Interview with Artisan
recorded February 14th at the Warehouse III
in Liberty NY
guys have a lot of words. A lot of words to remember.
Angela: How do you do that?
Jacey: (Laughing) Who says we remember 'em all?
Angela: I guess that's why there are three of you, at least two have got it.
Hilary: It only failed once.
Jacey: It did, yes, just one night in a folk club in Billings, Lancashire. That is the name of a place as opposed to a gastric ailment. All three of us at the same time put our mouths in this non-descript word shape and waited for the other two. (Laughter) The whole thing ground to a halt.
Hilary: It's ok when all three of you are in together but sometimes I find myself on my own. (Laughing) Drowning!
Angela: I think about this moment, since Brian you write most of the stuff, you lay out the song. How much time goes on between here it is and your whole animated visual?
Brian: Well, its never written down. I'll sing the song to Hilary.
Angela: All those words and you don't write them down?!
Brian: I write the words down.
Hilary: He writes the words down but not the music.
Brian: I'll sing it to Hilary. We sit in the kitchen and Hilary will sing the the melody while Jacey and I, well we all sort of improvise and try and work out an arrangement. Once we've got that it's locked in.
Jacey: We basically just sit round the kitchen table and fight a lot. We use the elbow method, you know. "Get off that's my note, I found it first!" (Laughter)
Angela: I like what you put on your web site. " I do that bit in the middle that nobody wants"
Jacey: (Singing) I do that bit in the middle that nobody else wants to sing.
Brian: The fascinating thing is that once we've done that arrangement I have to go away then because I've got all the alternative words floating around in my head from when I started writing the song. I have to almost forget that really for a week and then after that it sort of locks in.
Angela: Do you tape it while you do that kitchen bit?
Jacey: Quite often.
Hilary: We didn't use to. But when we first started singing together we'd just sing. The thing is that I live about 15 minute drive away. In the old days, before we started doing this full time, I'd come up two or three times a week. There was one occasion when we started rehearsing a song and we found this wonderful harmony.
Brian: Ah the lost chord!!
Hilary: It made all the hairs rise on the back of your head it was that kind of harmony. Three days later I came back. We tried it again. We said "That's nice but it's not the one is it?" We took all evening. We've never, ever, ever, found it.
Jacey: Don't know where it went to.
Hilary: So now when we rehearse, if we find something that we particularly want to remember we have a tape recorder. That's the only mechanical help we have.
Brian: Just for rehearsal.
Jacey: We very rarely have to go back to it more than once. Say the following day, we may go back to the tape recorder just to check out what we did. But by the time we've done it a few times its really locked tight into memory.
Hilary: Once its there it never changes. We don't write it down.
Angela: Where do all those words come from? As you are going round today are you writing little thoughts?
Brian: I find I don't write anything at all for months. Then the gate opens and I start writing and I find I'm writing 10 songs in a fortnight. I was talking to Harvey Andrews about this other day. It seems like you go out and absorb a lot of information. You watch things you pick up maybe one line for songs and then you come back. Once you've got all the information you start writing. Once it's all down there's nothing else to write until you've gone out collecting again. So that's the way it seems anyway. But I always did like Gilbert and Sullivan. I love the patter songs. I just love the rhythm. The song "In the beginning" started life as just a jazzy rhythm I had in my head. (He demonstrates) but no words. You suddenly realize I've got the rhythm, you want to that pace, but being a cappella you've got to put words to it, or you've got to sing scat.
Angela: So this is Artisan singing "In the Beginning" Oh, you want to just sing it? I was doing a little prep here to just cut here and go to the CD, but if you want to sing it that would be kind of cool. I didn't mean to..... (they start singing!)
Live at my kitchen table IN THE BEGINNING
Jacey: That's the way it goes. I mean it gets faster and faster sometimes.
IN THE BEGINNING from Breathing Space
TIME MY PEOPLE WERE FREE also from Rocking On The Edge Of Time (underneath first part of dialog)
Hilary: I'd have to say that after 15 years in the business and seeing what other people do and how other people work, I feel still, now, that Brian is the only person I know who is able to write songs in different genres. That doesn't mean that he is not a star in writing certain types of song but he does write songs as the mood takes him. He'll write a jazzy based song, a bluesy song, he's write a traditional English type of song and its almost as though he's writing to order.
Angela: He is very successful in gathering the essence of all of those.
Hilary: They are all equally valid. Its almost as though- he is going to jump in on me now -almost as though when he thinks of a theme or a topic he thinks of it in a style.
Brian: That's really true.
Hilary: We can do that. We can work in any style that you like. I feel that is the difference between Brian and a lot of singer songwriters in the US and the UK.
Brian: I think the strange thing is, that when I am writing, I'd love to write a show. Because every song that I've ever written I know who was singing it, where they were singing it and what the characterization was. Once you've actually got that, once you know what the person is saying and where they are saying it, it almost dictates the style of song. You can almost feel. Are they walking? Are they rushing? Whatever. Takes you to jazz or blues or gospel.
Hilary: Sorry, I'm pushing in now. There's once song that he wrote called Fear on the Our Back Yard CD. Its the nearest thing to a show song that we've ever done. You can almost imagine a chorus.
Jacey: I'd like to see it with about 50 dancers on stage you know?
Angela: I could see that. I could choreograph that. I played it last Saturday.
Hilary: It's not a traditional song. But it is a folk song.
Angela: I can see it like the beginning of "Chorus Line". The blackout. The quick faces.
Brian: That's right.
Hilary: Yes. Yes.
Angela: Fear. Fear. Very choreographed. One group here moves,
Jacey: It's the sort of thing that wakens that thought in the back of your mind doesn't it?
FEAR - from OUR BACK YARD
Angela: Could you be a playwright as well or you just want to do the songs?
Hilary: That's interesting.
Brian: That's an interesting thought.
Angela: You have to have a story to string together, I mean Paul Simon.
Brian: Yeah, this is it. I'd love to do the songs I really get a lot of pleasure when somebody asks me to write something for a character of a moment, I don't know, it's a different thing.
Jacey: A few years ago we played with a theater company in England called Kaleidoscope. They worked with down syndrome actors They asked Brian to do some of the music for it. In actual fact the piece of music that he wrote for it didn't get used in the end which is a great shame because it was absolutely spot on. It was apiece that was very atmospheric. It open a Dickensian theme. It opened up with a dimly lit stage which represented a Dickensian wharf side really down and out kind of setting, with little huddled bodies wrapped in rags. He wrote a song called Hard Ground for that, and it was just so perfect....
ON AIR: Discussion of the freedom that tempos can experience with only voices as instruments. They had decided to not sing it live for the interview and joked about how songs didn't always stay stuck in their memory.
Brian: More often than not when you have guitar and keyboards, you've got to stay to a steady rhythm for all the performers to stay together. With the 3 of us we can pull and push, the tempo can change so much within the song
Hilary: Da da Have I got it or not?
Jacey: It's on a CD.
Hilary: Sorry about that sweetheart.
Jacey: We've haven't sung it for quite a long time.
Brian: So once we've learned something, its locked into memory LOTS OF LAUGHTER
Jacey: He says.
It's locked into memory!
ON AIR: I'm not surprised they have an occasional lapse in memory. I don't know many groups with the sheer numbers of words to remember. I spoke about how they asked us to sing along with chorus's and how someone in the audience of their show that knight commented that their choruses seemed like entire songs.
Angela: And just about the time you are done, we think we might have the first line.
Jacey: You ought to hear us when we are trying to rehearse sometime. When we did "In the beginning" it took absolutely ages to get those words spot on, because the way it was written was "In the beginning, in the beginning, in the beginning" and we ended up singing "In the beginning beginning beginning if you know what to.." and Hilary was saying "No do it like this - in the beginning beginning..." and I'm going "in the be...blah...blah..." (laughter) I was falling over the words so much.
Hilary: I don't know if you have Thomas the Tank Engine over here, but you'll have the little green engine or whatever it is. The second verse is "In the Beginning, beginning, begin. If you know what to do, do" It's so fast that there was a part of the verse "When you sit on your bum and you stick out your thumb and you wait for the hum of a ride or a tow" which makes a lot of sense, but when you are actually doing it at speed its (demonstrates) its like train tracks....
Angela: Yeah, I hear that.
Hilary: We worked on that for quite a while.
Jacey: It took ages.
Hilary: It's mouth shapes. We find that when we work on songs especially the fast ones, it is mouth shapes that matter not just words because it is the little words like the "ands", "ifs", "buts" that can throw you, if suddenly you forget the lines of a song.
we are memorizing words, we are not reading them, we are actually moving
our mouth and saying it.
You are training your memory to remember the words, but you are training your mouth to remember the pattern. From one consonant, to one vowel etc.
Jacey: It is muscle memory. In the end you just have to switch your brain off and trust that your muscles have learnt where they are going.
Brian: Sometimes you can do that. I mean There are times when, well everybody has nights when they are having a bit of a problem remembering things. I find that if I suddenly start rewiring the house at home if I take my mind onto something else, and let the muscle memory continue then..
Hilary: It does it on its own. You are worrying about what the heck the next line's gonna be and it has happened.
Brian: Once you start to try to think ahead and force your own brain to control muscle memory you get in a tangle. It's a fascinating subject.
Hilary: It's like learning lines for a play.
Angela: I don't know many trios that have song after song after song with that kind of incredibly different paces and lots of words. I know trios with a couple of songs like that and then something else.
Angela: I was wondering, to see your thoughts coming out of a whole trio. Or to see Hilary singing this whole thing that you sat down and you wrote you dreamed up, and you're watching her and she's coming out with these - what is that experience like? You write that song for your wife, and she's singing it. That must be kind of magic.
Brian: It is. Still have to pinch myself every so often, because basically these are just my crummy little thoughts late at night that I was scribbling on a piece of paper. When you suddenly realize that they are in front of people that have nice thoughts about them I get ...
Hilary: The ones that are very very personal like "Silly Old Fool" or "To This Ring" ("I'll Sail No More") it does feel different to us when we are singing them because of our experiences, but what I like about Brian's songs is that they are not what we used to call ME songs. They are not so introverted that the people out there listening to the material don't identify with it. They all touch moments in everybody's life where anybody listening to the songs can say "I did that today" or "That's what happened to me"
On Air: I spoke about their tune "What the use of wings" and how universal that song arouses for all the things we have not done or have yet to do
WHAT'S THE USE OF WINGS from Rocking At The Edge Of Time
Jacey: That song actually rings so many bells for so many people, and different bells as well. I mean I always relate it in the introduction to kids flying the nest, and giving kids the opportunity to do what they want.
Angela: Which is a great setting.
Jacey: But in fact people always take it as something entirely different and they relate it to something that is personal for them. Definition of a great song I think.
Hilary: I have to say that when Brian wrote that song, yes he was thinking about his own children as they were growing up, but when I sang that song, or when I read the words to that song, at the time I was almost middle-aged.
Angela: How do you know when you are middle aged?
Hilary: Yeah, well,
Jacey: She's still actually almost middle-aged.
Hilary: I 've never actually grown up.
Brian: You're never too old for a childhood.
Jacey: We get older but we don't admit to growing up.
Hilary: Chronological age and growing up is totally different. (Laughter) At the time this song arrived I had my mother living with me and Artisan as a group was beginning to move out of the local area. NOw this is a big thing when somebody has lost their husband (her mom) and is relying on a child for company, support, for everything and suddenly that child is wanting to move away. Doesn't matter how old they are. In my case I was probably in my late 30's. I should have had my own family by then and I didn't. So the song to me means something totally different. I was the child in that song who was moving away. Everybody who has listened to that song, relates something in their own lives and its different. It's a wonderful song for that.
Brian: I find it quite fascinating really. I am writing things that I think are very English in many cases and I get quite a buzz when I go somewhere else and someone relates to it quite strongly. We are all very similar in some ways. I think that is probably the trick. I have this dream of writing a song that says nothing but everybody understands.
ON AIR: Not one of Brian's songs says nothing. We talked about playing in other areas and a potential language barrier, or meanings of England's "English" words in the lyrics.
Brian: It's quite surprising really for someone who plays with words. When you play with words you are bending the language to some extent. So when Im writing songs Im actually quite often Im playing with something and people in England will see the connection I've made. You worry when you come to other countries if people will get hose little moments. Words do mean different things like something as simple as Jell-O. I didn't know what Jell-O was. I really didn't know. Until somebody made a connection and said, "Its jelly"
Angela: Jell-O is Jelly?
Jacey: and Hilary: Yeah.
Jacey: If its in a jar and you spread it on bread it is Jam. 35 (delete) 36: Jelly is a sugary desert that you eat with a spoon.
Hilary: In England we don't have Jell-O at all. What we have is jelly or jam. Jelly is the wobbly stuff you eat with ice cream
Jacey: Fruity flavored with gelatin.
Hilary: And jam we spread on bread or toast or scones.
Angela: So how does an English gig differ from playing over here?
(After thinking they all say) Not very much.
Brian: And that's what's so nice.
Jacey: I think folk audiences are internationally to be honest. People who like listening to words and I think wherever you are in the world, people who like language and listening to words and relating to the experiences are the same on either side of the Atlantic.
Brian: It's almost like there is a like-minded group of people and the music is what holds them together.
Jacey: Yeah, absolutely
Brian: The like-minded people have the same way of thinking about things. They like to listen to words and it is that the music is a good reason to listen.
Angela: Have you sung to a non-English speaking group?
Hilary: We have in Germany.
Jacey: Yeah (Laughing) That was fun! Actually really, they are not non-English speaking.
Hilary: If we are brutally honest, they speak English better than we do. (Laughing)
Angela: I know it is amazing. It's embarrassing.
Hilary: With British Accents, or with American accents from the war. Quite a lot of them sing in American accents as well.
Brian: Our friend over there has a Scottish Accent. Even he, when we did the "Kicking the habit song" came up afterwards to ask "What is kicking the habit?"
KICK THE HABIT from Our Backyard
Brian: He understood the gist of it, but he wanted the literal meaning
Jacey: He hadn't got that phrase.
Brian: So we realized that we take for granted what they understand in the jargon.
Jacey: Then, when you are talking about a language. If you translate their phrase for "Let's get going" literally it translates as "equal goes it loose" and you think "What?"
Hilary: It is interesting. What Jacey said is also colloquial. "Equal goes it loose" because, when I was at school and learning German "Yet get los" meant "Now, goes it loose." It isn't really that different.
Brian: If I do a gospel song, I can't do it in English or Barnsley, I find I have to attempt to do it a little more American because it demands it. "I ain't going down"
Jacey: It's got an elevator and not a lift in it.
Angela: Right. I was really conscious of that.
Brian: It just has to be, it just has to be like that.
Angela: The song is driving the mood.
Brian: The idea is there and you've got the vehicle you want but basically the song is driving the language and rhythm and everything else.
Hilary: Brian actually wrote a song a few weeks ago which we haven't recorded yet which was totally inspired by our experiences in North America. You will just have to wait for the next album to come along to hear it in total. But it includes references to decks, which we don't have in England.
Brian: Going build me a stair...Just do the one verse...
NEW SONG (laughter)
Hilary: There is a lot more than that.
Jacey: Actually that's because we are all horribly allergic to mosquitos, so we come over in summer we all come out with great big purple welts.
Hilary: It's a subject very dear to our hearts.
Jacey: Actually it's mostly dear to our legs.
Brian: Jacey's our mosquito bait.
Hilary: We stand next to Jacey and she's fine.
Angela: So since this is your freshest song, do you know lines as you hear that that didn't make it in there or are they gone now?
Brian: In that one they've gone.
Angela: But it's your latest one. Do you hold on to lines?
Brian: There's others floating around.
Angela: Oh that will be in something new? So do you have a fragment of something that's going to be something?
Hilary: Oooo that's interesting one Brian.
Brian: I don't know.
Hilary: This is something we don't know about.
Brian: I've got subject matters in thoughts that are floating around. You pick up as you go around. We were staying with someone the other day and they had a little poster on the wall with messages for making a good marriage. They were just little quotations. The bottom one, this really jumped out at me, it was really nice. "May your marriage have enough discord so that you can fine tune your love." Maybe sounds corny, but have enough discord so that you can tune your relationship, that really feels like a nice thought. Don't know what will come of it but it's in the ammunition and it's sort of buzzing around.
Hilary: What's interesting is that when we are actually looking at material Brian may say "Have you heard this before?" and sing us a few lines or a few bars, and in one case we said "Yeah, we know that one." He'd actually written it himself, several years previously.
Brian: All the songs that I ever write, there's always a tune with them. I find that the words and the tune are together. People often ask you which comes first .
Angela: I don't ever ask that.
Brian: Well I know, thank you.
Hilary: Somebody last week asked, and because we don't play an instrument, Brian doesn't work with an instrument though he does play several instruments, he doesn't actually work with one consciously when writing songs. So he doesn't have a guitar riff that he has to put words to so it is possible for him to think of themes or lines that go with a certain melody or rhythm.
Brian: More often than not, if you say words, words when you speak them have a melody. The fact that you go up and down when you're talking is poetry there. So in a sense they are directing the melody. That actually makes the melody much more memorable.
I'LL SAIL NO MORE from Breathing Space
Angela: Do you allow them to change what you are doing? Or is it private?
Hilary: Me and her? (Lots of laughing)
Angela: Are you allowed to say "let's slow that down, let's change that word, let's scrap that verse"
Hilary: We don't actually do that though do we?
Jacey: Not very often no. If there's something we feel really strongly about. Occasionally there will be an odd line that we really don't like and then we will argue about it. In the end he'll still get his own way.
Jacey: We don't sing everything he writes.
Angela: You don't have time.
Jacey: We don't have time no. But by enlarge you are always your own most stringent critic, and so Brian tends to only bring the songs to us that he thinks that we will be able to sing. Then of those sometimes we will have a go at one or two of them and they don't really jell with us and they get put on one side. Sometimes they are put on one side for quite sometime and eventually they come round again. Mostly the songs that he writes, they look at us and we look at them and yeah, we can do that. There's not really much to nit pick with.
Hilary: It's quite interesting because, again, he'll show me a song, he'll sing me the melody, and I'll put it into a key which is mine rather than Brian's. It's going to be quite low. Mostly Im fine. Very occasionally I might alter one note or another, simply because it doesn't feel right or its slightly out of my range, but mostly Im happy to sing what Brian writes.
Brian: The strange thing is, I sing the melody to Hilary, and once she's got the melody sorted out I have to try to forget it.
Angela: Right you're not allowed to sing that part.
Brian: I have to do a harmony around it. So the number of times people come up to me "Can you sing " and I can't do it! I start singing and part way through the 2nd line I switch into a harmony because that's the melody I have locked into my brain. Really strange.
Jacey: I probably know the melody slightly better because I can't actually remember what my harmony is most of the time. I can, I sing it, there is no problem there, but I can only sing my harmony if Hilary is singing the melody. What I hear is the whole sound. I know where my voice has to go to fill in. But if somebody says "What do you sing?" and Hilary's not singing, it takes me a while to actually work out what it actually is.
Brian: I naturally sing bass or low baritone, and if I sing in that range and we sing together there is this hole in the middle, where there is too much separation between the female voices and the other end. The only way to overcome that was for me to sing high and for Hilary to sing low.
Brian: When Hilary sings in her lower register there is a tenor quality to her voice. When I sing in my highest register we can almost make it sound like a double track or duet, the texture quality of the two voices starts to get very close.
Hilary: When we started singing together in the late 80's I was still singing in the register which I'd been trained which was as a soprano, very high and not a lot of use. Jacey sang naturally high and Brian had been trained as a baritone, which was quite high. It takes a while to realize singing together after quite stringent training, to realize whatever you sing, it doesn't matter. You sing where you feel. Nobody is going to come along and say, "You are not suppose to sing in that range. You must sing higher, You must sing lower". So, what we had instead of a bass and two sopranos with a big hole where the tenor should be, we had a bass baritone an alto and a soprano and it made the actual harmonies a lot closer.
Brian: The big joy to me about all of this, is that I'd been to music college and had sat there and had people telling me whether we are playing the right notes or whether we are reading the music right.
Hilary:There isn't a right or wrong.
Brian: We can sit in the kitchen and if we feel its right, it's right. Nobody is there to conduct it. I get a lot of pleasure out of the fact that we make what we feel, right.
Angela: It's amazing the incredible trio sound you get over and over and over with the incredibly strong voice you have Hilary
Hilary: Thank you
Angela: It is still this very definite trio sound. You pull that off time after time no matter how loud she gets.
Jacey: We were just lucky that we had the blend to start off with. We've got three very different voices. Hilary's voice is so strong anyway, and Brian's voice is fairly flexible and my voice is sort of soft and squishy and fills up all the gaps between the other two. You could put any other three voices singing the same three parts that we sing and it wouldn't necessarily work.
Brian: It's just suddenly struck me, it's just suddenly dawned on me. It's that word blend. You can be called "Harmony Singers" which implies that you are singing chords.
Angela: Because you went to school and you know the right note.
Brian: Exactly. But what I feel now, and it's just struck me that perhaps we are blend singers because in a sense what we're doing is not singing harmonies. We sit round and we improvise and never continuously work out what the chord is. We are thinking "fit". There's a hole there that needs filling.
Jacey: It's vocal snuggling.
Brian: 'Tis. (I'm laughing) We've often said that.
Hilary: Like a dry stone wall.
Brian: You suddenly think there's a whole there and I have to fill it but I have to change the texture of my voice to meet whatever in there. That's what we are doing all the time.
Jacey: If you actually listen to us in a studio and solo the voices out and listen to what each person is singing, none of us even Hilary even though she is singing the lead, is singing as a soloist. It sounds strange and wavery and odd. It's when you put all three together you realize that one voice is going out when one is coming in and the second voice is coming in. We do is so automatically that we don't actually think how we do it. We probably couldn't even analyze it, we just know it's something that happens when we are singing.
Brian: Dave Brady from one of the other harmony groups once said that when the harmony is working, you feel it in your feet- and It's true. There are moments when we get on stage and I get a moment where I feel the sensation of the buzz. It's like a resonance throughout the whole of your body. Once you've actually hit that drug that's what you want then.
Angela: Well that was the drug I guess that lead you to quit your day jobs.
Hilary: That's right. It goes up the back of your neck and once it's up the back of your neck, you've had it!
Angela: That must have been a hard decision though.
Hilary: Jacey and I had small businesses. Now we were able to wind them down gradually. Brian had a real job.
Brian: That was a big decision yeah. I was actually deputy principal for a little private school. I was on that ladder
SNAKES AND LADDERS from Breathing Space
Brian: "Snakes and Ladders" I was climbing the ladder. I was looking round for headships and things.
Jacey: Our kids were 8 and 11. Which is quite a crucial time with kids, so the last thing you want to do is put yourself in a financial situation where you lose your shirt on a good idea that didn't quite work. So it had to be carefully thought out. Here we are 11 years later still doing it for a living. We're still poor but we've never actually lost our shirts.
Brian: We often tell the story (coming from Barnsley) I phoned up my mother when we were talking about music full time. I thought "she's really going to be angry". There I am a teacher, with the kids and a mortgage and everything else and I phoned her up to say "I'm thinking of going on the road full time as a musician, and pack all that in" I thought she'll never speak to me again. The first thing she said was "It's no good getting to 75 and wishing you'd done it you know"
and with that Brian said that he is forever grateful to his mother for
that initial reaction.