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Chris Brain and his band perform on stage at the Hyde Park Folk Club in Leeds
Chris Brain, on stage at the Hyde Park Folk Club, Leeds. Photo credit: Alex Crane

Nowhere to Hyde: tracing the growing Leeds folk scene

Move over Sheffield. Leeds is on the up. Tradfolk meets Chris Brain, the man behind the burgeoning folk scene centred around the Hyde Park Folk Club.

From the Bristol Troubadour in the late 60s to the recent collective of young folksters in South London, music scenes have a tendency to coalesce around the passions of one or two people. Whether they’re visionaries, obsessives, or a little of both, they’re likely to share certain wilful characteristics that other people might find a little… extreme. Single-mindedness? Check. Stubbornness? Check. Determination? Check, check, check. But it’s not a selfishness. There’s a desire for community, too, of course, and a hunger to spread the word – a longing for other people to hear what they’re hearing. In Bristol, it was Ian A. Anderson and friends. In South London, it’s Campbell Baum, Jacken Elswyth, et al.

In the North of the country, you might expect to find the catalyst living in Sheffield – long recognised as a hub for folk music – but you’d be better off heading up the M1. While Sheffield is a folk hub for good reason, something seems to be happening in Leeds. At the centre of it all, an unassuming (but predictably folk-bedevilled) young gentleman by the name of Chris Brain spins the wheel.

I think I fell in love with the human element of it. That’s what attracts me: it’s a human-to-human form of music.

Chris Brain

Some of you may recognise the name. He recently released Bound to Rise, a non-traditional folk album that has drawn comparisons with John Martyn and Nick Drake. But his talents do not stop at fingerpicking and singing. “I do a lot of PR stuff for music,” explains the 29-year-old on a recent Zoom call. “I have fingers in many pies, all of them working within music. I run Spotify playlists. I buy and sell a lot of guitars.”

As a musician, he began by worshipping at the altar of Megadeth, only finding folk music via local folk clubs at the age of 18. However, like so many before him, he felt there was something missing. “I was going down and playing ‘Arthur McBride’ and ‘The Lakes of Pontchartrain’, but I was the only young person there every single time. I was getting offered gigs, but I’d say to my peers, ‘Where can I go where I can play to people my age?'” If he was going to find an audience he felt he could better relate to, some alterations were necessary. “I started changing my style and becoming a bit more contemporary because traditional music felt a bit trapping, in a way.”

However, that wasn’t enough to tempt his contemporaries along. He soon realised he’d have to take matters into his own hands. “I used to go to a folk club quite a lot called the Grove, which I still think is absolutely amazing, and they wanted to get me on the committee there. All of my ideas are aimed toward a more modern crowd in terms of design and social media. Some folk clubs are very… I wouldn’t say they’re stuck in the ways, but I think there’s a reason why they’ve got a certain audience. They don’t do much advertising, really. It’s more word of mouth.”

Using his understanding of the evolving social media world, while at the same time taking the temperature among other young musicians, Brain got to work. “The way that you get young people to come to shows is you use modern marketing techniques,” he posits. “That would be the same if you went to any contemporary show – they all do the same things. The folk clubs weren’t doing that. But I realised that if I were to do all this for the Grove, I would completely change the feeling of it and the regulars might feel ostracised by this new crowd that’s coming in, doing things in a new way. I realised I had to start my own folk club.”

Showing the slightly skewed logic of someone who simply wants to enthuse everybody, Brain decided to run before he could walk – without tripping up, either, it should be noted. “I started with a folk festival,” he laughs. “That was in 2019, just before the pandemic. It was an absolute success because there’s a really good music scene in Leeds. Loads of people play together, but they don’t necessarily play shows. So I was like, ‘Right, I’m going to put on a festival, get some people to come and play from outside Leeds, and then give all the local acts a show’. I put it on at the Hyde Park Book Club, which is in the hub of the student area in Leeds. It’s a very hip, swanky place to go. It’s where the jazz club is. Because of Leeds College of Music, which is now Leeds Conservatoire, the city has a really jazz-heavy scene. But they had just started doing a folk course as well, which I think is helping with this new trend of folk coming through. As Henry Parker keeps saying, there’s this big thing going on at the moment with folk.”

The festival sold out. Brain was suddenly in demand. “I remember the Hyde Park Book Club owners came up to me and they were like, ‘Right, you’re going to put more shows on!’ I realised I needed keep bringing touring folk musicians into Leeds and giving the local acts a show, because there was actually no place doing that at that point. Now I look back on it, I didn’t know what was happening. It wasn’t a purposeful decision to fill that role. I just started booking people, trying to make a name for it. It’s just sort of taken off and, yeah, I guess it’s a place to play now.”

Hyde Park Folk Club runs once a month and Brain says that every event they’ve staged has had great attendance. Has he succeeded in creating a folk club that allows his contemporaries to feel at home? “It’s pretty much all young people in the crowd,” he says, “people in their 20s and 30s.”

Does he have any other tips for people of his generation thinking of starting up a folk club? He thinks some of it has to do with creating a format that they recognise, while at the same time introducing some of the interactive aspects that he enjoyed from his days at the Grove. He has done away with floor spots and what he calls ‘jamming’ – this isn’t a session, after all. “Each of our events has three acts – two support slots, and then the main act at the end. So it’s just like a contemporary gig. But in between, I go up and compere, and then I do a raffle in the old folk club style. I go up at the beginning and have a chat to set the tone – to show that it’s okay for you to talk to me while I’m on stage. It’s okay for this to be like a club. Because the venue is like a contemporary venue, I want to get that tone right.”

The folk scene here is just popping off. I don’t know what it is. It’s becoming popular again.

Chris Brain

Of course, a scene isn’t a scene without regular people interacting, and I wonder who else has gravitated towards Hyde Park Folk Club. “Iona Lane is helping me run the folk club now,” he says, before embarking on what seems like a never-ending list. “George Boomsma comes to play now and again. I think he’s really good. Jim Gedhi has played two of them. Toby Hay, Henry Parker, Katie Spencer… we haven’t had Johnny Campbell yet, but I’m sure he’ll ramble on in at some point. There’s a local musician called Georgie Buchanan – she’s absolutely fantastic – and an amazing young band called Helian. There’s Alana Middleton, there’s Wychbury… The folk scene here is just popping off. More folks are turning up and more people are playing this style of music. I don’t know what it is. It’s becoming popular again.”

Music scenes may require that single-minded catalyst, but there needs to be something in the air for them to proliferate. Brain thinks it’s a desire to reconnect. “It’s a moving, emotional style of music,” he suggests, “rather than a show of skill. When it comes from someone who’s just got their hand in their pocket and a pint in their hand, and they’re singing a song that’s about miners or whatever…” He stops and smiles wistfully, clearly remembering a lived experience. “I think I fell in love with the human element of it. That’s what attracts me: it’s a human-to-human form of music. I like things that are physical and analogue. I think there’s also the wholesome element of not looking at your phone and being more involved in the moment. That attracts people, or at least it feels that way. We’re attracting the people that are really into ecological politics – free-minded people that don’t want to be part of the regular way of life, don’t want the 9-to-5. These are the kinds of people coming to the folk club.”

If that sounds like you and you want to join the action, you can contact Chris Brain via the Hyde Park Folk Club Instagram account: @hydeparkfolkclub. For more info on Chris Brain the musician, head to chrisbrainmusic.com. Insta photos embedded in this article are of Katie Spencer and George Boomsma.