They have been described as ‘Elbow for seafarers and ramblers’ and have made a name for themselves as electro-folk storytellers. Ahead of their new album, All Life is Here, Ramsbottom-based Harp and a Monkey talk to the editor of Northern Soul.
Northern Soul: The three of you have been together as a band for the past five years. How did you get together? And where did your unusual band name come from?
Martin Purdy: We’ve known each other and been involved in different things longer than I like to admit, perhaps 20 years. As for the name, we had a problem with an act we had been involved with before. We had a recording contract when we found out another act in Scandinavia had the same name. And we had a similar problem before that. So we were determined to get something that no one would have this time. We have a harp and Andy [Smith] has an adage in life that everything goes better with a monkey. It does sound like a dodgy pub in Lancashire. In this day in age it’s so important to have a name of our own.
NS: You describe yourselves as electro-folk storytellers. What does that mean?
MP: We do left-field folk music. But we are following the tradition of folk music in the sense that folk music is traditionally about storytelling. It was how news got around. That was why we started doing this whole thing, we wanted to tell stories and get back to the tradition of storytelling. To a lot of people, the word ‘folk’ can send shivers down their spines. They think of beards and sweaters and people rambling on for ten verses. We wanted to put it in a 21st century context. Our songs are free-forming songs and mix in modern electronic music.
NS: Who are your influences?
MP: Definitely Bjork, but just as much as Bert Jansch and traditional folk. And when you look at Bellowhead, you see that there are more and more people trying to take traditional folk music in a different direction. And look at Tunng, they were trying to do different things quite a while back.
NS: Martin, you used to be a journalist working on such things as the TV series Who do you think you are? I gather your work as a historian is now playing a part in the band’s upcoming work.
MP: Yes, I’m a historian, that’s what I do to pay the bills. I’ve written a couple of books on the First World War…David [Agnew] at The Met in Bury mentioned doing a show with the centenary of the war coming up. There will be so many people doing First World War stuff so we thought really hard about how we wanted to do it. So we are looking at the role music played during that period and how music was used as a weapon for morale.
NS: You are playing at The Met in Bury on Wednesday. How important are venues like The Met which support folk music?
MP: We love The Met. It’s a spiritual home for us. It’s great for us, it represents a level for us that, when we started, that’s where we wanted to be playing, venues like that and The Grand in Clitheroe. We’re there now which is psychologically a really nice place to be. The Met is a fantastic place.
NS: So, what can people who go to your gigs expect?
MP: We mainly do original songs, our first album was all original. But on the second we have four traditional songs that we have re-worked and re-written…I don’t like going to folk clubs in the middle of Lancashire and finding they are full of people singing Celtic folk songs. I like all of that but we are a product of where we are. It’s really important, if people in Lancashire aren’t performing Lancashire folk songs, then who is?
By Helen Nugent
What: Harp and a Monkey
Where: The Met, Bury, Lancs
When: November 27, 2013