Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Mary Epworth

Mary Epworth seems like a woman whose time has come. But it was only when she put together a new outfit recently, the Jubilee Band, that things started moving her way. Their debut single, ‘The Saddle Song’, attracted the attention of Radio 2’s Steve Lamacq and earned serious airplay. Described by Mary herself as a "pub shanty", the track is both the perfect example of a resurgent folk-inspired English rootsiness and a calling card for a distinctive new voice. A lop-sided march, somewhere between a wedding procession and a funeral cortege, it gets into your head like a Kylie song but – important difference – you don’t feel guilty about humming along.

For several years Mary was gigging around the North London/Home Counties circuit; she provided backing vocals for The Broken Family Band and The Sweeney and fronted Hannah Fallen and Bambino, but the breakthrough eluded her. So she concentrated on refining her writing: "I think I’ve spent too long being a backing vocalist or playing second fiddle, so I’ve got something to prove with my writing". The results will be obvious on her long-gestated debut album, scheduled for spring release. When we meet up in a London pub, I ask Mary why she has held off so long. "I think I was still not quite happy with being whatever my own strange mixture ended up being. I was too concerned with whether it was going to be ‘psych-folk’ or whatever".

Genre labels clearly don’t bother her now. "I’ve always had some kind of weirder songs and then some more straight, classic-sounding songs, like ‘Heal This Dirty Soul’ or ‘Ray Of Sunlight’, and I’ve always been unsure how these things would fit together on an album. But I think now I’ve come to terms with it". Her songwriting reflects her restless curiosity. One demo, ‘Come Back To The Bough’, which I took for a quirky love song, is apparently inspired by Frazer’s Golden Bough: "I’m a big lifelong subscriber to Fortean Times, so I’m really interested in fringe science and also folklore".

Her music draws on her enthusiasm for psychedelic West Coast harmonies – she listens to a lot of ‘sunshine pop’ – and filters it through a southern English sensibility. Shirley Collins is an inspiration; she also loves the acid-folk noodlings of neglected bands like Forest. "I’m just always looking. I’m never really that interested in contemporary music, so I’m always exploring back". Over the years friends have given her mix-tapes. Will Twynham, her bassist, producer and significant other, is an "obsessive record collector." What excites Mary are "the unsung people. There’s always some amazing album that nobody’s talking about from 1971. There’s always more!"

I sense in her what literary critic Harold Bloom called the "anxiety of influence". In a global supermarket of sounds, with eighty years of recorded music on the shelves, she has to emancipate herself from the past and find her own voice. "If I listened to more of something, maybe I’d just be a straight-ahead clone," she reflects. For years she didn’t listen to any other female vocalists. "When I was younger there were a lot of really bad female singer-songwriters about, so I sort of ended up resenting all of them". Then she discovered the Shangri-Las, which got her into female singers. But still "if I feel that somebody is kind of similar to me, then I don’t like it sometimes. Because I’m afraid of being too much like them."

She’s passionate about Gypsy music. Since her teens she’s worked with Moravian singer Ida Kelarova. "She runs workshops where she uses traditional Slovak Gypsy songs, and it’s not like teaching singing, it’s almost like teaching a gospel method where you learn a song and you learn it phonetically. You don’t know what these words mean and you’re taught how a song can be the vessel for whatever you want to express. If you’re actually emotionally engaged when you’re singing, that’s an extremely beautiful experience". Just as there are perils when white men sing the Blues (or blue men sing the Whites), so Mary is suspicious of Western Europeans who do "fancy-dress" Gypsy. "When you’ve seen little 6-year-old kids who can play guitar, violin, every instrument to virtuoso level, it’s really mind-blowing. I love it so much but I wouldn’t even dream of being a pretend Gypsy band". In her song ‘Six Kisses’, by way of homage, she slips in a couple of lyrics in Romany but – she laughs – "nobody ever spots that".

In December 2008 Mary was a guest soloist at the Sandy Denny tribute in London, where she caught the eye and ear of Guardian reviewer Robin Denselow. "It increased people’s awareness about a thousand fold," says Mary. "An amazing night, and a big honour. Already so much has changed." The smart money says there are more changes ahead for Mary Epworth.

Mary Epworth on MySpace
Photo by Andrew Batt

First published in
R2 (Rock’n’Reel)

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