English folk music in the 21st Century is being comprehensively owned by young women artists making great leaps forward (in all directions). Tim Chipping catches up with the long distance Rheingans Sisters. Photos by Judith Burrows.
When a substantial number of people begin to enthuse about an album you haven’t heard, it takes an enormous gathering of self-generated optimism to conclude it’s going to be anything other than awful. After all, other people are a mistake and they’re almost always wrong. So when a substantial number of people began enthusing about Already Home by The Rheingans Sisters I was cautiously sceptical. There was no question that Rowan and Anna Rheingans were capable musicians but were they really capable of producing an album this magazine described as “quite simply extraordinary” and one that would go on to claim a high placement in the fRoots Critics Poll and receive two BBC Radio 2 Folk Award nominations? Well that’s exactly what they did. And this is the story of how they did it.
The Rheingans Sisters grew up in the Derbyshire village of Grindleford. Their father is an instrument maker of some renown, noted for inventing the bansitar (which is exactly what you think it is, but weirder). Their mother co-ran a Saturday morning clogging club for kids and organised the Eyam Folk Festival. After a childhood filled with music workshops and dancing, both daughters spent a considerable time away in Sweden studying traditional fiddle playing. It sounds like the perfect environment for Rowan and Anna to have become accountants.
“We didn’t rebel. I don’t know why,” Rowan tells me over the din of approximately 2,000 primary school children spending their half-term running in and out of the private members’ bar of the Royal Festival Hall. “It’s a nice picture: our father’s a luthier and he handed down the fiddles and we were brought up in this folk family… It’s not like that really. For me music was completely central to our lives, and that’s why we play and it’s why it’s our expression. But it wasn’t only folk music and it wasn’t only fiddle music.”
“The first time I went to a folk club was to do a gig with Lady Maisery. I’d never been to a folk club before. I’m not from that kind of folky family.”
Rowan is of course also a member of the popular singing trio Lady Maisery alongside Hannah James and Hazel Askew. That’s where you’ll have seen her before, if you’ve seen her before.
“I sort of rebelled more than Rowan,” says Anna, the younger of the sisters. “There was a period where I didn’t play, between eleven and fourteen. I think when I was at school it wasn’t very cool to play folk music so I wanted to be like my friends. Then I went to Folkworks and it got me out of that phase. I was very inspired by people my age playing amazingly and I wanted to be like them.”
“Both of our parents have never been very pushy. They were very supportive in taking us to lessons and paying for them but never pushed us to practise or anything.”
But was getting a proper job ever really an option?
“Yeah,” Rowan nods. “I’ve been a full-time musician for only three years and before then I always had part-time jobs. I sought them out and wanted them. I’ve only recently decided that making music full-time is really good. Before, I often thought it would be better to be plugged in to a community and working somewhere else and not being just this kind of… well, the lifestyle of a musician is very different.”
In the interests of transparency I should probably explain that Rowan and Anna weren’t interviewed together. I’ve just made it seem that way through the magic of editing. Anna is speaking to me via Skype from Toulouse, where she moved shortly after the sisters finished their first album Glad Gold Hearts. (Skype is a kind of telephone system for the internet. It’s quite good.)
Glad Gold Hearts is a perfectly fine album but it didn’t cause anything like the fuss that Already Home has. What changed?
“I feel like when me and Anna made our first album, which was in 2012, I didn’t have any concept that anybody was ever gonna actually listen to it. She was just about to move away to France so it was just a case of, ‘let’s get something recorded, make a nice thing and our family and friends will enjoy it’. It was a very satisfying thing to do with my sister; it was that feeling. But during the making of the first one I feel like I was quite bossy and Anna wasn’t as forthcoming with ideas.”
“The making of this one was quite different. This album was a real collaboration between two musicians, which we’ve only just discovered that we really are now. For me that was amazing, to work with Anna as I work with the Maiserys and other people. She is obviously still my little sister so we have sisterly bickering but she’s completely blossomed into this very striking, intelligent fiddle player while she’s been in France. And all of that is completely in this record.”
Anna agrees that the time away has changed her, although seems surprised at the compliment.
“One of the nicest things that Rowan’s said recently was in an interview with Stirrings magazine. She said that even if I wasn’t her sister she would still want to be in a band with me. That just made me so happy. I didn’t really think that, actually. I thought we were just doing it because we were sisters. But I’m 25 now and these years are a period where you change a lot. In my experience it’s been three-and-a-half years of learning a lot about life and about music.”
When Anna talks about learning she doesn’t just mean picking up a few tunes and a couple of new techniques. Hers was an intense, total immersion, running-away-to-join-the-metaphorical-circus kind of learning.
“On this album we have a lot more French influences,” she explains. “I spent a year here learning French and then when I was good enough I applied to do a course in traditional music at the Conservatoire in Toulouse. So I studied traditional violin of Occitan traditions. Occitan means the whole of the south of France. I got very involved and studied for two years and got a diploma.”
“I didn’t know anyone here when I first arrived but had a few contacts in the trad music scene. And so within about three months, just through trying to make friends and trying to learn French as quickly as possible I ended up getting gigs with people, mostly playing for dancing. A lot of the music that me and Rowan play is dance music, because it’s also like that in Scandinavia; the traditional music is very much dance-based. So now, much of what I do is play for dancing in my groups here. I’ve got a trio and a couple of duos and we’re booked for bals all the time. And when I’m not doing that I dance as well.”
Rowan feels that her own progress has been as much about self-conviction as it has about honing her talents.
“Over the last year I’ve learnt that this is my thing. I’ve always played the fiddle and always sung and written songs but I’ve always been a little bit self-deprecating or a bit cynical about it. I’ve not felt like pushing myself forward and saying, ‘actually I’ve written a song and I think it’s good and you should hear it’. I’ve also learned such a lot over the last three years and feel much more confident that we’re putting out something now that we can say that we want more people to hear.”
That doesn’t completely explain the reception Already Home has received. It isn’t merely a collection of fiddle tunes by gifted and experienced players. It is, for those of us who still believe in these things, a proper album. It has a certain sound and identity, quite enchantingly so.
“I think people like when it’s a piece of work altogether and not just some random tunes that have no connection with each other,” thinks Anna. “It’s more of a reflection on our lives. I had all of these tunes and experiences, and Rowan with all of her projects, and I think we were really ready and had so much material that we wanted to do. And then it was a really good week that we had in the studio with Dylan Fowler. Dylan is very much to thank for the success of this album, the quality of it.”
While Already Home was produced by the Rheingans themselves it was recorded and mixed by the guitarist and all-round musical cleverclogs Dylan Fowler at his own Stiwdio Felin Fach in South Wales.
“It was five days of actual recording,” says Rowan, making their achievement all the more impressive. “Me and Anna live in different countries and have very busy lives, and so we had a week. Basically we were gonna record an album or we weren’t. Lady Maisery had been working with Dylan and so I’d been to the studio before and knew that we could probably make something there. The way he works is quite different to other people I’ve recorded with, and he’s quite into setting up a space that is the most nourishing for music and improvisation. He’s a very patient, calm influence and he basically left us to it.”
“When we were unsure about something he knew how to handle us,” laughs Anna. “When you’re in the studio with your sister it’s not always… you can ask the producer of our first album, Andy Bell, about that. During those sessions he had awful outtakes; some of the things we would say to each other! Dylan is quite calm and collected even when things seem stressful and it seems like we’re never gonna get there. He always thinks we’ll find a solution.”
“We did three tracks a day. It was tiring but we had some really good ideas. From the beginning of that week to the end, it really felt like we’d made something special.”
“The space itself is lovely,” Rowan continues. “It’s like a kind of eco barn studio set in the Welsh hills and it’s full of instruments. He set us up and made sure everything was comfortable but we basically just played. The Dancing In The Cowshed track, which is one of my favourite things on the album, was really just two takes and it’s the second take we used. He just said, ‘Play that thing that you’ve been jamming and we’ll record it and see what happens.’ And that’s why I love listening to that because it was really a luck moment that we got something beautiful. A lot of this is improvised. Not like we just sat in a room and played from nothing, but the arrangements are just as they come.”
The informal way Almost Home was recorded is, thinks Rowan, what gave the album its characterful, intimate atmosphere.
“It didn’t feel stressed, I think you can hear that. And that’s also why I’m surprised this album had the reaction that it had because it sounds quite unpolished and sonically different from a lot of the folk music that’s being made. A lot of people are trying to make very polished, very sophisticated sounding things and hopefully this sounds sophisticated in some way but not in a sonic way. We were just playing our fiddles and it’s just us. I can hear sounds in it that probably other people would delete out. That’s why I like this album, it’s warm to me to listen to. I can remember and sense where we were and I hope that comes across.”
Anna has an idea that even the name and packaging of the record worked in its favour.
“I wanna take credit for the title, because we were gonna call it Keep The Whole Thing Turning after the last track. We were both unsure about it because it’s a mouthful. Then Already Home came to me, and it works with the album photos because we were at home in our dad’s workshop. And it was also a lyric from the song Cuckoo. It’s become a whole.”
I wonder if the success of sibling musical partnerships is because they think the same way or if it’s because they think very differently but know each other so well. Rowan believes that in their case it’s definitely the latter.
“We think quite differently and are very different but I think we work well together. It’s not hell, it really isn’t, but we are sisters and we’re very close. We’re only twenty months apart and now we’re interested in the same things there’s a lot of possibility for clashing. But I think that actually helps. A duo is my favourite way to play music because you can get the whole person’s personality back at you and you haven’t got to spread your concentration. So with me and Anna it works because we are incredibly connected but not in the way that we always think the same. A lot of the fun of playing with her is that now she’s been in France for a few years and my fiddle playing is much more northern (I go to Sweden a lot and I’m much more in tune with that side), the music we’re playing is quite far away from each other. So there is a lot of tension between the styles. A lot of the rhythms that she’s playing are really different now because Anna has this quite heavy southern French accent and I’m working out ‘do I follow that, do I go against that?’ So being different is good. Interesting stuff happens when different things collide.”
Did they choose French and Swedish music, or did it find them?
“I’m really interested in why we’re playing the music we’re playing,” says Rowan. “And by ‘we’ I mean everyone, as a race of people. And especially with folk music. Sam Sweeney is an interesting guy to talk to about this kind of thing because he’s very connected to an English tradition, he plays English music and has unearthed fantastic tunes from books. He’s one of my go-to people for English fiddle music. But for me, I feel more like the way I want to play isn’t really attached to one particular traditional place. I need to sing and play, and the accents and dialects and ways it comes out is to do with life’s unravelling journey and where I’ve had my fiddle and where I’ve met people. It’s the same for Anna.”
“I don’t know why it is that I’m so drawn to Scandinavian fiddle playing but I know that I am and that I love playing it. I’m not trying to say anything about it, particularly. But it’s a vehicle to express something and that’s why I get attracted to some music and not others.”
“I know that I have a style that was influenced by lots of Irish and Scottish music that I played when I was younger,” considers Anna. “Also Swedish music because when I studied in Sweden it was a very intense learning period for me and an intense practising period. And then here in France it’s been quite intense as well and my professor at the Conservatoire used to tell me, ‘You play this very legato, it’s very Scandinavian the way that you play this tune.’ He used to say that all the time. I think that it’s very hard to be conscious of one’s playing technique. It’s hard to be conscious of all the influences or why you play certain ornaments or things like that.”
This is only part of the story of an album that, in these circles, was one of the most talked about of the year. Because amidst the polskas and bourrées that the pre-existing Rheingans fanbase might’ve expected were original songs of a startlingly high calibre. Where did they come from?
“This is the first album that’s got my songwriting on it, and Anna’s tune writing. Making an album of traditional stuff is safer in a way. People might not like what you do with it but basically it’s traditional music and it’s unbreakable; you can do whatever you want. But writing is a bit more risky.”
“During the Songs Of Separation recordings I chatted a lot to Karine Polwart about songwriting, because she really liked the song I contributed to that. She basically said, ‘You are a songwriter. You should put your songs out there.’ She encouraged me and that’s how the song Mackerel got on our album. It was the last thing we recorded.” [You heard it on our fRoots 57 compilation with the Jan/Feb issue…Ed.]
“When she was younger,” Anna remembers, “and she went through her Karine Polwart/Joni Mitchell/Bob Dylan phase, she used to play in bars in Sheffield on her guitar and she wrote these amazing songs. For me she’s as good as Joni Mitchell; it’s a similar talent that she has. So I’m very happy to be able to play those songs, like Mackerel. My sister’s great, basically.”
Some of us are still in our Karine Polwart/ Joni Mitchell/Bob Dylan phase. But most of us haven’t received a nomination for Best Original Track at this year’s BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, as The Rheingans Sisters have for Mackerel. How does it feel to be nominated for not one but two awards on the strength of this album? (They’re also up for the Horizon prize for best newcomers.)
“When Rowan rang me we’d only Skyped a couple of days before. And so I said, ‘What do you wanna ring me for? Are you pregnant? Getting married? What?’ When she told me I screamed. I was jumping up and down and we were both going, ‘Oh my god! Oh my god!’ down the phone to each other. And I’d just finished eating some mackerel out of a tin, and I had to tell her that. What a coincidence!”
“That night at the music school where I work we had a soirée. I’m there with my ensemble: three or four oldish beginners with melodeons and a recorder. And I had the biggest smile on my face. I bet people thought, ‘She’s absolutely loving her traditional music workshop.’ But I was just smiling the whole night because of this news.”
“I genuinely didn’t think that we would be nominated,” beams Rowan. “We’re doing a big tour in April and I’d booked gigs on those nights, I wasn’t expecting a nomination. Although in hindsight given the reaction to the album it makes sense. I probably should’ve seen it coming and maybe not booked those gigs!”
“Getting the Horizon nomination is lovely. I’m very proud of it and it’s something me and Anna can really enjoy. But getting the song nomination I cried my eyes out.”
For extra, colour Anna adds that “Rowan cried in a supermarket in a service station.”
“That nomination is so meaningful. I feel like it’s an invitation to write songs, which I’m definitely going to do. I mean, I’d do it anyway but it’s a real kind of… people saw something in a song I wrote that nearly didn’t go on the album. The nomination sits in my mind as much as Karine’s words do. All these things together have made me excited and proud.”
It’s a response that’s surprisingly lacking in cynicism. Isn’t the party line supposed to be that awards don’t really mean anything and they’re not why we make music?
“I was totally cynical before,” Anna admits. “I mean, people always say that it’s who you know, that it isn’t anything to do with your music and it’s just down to contacts and schmoozing. But in fact it feels like an acknowledgment.”
But, and here comes the obligatory Eurovision Song Contest question, do they think they can win?
“I’m scared to win,” says Rowan, “I don’t really want to win. I just wanna go there and party with my sister and enjoy it. I’m up against Ewan MacColl so that’s quite interesting. If he beats me from the grave I’ll be annoyed.”
Anna is also looking forward to dressing up and not having to buy a ticket to get into the Albert Hall. Although now the excited screaming has subsided she has a considered take on what the awards mean to them.
“Plenty of amazing musicians have never been nominated and acknowledged in that way and it’s just because they’re not known by the right people. So I guess I am confirming that I’m cynical about it, and I don’t think it means much more than they’ve heard of you and heard your music. But… that is nice! Especially for the song because it’s my favourite track on the album. Just to share that opinion with people who’ve nominated this song has confirmed what I think. It’s a great song and my sister’s an amazing songwriter.”
Given the artistic leaps and bounds the Rheingans Sisters have made in such a relatively short time I wonder if they might be harbouring some serious ambitions. Something else you’re not supposed to admit to round these parts for fear of seeming like your career is anything more than the result of falling into a bin full of banjos.
“I’m just happy if we can keep making albums that people love,” says Anna. “And if I write a great tune and we put it with a song or I find a great tune and we make a good arrangement of it I’ll be happy. And if we make another album that’s as good as this one I’ll be really happy. That’s my ambition. It’s definitely not monetary! I can just about pay my rent, I manage. But we’re not in it for the money.”
“I am quite ambitious,” agrees Rowan. “I’m ambitious to make good music and good connections, not in a networking way, in a meaningful way. If I think about the people I would aspire to be like, they’re people that I think have a great attitude to music and people. So I’m ambitious to be like that. I would absolutely want to make a solo album and write more music and I want people to respond to it. That to me is very energising.
“It’s funny, ambition. I often pinch myself about what I’m doing now. I think it’s an incredible luxury. Touring with Anna, gigging with my best friend and sister… We’ve made this great thing and everyone liked it. What the hell? That’s amazing. I don’t really need to be much more ambitious, just to carry on doing that kind of thing.”
Here’s to optimism. And here’s to more of that kind of thing.
First published in fRoots 394, April 2015