlington Arts Centre on Friday 2nd October 2015.

“Fair Warning” combines the traditional and contemporary, do you have a vision of how folk might continue to develop?

Folk is developing all the time. It’s in everything from Grime to top 40. It’s all just telling a story. In terms of ‘traditional folk’, i’m not sure. A lot of it is extremely twee these days and not to our tastes. You still have the Eliza Carthy’s of this world pushing the envelope though.

Island’s Pink Label handled arguably some of the most formative folk acts of the 60’s and 70’s (Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, John Martyn). Do you feel any particular pressures or expectations as the first artists on this newly resurrected label?

No. It’s just a label.

You both seem to have been exceptionally musical from a young age, did either of you ever consider, however fleetingly, a career outside of music?

James – Never.

Kami – I consider my options daily.

Do you feel the comparisons drawn between The Rails and Kami’s parents are accurate, or inevitable?

We set out wanting to make a classic sounding folk rock record so it was inevitable, really. It’s as much a pop record as it is a folk record – much like Kami’s parents, I think.

What about your family James – are there many creative types to be found there?

My dad was a major influence. He doesn’t play a musical instrument but took me to see everyone from Frank Sinatra to Stevie Ray Vaughan  when I was a kid. I attended more gigs than days at school. My brother is also a great all rounder and has played with me for many years.

Speaking of family, your support act is Zak Hobbs – Kami’s nephew- could you tell us a

Zak Hobbs
Zak Hobbs

little bit about his style?

Sort of barber shop Raga… not really. He’s a great guitar player – definitely one to watch. He’s sort of in the mould of Bert Jansch and the 60’s guys. You saw him here first!

Thankyou, Kami + James!

Tickets to see The Rails are £12 and can be brought via the Box Office on 01635 244 246, or by clicking here.

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Kicking off the season with a couple of great genre twisters on the music side of things, and theatre to make the soul shudder.

SALLY BARKER is the voice from the Voice. The one that brought Sir Tom Jones to tears. Back in 2014 Sally came a sensational second place in the BBC’s televised competition. After such a successful run, it might come as a surprise to find out that Sally turned down a record deal with Universal – but as an avid & award-winning songwriter Sally was never going to be happy tied to only producing covers. That said, her set at Arlington will feature favourites from the show such as Olly Murs’s “Dear Darlin’” as well as her own folk-blues-rock originals. Friday 18th September 8pm, tickets are £15.

BENDRIX is Benji Kirkpatrick and his folk instrumental covers of Jimi Hendrix’s work. You’ll know Benji best from folk supergroup Bellowhead, and he’s long been sneaking Hendrix songs into his solo sets. He’s now received Arts Council funding to develop this Hendrix project, in which he strips back the psychedelia of the age to reveal the raw greatness of the songs underneath. Played on a whole range of string instruments including bouzouki, banjo and mandolin this will also include Benji’s own originals. Wednesday 23rd September 8pm, tickets are £12.

Badac Theatre take over Arlington Manor cellar with THE FLOOD. This site-specific piece set in WW1 follows the intensely building relationship between a frontline soldier and a nurse, highlighting through correspondence and snatched private moments the brutality of their existence, the banality of war and the immediacy of death. Badac take an approach
they term “Theatre of Violence”, in which they aim to make their work an extreme experience for both the audience and actors. Thursday 24th September 6pm & 8pm, tickets are £12 (Concessions £10). Please note this performance is only accessible via a flight of stairs.

Chris White plays some of the most famous saxophone solos from his time with Dire Straits and recounts stories from his life as a musician with artists such as Paul McCartney, Joe Cocker, Robbie Williams, Ray Charles and of course, Dire Straits, which included performing at the legendary Live Aid and Mandela concerts. A master of rock’n’roll, blues and pop. Saturday 6th September 8pm, tickets are £14.50

Tickets for all of these shows can be purchased here or over the phone on 01635 244 246. General opening hours are 10am-4.30pm Mon-Fri, or later on performance days.

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45th Anniversary of Hendrix’s Death Honoured by Strings Legend

2015 marks the 45th anniversary of the death of the late, great Jimi Hendrix. Widely regarded as one of the most influential guitarists of the century and often cited as the “Voice of a Generation”, he started playing an actual guitar bought for him by his father for $5 at 15 years old, graduating from years of dreaming on the family broom. After a stint in the army (cut short when Jimi was injured during a parachute jump) he committed to the electric guitar full time. What must’ve seemed like bad luck for Jimi, was world changing for the music industry. Within months of scoring his first manager, Jimi had 3 UK Top Ten hits under his belt and was well on his way to becoming one of the most legendary musicians of, well, ever.

After just four years as a global super star, Jimi Hendrix died of asphyxiation caused by an overdose of sleeping pills in September of 1970. Forty-five years later and tributes to the electric guitar legend come in all shapes and forms – from a sea of Hendrix masks at the Isle of Wight festival, to a poignant retelling of his work from folk aficionado Benji Kirkpatrick.

Sara Lincoln Photography
Sara Lincoln Photography

Benji (of folk supergroups Bellowhead and Faustus) is a long term fan of Hendrix, his music leading Benji to the electric guitar which really solidified his passion for playing. Odd then, perhaps, that Benji leaves the instrument behind in his interpretation of the hits of Hendrix. Hendrix’s performances were well known for fusing feedback, fuzz and distortion – something you won’t find in Benji’s angle as he sticks to acoustic bouzouki, banjo and mandolin. It’s not a case of “Benji knows better”, this stripping down is done to reveal the genius of the songs beneath. Despite (or because of?) not being able to read or write music Hendrix was a fantastically intricate songwriter, and Bendrix is all about showcasing this.

You can catch the show at Arlington Arts on Wednesday 23rd September at 8pm. Tickets are £12 and can be purchased here, or via the box office on 01635 244 246 between 10-4.30pm, Monday to Friday. All profits go to Mary Hare School for the Deaf.

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John Elliott of The Little Unsaid chats to Ellie Reynard about making music and how to drink Tequila

Arlington Arts’ Duty Manager Ellie catches up with John Elliot in advance of his show here on Thursday 5 March.

Often compared to the likes of Jeff Buckley, Radiohead and Nick Cave, online magazine Dots & Dashes recently referred to The Little Unsaid as:

“A giddying conflation of folk, electronica and lavish orchestration… one of the genre’s grandest successes thus far”

This is what happened when Ellie met John:

Let’s start off with a classic, what got you into music. Your Dad’s a pretty impressive artist; does creativity run in your family?

Yes it does really, my dad has always been very artistic, he’s a great blues guitarist too. He was sort of like my personal DJ from a very young age, he has the most eclectic taste of anyone I know. I had piano lessons from a young age, but I think I was more excited whenever I heard him playing the guitar. I especially remember him playing me a lot of his records when I was learning to play drums and I’d bash along to them on my practice drum machine thing in the living room. ‘Get Back’ by The Beatles was always a favourite to tap along to.

You make a big point of posting your lyrics on your website – what comes first, the words or the music? Or do they grow up together?

It changes song to song. I’m one of those eejits with a notebook in their pocket all the time, scribbling away on trains and such, making fellow passengers paranoid that I’m sketching them. So I pretty much always write words, and then when some musical ideas appear I have a book full of gibberish I can sift through to pull out the usable fragments.

Any tips for memorising all those words?

I tend to labour over the lyrics for so long that by the time they’re finished they’re just embedded into my brain already.

You’ve described your latest album “Fisher King” as a “pretty outrageous mix” of instruments – exactly how many different ones are involved?

I’m counting on my fingers as we speak…piano, guitars, drumkit, bass, toolbox, saz (a Turkish stringed instrument), metal shelving hit with many sticks, sousaphone, alto horn, trumpet, viola, cello, violins, whistle, bagpipes, glockenspiel, various synths and electronic samples, a choir of primary school kids…and my weird little voice. I’ve probably forgotten something but that’s the core of it. We didn’t set out to include so much, we were just grabbing whatever and whoever was around us at the time, going ‘NOW LET’S MAKE NOISE WITH THIS!’ It’ll be a strange-looking ensemble if we can ever afford to recruit the full lineup for a gig.

Can we be evil and push you to pick a favourite?

I’ve really enjoyed playing piano on this album. I don’t have a piano of my own these days as I’m moving around too much, and when you don’t play an instrument often enough to be well-practised it changes the way you write. I enjoy feeling a bit like I’m wrestling with an instrument, it makes you a bit more reckless and I quite like how human and raw it can sound. (Or at least that’s my excuse for being a shoddy pianist.)

With all that talent working on one project, how smoothly do all the ideas come together?

This has been the most enjoyable and natural experience I’ve ever had making an album, and that’s because so many other great people were involved from the start, beginning with my producer and friend Michael Griggs, who got the whole idea of making another album into my head. Some of the previous recordings have mostly involved me spending months in a dark room on my own, recording myself and weeping with loneliness into the night. That process was right for back then as I was a bit more of a solitary Hobbit-man, but now that I’ve learnt how to properly collaborate with others I’m getting so much joy out of working with lots of wonderful people. It feels like we’re closer to making The Little Unsaid what I wanted it to be when I started out on my own five years ago; not a solo project, but instead this ever-growing community of musicians, artists and filmmakers who come together for different projects and who enjoy hanging out and making things together. I’m still learning how to do this all the time, but if you can somehow create an atmosphere of shared creative freedom and excitement when you invite new people in to collaborate, that’s half the job done and the ideas just flow. Like gallons of fine wine. Come to think of it, wine also helps sometimes.

What’s been your favourite live performance memory to date?

I really enjoyed playing at Glastonbury last year. We did one gig where the power cut out just before we were about to start because of an electrical storm. We were stood on stage waiting for the all-clear from the sound engineer for about twenty minutes, just kind of smiling and shrugging at the audience. There was a really strange atmosphere of tension, impatience, thunder raging outside the tent, rain leaking in onto all our gear. It was wild and kind of frightening, but those are the kind of gigs where something outside your control just takes over and I remember going a bit unhinged when we finally started to play.

Yorkshire or London?

I love going back to Yorkshire for some headspace and silence, and to go running. But I do enjoy spending time in London and have lots of good friends there. So I’m sitting on the fence with that one, and the fence is probably somewhere midway. Like Leicester.

Pints or shots?

I like tequila, but proper, decent Mexican tequila, which most bars don’t stock sadly. Hefty shot of that, but sipped rather than knocked back in one. Excellent. Then I get on the table and dance like an idiot.

Folk or Electronica?

I will always listen to folk music as that will always be where I sort of started, but right now I think the most inventive new music being made is electronic. Maybe someone should combine the two genres? Bet no one’s thought of that yet…

Thanks very much!


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Bonnie Dobson Interview

Director Tony Trigwell-Jones catches up with Bonnie Dobson ahead of her performance at Arlington Arts on Friday 30 January.

Hi Bonnie,

I understand that this must be the question everyone asks so please excuse my lack of originality but does it bother you that people focus on the 25 years you weren’t in music, rather than the wonderful 30 year career you had beforehand?

No, it doesn’t bother me at all.  I set out on my first tour in May, 1960 and I gave what I thought at the time was my last concert in Chicago in October, 1989.  So, I had been singing for 29 years when I decided to go back to university.

What can you tell us about the Bonnie Dobson at the start of that 20 years and towards the of it?

Well, I had never planned on singing as a career. Folk music had been my hobby (and great love) since I was eleven years old, In March 1960, I was introduced to an agent from Detroit who heard me sing and subsequently offered me a tour with Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry. At the time, I was on a break of studies from the University of Toronto and I remember thinking that it would be a fun way to spend the summer before going back to college in the autumn.  And, it was! But, I never made it back to the U of T.  As for my feelings by the time 1989 rolled around, it was complicated. Musically and personally, I’d lost my sense of direction. 

Lots of artists and bands say that they are quitting lots of times – Chas and Dave have had a good many final tours – but you had obviously made up your mind and were quite focussed on not writing or releasing any more new material or performing live. Were there moments within that 25 year break where you had regrets?

Not really.  Occasionally though, when I thought about all that I’d done in those 29 years, it did, sometimes, seem unreal. I think the philosophers might say it fell into the category of ‘personal identity through time’. Having said that, I loved the time I spent studying and working at Birkbeck College here in London.

TV talent shows have, compared to the Bob Knocks of the 70s/80s, reached fever pitch and thousands of young wannabes dreaming of pop stardom risk total humiliation to come within grasping distance of that dream. As someone who had that dream, lived that life and chose to walk away, what advice would you give these young vocalists?

I’m not sure I ever did have ‘that dream’.  I just loved singing  and it was very different time. As for advice?  Don’t be fooled by the strobe lights.

The PR about your return to music reads as though Jarvis Cocker called you up out of the blue and convinced you to play Meltdown in 2007. Was this how it happened or were you already considering a return to music?

No, it wasn’t at all on the horizon.  At that time, I had a house in Ontario, in the village where my grandmother had lived and where I had spent my summers as a child.  I was there when I received an email from Andy Votel, on behalf of Jarvis Cocker, asking if I’d be interested in singing at Meltdown. Jarvis was rather partial to ‘Winter’s Going’. The concert was called ‘The Lost Ladies of Folk’. I didn’t regard myself as ‘lost’, but I couldn’t resist as I am a huge fan of Jarvis.

Even following this, you still waited a full five years before going into the studio (except for one or two cameo performances including with Robert Plant) what kept you?

Meltdown was wonderful, but nothing came of it. And I wasn’t really fussed.  After all those years in between, it was enough to know that I could still sing.  I never thought I would record again and I wasn’t looking either.  Hornbeam Recordings found me and all the great musicians I am lucky to have in my band. We started recording in the summer of 2013 and our CD came out in June 2014. The concert with Robert Plant happened half way between the two. It has all been a big surprise for me.

In the late sixties/early seventies it was quite common for popular psychedelic/folk musicians to explore darker material – in your song Winter’s Going (1969) you talk about autumn killing a baby and conversation killing thought. Do you think that modern popular music has become anodyne?

Thankfully, ‘Winter’s Going ‘ is not typical of the songs I sing and write. I admit that its tendency to psychosis scares me too.

 Is modern popular music anodyne? Yipes!  What is modern popular music? I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer that.

There’s a brilliant singer/song writer named Susan Werner.  She’s American and, to the best of my knowledge, she has never toured in the UK.  I heard her for the first time about ten years ago in Canada and she probably wouldn’t be classed as ’modern popular’, but she can write and sing and is most definitely not ‘anodyne’. I can provide a list of others too, if you like.

So the new album? You could easily have got your name on some more high-profile shows, rereleased your back catalogue and enjoyed some renewed success – why go to all the bother of forming a new band and writing lots of brilliant new songs?

There was no bother at all in forming the band.  As I mentioned earlier, it all came together very naturally and, for my part, very unexpectedly too. Not only that, it’s a first for me. I’ve never had a band and, if someone had told me two or three years ago, I’d be touring, I would have thought that someone was seriously hallucinating.

Obviously we would like people to come out and see you at the end of this month (30 January). What can our audience expect?

Some very good music played by some very good musicians.

Thank you very, very much for your time.

Thank you.  I look forward to meeting you

Tickets for Bonnie’s performance are available here or from the box office on 01635 244246

Bonnie talks about her new album and return to music here