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The Furrow Collective stand on an inner-city street corner in the fading light.

The Furrow Collective – the Tradfolk interview

The Furrow Collective discuss collaboration, teaching engagements, and musical approaches in this heartfelt interview with Rachel Wilkinson, reflecting on 10 years of blending traditional ballads with contemporary relevance and good old band camaraderie.

The Furrow Collective celebrated 10 years together in 2023 and we thought it was time to catch up with them. With Rachel Newton on maternity leave for just a little while longer, we chatted with Lucy Farrell, Emily Portman, and Alasdair Roberts about what keeps them making music together, what they’re up to this summer, and how they feel about performing material from their most recent album together for the first time.

Portraits of Emily Portman, Alastair Roberts and Lucy Portman by Harrison Wield
Emily Portman, Alasdair Roberts and Lucy Portman. Portraits by Harrison Wield

First of all, we need to clear something up. In her interview with Jon Wilks a number of years ago, Lucy mentioned how keen you had both been, Emily, to work with Alasdair. I feel like we haven’t heard the other side of the story. Basically Ali, I’d like to check that you weren’t press-ganged into The Furrow Collective…

Alasdair: (Laughs) Well Emily and I had worked together a bit before. We first met at a gig in Newcastle, almost 20 years ago now, and I just really enjoyed her approach to the music. Rachel and I met on the scene as well, and I’d done a gig or two with Lucy. I was flattered to be approached by them – I definitely wasn’t coerced into it!

Oh good. I just wanted to give you the right of reply after all this time.

A: It’s quite cool when people that you think are cool and are doing good things want to work with you, so the Furrows really started from there.

Emily: I remember seeing the way that Ali approached ballad singing and I loved how uncompromising it was. There was a sense of the song really being at the centre and the story really came across. I feel like that’s always at the core of my admiration for all the Furrows’ ways of approaching songs.

It’s always so nice to hear artists just appreciating other artists. Someone saying “I admire and enjoy working with this person because…”. 

E: I like these interviews for that reason. They are good opportunities to reflect on that, because we don’t often sit around saying how much we like, and like working with, each other.

You probably don’t have time, right? You’re all tremendously busy people! You’re back together as a four-piece this year for the first time in how long? 

Lucy: Christmas, wasn’t it?

E: Well, Rachel wasn’t with us last Christmas…so it’d be the Christmas before.

So long ago that you almost can’t remember. What are you going to be getting up to?

A: We’re off to a couple of festivals this summer. We’re starting off at Folk by the Oak on July 21st and then Ham Farm Festival, which is near Bristol, on July 26th. Before that, the three of us will be teaching a folk songs course at Halsway Manor.

Sounds intriguing – we’ll come back to that. Are you excited about being back together again, or perhaps a bit apprehensive after touring as a three-piece while Rachel’s been away?

A: A bit of both. It’ll be good to have Rachel back. We’ve missed her. 

L: I think doing material as just the trio was interesting. It was good to do something a little bit different because we settled into a groove, so just having to do the three-piece without the harp over Christmas, I think it spiced things up. Maybe that’s not quite the right phrase – it just made us really think about the songs.

…when you’re singing the songs, it’s better to be more intuitive. It’s about trying to find a balance between erudition and intuition.

E: And it made us work a lot harder! We had to really adjust in every single song. We rewrote most of the harmonies and all did a huge amount more playing, which was challenging and fun. We’re really looking forward to it being the four of us again. There’s something special about that.

Whether it’s three or four of you working together, do you feel like you’re bringing joint interests or separate but complementary passions to the table?

A: The group came together specifically to explore traditional songs and ballads. We’re united by that, but we’re distinguished by geography. I’m Scottish, as is Rachel, and on the most recent album she sings a Gaelic song, whereas because Lucy and Emily are English, their interests are more towards English songs. Not exclusively, though – just because they’re English doesn’t mean they wouldn’t sing songs from Scotland or vice versa.

So it’s not like either group is protective of their culture? You’re not going to say “You’re not Scottish, you can’t sing that”?

E: I think it certainly gives me a sense of permission to get involved. I’ve always admired a lot of Scottish-variant ballads and I definitely wouldn’t sing in the Scots language, but as a backing vocalist, or as an accompanist, it allows you to be part of a particular version of the song that you might not otherwise have chosen.

L: Also, I think that we all have different approaches to finding songs. I feel like Ali and Emily do lots of research and I’ll bring a song and they’ll say, “Oh yes, and there’s other versions…”.

Are they the ones cracking out the Roud and Child numbers?

L: Yeah! I’ll say “I heard this somewhere, are these the right words?” and…

E: (Laughing) We’ll go and look them up in the Roud index, for sure.

L: I think it’s interesting to allow for all different kinds of approaches to song collecting or interpretation or mishearing.

A: And when you’re preparing, it’s good to have that ‘research head’ on, but then when you’re singing the songs, it’s better to be more intuitive. It’s about trying to find a balance between erudition and intuition.

E: I’ve always loved the variety in the songs that we all bring. I think there’s definitely a kind of shared aesthetic though. We’re all attracted to a really good story and a good tune, and I think we’re probably all looking for potentially unusual versions. Sometimes I’ll come across a song and think it would be great for this group. I can’t tell you exactly how I know that but I think it probably comes from being together for 10 years.

That makes sense. It’s such an unknowably vast catalogue of songs to work with. Do you feel like you’re all drawn to similar subject matter and themes, or do you find it more like pulling different strands of your individual interests together? 

A: Again, a bit of both. We do have similar interests, particularly in things like the supernatural and songs with something slightly macabre about them, but we also come at these things from different angles – my approach to something, as the only male member of the group, is potentially going to be different to the others’. But also looking at things like gender politics in the songs is a core part of what the group does. 

We’re really looking forward to it being the four of us again. There’s something special about that.

E: For sure. There’s a desire for the songs to be relevant, and to have resonance with people. As part of that desire, we have to engage with what they will mean now, in 2024. I think it’s a balancing act between having an interest in the complexity of these stories and what they mean for people now, while also trying to choose things that resonate with us personally. I think that’s where we start, isn’t it? 

A: It’s got to resonate with you as an individual and a singer before you can think about sharing it. 

E: We’ve certainly had many conversations about wider resonances and asked ourselves ‘is it appropriate to sing these songs?’. I enjoy those kinds of chats with the band because I think there aren’t a lot of people you can really talk it through with. 

I think it’s a conversation that’s being had a lot more. Do you think the folk scene is a place where that kind of chat happens more than elsewhere? Do we feel the connections between the past and present more keenly? 

E: I think the historic nature of the material means that connection is just always there as a consideration. It is really interesting, because it allows you to look into how things were, think about the meanings these songs may have had, and find where that meets a modern audience. We also need to not lose sight of being artists with our own considerations about what the songs mean to us, personally. 

You’re sort of the first audience it has to resonate with in that respect, aren’t you? And aside from finding those common resonances, what do you think keeps The Furrow Collective together after over 10 years? 

A: I think we all get on well. That’s a good starting point! We’ve never really had any major arguments that I can remember…

E: I think when you’ve played with people for so long, there’s an almost sibling-sense of knowing each other’s musical voices, which is very special. It also doesn’t feel like we’re being held back by any self-imposed rules about what our work should sound like, so there’s this sense of experimentation. It’s that sense of potential that draws me back in – there’s always the lovely moment when the magic happens with a song you thought might be a good Furrow one. We have quite an improvisatory approach which means that we don’t always know what’s going to happen, but we know each other well enough to slot in and not be afraid to try something new. 

A: Also, there’s just this absolute wealth of material in traditional song that’s still to be explored, and that we can still do new things with. That’s what keeps us coming together. 

Is that the sort of insight that you’re going to be sharing on the course that you’re running at Halsway Manor?  

E: Absolutely. We’re really looking forward to our first foray into teaching together, and we’re going to be there for a midweek course from July 15th, sharing songs from our collection, teaching harmonies and giving the participants an insight into the way that we work. It should be a great week.

L: It’ll be the three of us teaching, as Rachel is still going to be on maternity leave then.

And can anyone come and join you for that? 

A: Anyone who has an interest in singing, at any level at all, would be really welcome. 

E: Yes, we want to welcome everyone. Whether someone wants to dig into the background of a particular song, or just wants to have a go at singing, or trying out some harmonies or accompaniment… We just hope people can enjoy it on all sorts of different levels. 

A: Also, the main focus will be on singing but there’s also going to be the opportunity to look at instrumental approaches to the songs, too. For the album, we’ve all had to have a go at playing instruments we don’t usually pick up. Lucy found a hidden talent for the hammered dulcimer, for example, so we’d welcome any instrument if people want to bring them along. 

L: We’re just hoping we can have a great week with people who share our love of folk songs. 

In case any of our Tradfolk audience don’t know about Halsway Manor, can you give us a bit of a clue about what happens there?

E: People often say it’s like Cecil Sharp House in the countryside. It’s a beautiful manor house, home to a brilliant folk library, and it’s the National Centre for Folk Arts. It’s the only dedicated residential centre for them, I think. All sorts of courses happen throughout the year.

L: They do artist residencies, too. It’s actually where we put together a lot of the material for our latest album. We had a little residency and it was brilliant to spend a few days together, working on the songs that we ended up recording. 

And those must be the songs that we can hear on We Know By The Moon, which you released last November. Will we have to wait for winter gigs to hear those tracks?  

E: We released the album in winter, but it’s really lunar-themed, rather than being Christmassy, so we are going to be doing a lot of the material from the album at the summer festival gigs. It’s about the moon, which really doesn’t constrain it to a particular time of the year. 

Ah, that makes sense. So is this summer the first chance audiences will have to hear the full band perform it live? 

E: Yes, and we’re really excited! We’re so proud of this album and it’ll be nice to be performing songs from it in the summer, on those long summer nights… 

L: We got into a groove of being a little bit wintery up to now, didn’t we, so it’ll be good to sing the songs at different times of the year. ‘The Moon Shines Bright’ [Roud 702] is on the album and that’s known as both a New Year carol and a May Day carol, so even the songs that could be about a particular time of year maybe aren’t! It’s actually just about the moon and space.

I think it’s a balancing act between having an interest in the complexity of these stories and what they mean for people, while also trying to choose things that resonate with us personally.

E: A lot of the stories are set after dark. We’ve got some that are supernatural songs, love songs set after dark, night-visiting songs… 

A: We’ve got a couple of songs on there that broke our self-imposed rule about traditional song, which is the only rule we had, in that they’re early romantic poems by Scottish poets set to music – one by Robert Tannahill and another by Robert Burns. So not really traditional at all.

E: There’s the German one too? ‘The Hurdy Gurdy Man’. 

A: Oh yeah. With music by Schubert. 

Oh, from Wintereisse. Lovely. I think Sting put a few people off that one for a while… Glad you’ve brought it back! So, we’ve already touched on how busy you all are. Aside from touring and teaching, what else have you all got going on this year? 

A: I’m doing a lot of different things. Coming up later this year I’m doing some duo gigs with one of my oldest friends – a guy called Donald Lindsay, who’s a smallpiper, singer and guitarist. Although we’ve been friends for 30 years, we’ve not done many gigs together, so we’re going to be touring in September and November. He’s one of my best friends and one of the best musicians that I know, so that’ll be exciting.

It’s quite cool when people that you think are cool and are doing good things want to work with you.

E: Haven’t you got a new songbook out too? 

A: Oh yeah. I decided it was time to bring together selected song lyrics from the last 30 years or so of my work. So Library of Aethers launched in April and is generally available.

How about you, Emily? Any songbooks on the horizon? 

E: Perhaps not just yet, but I am writing songs again, which I’m really enjoying. And I’ve got a Hudson Club Exclusive coming up. Do you know about the Hudson Club

We do, but remind us how it works. 

E: We [The Furrow Collective] are with Hudson Records, and it’s something they’re doing to try and help artists actually benefit from a subscription music service. Each month, they have subscriber-exclusive content and I’m going to be in the May release. The idea is that it’s previously unreleased material, so you can’t get it anywhere else. I’ve got three new demos for them that will hopefully become part of an album for release in about a year. 

That’s exciting. Any more tours for you this year? 

E: In June and July, I’ll be doing some solo gigs, and then I’ll be at Sidmouth Folk Festival in the summer, both with The Sea Song Sessions and solo. Actually, I’m hoping Lucy will come and join me for my solo gig at Sidmouth, which will be lovely. 

So there’s one thing in your diary, Lucy! What else is coming up?

L: I’m really looking forward to being back at Green Note in London for a solo gig in July between our festival dates. Roll on summer!

Lucy, Emily and Alasdair are leading ‘Page to Performance: Folk Songs with the Furrow Collective’, 15-19 July 2024, at Halsway Manor in Somerset. Residential places are currently available. The Furrow Collective are performing together, and in various other guises, throughout the rest of 2024. Check out their band website or individual websites for dates and details.