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Stick in the Wheel singing at two microphones on stage

The Stick In The Wheel Interview

Stick In The Wheel on the the power of raw performance, their From Here field recordings, and the prettification of folk music.

Stick in the Wheel barely need an introduction these days. On the folk scene, they’re as known for their stark and direct debut album as they are for their similarly unflinching performances, and their leap from local pubs to festival stages has been swift. Meeting singer Nicola Kearey and guitarist Ian Carter in the basement cafe of Cecil Sharp House, their conversation is politically charged and urgent, although they’re not above self-deprecation, and they bounce off one another in a witty repartee familiar to anyone who has been playing in bands for most of their lives.

We’re here to talk about their new compilation, From Here: English Folk Field Recordings – a set of recordings made of contemporary folk singers doing traditional songs that mean something to them, due to be released in March. It features everyone from Jon Boden to Lisa Knapp, from Martin and Eliza Carthy to Peta and Ken, and it was made as part of a mammoth cross-country trek that saw Nic and Ian turning up in performer’s living rooms (or gardens), setting up microphones, and recording them au naturale (but with clothes on, presumably).

Before we got down to that, however, I thought it might be worth finding out a bit more about the band that seems to have appeared from nowhere and taken the folk scene unawares.

This is our traditional music – have some fucking respect!

Nicola Kearey

I’ve heard the Stick in the Wheel studio is based in a bank vault in Walthamstow. That seems as good a place to start as any… 

Ian: Yeah, we’ve managed to infiltrate! That area has seen more militant gentrification than Hackney did.

Nicola: What do you mean, ‘militant’?

I: Well, you know… they’re changing the roads and all that sort of business.

NLess organic, you mean?

I: Yeah. It just seems like they decided, “right, let’s fucking do this area”, and then they’ve aggressively gone and done it. The best example is the old signing-on building. It’s now luxury flats, and I’m like, “that’s the place I used to sign on!” It’s fucking weird.

N: Hackney kind of evolved over many years. Walthamstow has been totally changed in something like three years.

I: Anyway, you know that thing where they take over a building for a couple of years before the council demolishes it? There’s this company that does that, and they turned what used to be the DSS and Lloyds Bank into studios – down in the vaults. It’s kind of cool.

N: They make ridiculous bread and coffee in a hipster bakery upstairs.

I: Yeah, so any money I thought I might make I just spend on coffee now.

N: Er, yeah… although we’re against that kind of aggressive hipster development, the coffee couldn’t be any better.

I: That’s how they get you.

N: Ian and I have been making music since we were in 6th Form College together. This grew out of another project. Do you know much about that?

I know you were signed to XL and one point. 

N: That was a band that was all Ian, really, and I used to do a bit of singing on it. It sort of imploded before anything happened. It had a fair amount of traction, and we did loads of European festivals, but then I had two kids; Ian has three kids…

I: That fell apart in about 2009. There was another singer called Rachael, and so me, Nic and Rachael wanted to work together again. We had to wait for the dust to settle – you know what bands are like. The stuff we’d been doing before was early grime and dubstep. We did a tune called ‘Hater‘ under the name Various Production. With that wave of grime and dubstep, we were kind of ‘the art guys’, and along the way we’d mix folk tunes into it – not in a cheesy way, but it went from that kind of thing to wanting to perform it properly: acoustic, no loops, no nonsense. So the three of us started doing that, and together we did the first EP, along with Ellie.

N: Ellie was an old friend from school that I’d not been in contact with. She played fiddle on that EP, but she was busy with her own band. She’s back again with us now. Then Rachael’s life got really busy and she moved to Wales, so we decided to get someone else in, and the day she left we found Fran, so it’s all very serendipitous.

I: Si is Fran’s husband now, but they weren’t even going out when they joined the band [laughs].

N: Their first date was a Stick in the Wheel gig. That’s a bit embarrassing, isn’t it?

I: Si was a drummer in a rock band and he was doing percussion on the recordings. He’s good and he’s safe and he was there anyway, so… that’s where we are.

So, was the move towards folk music a conscious thing or an organic thing? 

I: Nic will always say she’s not into folk music, and I always say she’s more into folk music than she thinks she is. For me, it’s always been a part of it. As a musician, you’ve got to know about your traditional music. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing. I was doing beats, but I played guitar and was always interested in the traditional stuff. It’s important to know who these people are – it’s our tradition. I’d occasionally mess about dropping bits and pieces into my music, but we wanted to do it properly, so yeah – it was a conscious decision.

I can relate to that. I grew up playing guitar in indie bands, and it was through worshipping the likes of Graham Coxon and Johnny Marr that I heard about Bert Jansch. That was my way in. But I’d mess around with beats, too, dropping in old Morris tunes because I found them hypnotic… and they were out of copyright! 

I: [Laughs] That’s right, yeah!

Why do you say you don’t like folk music, Nic? 

N: I don’t like folk music.

But you clearly sing a lot of it! 

N: It’s tricky. I was in an indie band, too. I used to play bass with Ian. That was my thing. I’d DJ and do bits and pieces, but I never really found a way of singing that I was comfortable with. And then I found myself getting more pissed off with how things were becoming around Walthamstow. All that history was just being wrecked, and nobody seemed bothered. So that became my reason for being involved with the music as a cultural thing. And to discover that there was all of this folk music out there – just so much of it – that in mainstream culture just doesn’t get acknowledged other than people taking the piss out of Morris dancers, or whatever.

“I found it pretty difficult to connect with a lot of the recorded folk music that I heard, because it was prettied up”

Nicola Kearey

But I found it pretty difficult to connect with a lot of the recorded folk music that I heard, because it was prettied up. It seemed to have been made into an academic thing, or a classical thing. When you go to a gig, it’s horrible and raw…

Horrible in a good way? 

N: Yeah! It moves you emotionally. But those recordings… I just couldn’t connect with them. And with a lot of them, I still can’t. They don’t move me at all, and it took me a while to figure out a way to make sense of it for myself. We all feel strongly about the importance – that it’s a whole set of traditions that aren’t mainstream and should be more mainstream. Does that make sense?

I completely understand that, and it was much the same for me. I felt that way about folk music for a very long time. It seemed to me, within the last couple of decades, that a lot of ‘folk music’ involved quite ethereal-sounding singer-songwriters…

I: [Laughs almost darkly] That’s why you hate Joni Mitchell, right, Nic?

N: Joni Mitchell’s fine. But it’s the same with Shirley Collins: they’re both iconic artists whose knock-on effect in the music world has been that everyone suddenly thinks they can do it. “I’m doing it! Look at me!” But you’re not doing it. You’re just copying someone. I don’t care about how good at copying you are. I want to know why… what…

I: What do you want!?

N: Yeah! What do you want? I dunno. I don’t think Stick in the Wheel have any pretensions that making recordings is going to make us famous. We’re not looking for that approval from anyone else.

“Even your underground music is being commercialised, right to the core. I’m dismayed”

I: I think the problem with the music you’re talking about is that it’s music that the performer thinks people want to hear. That has an effect on you as an artist. For us it was just about this being our traditional music. The last thing on anybody’s minds is, “are we gonna be famous?” We wanted to take this music seriously. We didn’t want to pander to anyone else.

N: Taking it seriously, for me personally, means not giving a fuck and just getting on with it.

I: Some people talk about the 60s revival, and they’re obviously hoping that it’s happening again. But that happened, and this is different. Look at how messed up the country is at the moment.

But there’s an interesting point made in the introduction to the New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, where the author talks about the UK revival being a reaction to the American way of life that some perceived as dominating in the 1950s. I wonder if there could be a revival based on a similar reaction, whether that’s a political reaction or a reaction to having our lives dictated by technology and wanting something a bit more real… 

I: But this is where people get a bit starry-eyed about it. The big difference is that, back then, the likes of Martin Carthy could be well known. Put it this way: if you take a step to one side into a different genre, say DJing and producers and stuff, even someone relatively unknown is able to command a bigger fee than the biggest folk artists of today. Back in the 60s, the musical aesthetic wasn’t that different to pop music. You could have The Dubliners getting into the Top 10 with ‘Seven Drunken Nights‘, which is a folk song. There were other pop songs that had that acoustic sound and those elements. Dial it forward to today and you’re talking about a completely different thing. The musical landscape has changed irrevocably due to capitalism and mass market media, and everything being image-driven. It’s what disenchanted me. Even your underground music is being commercialised, right to the core. I’m dismayed. Sorry, I’m rambling on, but yeah, this is our traditional music and you should have some fucking respect.

N: The short answer is: no, there will not be another folk revival [laughs].

When you’re going out and choosing songs, what grabs you first? Is it the narrative? The melody? 

N: It’s not something you can quantify. Sometimes it’ll be a political thing, and we’ll feel strongly about it. Take ‘Four Loom Weaver’. None of us are weavers [laughs], and I don’t think there’s much weaving history in my family – they were carpenters and cabinet makers and blacksmiths. And we’re not fresh out of university having done a folk degree. We’ve actually worked for 20 years doing a big mixture of jobs. That song is about someone who was skilled, and was an immensely skilled tradesman, and yet they’re out of work. That seems counter-intuitive, because if you’re that skilled then surely you should be in demand. Sometimes, through no fault of your own… if there’s a cotton famine, you’ve got no cotton to weave with. It’s not your fault and suddenly you’re on the breadline. We can definitely relate to that. I’ve lived through two recessions – the recent one and the one in the 90s.

But a lot of the time we pick stuff that’s too hard for us to do, and it makes us work to get it right. You know, we could do a whole load of music hall crap. People always say to me, “Oh, you should do music hall songs”. It’s based on my East End accent.

Your first album was also called From Here. Were you consciously picking songs from London? 

I: Two of them are: ‘Bows of London’ and ‘Bedlam’. That’s kind of it as far as location relevance goes.

N: There’s ‘Champion’. My dad and grandad were lorry drivers, so that was quite nice. But we didn’t think, “‘Ere, let’s find some lorry driving songs!” [Laughs] You just go on Youtube and see what comes up.

Ah! The way modern folk singers collect their songs… 

N: I don’t know how other people find folk songs. Do you?

I was interviewing Ian from Lynched/Lankum last week. They do it in the traditional way, by going out to pubs and getting the old people to teach them their songs. I don’t think it’s that easy in England, these days. Imagine approaching an old-timer in the pub and wondering if they could sing you some songs. They’d tell you where to get right off!

N: You’ve hit the nail on the head. That’s the difference between English and Irish folk culture. Irish folk has its own problems, don’t get me wrong, but England is so embarrassed of its own culture in so many ways. Doing that would be great, but you can’t do that in this country.

I: It doesn’t matter how you get the songs, as long as you get them for the right reasons.

Take ‘Hard Times of Old England‘ as an example. How did you get onto that? 

N: The reason we do ‘Hard Times’ is because we were doing this Bob Copper concert at Cecil Sharp House, and Ian Anderson asked us to pick a Bob Copper tune. He said, ‘by the way, “Hard Times of Old England’, why don’t you do that, because it’s obviously right for you?” And we looked at it and I didn’t want to do it. It was too obvious. I thought they were trying to put us in a box and make us look like poor people.

I: But we couldn’t find any others we wanted to do. That’s the truth! [Laughs]

You do it so well, though. It’s beautiful. 

Well it’s the song, isn’t it? That’s how it goes. You’ve just got to make sure you arrange it right.

So, tell me about the new project. That’s why we’re here, really. 

N: Well, we got our label together. The aim for us was not to be signed to a label – it’s just a means for us to get the records into the wider public. A distributor was all we needed. We have plans to do more stuff on it, but it’s still in its infancy. That’s fine. We’re not in a rush. We kind of figured out that if we made records with other people, people we didn’t know, we could travel around the country and try and get to know them a bit more. As a whole scene, it was new to us.

I: And I think it was important to us to capture those artists in a natural environment. If you’re into music that’s not part of the folk scene, you’re probably used to the sound of this record. It’s a raw-sounding record. In the folk scene, it’s seen as being raw and abrasive, because they’re used to everything being coated in reverb and produced in a particularly polished way. But with older recordings you find that the more natural the recording sounds, the more connection you have with that performer. So we wanted to record them in a relaxed setting – in their houses or somewhere they felt comfortable. The idea of From Here: English Folk Field Recordings and what it meant to them was that they should be singing a song from their area, or something that meant something to them. One or two takes, and that’s it. Catch them doing it. They’re folk musicians, man! That’s what they do and that’s how they sound.

Were they comfortable in that situation? Were some of them expecting to be more produced? 

N: Most of them were pretty OK. Some of them freaked out a little bit [laughs], but it was fine! Everyone we recorded was incredibly generous and… I was going to say patient, but they didn’t need to be patient because we were really quick.

I: Yeah, it was like an hour. Turn up, set up, record it, gone. No messing about.

N: Most of them are used to being recorded, of course. I did sort of wanna give them that as a challenge, in a way, just to see how they dealt with it, because it’s something they’d be doing at gigs all the time. But when someone sticks a mic there to record you, that can be quite a challenge for your brain to get over. The whole thing of it being called From Here, as a record and as a label – those are the two words I always start from when I’m singing those songs. The feeling has to come from here. Now, cheesy or not, it served as a simple concept for the people to choose their material, otherwise you’d have had 10 thousand versions of ‘Barbara Allen’.

The more natural the recording sounds, the more connection you have with that performer

Ian Carter

For the recordings, Ian and I had seen many of these people doing their stuff at folk clubs and then we’d hear the recordings and we’d be like, “that’s weird”. It’s fine, but the records didn’t move us as much as the live performances did, and that’s what we were trying to capture.

I: Nicola sings a track called ‘Georgie’, which is important for a couple of reasons. I rediscovered Martin Carthy when I found a version of him doing that song in his garden about 10 years ago. The lyrics depict a very real situation. It’s about a woman who is shouting at the police because her husband has been caught nicking. There are lines where you can hear her offering them out, like, “I’m fuckin’ tooled up and I’ll ‘ave you all!” I’m paraphrasing, but you know what I mean [laughs]. I remember listening to Martin’s version and loving it and then buying the album and being like, “Oh… I prefer the Youtube version where he’s talking over the intro and it’s all crackly.” It felt better to me. And then I found myself, 10 years later, recording him in the same kind of setting. So that song was important to us.

N: The way we recorded it is really important. We call it a compilation but really it’s a set of recordings. We could’ve licensed all the tracks, but what’s the point of that? Genuinely, we wanted the project to have a bigger reach than a regular folk recording, because it’s so important. We’re out doing gigs all the time, and people are sat at home watching The Voice, or whatever. That’s fine, but you might like this. You might be able to engage with it in a meaningful way.

Were they all up for it, the artists? 

N: Most of them were, yeah. Some people we asked and they were difficult to get hold of, and some people said no, but not many.

Did you have a list of people you were going to go after? 

N: Yes, but that list and the list that ended up on the record are by no means definitive. It’s not us saying, “These are the people you should listen to.” Most are people we like, but they’re all important. It’s not about us. It’s not about our choice. I’m sure there are loads of people up in the north of England, because we haven’t travelled that far…

“Peta and Ken have got better and better at it with time. It’s like Duke Ellington or Miles Davis doing good stuff in their sixties”

I: We’d do it all again in a heartbeat, by the way. The only people we do think you should know about are Peta and Ken. I’m in no way denigrating anyone else on the record, but Peta and Ken are amazing. They were the first people that we saw when we started going to folk clubs that made us think, “Oh shit!” I think they even sang the song that they sing on this record, and I was like, “what the hell is that?!” I grew up with the Young Tradition, and it was like hearing that. Everyone goes mad for Shirley Collins, but Peta and Ken are amazing. 

I was going to ask who your favourites were, but it sounds like I’ve found them…

I: I love them all, don’t get me wrong, but Peta and Ken are just… That sound… They can only sing those songs the way they sing them because of who they are. Do you know what I mean? That’s good shit right there! They’ve got better and better at it with time. It’s like Duke Ellington or Miles Davis doing good stuff in their sixties.

N: Do you have a favourite on this record?

I do, actually, and it’s Martin Carthy. As someone who tries to perform folk songs myself, I listen to a lot of records with one ear on enjoyment and one ear wondering what it can pinch for my own repertoire. I’ve heard him do ‘The Bedmaking’ before, but your recording really got me. It’s something to do with his gruff, old vulnerability. 

I: His chops are undeniable as well. The rhythms on that song… it’s something else. That’s Martin Carthy’s thing, though. You don’t notice it. You listen to it closely and you suddenly think, “Hang on! What’s he doing? Oh shit!” I played it to some jazz-head friends of mine, and they were like, “What. Is. That?!” It’s his feel more than anything. His rhythms are wicked. Nobody else does rhythm like he does.

N: We were saying this the other day, but it feels like the rhythm is a really forgotten part of folk music. You’ve got your dance tunes, of course, but people always collect the melody and the words. The rhythm is really important to us in our band.

How did you go about getting the sound? What was the technical setup? 

I: I used four mics: 2 AKGs in a mid-side setup, and a Neumann balanced stereo pair. And that was it. [Laughs] I’m engineer. That’s my trade. I recorded everything in as high resolution as possible with the mics that I wanted to use. I could get really boring, but the Neumanns are a really nice, balanced pair with a really clear picture – really honest. The mid-side setup I have has recorded such a wide range of people, I just find it funny. I used to use them to record all the UK hiphop guys, and then all the UK grime guys, and now Martin Carthy! I think that’s kinda cool. It’s recorded all that stuff.

N: We took it to Barry Grint, who did Radiohead and the last Bert Jansch stuff, to get it mastered.

I: I was terrified. Essentially I had two channels and I couldn’t fuck it up. But he mastered it in two hours because we’d done it well.

N: Were you scared that he’d say, “Sorry Ian, this is awful. What’ve you done?!”

I: I’ve done so much stuff before – indie bands and whatever – and it was no stress at all. But this stressed the shit out of me! But we did it and it was fine. And we got a quote out of Barry. He said, “It’s really good.” Hahaha.

You’re launching it at Cafe Oto over the weekend of March 18th. Are you getting all the singers coming down?

N: It’s impossible to get all of them because they’re touring. Originally, when we were preparing the compilation, we were going to get everyone in one place and record them in a day. Pretty soon we realised that wouldn’t work. We realised we’d have to follow them around. But we’ve got Fay Hield and Jon Boden on the Saturday, and Peta, Ken and Martin on the Sunday. I’m not sure how we’re going to spread it out, but we’ve got Lisa Knapp, and Eliza’s supposed to be coming, along with a few of the others. It’ll be tricky to fit them all. But it’ll be good.

For more info on Stick In the Wheel and their forthcoming compilation, From Here, head to their Bandcamp page. For tickets to the launch party at Cafe Oto on March 18th and 19th, head to the Cafe Oto website. We’ll be reviewing the compilation here on the Grizzly Folk site in the next week or so. Watch this space.