Interview with Jack’s Rake
Photo: (left to right): Paul Hartley, Becky Ball, Rebekah Foard, Catherine Pugh, Hannah Smalley, Ella Sprung, Sarah Drake, Mark Pugh
Hailing from Sheffield, Jack’s Rake is equally at home in a noisy pub, on a festival stage or playing to an attentive and discerning folk club audience, Jack’s Rake just love to play traditional music and this comes across in the energy and excitement in their performances. You can catch Jack’s Rake head-lining Worrall festival on Friday July 3rd at 10:00 pm.
Worrall Festival’s Lynne Bryan caught up with the band and talked about all things Jack’s Rake.
WF: Can you give us a brief history on how you met and started singing and composing music together?
Mark: The band was formed about 15 years ago by me and three friends who were on a rock climbing trip but got rained off so we went to the pub instead. It was the Sticklebarn Tavern in Langdale and there was a folk festival on. After a few beers we decided we wanted to have a go at this band thing so we did. Our first gig was at my sister’s wedding and we were fairly rubbish! I’m the only one remaining from the original four.
Paul: I joined ten years ago.
Catherine: I joined nearly ten years ago and helped create the multiple violin sound that the band is now known for. Our songs and tunes usually come from one or two people but then get added to by everyone’s input through improvisation.
Becky: I joined the band around 3 years ago when they needed a flute stand in, and ended up staying!
WF: ‘Folk music’ is a difficult genre to define, particularly with the new wave of ‘indie folk’ and ‘folk-inspired’ music. How would you describe folk music, and the music you create?
Mark: There are pages and pages of arguments all over the internet on this one and I really don’t have or care for a definition. What we play is largely based on Irish Scottish and English tunes and songs but really we play whatever we fancy and the folk label mostly comes from the instruments we use and the general “traditional” sound.
Paul: Not easy. It’s one of those things you sort of “know it when you hear it”. Its wide umbrella gives it a lot of scope.
Catherine: We create “folk with attitude”, something the audience can enjoy listening to with multiple layers of interest.
Becky: I think of folk music as music that evolved from people coming together to celebrate, tell stories and dance. The old traditions of bards, troubadors and minstrels took music from place to place, providing entertainment for gatherings and was passed on by listening to others and learning by ear, before musical notation was developed.
These traditions have endured and evolved, and I think folk music can have a fairly loose definition these days.
WF: What is it about folk music that you love?
Mark: The tunes and the sound of the instruments. Sitting in the middle of four violins and a couple of flutes playing in harmony is surely the sound of Nirvana! Speaking of which, I do tend to prefer the more hard rocking type of tune delivery which is reflected in my playing style and is a definite result of my being into heavy rock as a kid.
Paul: Its soul. At its best it goes deep into our instincts. The instruments have an organic, almost human or natural voice.
Catherine: Being free to improvise around a traditional song or tune and taking it to a whole new level that you can bring to a new audience.
WF: Your band is pretty big – there are up to 6 members, and I understand that many of you play multiple instruments – how does that work? Is it hard to decide who does what?
Mark: There are nine of us at the moment, plus we have three or four former members who occasionally stand in when people are unavailable.
The multiple instruments thing is surprisingly easy. Generally one person will bring along a song or tune they’ve written or a cover / traditional piece and everybody else just piles in on the instrument they think will work best (or is easiest to play it on!). Very occasionally the person who suggested the song with have some definite ideas of what they want to hear but usually it just evolves, often from playing them out at sessions.
Personally, I am tied to the guitars for most of what we do but I take any opportunity I can to get in on a melodeon, mandolin or any other instrument I can find an excuse to play. I think the multiple instrument thing is important visually as well as musically because it adds extra interest for the audience. I very much enjoy watching the reaction when I pick up my fourth or fifth instrument of the evening and I can see people thinking “crikey you can play *that* one as well!” and I’m thinking “yeah but you don’t know I can only play one tune on it!”
Paul: We try to give the material what it needs to work best for us. We enjoy the layered sound and the musical scope it gives us.
Catherine: We mostly stick to our main instruments but if the music calls for a different one then it’s an easy decision to make with such an array of other instruments at our fingertips.
Becky: We generally stick to one main instrument, switching to others to add colour to, or change the effect of the overall sound.
WF: How has your song writing/recording process evolved over the years?
Mark: The writing is still in its infancy really; it’s something I am trying to do more of. It’s really all about the arrangements in our case and that has been the same since the start and is really the identity of the band. People will just play whatever seems right and it will eventually evolve into the finished product. Occasionally a person will have an idea for another person’s playing on a number but usually it just happens of its own accord.
A perfect example is Blackwaterside, the 11 minute epic. That started out with me melding three vocal versions together, Bert Jansch’s, Steve Knightley’s and David Kilpatrick’s as something I could sing at sessions. The first time I sang it (at the Traveller’s Rest in Oughtibridge), former member Rob Whale was there and stuck in a ripping violin solo so we realised it was to be a band song. Another time, at another session, Rob played a Last Night’s Fun tune called, we think, Bedford Cross and I was playing along on guitar and realised it was in the same key as Blackwaterside so when he finished I went straight into the BWS intro and that sounded great so it stuck. Bedford Cross, though, needed a tune before it so we stuck on two tunes that I was using as a kind of study to advance my DADGAD accompaniment. The trouble was, the two tunes were in different keys and it didn’t quite work but we wanted to stick with them so, again at a session, Rob sandwiched them between yet another tune played twice, firstly in A which was the key of the first tune and then in G, the key of the second tune. Suddenly we had our very own prog rock number! [Feel free to chop all that out if it’s a bit tedious!]
Paul: Not sure really. We’ve added more original material (Mark’s) to our repertoire.
Catherine: It’s always been an organic process. Maybe it’s just got a bit slicker over time.
WF: What’s the most challenging part of being a musician?
Mark: Finding the time!
Paul: Mainly the non-playing stuff eg getting the PA sound right.
Catherine: Finding the time to do everything musically we want to do amongst busy lives.
Becky: The hours of practice it takes to be able to perform at a decent level.
WF: What are you up to at the moment, and what are your plans for the rest of 2015?
Mark: The usual, really. Mostly weddings and festivals over the summer, then a Mark: week of Whitby debauchery followed by pub gigs over the winter. We’re also making our first appearance at the Roots Music Club in Doncaster and playing a cool sounding unplugged thing at the Eten Café in Sheffield. Details on the website, folks.
Catherine: It’s the middle of the wedding season so lots of fabulous ceilidhs at the moment. Back to pub gigs and folk clubs in the autumn. Possible we’ll look at doing a new cd in 2016 – watch this space.
Becky: We’re doing a few festivals, weddings, folk clubs and pub gigs over the next few months, and looking at booking up the winter season with new venues!
WF: Besides hard work what advice would you give to aspiring musicians out there?
Mark: Get playing with other people as soon as possible and don’t get hung up on whether you’re good enough to do so. Sheffield is the perfect place for this.
For guitarists, learn to play the G chord with your second, third and fourth finger rather than first, second and third. Trust me!
Paul: Do what feels right. Try to be an act that *you* would like to hear..
Catherine: Listen to as much music, of as many genres as you can and find where your heart lies.
Becky: Get yourself out there and perform – there’s no other way to smooth your performance and reduce performance anxiety.