Interview | ‘Face to Face’ with Twelfth Day

Scotland’s Twelfth Day inhabit a special place. Catriona Price and Esther Swift are classically trained musicians, yet in their band there is a focus on improvisation one rarely sees.

The opportunity to question these women and introduce their newest track ‘Fact of Life’ was an incredible opportunity that For Folk’s Sake simply couldn’t pass up.

The track is taken from their new album, Face To Face, released on November 8.

For what would appear to be a couple of classically trained musicians, what made you leave the “farm” so to speak and begin mining a completely different vein of music? 

We both grew up playing folk music, Catriona playing Orkney tunes in sessions, and Esther singing border songs and tunes. When we were studying classical music we realised we both have a passion for new music…that goes for classical, folk, pop, jazz, trad. and everything in between. Our music is a combination of our many shared experiences and different influences from the past 12 years of knowing each other.
The harp is generally considered to be a lead instrument, yet often it seems as if Esther is using it in a more rhythmic fashion, much like a rhythm guitarist would. It seems to be an interesting and brave choice. How did it come about? 

Esther has always played and sung at the same time and likes to combine as many different voices on the harp as possible, mixing up tunes between the left and right hand, and adding a bass line and different syncopations.  The pedal harp is still a relatively new instrument (invented around 1810) and is not used much in folk or pop music, so there’s so much to explore… it’s a great opportunity to visit uncharted waters!

The more I listen to the new album the more I’m impressed by your ability to work in a range of different styles as if you feel bound down by constantly having to be this or that type of music. In America in the sixties and early seventies there seemed to be a sense of only having two types of music, good and bad. Have you made a conscious decision to avoid being put into a particular box?  

Yes we heartily agree with this statement – music is either good or bad.  Genre is convenient for describing things to other people and putting bums on seats – we understand that it is necessary – but our favourite musical experiences have always come about when we have open ears and open hearts and minds and perhaps initially find things challenging and hard to understand.  One of the most rewarding things for us as a duo is to challenge ourselves in what we listen to and the music we create.  The aim is that this feeling will then be transferred on to the listener. We feel it’s our duty as musicians to always explore new sounds, new processes, new harmony, new structures, new concepts. It’s amazing to have found a musical collaborator you can work so closely with.  We know each other so well, both musically and personally, and feel very lucky that we’ve found a musical partnership in which we continuously challenge and stretch each other. We’ve learned our craft together and are pretty sure there will be a Twelfth Day album out when we’re in our 80s. 

On the song ‘Face To Face’ off the new album I have this vision of the four of you together in one room trading ideas back and forth. How did that come about? And is it hard to improvise on harp?  

It’s hard and easy to improvise on any instrument, depending what parameters you set for yourself.  Improvisation is all about boundaries! I think it’s only really possible to work out those parameters by doing it.  This piece was created after Catriona and Esther had a series of jams and pulled ideas back and forth a lot, over the course of many days before it found it’s current form.  We scored it out for the drums and bass and evolved their parts with the guys in rehearsals.  It’s probably one of the most challenging and oddly structured things on the album, but we like its weird ebbs and flows, and it’s many faces.

‘In The Bar’ seems like an incredibly formal piece of music and in a completely different way so does the last tune, Reset Button. What was the idea behind those two pieces?  

‘In the Bar’ and ‘In the Filling Station’ are supposed to sound intimate and creepy at the same time, to underpin the dark subject matter. We liked the idea of the four voices (our two vocals and the violin and the harp) moving together in four-part harmony here; of precise, cluster chords and harmony taking inspiration from choral psalm singing. We wanted our two voices and our instruments to meld together in these small pieces, barely being able to tell one from the other.  ‘Reset Button’ is a tongue-in-cheek song, with an accompaniment that ironically mimics classical harp techniques. There is even a cadenza and a quote from Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ (one of the most iconic harp moments in the repertoire) in there….  The crooked waltz and meandering harmony and melody depicts the protagonist slowly going mad as she goes round and round the same scenario, poking fun at herself and the object of her affection. I guess the formal connotations of these pieces are due to them being the most classically influenced on the album.

I’m curious about something. As a Yank it seems that most of the bands that I’ve fallen for the past few years are all Scottish. Do you have any ideas why that might be? 

We’re very lucky to have a thriving and diverse music scene in Scotland. Our folk tradition is very much alive, which means people are taking the old music and making it relevant and new.  Scotland is excellent at celebrating its diversity in its tradition – every island and corner of Scotland has a different and unique tradition, and there is space for all of it in our wee country. This feeds into all areas of the industry – Scotland also has thriving classical, jazz, indie and electronica scenes (to name a few!). And as our country is pretty small, there is a lot of cross over and we all know each other. This enables all musicians to gain easy access to a wide range of influences, which makes for unique music. But it might just be the Scottish air… ;)

Recently it seems like there’s been a focus on harpists, Mary Lattimore, Florence Welch, and you, the inimitable Esther Swift. What is it that seems to be spawning this new interest in the instrument? 

I don’t know, but I’m delighted about it! The harp is ancient in its original form, but the pedal harp is still a very new instrument and it’s pretty formidably large… because of this there are so many unexplored sounds a textures and depths to the instrument. Perhaps it’s because music is recorded to such a high level now, and so the true depths and rich qualities of the harp can be heard in recordings. It’s also a very diverse instrument, and can act as a solo, with vocals, or with a band. It has beautiful bass, percussive sounds, and is also steeped in the Celtic traditions, which gives it a history and familiarity. I also think it’s a very human-like instrument- every single noise you make on a harp is made by the finger, so it’s very reliant on the player.  It has the same register as a piano and it’s mildly more portable, so what’s not to love!
Your music reflects a view of the world that seems to focus on a number of areas that many artists would shy away from going. What is it that makes you want to go into these areas? 

We have so many shared experiences and feel united on so many subjects. Subjects such as climate change, women’s rights and mental health are subjects we feel passionately about and have discussed together a lot over the years.  It’s a good opportunity to speak out about what we believe in and what we want the future to look like. We feel that it’s important to speak your truth through your art – to provide thought provoking subject matter in an accessible format that will hopefully inspire others to speak theirs.

The years on from the start of your career what has changed for you? What have you learned and is there a path you didn’t take that now might be interesting?  

We have certainly honed our sound a lot over the years and had the chance to experiment a lot which has been a great privilege. Our lessons would be: Stay true to yourself and what is important to you. We feel like there is no point in doing music unless you feel like it means something significant to you. It’s a very tough industry at the moment and new music is not celebrated as it should be, in our opinion. Also – always work with good friends! Part of the success of the longevity of our collaboration has been because we communicate well and are always very honest with each other. It’s so joyful and fun working with your good pal!

Beyond the upcoming tour, what’s next, what worlds are left for you to conquer?

The next phase of our international folk music sharing project Routes to Roots is in the pipeline (see our website for info). We are also busy plotting with our agents for more touring in 2020… hoping to make it to North America! There are infinite musical worlds left to conquer and our goal is to continue exploring and keep pushing ourselves. Three albums in, it still feels like we’re at the tip of the iceberg… 

Following the release of the new album, Twelfth Day will be hitting the road later this month. The full dates are below.

UK tour dates in full:

15th November – Scots Fiddle Festival, Edinburgh

18th November – Hug and Pint, Glasgow

19th November – Colchester Arts Centre, Colchester

22nd November – Ashburton Arts Centre, Ashburton, Devon

23rd November – Tolmen Centre, Constantine, Cornwall

24th November – The Acorn, Penzance, Cornwall

25th November – The Bell Inn, Bath

26th November – Cambridge Junction, Cambridge

27th November – Cecil Sharp House, London

28th November – Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry

29th November – Hyde Park Book Club, Leeds

30th November – Victoria Hall, Settle