Interview with Vicki Swann & Jonny Dyer
On the heels of their Christmas album, ‘A Sound of Christmas Past’, Vicki Swann and Jonny Dyer kindly took some to speak to Tim Carroll about the album and its creation, aspects of their music and the Nyckelharpa. They also shared some thoughts on a range of topics from the preservation or conservation of folk music to the choices between 'live' or 'studio'.
FW: First can we talk about your Christmas album, ‘A Sound of Christmas Past’, what was the impetus behind it?
VS: Over the last few years we’ve sung carols at Christmas lunches, at a castle, in period clothing and we wanted to bring the atmosphere of those times to an album. We chose carols and songs that were not modern but of a period gone by. We wanted to take the atmosphere of Victorian musical halls, the themes of Christmas with carols to create the sound, feel and taste (if there’s mulled wine on offer in the interval!) of a traditional Christmas. The sounds of community singing and people having fun.
FW: Although some contend the ‘Victorian or Dickensian’ Christmas never really existed except in the minds of authors and dramatists.
JD: That may be and although we’re not promulgating a lie, and that’s too strong a word, we’ve putting together an album to reflect an older time of Christmas. We’re not really presenting a ‘Victorian Christmas’, essentially we’re offering exactly what it says on the album, ‘A Sound of Christmas Past’. Along the way that meant going back to music we like, within a performance or a time we like, something that’s from another period, not cotemporary.
I have a problem with the way that so many of those songs have become more and more turgid. The accepted rendition of many carols comes down to an organist playing at half speed and people indulging in half-hearted singing. There’s no life to the pieces anymore. Definitely not the way those songs were intended. So we wanted to try and find some life and give it to tunes that we liked. The album isn’t expressly carols, it’s a collection of Christmas songs that fit well together, for example we added ‘Jingle Bells’, which is not as modern as people may think. It was written by James Lord Pierpont and published under the title ‘One Horse Open Sleigh’, in 1857. Even though it’s now associated with the Christmas, it was originally written to be sung for American Thanksgiving.
FW: The idea of the ‘Christmas album’ has been with us for years but mostly wrapped around ‘contemporary songs’.
JD: The concept of commercial Christmas albums is fine if you like that sort of thing, but what does annoy me is the essence that makes music wonderful is somehow extracted when they ‘redo it’. A commercial company gets involved, and it happens across the board, and the original passion fades. An imaginative new band brings out an album, the first one is new and different and then album number two lacks the original passion and commitment. Every time commercialisation gets involved it rips out the heart of what was good – even if I don’t like the music in the first place, I appreciate it if it’s done with passion. Once the edge goes something dies.
FW: Commercialisation sells music but it removes the ‘sharp edges’ and leaves the product without its original vitality?
JD: That’s it exactly, although in a sense when music reaches that state all emotions vanish. You end up with a sound that’s even hard to hate, because it’s nothing, just musical wallpaper.
FW: It’s often said that folk music today deals with ‘middle class folk’ not folk of the common people – is there any truth to that?
JD: That’s a long and complicated discussion, however folk is full of braches with different needs, roots and origins, trying to compartmentalise it is missing the point. It’s awkward and clumsy to do that. The music of 200 years ago was church music, sponsored classical music or music people made at home. All the music that people made at home, irrespective of where they were or their situation is folk music.
I understand that many might find it a bit incongruous for comfortable middle class people today to sing working songs from a time when people were singing songs born out for the need to entertain themselves because they were doing the same job day in day out. They generally didn’t have very much apart from making their own entertainment. I don’t have a problem with who sings the songs, but it’s important that people understand the context of the songs they’re singing. However, I’ll grant you that it’s a bit odd when people with million pound houses sing songs about being poor. Although songs evolve and develop depending on where they’re sung and by who, what really matters is retaining a respect and a reverence for their origins.
FW: On your last album Red House you add your own little touches to tunes, is that important to you?
JD: I have a Master’s degree in building conservation and in my thesis I wrote about the comparison between conservation and preservation. If you preserve something you prevent it from changing, you prevent it from having a context other than from a cerebral point. Museums are full of things you can look at because they’re preserved, unchanged forever. However, if you conserve something you have to allow it to change, breathe, grow and become more relevant to the day in which it lives.
There are lots of little points to how I interpret this. One point, I don’t like to sing a song when I don’t understand what it’s about, so I’ll research what it’s about and try to get the meaning back. Personally, I don’t like songs where the mood and feel of the song has one dimension but the tune does not. I’ll often re-write a tune so that it reflects, in my opinion at least, more the nature and meaning of the piece.
FW: Does that come from the fact that many folk songs are re-invented with missing or corrupted verses and miss the original message?
JD: Of course, look at the way music was collected, with someone like Vaughn Williams walking into a pub in the 1890’s. The guy in the pub who sang the song must have been under pressure and in an awkward situation because he would be talking to someone who was extremely middle to upper-middle class. I can imagine being in that situation myself. You can imagine the internal dialogue: “This is the song I sang yesterday, oh no I’ve forgotten it, never mind I’ll just make it up as I go along.”
I don’t have a problem with that because it’s the way songs happen, it’s how they evolve and how they’re passed from one voice to another. We used to sing ‘Spencer The Rover’. I learnt it in a pub, and by the time I played it at home it was a little bit wrong, but I’d rather it was like that because I’d much prefer to say I learned the song from whoever in a pub rather than from a book.
FW: As well as corrupted songs there’s also the corrupted accent. Why do many English artists feel it necessary to sing with a mid-Atlantic accent?
JD: My stance on that is very simple, if you behave with integrity and you sing a song where the words are important then you have to use your own voice. You cannot put someone else’s voice or accent into a song. It’s fine if you’re acting, if you want to sing about the American gold rush as though you were of the period, that’s fine as an acting motif but beyond that you have a responsibility to sing a song with the voice that you have. I really don’t understand how that came about. It’s as if some people learn to sing by listening to the radio or perhaps they want to be somebody else.
FW: And what of the ‘folk zealots’ who condemn a song because the singer has changed it from the ‘accepted’ version?
JD: What makes it interesting is a discussion about ‘what is respect for the music?’ How does that manifest itself? Everything can be done with respect. As I said earlier, a rich person can sing a song about poverty if they have respect for the song and its message. We have to have respect for what the song is and where it comes from, what message you’re trying to convey, as long as you do that you’re being true to the song. You also have to respect your relationship with the audience and everyone else in the room and that’s a complicated set of responsibilities.
My problem with such fanaticism, without sounding too ranting, is people that are most zealous won’t look at the bigger picture of what you’re trying to do. They reduce everything into one binary event and that’s not respectful to what you’re trying to do and who you’re trying to communicate with.
FW: Is that why there are endless discussions about folk music with people that have already made up their minds?
JD: That’s the problem really, that level of intransigence. Most people are happy for things to change and for music to be interesting. We’ll do an album and get reviews and there’s always somebody that says ‘I don’t like that’, and that’s fine. But the people that shout the loudest are the ones with the strongest opinions and that’s a conversation we have all the time. It’s always the one person in the audience of 200 who says ‘I really don’t think you did a good job there’.
FW: Talking about performing, if you had to choose your favourite environment would it be ‘live’ or ‘studio’?
VS: We really like doing both, mainly because they’re both different.
FW: Aside from the blindingly obvious, what’s the difference for you?
JD: Actually, the blindingly obvious is not as obvious as it might first appear. When you have a live performance you generate a relationship with the audience, you can change what you do in that relationship. You can slow a piece down especially if the audience is really engaging and bring them into the song you’re singing. The interaction can change everything because it becomes a dynamic event. When you’re recording you’ve got the opposite problem there’s no audience reaction to work with, you’re trying to achieve a different level of perfection rather than engage people dynamically. You’re trying to do the best you can to deliver a finished article.
FW: So with an album you put your songs out there and they stand or fall on their own merit?
JD: Yes, absolutely, and that happens on lots of different levels. That makes it important to understand your songs and their meaning. It’s back to responsibility again. On an album you cannot have a conversation with the audience and ‘explain’ the meaning behind a song.
VS: I think with albums as well, it’s a record, not in the recording sense, but in a documentation sense it’s evidence of where we were at a certain time, what we did and how we were. We try to change our sets, so gradually over time they’re evolving but when you go back to a recording of years ago we can hear how we were. We have a record of what we did and you can either say ‘I really liked that tune’ or listen to what we did and decide to bring it up to speed and perform it again.
JD: There are also some interesting freedoms and boundaries between recording an album and live ‘on stage’. There’s me and Vicki playing and at any one point we’re playing different instruments. Now, we could have a band on an album playing all the instruments but it’s inefficient and not possible, also how would some venues cover eight or so people on stage? Also, with a live set our audience can be our chorus, so when we do a live song there’s us two plus possibly fifty people singing. Those little dynamics make it an important journey for us.
FW: Do you favour the narrative folk song with a story?
VS: We like stories and story-songs. We’re working with a storyteller right now, we’re the soundtrack and backing to the story. It’s an extreme example of working with a narrative but we do like stories.
JD: I’ve never really got into songs that have no story, pop songs with so-called ‘stories’ are ‘I love you’ or ‘I hate you’. Narrative songs are more: ‘I hated you, so I killed you, buried you badly, and then you got dug up.
VS: ... and your ghost came back’ … now that’s a good story!
FW: With individual singers narrative songs can sound so different, whereas ‘covered’ pop-songs all sound much the same.
JD: There’s a reason for that. The words in narrative songs like ‘The Proposal’ or ‘The Keys of Canterbury’ are really strong, they have their own integrity with their own power. You can really pull them around and the song will still hold together. However, if you pull around a pop song it ends up sounding like a different song because simultaneously they’re all different but all sound exactly the same. What makes them ‘special’ is so irrelevant you can break them very easily.
FW: Focusing on yourselves for a moment, when did you decide to become a duo?
VS: We met at a local youth orchestra years ago. It took us about five years before we started playing music together and that was in a band in pubs, folk clubs and festivals. Eventually, we started working as a duo and just kept it going.
FW: Over the years have you experienced much change in your music?
JD: Yes, it’s something that evolves continuously. There’s no doubt it changes, some of the questions you asked earlier are conversations we’ve had between ourselves. The way that your music changes is down to the context of your music and where we are at any given time. Throughout time, short or long, your love of music changes.
FW: That’s interesting, in what way does your love of music change?
JD: We both come from a classical background so we are constantly exploring folk music. The more I play my folk instruments the more I want to develop the folk sound, and what I mean by that is finding a real integrity of the beauty in the tune and trying to make yourself transparent. That comes with the years. When you’re twenty it’s different. I see it with lots of young performers, they can play tunes really fast so they do. However, as you get older, maybe you can’t play so fast or perhaps you don’t want to because you see more beauty in the tune and want to get more out of it.
FW: Is that the style of ripping tunes and throwing the words out as fast as possible?
JD: I don’t have a problem with that. I think it’s fine for young performers to go through that process, but most of us come out the other side. We want to share something and ‘talk’ to people. We want more meaning to what we do, and the further down the line we go the more meaning we want.
FW: Vicki, how did the Nyckelharpa become an instrument of choice?
VS: I’m half-Swedish and in 2006 I’d just translated a song from Swedish to English and was researching different versions. At the same time I was looking for an instrument that would allow me to play and sing but I didn’t want to play the guitar, mandolin or accordion. During my research I found this band that had nyckelharpa players in it and I thought ‘of course’, here’s an instrument I can sing with. I also thought it would also help me to get to know my Swedish music better.
So I spoke to a maker and asked the normal questions: ‘how long and how much?’ I decided that I’d leave it a year and a day and if I still really want to play one I’d order one. In the end, I think I left it about a month before I ordered one and picked it up three months later. It was one of those ‘light bulb’ epiphany moments and life has never been the same since.
FW: How did this ‘epiphany’ manifest itself?
VS: It spoke in a way that I’d always wanted to speak. My father played the Highland pipes, and I play the Scottish small pipes as a result of him teaching me. I think a lot of my music comes from my Swedish side, having the nyckelharpa and learning the music felt like a completed piece of the puzzle. The nyckelharpa put me in touch with my Swedish side.
I’ve been an instrumental music teacher for many years and tried to teach the pipes but they never became as popular as I hoped they might. Now there’s something about the nyckelharpa that seems to grab everyone’s imagination and a lot of people want to learn how to play it. So now because I’m playing and teaching I can pass on this wonderful instrument to more people in a way that never really happened with the pipes.
FW: So following ‘Red House’ and ‘A Sound of Christmas Past’ where to next?
JD: Most urgently, we’re aiming at a new album. We haven’t started recording yet but over the next six months we’ll have a new album
VS: We also have a few ideas that need action. I’m planning and working on a nyckelharpa ensemble album, it’s going to be the Snyka Ensemble, ‘snyka’ being a Swedish dialect word for ‘snow’. I’ve already put a couple of tracks on SoundCloud and people have emailed me asking where they can find the ensemble and how to join. Well, actually at the moment it’s just me layered; that makes it a bit tricky for other people to join it. I’ve got about three quarters of it drafted and recorded so it’s on its way.
JD: We’re also working with John Dipper on an early-music baroque-Swedish tunes fusion, which takes us back to our musical roots. It’s 'early doors' with the project right now but it’s really interesting for us because it’s not only going forwards but taking us right back.
FW: Thank you for your time Vicki and Jonny, it’s been absolute pleasure talking to you.
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