Writing this on a school bus, the irony is not lost on me: Bella admitted last night just how many of her first songs were written on the one and a half hour long journey to and from school. However, despite this slightly weird song writing circumstances, Bella wrote some brilliant songs in this setting such as ‘Jenny Wren’. So let's hope this journey has a positive effect on my writing too...
Singer songwriter and fiddle player, Bella Hardy, first became a recognised figure on the folk scene when she was a finalist for the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award in 2004. Her first album ‘Night Visiting’ was released in 2007 and,since then, Bella has become one of the most influential female folk artists. She has released a total of six solo albums, including the Christmas themed ‘Bright Morning Star’. She gained a BBC Radio 2 Folk award for the song ‘Herring girl’ in 2012 and this year she was crowned Folk Singer of the Year at the Folk Awards, a huge achievement.
I first encountered Bella’s music on Mike Harding’s Folk Show on BBC Radio 2, when I was perhaps 11 years old. In fact ‘Night Visiting’ is one the first albums I ever purchased. Since this time I have been very fond of Bella’s music. I also think over the years her music has gone from strength to strength, especially her voice which has become even more lovely.
Bella Hardy has also appeared in various collaborations such as Carthy, Hardy, Farrell and Young (“it’s not an estate agent” Bella joked). I saw them perform last January and I remember being utterly blown away by the amazing blend of stringed instruments and voices. ‘Laylam’, the album they created, to this day remains one of my favourites. Recently Bella has taken part in the Elizabethan Session alongside Jim Moray, Nancy Kerr, Martin Simpson, Emily Askew, Hannah James, Rachel Newton and John Smith. In this unique project artists were invited to write songs based on the Elizabethan era. An album is due for release, and there will be a final performance of these songs at Folk By the Oak Festival on 20th July at Hatfield House.
Additionally Bella appears on the album ‘The Liberty to Choose’ with James Findlay, Brian Peters and Lucy Ward. This album contains songs from The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs and includes a beautiful a Capella duet of the song ‘The Trees they do Grow High’ sung by Bella and Lucy.
I have seen Bella perform on one other occasion which was at Jim Moray’s 10th anniversary party at the Union Chapel where she performed ‘Three Black Feathers’. This song is the first track of Bella’s album ‘Night Visiting’ and also appears on Jim Moray’s album, ‘Low Culture’. Therefore seeing them perform this song together was particularly special.
Bella is currently on tour for thirty shows for her 30th birthday with her band, ‘The Midnight Watch’. The band consists of Anna Massie on guitar, Angus Lyon on keys and James Lindsay on bass.
On Wednesday evening I had the privilege of interviewing Bella. Here is our conversation:
Me: What are your main influences when writing songs?
Bella: Well, I try not to write songs in any particular style. I tend to just write whatever comes to me that day and for that reason basically everything I come in contact with ends up influencing me in some way. I am a really big lover of books and stories and it’s really that that makes me love folk songs, I think. I really love the stories and the ballads and all of that... because when I was a teenager I was singing unaccompanied ballads and things; I kind of came through that tradition... Quite often I find starting points like ‘Goodman’s Wife’ which is on my album ‘Battle Plan’. That’s a kind of retelling of the ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsy’ ballad. And I’ve got a song called ‘Sylvie Sovay’, which I’ll sing tonight, which is from [the ballad] ‘Sovay, Sovay’.
I absorb all the music I listen to. I love Carole King and Jodie Mitchell... Tom Waits and Paul Simon and all of these things I think all influence me. Especially Carole King I think because I...have lots of her songs ingrained in my head. I think all of this comes into play when you’re writing songs and I don’t try and edit them while I’m writing them... I just write whatever song comes into my head and then work on it from there really...I tend to start with a lot of books as well. Angela Carter is one of my favourite writers. She wrote lots of short stories... So, I tend to read those when I need inspiration.
Me: How long does it take you to write a song on average?
Bella: Ooh, well you see, it can be anything from 2 hours to five years, I’m afraid... I have many notebooks, and I’m always jotting down thoughts that come into my head. And I’ll end up with pages and pages of notes. And sometimes if I’m thinking,‘Oh I would like to write a song about this’, if I found one line I like and I think, 'Oh that’s a good starting point.' I’ll go back and look at all the notes I made and get lines from them that tie together. A bit like jigsawing a song together. So those songs take a really long time... Sometimes, I’ll come across something I really enjoy the concept of such as ‘The Herring Girl’... there was a documentary on BBC 4, which I missed. But somebody told me about it and because of that I went and researched herring girls... I’d written [a] tune and I hadn’t found any lyrics to go with it yet and I wrote ‘The Herring Girl’ in probably an afternoon -probably 3 or 4 hours I imagine it took me. And sometimes very, very occasionally that happens and I just write it. And actually that’s been the case with ‘The Herring Girl’ and with ‘Three Black Feathers’ which are two of the songs people like the best. So maybe I should try and make myself do that more often. When it happens like that it’s just wonderful because it feels like you’ve channelled something that wasn’t necessarily yours and was just floating around in the ether and you’ve managed to get it out into the world. So that’s a really lovely feeling.
Me: And how does that relate to projects like the Elizabethan Session?
Bella: For that one I think we all did different things to kind of get our brains jolted and get thinking about it... My sister Beth, when I was seven and she was thirteen she was in a play at Hatfield House and it was a kind of youth production. We’re not from near there, it was like a national thing and she played Queen Elizabeth the First in a play. And so I have a memory of her having a big orange wig on and a big Queen Elizabeth the First dress. So I wrote a song about that memory first. I got out my A4 jotter and I wrote down all the memories I had about it and all the ways I felt about those memories; all the connotations, all the things they’re connected to; and looked at how my sibling relationships were similar to Elizabeth’s or very dissimilar to Queen Elizabeth the First's sibling relationships and had a look at the childhoods... So my very first song I did for the Elizabethan session was through that way. And that’s called ‘Hatfield’.
I did a second song for that project. I thought I couldn’t do anything from the Elizabethan era without doing a bit of Shakespeare because I love the stories and I did English literature at university and I’ve always really loved Shakespeare’s plays. So I went back and re-read ‘A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream’ and I wrote a song just called ‘Love in Idleness’... using kind of Shakespearean language to write a ballad.
Me: What are your favourite places to perform? Do you prefer bigger venues or more intimate locations?
Bella: I don’t. I always say, 'Favourites is a fool’s game’, because I’m useless at picking favourites... I played [at Theatr Mwldan] before and it’s just terrific. It’s a lovely theatre... I love the arts centres and I love that so many of them have this kind of audience of support and you can really feel the kind of love for a place and a community spirit... The festivals are so much fun because everyone's in that kind of jolly festival mood. But they all have their different challenges. Because at festivals you quite often are just really running in, running on stage and doing it. And the sound on stage might not be the best... It's a lot of fun in a different way. But here you get to make everything sound tiptop and get to work on everything so you’re really happy with it and give a really quality...sounding performance. And I still just love standing up and singing unaccompanied songs as well so folk clubs and small clubs make me very happy because you can do that and just get to the story and the root of things and you are usually in the company of people who enjoy that too. So I love that too.
Me: And does the novelty of touring ever wear off? Especially on long tours like this...
Bella: ... I say I do enjoy touring once I get into it. But it usually takes me few days to get into the flow of it because of leaving home when you know you’ve got a few weeks away and you’re moving everyday...And then you get into a good book and you see beautiful places and meet so many friendly people that you realise why it’s so enjoyable. So touring is a lot of fun but it’s always an adventure every day [and] never dull.
Me: Yes, I can imagine you get to visit lots of really beautiful places.
Bella: You do! And there is a sad side to it sometimes and I always really look forward to travelling abroad and and touring abroad. But touring abroad, you’re quite often in hotels and then in theatres and conference suites. You don’t actually get to experience the place very well. And I’ve just started, now I’ve turned 30, to try to take time to actually travel without working and really get a feel for a place because it’s quite different from when you need to stay on top of it - when you need to make sure your energy levels are up so you can give a good performance in the evening and you don’t necessarily get to explore in the same way.
Me: What do you think of Wales in general?
Bella: I love Wales because I’m from the Peak District and we used to come to Wales on our holidays. So it really is a place for me which I associate with family and holidays and time off and it's just a beautiful area, you know. I’m also from a hilly area and we used to go to Snowdonia and North Wales and Cricciath and things and Pembrokeshire as well.... I’m actually going to do a song called ‘Good Friday’ tonight which I wrote down... in a harbour down in Pembrokeshire. So I love it here and I think there’s a really great surge of Welsh music at the moment, with bands like Calan; they’re fantastic. They’re really good.
Me: I love Calan!
Bella: There seems to be a real excitement with the music at the moment too and that’s lovely to hear. It’s such good music that comes from here, the traditional music, so I’m a fan.
Me: Why did you choose to perform folk songs and folk music?
Bella: Well, I will tell you very honestly that I always sang, and I always tell people I am a singer, it’s just who I am. I was always pottering round singing and driving everybody crazy and I’m only happy when I get to sing. I worked in an office briefly and was just driving everyone mad singing and I hated not being able to do it. It turns out you can’t be paid to sit at home and sing so I started going out and performing and things. Before that I played the fiddle. My granddad's fiddle was knocking around our house and my mum, my sister and me all play it, and I wasn’t a huge fiddle fan. I was a pretty bad young person, I didn’t want to practise, and all the rest of it. And then I joined the school ceilidh band and that was a lot of fun...
When I was 13 I went for the first time to a thing called the Folkwork’s Summer School up in Durham... I absolutely loved it and I met a 100 young people who really liked folk music but more than that, [they] really liked each other and [there was] a real community spirit. I absolutely loved them all and I really wanted to see them all and have time with them and get to be their friends... And the only way which we could see each other, because we all lived all over the country, was by going to festivals. But we couldn’t afford to buy tickets to festivals because none of us had any money. So we could only go to the festivals if we got free tickets and we could only do that if we played in bands. So, we started playing in bands. And that is why and how I became a professional performer. Well, it’s certainly why I became a performer and I spent my teenage years playing in bands at festivals. I started building up from that and then became professional when I actually realised that’s how I was happiest – just singing - and in order to do that then I’d have to get on stage to do it.
Me: So, do you ever regret going down the folk music route compared to other more mainstream types of music?
Bella: I never chose to go down any routes. I’ve just do the music that I want to do. And for me I love folk music because it’s timeless and its stories are beautiful and it’s all about integrity and it’s all about honesty and about trying to communicate something that you’re feeling...without artifice and without trying to turn it into something unreal. And I really like the honesty of folk music... I am a folk musician but I’ve never gone, 'I am only going to make this type of music,' which is why I write as many different types of songs as I can. I just write whatever I want to write. I certainly think you can never regret being true to whatever music you want to make and I think that is really important.
Me: What is your favourite album that you’ve created?
Bella: Ooh. No, no that’s like choosing children. I’ve done six solo records now including a Christmas one. And I certainly really enjoy the newest one which is Battleplan which came out last April because, on that one, I am probably as honest as I’ve ever been. I’ve tended to start out to write lyrics about myself and hide them in [songs about other people]...So it was kind of my emotions and my feelings but given to other people to explain their situations. So Battleplan I enjoy for that reason. I like ‘In the Shadow of Mountains’ which is my second CD because it was the second one and the last one I produced by myself. And it’s very honestly from the Peak District. I can kind of feel my home there and my whole family sings on the record...And for me that feels like a very personal album, an album that I felt came from somewhere that’s very honest and really intimate. And I could never choose a favourite. I have favourites for many different reasons. ‘Songs Lost and Stolen’ was the first one I wrote all the songs for and I just enjoyed that so much. ‘Night Visiting was my first record and I wouldn’t be here without it.
Me: What is your favourite traditional song?
Bella: I have so so many. I love the ballad of ‘Tam Lin’; it’s not one I sing but I absolutely love it... ‘Rosebud in June’ has always been a favourite. There’s ‘the Bold Fenian Men’ an Irish song... There’s something about the tune of it that just hooks me right in every time. ‘When I was on Horseback’ which I do as ‘True Hearted Girl’ has always been one of my favourites. Such a beautiful lilting melody so it was lovely to finally get sing that one... I do love all the ballads, so any of the ballads will do for me.
Me: So you won BBC Radio 2 Folk Singer of the Year...How do you feel about that?
Bella: I feel very happy about that because it was totally lovely and really unexpected. On the night I was totally shocked because I thought it was wonderful to be nominated and it’s a terrible cliché because everyone says,‘Oh I never expected to win,’ but I really didn’t...it was a lovely feeling because we all...work really hard on the folk scene and it's lovely that the Folk Awards are there to provide an access into our world to people who might not notice it otherwise. And for that reason I think it’s a really good thing and it was just a lovely honour to get to go on that stage in my dress.
Me: Is it as good to be nominated as to win?
Bella: I definitely think so with the Folk Awards. I think it’s such a community event. It feels like a social event for us and it’s just a way for us all to celebrate all the music made in the last little while together.
Me: What did you want to be when you were younger?
I wanted to be a lamb or a lollipop. I remember answering that question and they were my answers. I think I got to the ‘L’ section of the alphabet when somebody asked me that... After that, when I got a bit older I never really was very good at settling on what I wanted to be. I’m still not entirely sure what I want to be when I grow up to be honest. But I’m quite enjoying being a musician so I think I’ll stick with that for a while.
Me: Sounds like a good idea. Tell me a bit about the reasons behind this tour.
Bella: Well its my 30th birthday; that’s the reason behind this tour. And I really wanted to find a way to kind of celebrate with a lot of people who I’ve met over the years and to connect with the audience I’ve been building over the seven years I’ve been touring. So, I decided that I’d visit 30 of my favourite venues ... and just really connect with everybody again and connect with the promoters and...just do a bit of a retrospective. I’m singing songs from the whole of my back catalogue. So it’s nice to just get to go nipping back into all those CDs and so: 'Thirty for Thirty': 30 gigs for my 30th birthday.
Me: And what future plans do you have?
Ah... well that would be telling. But I have been writing a lot of songs in the last year and I don’t like resting on my laurels so you shall be hearing a new album probably very soon.
It was certainly lovely to be able to talk to Bella Hardy and I would really recommend trying to catch her on her current tour.