Bellowhead’s cellist, singer and violinist Rachael McShane takes us through her first solo album, No Man’s Fool, track-by-track.
Rachael: I knew I wanted to work with musicians from outside the folk scene for my solo project, but I didn’t set out with a plan of how I wanted it to sound. It was an exciting process for all of us, discovering what we could do with traditional material. In the end I think you can do pretty much what you like with traditional folk songs, as part of an aural tradition they are open to interpretation. Folk music is constantly evolving and I think folk audiences are pretty welcoming and open to new concepts and ideas. As we were putting the songs for the album together we soon realised there was a theme emerging, we had a sailor, a gardener, a highwayman, a fisherman etc. but there were also a lot of strong women in the songs, which is where the title ‘No Man’s Fool’ came from.
Captain Ward is not only the first track on the album but was also the first song we put together as a band. As well as the regular band; myself on vocals, James Peacock on keyboards, Jonathan Proud on bass and Adam Sinclair on drums, we enlisted the skills of Julien Batten on accordion for this track. I learnt this song from fellow Barnsley singer ‘Uncle’ Dave Burland. You can hear his version on his album ‘A Dalesman’s Litany’.
The Highwayman Outwitted
I found this song in a book, gave it a new tune and wrote a little instrumental melody to go along with it, which was played by Tom Oakes on Bansuri (some sort of bamboo flute to me and you!). A young girl meets a highwayman on the road who demands that she gives him her money and clothing. She manages to trick him and escape with his money and his horse…that she rides naked!
When we were putting together the songs for the album, bass player Jonathan Proud asked if I had any songs in 5/4 and this one sprung to mind. I’d been singing it for a long time, but it hadn’t crossed my mind to record it on the album. It ended up being quite rhythmically led, using a cajon and lots of percussion as well as some distorted bass! A bit of a contrast from the unaccompanied version I’d sung before.
My Johnny Was A Shoemaker
Despite the fact her shoemaker lover has gone to sea, the girl in this song is optimistic that he’ll return…with a sword and a spyglass she hopes! We never find out whether or not he does come back. I persuaded all of the band to sing on this number, there’s a big belt it out bit at the end!
Maid On The Shore
The Maid On The Shore is probably my favourite ever folksong. There are quite a few songs about strong women on this album and this is one of them. I like the fact she uses her singing voice to get what she wants, singing the ship’s captain and crew to sleep and robbing them of their wares! This song ended up being a monumental arrangement! We added a tune I wrote called ‘The Mad Captain’, played by myself and Bellowhead band mate Sam Sweeney on fiddles alongside Julien Batten on accordion. We also asked a friend of ours from Newcastle, Edd Carr, to arrange some parts for a string quartet and brass section and fantastic folk singer Emily Portman sang some backing vocals. It was a busy old day in the studio!
The Drowned Sailor
I’ve been singing this song for a long time; I love a bit of doom and gloom in a folksong! It is quite sparsely arranged and has a slight jazz feel to it. We made a feature of my cello on this track…the cello seems well suited to doom and gloom!
The Gardener tells of a fairly nice chap who seems intent on making the girl in the song happy. Unfortunately she can’t stand the sight of him, saying ‘every time that you pass by, I’ll wish you were away’. We spent a very boring morning in the studio waiting for Adam to tune his drums before recording this track, but it was well worth it. At the last minute we called Emily Portman back into the studio to sing some harmonies at the end of the song and she was rewarded with toasted sandwiches for being available at 9 o’clock at night with ten minutes notice!
I think this is my favourite song on the album, it’s another song about a strong, and in this case audacious woman. We got our friend Richard Sutton to sing the voice of the evil man in this song (it wasn’t type cast!). He turns out to be a particularly nasty character in the end but luckily the girl in this song is a lot cleverer than he is! When we perform the song live I get to play tambourine (recently promoted from shaky egg!)
I got this song from the singing of the fantastic Nic Jones from his album ‘The Noah’s Ark Trap’, which my dad has on vinyl, sadly no longer available. Based on a true story, it tells of Miles Weatherhill who fell in love with the parson’s servant Sarah Bell. When the parson prevented them from being together Miles took revenge with four pistols and an axe. He was the last man to be publicly hanged in Manchester.
The shepherd lad in this song chances upon a girl swimming naked one morning. He takes her home like a good boy…and she’s pretty disappointed! I found this song in a book but it didn’t have a tune so myself and keyboard player James Peacock wrote one for it. It’s a good old sing along number and so we got everyone who sang on the album to come along and sing the chorus…apart from James, who went bowling instead!
Rachael McShane’s debut album ‘No Man’s Fool’ is out on 17th August ’09 on Navigator Records. For more information see www.rachaelmcshane.com.