In the wake of her new album release and ahead of her upcoming tour, Louder Than War’s Mike Ainscoe caught up with Bella Hardy to reflect on a hectic year and explore her thoughts on writing and recording the album.
Louder Than War: In 2014 you were named Folk Singer Of The Year and at the end of March you released a new album titled With The Dawn. It showed a fresh approach and new producer Ben Seal got you taking a confident and bold approach to your music. Last summer you embarked on the Thirty At 30 Tour and you were also involved in the Songs For The Voiceless project, The Elizabethan Sessions, The Blue Rose Code Tour and worked with Cara Luft. That was a busy year!
Bella Hardy: Yes, the duo tour with Blue Rose Code was last year. I was gigging with him on weekdays, and Carthy, Hardy Farrell & Young at weekends through February and the start of March. In the middle of that were the Folk Awards at the Albert Hall, a night I’ll not forget in a hurry, and at 9am the morning after that I flew to America for the first time for a 4 day music conference called the Folk Alliance. In January I had been focusing on writing Jolly Good Luck for a project called Songs For The Voiceless, and in March we did The Elizabethan Project! The tour with Cara Luft in Canada was the October before, December was Christmas touring, and May to June was Thirty For 30 … I can’t remember what I did in April. Slept I imagine! Oh yes, I was working on With The Dawn.
In quite a full year with so much happening, was there anything which stood out?
Obviously Thirty For 30 was a highlight. It really seemed like a long party. Travelling to Canada and touring with Cara Luft was amazing; just seeing the Rockies, and the northern lights for the first time, I felt very blessed. But I think The Elizabethan Session will stick with me as a high point of that time; it was a chance to stay in one place, this beautiful house near Hereford, for 6 days, and just be cut off, let go of things, and let the artist part of you take control, in the company of incredible writers and musicians. It was magic.
Turning to the new album, it would first appear that it’s a bit of a departure from the folk themed norm. It’s all based on a year in your life isn’t it?
I wouldn’t say it’s based on a year in my life, more that it stemmed from that year. I’ve always kept a kind of “creative diary”; I don’t think of it like a journal, it’s just thoughts and feelings jotted down every day, often in the form of poems and lyrics. I do it more so when I’m travelling, I think I use it as a way of trying to keep track, trying to anchor myself to something when the world feels unstable. The first song I wrote that features on With The Dawn started in Spring 2013, and the last was June 2014. I did a lot of travelling and touring in that time! Time Wanders On was written whilst I was in Canada with Cara Luft; The Only Thing To Do was written on my return from that trip partly using notes from those travels; First Light Of The Morning was written in Edale when I’d gone home for Christmas; Oh! My God! I Miss You was written in Kansas City at the Folk Alliance conference, inspired by a postcard of an artwork by Yoshitomo Nara which has that same name (I was using the postcard as a bookmark). All the songs were written on the road, or composed from notes from my creative diary at that time. I don’t see it as a departure from my previous work at all. I’ve always written like this, but usually blended my own notes and thoughts with my love of traditional music. Because I was travelling all the time I had less of a chance to do this, partly because I didn’t have the resources, but mostly because I didn’t have the energy. I was exhausted. And partly what my producer Ben Seal persuaded me to do was to not try and hide that in amongst the writing, to just be as honest as I could. It makes With The Dawn a pretty direct link to how I was feeling at any time during that year. I definitely don’t think it’s a departure from folk themes. It’s folk all over.
Some critics have labelled the album as a more mature work. Is it almost a result of hitting the grand old age of 30?
I suspect in part it is! I’d never thought there was any truth in this idea that turning 30 would be any kind of big deal. You get the feeling that people think it’s something unmentionable that you should shy away from. So I decided to throw a 30 date tour to let everybody know… But I do think it a stage in life where a lot has happened to you, to anyone, as a human; there’s a lot to take stock of, and I was working through some fairly run of the mill human experiences, so in that way turning 30 definitely influenced the music. But in my experience it also feels like the further you age, the less you worry about people’s responses to what you have to say. There were times in my 20s I’d be afraid to debate in case I was wrong, or couldn’t back my theories up with argument or research. Now I just open up my head and my heart and put it out there. Is that more mature? I’ve no idea!
Maybe it is or possibly a case of being more confident and willing to take risks and be bolder in the choices we make in terms of writing and arranging songs. It must have been quite liberating to be able to almost seize the moment and capture ideas when the inspiration took hold?
Yes. I love the process of writing when you’ve something you really want to express, it’s very freeing for me. And I think writing melody lines in that frame of mind somehow captures the feeling that much more truthfully, and in a way that instinctively speaks to the listener, than when tunes are written later and out of context. I think Oh! My God! I Miss You is probably the best example of this on the record.
As the album took shape was there a point at which you consciously said “no traditional songs this time” or maybe realised that the way you’ve worked with traditional song in the past wasn’t going to be a feature of the new songs?
Not at all. I’ve never planned albums like that. Someone gave me some great advice when I was starting out; let a record be just that; a record. Previous albums recorded times in my life when I was learning new traditional songs and performing traditional music side by side with my own writing, so that’s what got recorded. Because I was travelling during the time of With The Dawn, I was doing all original writing.
Having had a chance to glimpse through the words in the CD booklet, lyrically they seem to have underlying theme of love and relationships in various guises.
Always. In every album I’ve ever made I think. In pretty much every song I’ve ever sung. I think our whole existence is made up of the relationships we have, be they platonic, romantic or familial. The songs on With The Dawn are actually pretty evenly spread across the three.
The album sees you working closely with Ben Seal – he’s literally all over it as both producer and musician. How did the pair of you come together?
We met through a pal and got chatting about music. Ben is a great songwriter himself, and asked me to guest vocal on one of his, so I went into the studio in Edinburgh and did that. I loved his approach to writing and music making, and to being an artist, and he gave me the courage to send him one of my songs (recorded into my phone). Before I knew it, he’d arranged it, recorded the new version, and sent it back. I loved it. That was the start. Yes, he has been as big an influence as it appears. He became my artistic confidant and kept me true.
The instrumentation seems quite varied – moving from very sparse and simple to bold and exciting. Do the songs come to you as lyrical or musical ideas or a bit of both?
It’s different with every song for me. On previous records, I’ve quite often been imagining whole scores whilst writing a song, which I do either with fiddle accompaniment or at the piano. Getting those idea out of your head and into reality is much harder! They usually change dramatically, but that’s ok. It was slightly different on With The Dawn as I was working with producer Ben Seal right from the start of the process. Lyrics and melody always come first for me. With some songs, for example Gifts, I had a strong idea of how it should sound; the fiddle pluck and backing vocals were all part of the original rough recording I made before I sent it to Ben, and he built from there. With other tracks, he’d take the rough demo I created and, pick my rough edged accompaniment off it and start again. He’d mock up creations and then we’d sit in the studio experimenting with sounds and feelings and instruments to best express the song. Bits of the original recordings remained on; the start of You Don’t Have To Change (But You Have To Choose) is the song recorded onto my phone on the night I wrote it. With me playing 12 string guitar! I can’t play the guitar.
Interestingly, the press release has labelled the album closer, And We Begin as a lullaby. Jackie Oates’ work suddenly seems to have opened the lullaby floodgates.
I’ve never thought of And We Begin as a lullaby before, that’s interesting. I love Jackie’s work, she’s a great talent. I think lullabies have always played an important part in folk music, there can be so much meaning behind them. I previously wrote The Ilam Lullaby for my Peak District project The Dark Peak & The White, as a way of telling the story of St Bertram. And one of my favourite songs, which I used to finish gigs with when I gigged solo, is the Cape Breton Lullaby by Kenneth Leslie, it’s beautiful and heartbreaking. And We Begin is the last song I wrote in that year, and in that set of songs, so I thought it only fitting to finish the album with it. It’s, well, it’s a poem, and a promise I suppose. To the man I wrote it for, and to myself.
And With The Dawn is your first release on vinyl – very exciting; what was behind that?
It was time! And it is exciting isn’t it. But because I run my own label, Noe Records, it was another learning curve. Never a dull moment.
Photographs taken on the ‘Thirty At 30’ Tour at The Met, Bury, June 2014 and the Great British Folk Weekend, Skegness, December 2014.