Interview with Tinderbox
In the latest in our ongoing series of interviews, FolkWords talks to Tinderbox – Monique Houraghan and Dan Tucker – about the inspirations and influences behind their live album ‘Live At The Cottage’, the process of writing lyrics, reaching out to touch an audience and some of their plans for the future.
FW: How did the album ‘Live at The Cottage’ come about?
DT: Monique and I have been playing and writing together for 20 years or so. About eight years ago we started to work with guest musicians and the album ‘Golden’ is a perfect example of a full-band album. We started to hone things down and ended up as a trio with Bob Burke - we’ve been a trio on and off, but mostly on, for about four years now. For the last two years we’ve been saying: “Wouldn’t it be great to get this sound we’ve worked hard to create with the arrangements we’re doing now, onto a live album.” Despite that going round our heads we never really focused on a live album, our interest was more on studio albums to present new songs.
We got this gig to play at The Cottage in the middle of a tour, actually more of a ‘flow’ of live gigs than a tour, with a tight, polished sound we really liked. Dave Booth our producer asked if we minded if he recorded The Cottage gig, so although we were a little reluctant, we agreed.
It turned out to be a small intimate gig, around 50 or 60 people. It was one of those ‘pin drop’ audiences and just lovely. Afterwards, we contacted Dave and asked to hear the recording. He sent us a recording taken from a microphone hanging above us and although it was pretty poor, when we listened we thought it might become a live album. We got back to Dave and asked if he would produce a live album. His response was: “That’s what I had in mind because not only do I have the feed from the ceiling mic, which picked up the audience, I’ve also recorded each of your tracks on the sound desk.” There was no going back, it was the beginning of a five or six month production process and we had the album.
FW: There's an added edge to this album through its intimacy.
MH: That was exactly what Dave intended. When he began the producing process he had some decisions to make on how it should sound and wanted to reflect the intimacy of the gig.
DT: We discussed how much of the desk recording we should use and how much of the house mics. When Dave sent me the roughs I ‘top-and-tailed’ all the songs to fade in and fade out, something like an old live Johnny Cash album. I sent the edit back to Dave and his reaction was: “No, no, no – this should be an album that someone can hear without breaks in the songs. They should be listening to a complete live album. If they don’t want to listen to you talking and your interaction with the audience they can always fast forward.”
FW: So, leaving in the banter added to the overall package and feel?
DT: Yes, Dave was right.
MH: That’s what we wanted to achieve. You could say we took a risk on leaving in some of the chatter because it might affect radio plays but we decided that it accurately reflected who we are and what we sound like live.
FW: Those little exchanges put the listener right there with the audience.
MH: I’m glad to hear you say that because that’s exactly what we wanted to achieve.
FW: Did you ever worry about the observation that ‘live’ albums rarely offer existing fans new songs?
MH: With any album you’re always worried about a negative response. With a live album it’s ‘warts and all’. I might make vocal mistakes where I’m passionate about the lyrics and perhaps not hit the key or there might be some guitar mistakes, it’s always something you worry about. With regard to new material, there are three new tracks on the album that have never been recorded anywhere else so even if you have our studio albums there’s something new to hear.
FW: You talk on the album about your ‘musical journey’. Has it turned out as expected?
MH: We never started out with a ‘musical journey’ as such, in mind. We just got together, Dan enjoyed playing guitar and I enjoyed singing, we thought we could have a bit of fun. We started off just doing covers and trying to get our repertoire together. I guess the real journey began when we entered a music competition. They wanted 45 minutes of original material, and although we’d written music for some year’s we were never sure anyone would want to listen to it. Anyway, we applied and did well, getting to the final. We’d never done anything like that before but it proved people would listen to what we wrote. We received such a positive response to our music we just went on from there, but we never formed a ‘musical agenda’. There was one goal I suppose, we wanted to get away from the pub scene where no one really listens.
DT: That’s so true. To be honest ‘Live at The Cottage’ is the sort of intimate gig we like to play, although we have played concerts for up to a thousand people, the point remains people are listening. I’d rather play to five people and a dog listening than try to break through in pubs and bars where no one listens. When we finished our US tour we promised ourselves we would never do another pub gig, only concerts, even if it meant playing in front of a handful of people.
FW: Do you find playing when people aren’t listening slightly soul destroying?
MH: It certainly is for me, I don’t have a guitar to ‘hide’ behind.
DT: It’s especially hard for Monique. She has to look at people and engage with them. When an audience don’t want to engage with her or don’t want to listen, it’s incredibly hard.
FW: Going back to your musical journey, would you say you’ve reached a ‘high-point’?
MH: I would say that we still have lots of goals, one is to write new songs and make a new album. We’ve certainly reached a certain point but there’s much more to come. We would love to gain radio-play for our songs, we’d like to play new venues and pack out places with audiences.
FW: Was it intentional or a bit tongue-in-cheek to title a song ‘Homeward Bound’?
MH: It was totally accidental. Dan came up with this lovely guitar piece, the melody stuck in my head and the words flowed. We were at a gig in Dallas and while we were on our way to Oklahoma, we actually drove through a storm and stopped into a motel. We really were going home, heading to the last few gigs towards the end of the tour. There was no intention to reflect the Simon and Garfunkel song but in the way of these things, the song just developed
DT: I did say while we were in the car that we couldn’t call the song ‘Homeward Bound’, but Monique said: “Yeah we can and why not?” So we ended up with a song called ‘Homeward Bound’ although on occasion, the expected confusion has occurred – listen to the story I tell on ‘Live at The Cottage’.
FW: How do you work with your lyrics, grind them out or do they just appear?
MH: They usually come when I’m going to bed and the last thing you want is words running round your mind. It depends how I’m writing a song. At times, the words arrive in my head complete with melody and I ‘hear’ the whole song and the instruments. I’ll sing it to Dan and he works out the guitar piece. Sometimes, I pick up a guitar write a few chords and put down a melody with lyrics, then again Dan writes a guitar piece and I match lyrics to what he’s written. I have to say that can be hardest method, it’s more of a struggle to match lyrics to what Dan’s written. When that happens somehow the words don’t seem to flow so freely.
FW: Do you find there are some songs you just have to write?
MH: Some songs arrive with incredible power. I have no idea where the lyrics come from except I find I just have to write them. A good example is ‘River To The Sea’ – I have no idea how I wrote a song from the perspective of a mother with a soldier going off to war but the words were certainly powerful. I had to jump out of bed and grab my phone and get them recorded because they were just flowing out of me.
DT: ‘River To The Sea’ was an interesting experience because Monique wrote the whole thing in her head, there was no music and in my mind no need for any. I thought it should stand alone as an acapella song. When Monique asked what I could do with it, my immediate reaction was it needed nothing. I was reluctant to add anything at all but she insisted and what you hear on the album is the result. I added some guitar in the background and Bob added some harmonies, it’s a good example as how an arrangement builds through refinement and performance.
FW: When words flow with that much force there’s nothing else to do except write?
MH: Exactly, as a lyricist you always wonder if that’s your last song. When the words are there you have to use them.
FW: Would you say the music of Tinderbox has a certain simplicity that makes it easy to comprehend?
DT: To be honest, to me it doesn’t sound simple, but it’s good for an audience to hear it that way. I would never want my music to be over-complicated. It must connect with people. I’m a totally self-taught guitarist. From an early age listened to James Taylor, Bob Dylan, John Denver and Neil Young and picked up the finger-style I have. If I reach an audience that’s good enough for me.
MH: I’m not a fantastic guitarist myself but if you ask me the same question, I would say that Dan and Bobby make their music sound simple and that’s the key point. They know so much about the guitar they can play fancy guitar work and give it an unadorned feel.
DT: I really like the fact that you hear a certain simplicity. I wouldn’t want to bung up a song with unnecessary complications.
FW: Where did the inspiration for ‘Down The Track’ come from?
MH: It began with a conversation I had with my brother. He talked about going out to Africa to become involved with conservation projects, just to make a life-change. It was during that usual ‘January blues’ time, when people reflect on their lives and wonder what the future holds. Although the lyrics are not specific to my brother, it was that conversation that inspired the sentiment of the song.
FW: How did you put such a strong feeling of loss into ‘Days of Innocence’?
MH: Interestingly, I thought it was a story I’d made up. However, with hindsight it was something that happened to me. When I left Dublin I left my best friend behind. That was really hard, almost devastating. We have since made contact again and she told me she felt equally devastated. It was at that point I realised I’d written the song about that situation. I thought it was a made up story but those feelings of loss were obviously lingering in the back of my mind.
FW: Do you make a conscious effort to write songs that reach out and touch people?
MH: I don’t have that in mind when I write lyrics. However, if they do touch someone then I’m really, really pleased. I think musicians write to connect with people, if what I write touches people too then that’s fantastic. ‘Broken Trees’ is one of our songs that appears to ‘get to people’. It’s the one song that people frequently tell me has ‘touched’ some part of them.
DT: I really respect Monique as a lyric writer. I’ve always played guitar and enjoy music, creating something with a special feel, but if I try to write lyrics they always fall short of what I want to say. So I think Monique has an amazing talent to express feelings through words that touch an audience.
FW: If you were pressed, how do you describe Tinderbox’s music?
MH: If pressed, one word I’d use is mellow. That’s a hard one.
DT: That really is the ultimate question. It’s ‘pigeon-holing’ and like you, we’re less than keen on that. I guess you might call it ‘contemporary folk’. I don’t know, it’s whatever people want it to be. It’s a question we’ve discussed before. It can be hard to get gigs in some folk clubs because they say we’re not folky enough, and then some of the more mainstream clubs say we’re too folky. There seems to be no answer.
MH: Folk covers such a wide range of music and that can be hard for people to get their heads around what they hear. Some people have narrow views on what they’re listening to and they ‘categorise’ for no reason.
FW: So where to next for Tinderbox?
MH: Now there’s a good question. We have no gigs now until April, so we really want to find a location, somewhere beautiful in the UK, to go away for a week or so, however long it might take and intentionally write songs rather than wait for inspiration.
DT: We’ve never done that before so we want to try it. I guess it’s a bit like Dylan, when he said he wanted to do things consciously that he used to do unconsciously. So we want to try the same thing. We‘ve discussed it before and wondered could we do it? So we’re going to try. On the wider scale of ‘where to next?’ We’re looking to bring out a new album, heading for a tour in Germany, and hopefully getting some radio airplay. The journey goes on.
FW: Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It has been a pleasure.