I first met Stick in the Wheel in 2017 when they were promoting From Here: English Folk Field Recordings, an album they made during a series of trips around the British Isles. At the heart of the project there seemed to be a quest – a determined desire to connect with the traditional songs of this country in ways that went beyond a simple singsong. Stick in the Wheel were interested in origins, in people, and how these songs connected to their surroundings.
In the years since, I’ve followed what Nicola Kearey and Ian Carter have done with interest. Serial collaborators, this duo remains the vital core of their myriad projects, and that sense of exploration remains. Never people to rest on their laurels, their work appears to be a constant conversation around what folk music is… and can be.
Their latest project, Perspectives on Tradition, takes that conversation further, bringing in non-folk collaborators to engage with the traditional archives at Cecil Sharp House. Working with DMC scratch champion, Jon1st, BBC 6 Music DJ and musician, Nabihah Iqbal, and producer, Olugbenga Adelekan, Kearey and Carter set out simply to see what happened when people from diverse musical backgrounds were introduced to the manuscripts and recordings that the old Camden building houses. When lockdown appeared to put the kibosh on the project, the duo reviewed the work and decided there was something worth persuing again when the time was right.
We met at Finsbury Park Cafe in early July for a lengthy chat about the making of Perspectives on Tradition, their artistic journey so, psychogeography and their profound connection to London culture, past and present.
It wasn’t our aim to convert people to folk music. If anything, it’s more about showing what the possibilities areNicola Kearey, Stick in the Wheel
It’s a long period of time since I last talked to you. Obviously, I’m aware that you have become more of a duo, and I’m aware of the fact that you’re running Noods Radio.
Nicola: We have a show on Noods. We don’t run it. I mean, it’s a massive thing, right? That’d be at least two jobs [laughs]. Those guys are great in Bristol.
And you were listed at number two on the Guardian Contemporary Album of the Year list last year.
Ian: For Tonebeds for Poetry, yeah.
Nicola: We’ve been doing a Noods show for about three years. It keeps us busy, doesn’t it? We have to find new songs every month for that and I think it’s important to us that it’s broadly arts, culture and traditional-music-based, but to do with artistic practice as well. We just try and have people on that that make sense to us.
The Tonebeds album came out in September 2021. We’ve always been a duo. In the early days, we made such a band shape, I think that people sort of thought it was a band. It’s always been me and Ian doing everything and then us just asking people that we want to be involved to get involved.
You two go right back, don’t you?
Nicola: Yeah, we met at sixth form and we’ve been making music together in various forms since then, really.
And the style, I suppose, has changed, hasn’t it? I’ve been listening to Perspectives on Tradition, and on the way into London today Spotify started playing me some of the tracks from From Here (2015). It’s quite a vast leap, isn’t it?
Nicola: Erm… would you say it was a vast leap?
Ian: It’s difficult because I think, externally, it can appear that way to other people. But if you know the stuff that we’ve done, we’ve always kind of done both things. You work in a particular medium for a bit and then maybe use a different set of ideas or a different approach to it. One of the first things that we did, we were in a group called Various Production. We used to do sort of dubstep and grime, and we’d mix in other tunes, but we’d always mix in folk music. So, it doesn’t feel that much of a stylistic leap to us because, over that period of time, we’ve gone backwards and forwards constantly.
Nicola: Right, yeah. And really, I would say, as artists, or even speaking personally as an artist, you’re trying to articulate some ideas and it comes out however it comes out. I wouldn’t say we have specific rules that you could kind of list out, but there is a sort of unspoken set of roles that we adhere to, isn’t there?
Ian: I suppose just whatever we think is good. We do our thing.
Do you feel that the audience you picked up around the time of From Here has followed you? Or has that morphed as well?
Nicola: I think it has grown in a very broad way. Those first gigs that we used to do, a lot of people would come up and say, “I don’t normally like folk music, but I like you guys.” And I think people who are really interested in what we’re doing stay with us. You’ll get some people that for who, you know… we made enough of the right shape at that time…
Ian: …to keep their interest.
Nicola: Yeah, but the electronic stuff… [shakes head]. But, then, I think you’ve got to understand what the function of that music is for some people. It’s to make the right shape. We did a gig at a venue in 2018 where I was really conscious that this week it was us, next week it was somebody else who made a vaguely similar shape to us, and the week after that it was somebody else. And you’re like, actually, it doesn’t really matter what we do here, as long as we sound like we’re making the right kind of sound. Some people don’t really care about what it is, they just want to listen to something that’s, like, pleasant.
Ian: Specialist acoustic music. A lot of the people that are into folk music, it’s kind of specialist acoustic music, you know what I mean? It’s like, pop, sort of. Singer-songwriter stuff.
Ian: It just gives you a slightly nicer feeling that you’re not listening to Ed Sheeran or something. If we had anyone that we lost along the way, then we probably lost them.
Nicola: It’s fine. And also, when I’m into a band or an artist, I don’t always like everything that they do, and I’m fine with that. Noisy stuff? That’s fine.
Ian: I prefer artists where I don’t like everything they do. It means they’re trying stuff and doing stuff, and that’s interesting. Sometimes they hit, sometimes they miss.
What’s your relationship with folk music now, Nicola? The last time I interviewed you, you said, “I hate folk music.”
Nicola: It’s pretty much the same, to be honest. If anything, my position has hardened slightly. I think a lot of the canon of English traditional folk music from the Victorian collectors is extremely problematic. And that is partly why, when I was looking for text to interpret that, I went a little bit off piste. I don’t think it’s off piste – I think that’s a silly thing to say. But, if people say you’re a folk artist and suddenly you’re doing spoken word 10th century poetry, people might perceive that as a little off piste.
Ian: It’s not specialist acoustic music, is it? [Laughs]
What attracts you to work with folk music?
Nicola: I’m interested in the people of the past as a sort of continuum into now. I’m interested in why it has survived so long. I’m interested in what it can tell us, as humans, about ourselves. Take the track, ‘The Milkmaid’, which is on the Perspectives album. Nabihah picked that because she was obsessed with Thomas Hardy and that song was contemporaneous to the Tess of the d’Urbervilles universe, as it were. I would never pick that song to sing myself because it’s not anything I can relate to in any sense. It’s not that I’m not a milkmaid, it’s just that there’s nothing for me to grab hold of.
Is that important to you, then? Relating to the story?
Nicola: Yeah, of course. Because otherwise, how can you create an authentic relationship with it? It’s really hard. We’re definitely city people and that’s definitely what we’re reflecting on.
I see the word ‘psychogeography’ connected with some of the stuff that you’ve done. You’re particularly interested in London songs, aren’t you?
Nicola: Yes, because that’s where we’re from, and that city thing is very prevalent in our minds. That’s our experience. London is such an exception to the rest of the country. I wouldn’t say, “Oh, it’s brilliant, it’s the best one.” No. But it is different. Out of respect, I think I’d find it hard, and I don’t think it would be right, to begin using songs from the Midlands or the North or places where I didn’t understand what it was like to live in a city there. It’s not that we’re like, “London at any cost”, but it’s such a big part of our lived experience.
Ian: I think the lived experiences aren’t the same, you know? Take ‘Villon Song’ [see video above; from 2020 album, Hold Fast]. That’s from the 17th century, but what the guy is talking about is no different from these days. He’s literally listing all the crimes that you can do and then what you’re going to do at the end of it all, you know what I mean? And it’s not that that doesn’t happen in other cities, but there’s a very particular slang that’s used. There’s Yiddish words, there’s palare, there’s Scotts words in there, there’s French words, and its all really reflects the same things – all the slang that we have now. You know, that’s an Urdu word, that’s a Jamaican phrase.
People still say, “On their jacks”, which means on your own, which is rhyming slang because there was a singer called Jack Jones in the 50s or 60s. Kids still say that. I don’t know why they’re saying it. But that’s why we probably wouldn’t choose songs from somewhere else. It wouldn’t be the same. That is a direct continual lived experience for us, for people around us where we’re from, how it’s always been.
Let’s talk about the new record, Perspectives on Tradition. What I understand of it is that you had a plan to bring people who are not necessarily folk musicians into Cecil Sharp House, introduce them to the archives and see how they interacted with the raw materials. And then the pandemic knocked that for six. But while you were in lockdown, you realised that you had something there that was actually quite interesting. In your press release you said you, “made a record and it’s one that surprised us”.
Nicola: I think it did, yeah.
Ian: I wasn’t surprised. [Laughs] Maybe I was surprised that it fell together so well.
Nicola: When we initiated that residency, we had to sort of stipulate that we didn’t want an outcome. Quite often with a folk music residency, you put these musicians in a room for a week and no one’s really taking any risks. They perhaps work together already. By the end of it, they’ve written 10 songs and there’ll be an album to put out. It was just like, we don’t want to do that because unless you’re really, really lucky, most albums recorded in a week are shit [laughs].
Ian: And I think the thing is, if you put that pressure onto people that there’s an expectation of an outcome, then it’s usually a very commercial expectation. We’re meant to be doing art and culture here, so really the work is the important bit, not the product. So in this way, everyone unloads, comes in, sets up their stuff, has a look at what’s going on, and then we see what happens.
Nicola: So I think that was the surprising bit, that we were able to make so many tunes that were coherent.
Ian: And I think it was only when we looked back at the stuff we had, we were like, shit… yeah. OK, there’s a record.
So, you were recording in the rooms beneath Cecil Sharp House? Trefusis and Storrow Halls?
Ian: Yeah, that’s right. Storrow.
Nicola: And the green room upstairs, where the piano is.
Ian: What was important was to get people in there, interacting with the archives. But also, for the other people that go into that building, hearing or seeing us or the artists we were working with doing stuff that’s maybe different from what they would expect to hear or see.
So, what happened when the pandemic hit? Did the other artists send stuff in to you?
Ian: When the pandemic finished, we just got back together again. We didn’t really do that much over the internet. We chatted and stuff like that, but everyone had so much shit going on in their lives that it felt better to get those people back in the room at Cecil Sharp House when we could.
You collaborated with Jon1st, Nabihah Iqbal and Olugbenga Adelekan (Benga). Am I right in thinking they were going into Cecil Sharp House and the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library archives for the first time? Were they aware of the archive?
Nicola: I think Nabihah was because she lived not that far away, or her mum was quite close to there. Benga knew of it, yeah. Jon, probably not, unless we’ve spoken to him about it before a little bit. They’re not folk musicians and I think that was our primary motivator.
What was your relationship with them before this? Why did you pick those people particularly?
Nicola: The music Benga makes on his own is really weird, but it’s incredibly interesting.
Ian: Jon and Benga we knew already.
Nicola: Yeah. Jon we’d worked with before, and I really thought it was interesting that, through scratching and sampling, his practise involves taking very small fragments of music and making bigger things of them. If you think about when you’re looking for a tune or a new song in the library to interpret, often you might only have one line of notation or one verse or whatever. That parallel interested me – how Jon would deal with that.
And then, Nabihah… We were part of this project called MSCITY x London, where Nick Luscombe – ex-Radio 3 Late Junction presenter, now living in Japan – asked us, Nabihah and a few other people to work on it. They basically gave us a location in London to make a new piece of site-specific music. She got Borough Market and we got the Finnish church in Rotherhithe. So, we’d all been part of that project. There was a concert at the Royal Institute of British Architects, which she played at and we played at and we got talking then. She’s really into music. If you know anything about Nabihah, she’s got an NTS show and she’s sometimes a 6 Music DJ. She’s like such a music nerd, it’s ridiculous. She’s into every aspect of more or less every genre.
Ian: Yeah, she’s great. She really knows her stuff. She’s a great person to get involved with.
Nicola: She has a lot of rich experiences to draw on. And the fact that she’s obsessed with this Hardy book was a great place to begin.
I’m really interested in the process. The song that really grabbed me and I’ve listened to the most is ‘Let No Man Steal Your Time’ [Roud 3]. The vocals are haunting and the electronic side of it fascinates me. How did you put that together?
Ian: It was a vinyl recording from The Couriers Folk Club in Leicester. The thing about Leicester is that it’s a city that doesn’t have many songs collected. So it’s interesting to have a recording from a folk club up there. It felt like that was exactly right for Jon’s turntables.
Nicola: Yeah. And also, the form of that tune is quite conventional. It’s not a weird, super-long ballad. It’s got that refrain at the end of each verse. It went through an evolution. We started with a very short sample, didn’t we?
Nicola: And then I kept saying we need a bit more of the song in it. I think the danger when you sample stuff is that you’re contextualizing it. Which is fine in one sense, but the message of that song is really important. So we had to get it to a point where the sample was serving the song and the song was serving the sample. Like Ian said, Leicester is a city, so basically ignored by song collectors. And also, when you go in the library at Cecil Sharp House, in that archive of audio stuff, it’s not full of source singers and stuff you’ve never heard before. There’s a huge amount of commercial music in there where you’re like, “OK, why have they got a copy of this? That’s weird.” Or, “Why have they got five copies of this, which you could just get on Spotify?” So to find that pretty much unique Leicester recording that I don’t think is on any digital platforms, that was good to use, was fantastic. And we still haven’t found the two women, Lynn and Candy Geddes. We’ve tried. We would like to find them because it’s perfectly reasonable that they’re still alive.
What about ‘Euphoric Clashes’? That interests me because you’re speaking the names of the source singers.
Nicola: That’s right. The names of all the people that were involved in that project. That track is a collaborative track with everybody from the Perspectives project involved. We just wanted to tie it together. The project happened at a really weird time, just in the sense that we couldn’t all get together and have a meeting or even a dinner or anything social like that.
So often you find that the collectors are the names that everybody knows. It felt important to list the names of people that Cecil Sharp collected from, but you generally would never hear them speak of those people. He’s such a problematic character, Cecil Sharp. We begin to address it in a very small but hopefully meaningful way.
Yeah. He is a difficult character to navigate, isn’t he? You get the sense that quite a lot of the songs he collected may not have survived if he hadn’t have collected them, but at the same time, his personal politics are very much of their time and don’t square with today.
Nicola: But I would ask why this stuff wouldn’t have survived? And the answer is because the people that he collected from were working-class people. They wouldn’t have been encouraged to document their own culture. Who’s to say they would even have had the means of doing that anyway? Is really problematic. And these people do have names. That’s the thing. The music wasn’t written by invisible people.
‘Devil in the Well/Bright-Eyed Boy’ is an interesting piece of music. Those songs come from Kenya originally, right?
Nicola: ‘Bright-Eyed Boy’ comes from Kenya. We used a very small fragment of it to start with. ‘Devil in the Well’ is Nigerian, I think. We had a book of African folktales from the archive. Benga’s background is Kenyan and Nigerian. He grew up in Nigeria.
That audio archive [at Cecil Sharp House] has been different things to different people over the years, it seems. There’s a specific cupboard that all the non-English stuff gets put into because they obviously have limited resources and so they don’t really have time to do anything that’s not specifically English, so it just gets shoved to one side, really. That book was in that cupboard.
Your press release states that you were trying to discover, “what the function of traditional music is in 2022 and how we can be meaningful with it”. Do you think you got any further towards discovering that? From what I know of Stick in the Wheel, it seems that everything you’ve done is trying to move towards an answer to that question, about what traditional music and culture means to you.
Nicola: I don’t think there’s a mythical endpoint, if you see what I mean. It’s not like we’re getting closer and closer. I suppose what I would say is that it’s an attempt to offer what it could be.
Do you feel that the non-folk musicians who came in with you got some sense of what’s there and what’s possible, or perhaps even sparked an interest to go and do more with it themselves?
Nicola: It’s something that we did ask each of the musicians. Jon appreciated it, definitely. For Benga, it was more like a crate-digging exercise, because folk music in Nigeria – there’s a fundamentally different attitude towards it. For Nabiha, it’s another layer, I guess, for her practise. It felt necessary that we did that. It wasn’t our aim to convert people to folk music. If anything, it’s more about showing what the possibilities are.
Perspectives on Tradition is out now and can be ordered from the Stick in the Wheel Bandcamp page. For more information on the duo themselves, head to stickinthewheel.com.