Interview with Heg Doughty
After listening to their idiosyncratic and more ‘folk-oriented’ EP ‘Boat and I’, FolkWords decided to talk Heg Doughty songwriter, keyboard player and vocalist with Heg & The Wolf Chorus to find out more about their dramatic, narrative choralesque style.
FW: Heg & The Wolf Chorus have a style best described as ‘different’ ... tell us about it.
HD: Originally, I wrote music for just me and the keyboard but in my head I had a sound I wanted to develop and knew that meant adding voices and instruments. The allure of a ‘choir of voices’ was always there. The way the band formed was Natalie and Anita joined first and we started to explore ideas and created more layered harmonies in the arrangements to add drama to the stories.
We had worked a little bit with a choir and some of the individual voices blended really nicely so we decided to get them involved and work with them. Then as we added those voices and different people that combination of musicians changed and developed the music with each adding their own influences and styles. Our style, whether it’s folk or not is an amalgam of all those parts.
FW: Was creating the ‘choralesque’ approach a conscious decision?
HD: It was a combination of deliberate action and ‘just happening’. You hear something and it sounds right. That’s when you develop an idea into something that everyone feels is just right. As I got more involved with writing for more voices, the music and my writing changed - I had more influences and depth to work with. That still works today. I bring the bare bones of an idea to the band and then we work out the arrangements, everyone has an input on how they sound.
The two songs on the EP came out differently to anything else I’d written before. I do think that’s a direct reflection on the band and how close we’ve become, musically and as friends. I feel my style is influenced by them and we influence each other to achieve the final version. That may I guess be described as choralesque. It’s more about adding drama and depth to stories.
FW: You said ‘folk or not’ – do you see ‘Boat and I’ as folk?
HD: I don’t really know. I guess you could describe the latest songs as new-folk but if you listen to everything else we’ve done, or listen to a set then there’s a whole lot going on from pop to acoustic and probably folk. Personally, I’m not sure that I would pigeonhole the band as pure folk but there are definite folk tinges. How’s that? Truthfully, I don’t think we want to be categorised in any specific confined genre. We kind of like the idea that the band will always evolve and change depending on what we want to say. If you pushed me I could say this is the first time we’ve focused on folk elements.
FW: Folk or indeed any music seems to be intent on creating boundaries around itself through definition.
HD: I think in some ways we’ve already had experience that, especially some of the responses we’ve had when we describe our music. We used to say our sound was ‘choral-inspired’ – the problem with that was people thought we were a choir. Which, I suppose is why ‘choralesque’ is kind of alright. I actually don’t mind that and there remains considerable choral influence in the way I write.
However, I do think it puts some people off when they take a particular word that puts you firmly in a category. You then have the subjective reaction of people deciding they don’t like it before they hear it. It’s a shame people can’t open their minds a bit and not say: “Oh it’s a choir, I won’t like that.” Hopefully with choralesque they will give it a go.
FW: In many ways there seems to be a touch of 'medieval influence' hovering around the song ‘Maiden’.
HD: That’s not intentional but I understand what you mean and if that’s what the music evokes in you that’s fine. I don’t think we had that in our head apart from the introduction but musically there’s no medieval intention as such. The intention is to tell dramatic stories with compelling lyrics and arrangements that catch the ear. As far as I’m concerned, if our music evokes a feeling or a theme when people hear it and that moves and attracts them, then that works for me.
FW: Perhaps then it’s more accurate to say there’s a distinct ‘ancient’ edge to the EP.
HD: That makes me feel really happy. ‘Boat and I’ was supposed to have that kind of atmosphere. You could call it mythical, fairy-story, perhaps slightly dark – all of those. It’s really great if you’ve got that from those two stories. The description of a weird fairy-world, legendary feel to ‘Maiden’ is accurate, there is definitely an edge in both songs that lean towards those feelings.
FW: When you write how do the songs come - tune or lyrics first?
HD: Sometimes I’ll have a concept in my head that may take months to come to anything – it just keeps working away in my mind. It’s different every single time there’s no formula. Frequently it’s nothing more than a word or phrase or fragment of tune that just repeats. With ‘Boat and I’ for instance the viola section came into my head while I was walking down the street in Bristol. I sang it down into my phone and put it down the piano when I got home. Words and music just come out where and when they want to come out. That in itself can be a little frustrating sometimes, especially if you’re striving for something.
FW: Your lyrics possess interesting structures - is that deliberate?
HD: I write lyrics in different ways, depending on what I want to say. I always strive for interesting content, word and verse structures. One of my songs ‘Downfalling’ came from letters that my granddad sent me. The first verse is virtually word for word what he wrote. There is no rhyme or reason to how and why I write but I’m always striving for dramatic effect in the stories I tell. And when those stories come together in the collection of voices it makes them come alive.
FW: How do the individual parts develop?
HD: We’ve worked together now for over a year and a level of understanding has developed between us. I’ll play the bare bones of the songs to the band and from then on we all work out what fits and what doesn’t. We work with the keyboard and viola and find what we all like and build the individual parts around that.
When we feel need to add something to create a little more interest, inject some darkness or magic then we’ll try to find the most interesting ways to do that with the harmonies. We try to take the vocals and harmonies somewhere different or perhaps unusual to create more depth in the music. We try to play around as much as possible – in effect to do more with what we have.
FW: Why is ‘Boat and I’ just a two-track EP?
HD: Originally it was supposed to be three. We were working with a sea shanty but in the end we just weren’t happy with it. It’s a big energetic song and we just felt that it had more to give and we had more to offer, so as it wasn’t ready for the EP – or more precisely it wasn’t what we wanted, we left it out. It was a hard decision but we didn’t want to end up with one track that didn’t feel quite right.
FW: The percussion effects – can you talk to us about that?
HD: I knew I wanted ‘Boat and I’ to create a specific atmosphere at the start and then go somewhere rather unexpected. The idea was to be darker and more brooding at the beginning, and then explode into something with a powerful dramatic ending. With each singer playing a drum as well we create the pulsing rhythms that compliment the piano and viola arrangements.
FW: And the other instruments in the band?
HD: Even when I was simply writing for the piano in mind I always wanted a fuller sound – the drums give it a fuller pulse, it has an essence of attraction - the heartbeat, the drama - that’s what I wanted. The same applies to the viola. I wanted strings and preferred the sound of a viola to a violin so I was searching for a viola player. Then when Anita got in touch that’s exactly what I wanted. She is classically trained and good at improvisation. The viola creates the rhythms that fit around the piano and add considerably more to the finished product than simple string arrangements
FW: Do you have any issues recreating your recorded sound in a live set?
HD: The main focus for us is the voices. There’s the keyboard, viola and every singer has a drum – that’s easily reproduced so our live set sounds like our recordings. It's the same the other way around. The only thing we don’t have in the live set is the electronic synth sounds in ‘Maiden’ but we’re working on recreating those sounds in other ways without sampling ... otherwise the live set is what you hear on the recording. What we really wanted was to create a lifelike example of what we play and how we sound live. We wanted to capture the character of our music. That’s one of the reasons we left the sea shanty off the EP because we didn’t like the way it sounded.
FW: Are you always in a position where everyone agrees on an arrangement?
HD: We have quite an easy going relationship and if something doesn’t work then we'll kick it around until it does or we abandon it - it’s usually a pretty unanimous decision. We all strive for a similar sound for the band but then again you could say we’re all prepared to stand our ground. No falling out so far - just healthy debate.
FW: Talk about the influences that drive your music.
HD: One massive driver for my music is storytelling especially from my grandparents. Many of my stories and songs come from their time. They were big storytellers and a huge influence on me. Continuing that through my music is important, more so than just making up stories. I enjoy working with those older storylines too. Perhaps it’s a hang back to the old times and relishing their history. That’s where I suspect the folk style is coming from. Maybe I resisted it for some time and it has just taken a while to come through. I subjectively enjoy the old stories I believe they should be made to live rather than be forgotten. Many elderly people are full of stories and they should be cherished rather than ignored.
I think that’s why I enjoy reading the Grimm’s Fairytales and Hans Christian Anderson – those stories may mean not so much to a modern ears but that’s why I often include modern metaphors, which will hopefully catch the ear even if the hearer doesn’t actually know the story.
FW: So from here where to next?
HD: Now that’s a question! The purpose of the free download on the EP is to get more people to hear us – more exposure, more gigs. I suppose the ultimate is a full album but we want to make certain it’s right. We also want to get into a proper studio to ensure it’s a recording we can be proud of. A debut album is critical. We don’t want something that we’re going to hate in a few months. That’s why we are being really cautious, developing new material and getting ourselves ready for an album we can be proud of. We’re looking to plan more gigs this year to move out of our immediate vicinity for gigs in London and perhaps into Europe. Everything at the right time at the right pace to make sure we remain proud of our work.
FW: Thank you Heg.
© FolkWords - 2013