Henry Parker is hitting his stride. His recent album, Lammas Fair, has been out less than a month and it is already topping Album of the Year lists – not bad at all for a collection released on Bonfire Night. It’s the very definition of a late contender – which is not the right way to describe the man himself.
Possibly only 28 years old (there’s some confusion, as you’ll see), he has been a guitarist of some note for some time, channeling his love of heavy rock and psych-folk into a ’70s-inspired sound that sets him apart from most of his peers. Few, if any, on the folk scene are playing traditional music with their freak flag flying so wildly. It’s great to hear songs like ‘The Brisk Lad’ firing on psychedelic cylinders and launching space-bound from the wilderness of the Yorkshire Moors.
We caught up with Henry the day before his album launch gig to talk Hitching Stones, the similarities between Martin Simpson and Slayer, and his deep love for the music of Bert Jansch.
It’s just so interesting for me to know that happened so close to where I live, in these places that I walk and landscapes I inhabit.Henry Parker
The album’s getting some amazing reviews, isn’t it? Tell me a bit about how the album came about – how long it’s been in gestation, that kind of thing.
The songs were written and arranged gradually. So I had three of them together, prior to the March lockdown, and I’d actually gone into the studio in March with the guys who play on Lammas Fair to record the song as a single, just to release on its own. I didn’t really have plans for a full album. I didn’t have the material together. So, I was going to release a single that summer, and then lockdown happened. I made a conscious effort to try and use that time to work on an album, just gradually trying to write and arrange songs – I wrote maybe five other tunes in that March to July period.
We went into the studio and started recording in June or July 2020, with a view to making an album. And then I was popping into the studio whenever I could throughout the year, recording in between the worst of the restrictions. In January of this year, I finished recording and it was mastered around February time. I’ve been sitting on it – I’ve been literally holding the physical CDs in my hand since about May. And then I just decided to go for an Autumn release date because I didn’t want to try and do the bulk of the promotion in August as I feel like everyone’s too busy trying to jet off.
I don’t think many people realize quite how long an album sits around doing nothing before it actually sees the light of day, do they?
Yeah, and that’s just self-releasing. I can’t imagine what it’s like if you sign up with a label and they’re like, “Alright, well, you’re fourth in line.” You hear horror stories of people signed up by a label and then they just lose interest. So, I was happy to be self-releasing it. There are labels I would have liked to work with, but the first choice didn’t say yes, so I just thought I’d do it myself again.
So, obviously tradfolk.co is a website focusing on people who are taking traditional folk culture – music, fashion, art – and using that as a sort of springboard to create something new from old material. You’ve got two traditional folk songs on the album, but the rest of the collection is clearly influenced in varying degrees by the tradition. So, I wonder if you’d care to go into that a little bit?
Yeah, for me, I’ve got to get a particular vibe or atmosphere from the traditional music that I’m either listening to or I want to be arranging. And I can get that from, say, a solo or unaccompanied singer. I guess, if I’m going to go out and hunt for a traditional song, I’ve got to be thinking like, how can I inject this with a kind of spirit that makes it of value for someone putting headphones on? I don’t know, I just need to get an essence from the song that is more than just the words and just the tune. It might come from the guitar part that I put to it. Like ‘The Brisk Lad’, which is all about textures.
I was gonna mention ‘The Brisk Lad’ as an example, actually, because that’s a really interesting arrangement. When I listened to it, I found myself reflecting on the fact that it was collected in 1906, I think from Edith Sartin, down in the West Country. From that collection to this recording, full of wild guitar pyrotechnics, it just shows how far these songs can be taken. The guys at Old Tunes Fresh Takes have teased some fascinating things out of it, too.
Yeah, I guess it could take that sort of treatment in a way that a song like ‘Barbara Allen’ couldn’t, you know? Just as an example of a traditional song you couldn’t do a big shred solo over. There was something about the darkness, and I get this image of a kind of manic figure from this song. You know, he’s desperate… it’s a kind of desperate song born out of frustration and poverty. And then there’s the landscape as well – the moors, the high places, the wind and the rain. So that’s why it could take that big freakout solo at the end, I think.
Do you remember where you first heard that song?
Yeah, it was Richard Dawson. There’s a video of him on YouTube, a video of him singing it in a pub unaccompanied in the northeast. He was just singing it in that way – he’s got such a powerful voice. And I guess I got a real atmosphere from that. And then he said he’d learned it from Mike Watson. So I went and listened to that version, and that again has a really powerful, hearty thing going on. It’s a really roaring song. Maybe that’s why it can take all that ominous metal!
And how about the other traditional song on the album, ‘Death and the Lady’? That’s a great arrangement.
Thanks. I was listening to the version by Waterson:Carthy and I was completely struck by the tune of it. Just that stand-alone, bare, monophonic tune… I just thought it was incredible. Those movements between major and minor. It’s in D, but you can do what you like within that D scale, whether it’s major, minor, Dorian, or anything like that. So those kinds of tunes really excite me. I really like it when people compose folk songs in the traditional vein, with that modal swapping. There’s a song called ‘Dust to Dust (The Grave Digger’s Song’)’ which John Kirkpatrick wrote. That’s just everywhere, in terms of swapping around.
Bert Jansch opened me up to a world of music that I’ve just been absorbed in for the last five years.Henry Parker
How does it inform the way you write? Because I know your background is not folk at all, is it? You’re from a hard rock background.
Yeah, definitely. Some of that informs what I write in terms of the reason I can really latch on to the dark side of folk songs. That probably stems from listening to Black Sabbath and Slayer, and I’d really like to have some of that in there even if it’s not coming across in that kind of, you know, macho chugging guitar. In terms of my songwriting, most of it is in the Mixolydian mode, which I sort of joke is like the folk mode. I like a lot of the ’60s guitarists, and I really latched on to that. There are a lot of Bert Jansch songs that are in the Mixolydian. It’s just a sound I like, basically, and I find it hard to write in a straight major key. I have done, of course, but there’s just something about that flat-seventh that really gets me!
You’re not the only musician I know who has made the leap from Metallica to Bert Jansch. I’m not dissimilar, myself. I’ve often wondered how that leap works.
Yeah, I think there are a lot of people have done the same. You talk to people and you realize there’s a lot of metalheads in the folk world, certainly in the guitarist area of it. Part of what drew me into folk music was hearing Martin Simpson and realising this guy could really play guitar at that virtuosic level that I’d always worshipped as a teenager in the shred guitarists. I’ve just been guitar obsessed since I was about 13 or 14.
How old are you?
25… No, no, not 25. That’s a lie [laughs]. I’m 28.
Haha! I’d have understood if you were actually 24 or 26, but to be three years out… that’s quite something!
Sorry! I blame COVID for that!
Haha! Anyway… you were saying…
Yeah, I was I was at uni when I got into folk music. I was studying popular music with guitar as my primary instrument, so I was exposed to a lot of other music then as well, stuff that I might have shunned being a kind of metalhead at school. You can get into your sealed-off world. I guess what grabbed me more than any other genre was folk music. So, by the time I was in my second year at uni, I was really diving off on this other trajectory.
Obviously, Bert Jansch is quite a big influence, and you can hear it on the album. What was your journey from Simpson to Jansch like? Was it basically just a retrogression, looking back at who had influenced who?
Led Zeppelin is the obvious one, isn’t it? I mean in terms of where heavy rock and folk music often intertwine.
Yeah, definitely. And there’s this moment in the Bert Jansch biography where he was laid under this stage at a Pink Floyd concert, drinking it all in. I really like that intersection of, you know, the folk world not being separate from the rock world, because I don’t think it should be. I like to see festival lineups where you can have rock bands alongside folk musicians. It doesn’t clash.
Are there any other psych-folk bands out there at the moment that they’re doing stuff similar to you?
There’s a Japanese band called Kikagaku Moyo. They draw on that folk-rock sound, like Jansch, while bringing in Japanese influences. And there are a lot of great solo guitarists out there, people like Toby Hay and Nick Jonah Davis. In terms of psych-folk, it can be quite cheesy to rip off the whole ’60s aesthetic too much. It’s hard to strike that balance between being informed by the ’60s and not, like, completely ripping it off and pretending you don’t live in 2021. I’m probably guilty of that.
How do you strike that balance?
Not wearing so much tie-dye? [Laughs] I don’t know, it’s so subjective. I guess, with this album, I didn’t try and make the production of it head that way so much. It wasn’t on tape. There was no vintage gear. We just recorded in a good, modern studio.
I don’t meet terribly many people who come to the traditional folk world via Bert Jansch these days. Quite a lot of them seem to come via the Nic Jones route – certainly Penguin Eggs – and probably Martin Carthy, too. Jansch seems to be slightly left field.
In the current trad world, Nic Jones’s influence is huge, yeah. I do like Nic Jones, but he was firmly entrenched in that kind of tradfolk world, whereas Bert Jansch and Pentangle… They might’ve been hanging out with Anne Briggs or they might have been supporting Genesis. It’s that kind of crossover where nothing is firmly in its box.
You obviously have a love of the Incredible String Band, too, who had their own way of avoiding boxes.
Definitely, yeah. Loved by as many folkies as those that hate them, probably.
If a newbie came up to you and asked for two or three gateway albums for exploring psych-folk, which would you recommend?
I would say – although these are not strictly psych-folk – Moonshine by Bert Jansch. That’s one of my favorites. He does a brilliant version of ‘Yarrow’ with this amazing groove on the Fender Rhodes with Danny Thompson on double bass. That’s really incredible.
And you really can’t go wrong with Liege & Lief [Fairport Convention], obviously for the more folk-rock aspect of it. The way they do songs like ‘Reynardine’ and ‘Tam Lin‘ are just incredible. I get shivers just thinking about them.
Maybe I’d also choose The 5,000 Spirits or The Layers of The Onion, by the Incredible String Band. I think that’s a really good one if you’re jumping into psychedelic music generally. And I’m sure there are a lot of people in psych-rock bands who don’t listen to much folk music, but they’ve probably listened to that album and the Incredible String Band.
Three great albums. But back to your album, and a question for those not in the know: what is Lammas Fair, and what attracted you to write something about that?
Yeah, so it was a celebratory festival held on August 1st to celebrate the harvest, and the fact that people weren’t going to starve in the coming autumn and winter months. I found out about it and latched on to it because there’s this great book, written locally by a guy who lives in Hebden Bridge, Christopher Goddard, called The West Yorkshire Moors. I take it out with me when I go walking. There are not many books that I’ll do that with, but I take this book with me every time, and it has led me to a lot of interesting places; a lot of interesting stones and old mills.
There’s this giant rock up on the moors above Keighley called the Hitching Stone, and it’s this completely incongruous boulder with no other rocks around. And it is giant. It’s Yorkshire’s largest freestanding boulder. [Giggles] I can’t say that without sounding stupid! Anyway, the Hitching Stone has always been a meeting point. It sits on the border between Lancashire and Yorkshire, and that’s where this Lammas Fair was held locally. It wasn’t the only fair – they were held all across Britain and Ireland, and I think possibly across Europe, too. In Ireland, they still have celebrations happening on August 1st.
The old one here, as far as I know, celebrated with rural events – horse racing and the like – but there were older customs as well. They used to construct this giant wheel, covered in tar, set it alight, and roll it down the hill. Supposedly there were links there to Pagan celebrations at the end of summer, and the burning wheel falling down the hill represented the setting sun. It’s up to you how much you want to read into those Pagan things, but it’s certainly an old festival. I think it was held on this site up until the 1920s.
And what is it about this kind of thing that someone who is possibly 25 or 28 finds fascinating?
Haha! Well, I’m a keen Walker, really. But as I’ve got into my folk music, I’ve got more into folklore and general history. It’s just so interesting for me to know that happened so close to where I live, in these places that I walk and landscapes I inhabit. I’ll probably become a local history bore when I’m older… as does everyone involved in folk music!
Lammas Fair by Henry Parker was released on November 5th, and is available from his Bandcamp page on digital download, vinyl, CD and limited edition cassette. Main photo by Katie Spencer.