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Greg Russell & Ciaran Algar - A Road Well Travelled

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The Living Tradition has never been one to laud the latest young musician as being the future of folk music. Such predictions rarely live up to expectations and first albums, whilst benefitting from an element of freshness, when viewed over time often lack a depth that comes with experience.

Currently on the crest of a wave, Greg Russell and Ciarán Algar display a maturity in their performance which belies their youth. Fast developers or early starters? Probably a bit of both, but my guess would be that it was the early start that gave them their edge.

Greg and Ciarán are embarking on a road trodden by many before them. History does tend to repeat itself and, if they keep their heads screwed on and their feet on the ground, it suggests that they will have a long term association with the music they so obviously enjoy. Some parallels are already fairly obvious, yet there are also differences in time and place which can throw up new choices and challenges. They are enjoying mainstream media attention at an early stage of their musical journey and even if this spotlight exists only for a short time, it brings opportunities that, for previous generations, might have taken many years to achieve.

Comparisons with people like Martin Carthy & Dave Swarbrick and Robin & Barry Dransfield have already been made and Greg and Ciarán are thrilled with this level of compliment. Parallels with Martin and Dave include their accidental coming together as duos, with Swarb joining Martin on a folk club tour that he was initially embarking on as a soloist, and with Ciarán joining Greg on dates that he had previously arranged. Although retaining their own identities, they all clearly enjoy each other’s company and are able to develop a close musical rapport over time. It would be too easy to interview Greg and Ciarán as a duo without respecting their individuality. Twins often suffer from this; people assume that because they look alike they must think alike. Catching up with them during a hectic day of preparation, performance and filming for a live DVD, my conversation was mainly with Greg.

Both Greg and Ciarán have supportive families and a firm grounding in traditional music and although not formalised, they have benefitted from a variety of mentors, some closely involved, others simply keen to ‘look out for them’. Greg explains: “I’ve never had 'one' mentor. There have been people in certain areas who have been extremely supportive. Paul and Linda at Fellside, for example, have always been there to bounce ideas off and talk things through with. I think there are people throughout time who have gone out of their way to 'check' on me, in a helpful and supportive as opposed to an annoying way, but as I’ve developed friendships and spoken to people, I’ve learnt things. There are people who I talk with quite regularly, people who've seen it all before or who can be there to answer questions. They're friends though, before anything else. At the same time, it's really nice to be able just to do it and live it without too much meddling. Make my own mistakes, I suppose, learn on the job. That said, I’ve never felt 'alone' or stranded. There have always been very supportive people.”

With regard to their professional development as a duo, Paul and Linda Adams’ input and guidance has been significant. From the stage, Greg and Ciarán acknowledge the risk that Fellside took with them, committing both to a debut recording and a longer term relationship at a time when they had barely a handful of songs together. “Fellside’s support has been invaluable. First for taking a massive punt on us. We'd done about three sets as a duo when they agreed to take us on. Also, Paul didn't really know the sort of material we were going to produce during the recording session. As well as the faith, without the knowledge and support of Fellside, I don't think I or we would have been in the position to produce an album at that time. So I am eternally grateful for the start, launch pad, contacts and continued support we receive.”

Paul and Linda have seen most things before and appear determined to pass their experience on. Their contribution has been wide ranging - a head, heart and soul investment which goes far beyond that normally expected from an independent record label. With two albums under their belts, their latest project is a DVD of a live concert performance. The recording for this took place in June at the Theatre Royal in Workington. This was on the home patch for Paul and Linda, both having worked extensively on all aspects of the productions in this, their local theatre. The technical aspects of the recording were simply incredible, a multi camera shoot using over 20 cameras - a set-up that Spielberg might have been proud of.

The show rolled from start to finish with no interruptions – no mean feat and a credit to the expertise of the team involved. This is another example of people batting for Greg and Ciarán. A friend of Paul, Edward Cooper, teaches video production at Carlisle College of Art and pulled together a skilled technical team for the occasion, some of them former students now working professionally in film and television production. Attention to detail, and a further example of the heart and soul attachment, was Linda assembling a group of singers to act as a choir for their rendition of The Rose In June. Paul Adams had sent a copy of a Louis Killen CD to Greg, highlighting a song with a simple comment: “Listen to this”. That song, The Rose In June, has become a tour de force in Greg and Ciarán’s repertoire. It has a powerful narrative and although polished and arranged for stage performance, Greg’s essentially direct delivery captivates the listener.

GREG

“I did indeed grow up in a musical household. Mum sings in choirs and Dad has always played in various bands, local and national. I suppose most notably on that front were his involvements in Paul Metzer’s Band and also the Family Mahone, fronted by Mark Radcliffe now of Radio 2.”

“It was Mum and Dad's fault that I started listening to folk music. But as soon as I'd been introduced, I wanted to discover more. It was never forced. Folk Rock was predominantly the music in the house; Fairport, Steeleye, Fotheringay etc., so that was my introduction, but as soon as I'd been introduced, I started discovering more.”

“I don’t think that I ever remember hearing Waterson:Carthy and albums like Penguin Eggs in the house. I discovered them on my own. And when you discover things like that, or for Ciarán, when he discovered Lúnasa, why wouldn't you want to carry on exploring folk music! That was another thing for me. I heard Penguin Eggs and enjoyed that, and I heard Liege & Leaf, and they have got similarities but are both quite different. So I thought, ‘what else can I discover in this big folk music thing, this tradition?’”

“I'd also attend local folk clubs with my parents and going to the local folk club not only gave me a chance to start to play music in public but also to hear more and more songs. Whether I'd have found folk music without mum and dad - I can't really comment - I'd really like to think I would, but as soon as I'd been introduced to the music, I knew I wanted to stay involved.”

We spoke a bit about the duo’s repertoire; where Greg learned his songs, what inspired him and whether he found the various archives that are now available online a help in finding new material. “For us, now, there is so much coming in, there is so much that we have access to that it’s fantastic. As for archives such as The Full English, I’ve not learned anything from it yet but I have looked up things. The first thing that I did was to see if there was anything relating to my local area. I think it would help if I was able to read music. Hearing other singers would be more likely to prompt me to dig into the archives rather than starting from the archive itself. It was like that with Brian Peters - I heard his version of The Wild Rover and asked him where he got it from and he sent me some website links to look up.”

“The mixture of stuff we do includes original material, interpreted traditional songs and interpretations of other people’s songs. I don't think I have a bias, taste wise, to any of the above. I don't really know what makes me go for a song. There are some songs that I would love to sing, but perhaps when I listen to them the meaning is lost – I don’t quite get it. The song has to mean something to me. On the same topic, there are certain songs, tunes, and ideas for songs which I just can't make work! I suppose, basically, in the songs we choose and my limited writing, it's either got to be a really good story or something which really stirs an emotion, whatever that may be.”

“Accompaniment wise, Ciarán will bring a tune, or me a song, and we play it to the other. The other will jump in and start playing along and see what happens. Sometimes, it just works. Sometimes we have to really work at it and that will include one saying to the other what sounds nice/not nice about what the other is doing. Also sometimes, interestingly, an accompaniment might actually change the way we do the song or tune slightly. And it's also possible that an accompaniment may change from gig to gig. Ciarán is so talented that he changes things, within a framework, fairly often. But there are certain things that will always stay. For instance, there are some notes (the height of my musical language) he plays at the end of the instrumental in Away From The Pits. It's bloody brilliant. I'd be sad if he ever didn't play that! I'm a bit more of a 'like to be rehearsed' man, but even I will change a tune accompaniment sometimes!”

CIARÁN

Ciarán also came to the duo with a family background in folk music. Ciarán’s father is the man behind Barleycorn Concertinas, a specialist buyer and re-seller of concertinas. He is also a songwriter, the man behind, among others, A Season In Your Arms, which for me is one of the highlights of Greg and Ciarán’s recent CD. When I listened to the CD and saw the writing credit ‘Algar’, I made the assumption that Ciarán had written the song and that Greg had been the interpreter. I then mused about whether this explained Ciarán’s sensitive song accompaniment style and thought that he might be ‘singing through the fiddle’, delivering his songs once removed. Discovering that his father was the writer at first blew that theory out of the water, but on further reflection, I still think that there is a deeper connection there between song and music. Is this due to exposure to songs in the home or is it something in the genes?

Ciarán’s main interest and musical background lies in Irish music and he cites Sean Smyth, fiddle player with the Irish band Lúnasa, as a major influence. Ciarán was a member of a young band called Trí, a three-piece band playing Irish music and featuring Niamh Boadle on vocals, guitar, whistle, bodhrán and step dancing; Neal Pointon on fiddle, banjo and mandolin and Ciarán on fiddle, bodhrán and bouzouki. Niamh Boadle gives an insight into the band and to the development of the easy stage presence that Greg and Ciarán now have with their audiences. “As we were all teenagers, starting with an age range of 13-15 at our first gig, we were rather reliant on parents to get us around. Those four years were the apprenticeship for us all - gigging all over the place, learning to arrange our music (Ciarán was a good improviser) and developing stagecraft. Ciarán was always very funny on stage, including making up tales about the need for emergency medical treatment for fictitious pets - i.e. buy our CD! On a serious note, our apprenticeship also included learning to be reliable and to always perform to the best of your ability, whatever the audience.”

Trí thrived for nearly four years, reaching the semi-finals of the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Awards. They supported Dervish in a concert and not long after, I got a phone call from Dervish suggesting that I might look them up and do an article on them. My own experience of older traditional singers and musicians is that they are generous with their time and encouraging of a new generation and this is another example of people quietly ‘looking out’ for these young musicians.

Later on and unconnected, I had a phone conversation with Ciarán’s father, Chris Algar, initially about concertinas but then about career opportunities, or rather the lack of them, for young musicians at festivals and clubs. We spoke about Trí and this was the first time that I became aware of Ciarán and his family connections. Clearly they all had high hopes at that time but I think that Ciarán now recognises that the timing was not quite right and that there might even be a downside to being labelled as young musicians. Trí came to a natural end late in 2012 when Niamh headed off to university. Niamh is currently studying the BMus Folk and Traditional Music degree at Newcastle University and as part of that, was able to study for a semester on the Irish Music and Dance BA at Limerick University. Neither of the other two members of the group could drive so there were obvious difficulties in keeping the band together. Clearly the members of the band have moved on with that particular experience under their belts.

Although Ciarán is focussed on Irish music, he is wide ranging in what he picks up. “I was part of a City of Stoke music project called Roots, which was working with musicians from a range of musical backgrounds and introducing them to folk music. A lot of the music that I play that isn’t Irish comes from that. The air, Miss Rowan Davies by Phil Cunningham, is such a beautiful piece of music, I thought it was traditional. And there are also North American things such as Catharsis which I play. There was such a wide variety of things at Roots. Hearing one different tune can open you up to a whole variety of things. Catharsis is from Natalie MacMaster’s fiddle playing, and it was so good that it made me want to go and listen to more of her repertoire.”

“I used to have fiddle lessons from a guy called John Purcell and he taught me about 100 tunes over a two year period, but he also gave me various CDs with probably four times as many. I can hear a tune three times round and can usually get it by the third, so now it’s very much from listening to other bands and seeing people, mainly at festivals and at concerts or sessions, that I get my repertoire. If a tune stands out to me, I’ll go home and learn it. There is a website, thesession.org, which is the database for Irish music, so if I hear a tune that I like, I look there.”

Greg and Ciarán went on to win the BBC Young Folk Award in 2012 and the following year added the Horizon Award in the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. So what of the future? I think there is little doubt that music will feature prominently in the career paths for both Greg and Ciarán and that the odds are good for their current partnership to endure. Had they been a band I would be less optimistic, bands just don’t seem to have the same longevity these days, but I think that the duo format has particular strengths and has a lot going for it. There is room for direct communication with the audience, as with a solo artist, together with the opportunity to spark and blend together without being constrained by tight arrangements.

Ciarán has only just left school after his A levels and is currently looking forward to University …or? “I’ve never had a proper job – and it doesn’t really appeal to me!” Ciarán said this to me not long after I had seen a television interview with Ed Sheeran ahead of his appearance at Glastonbury. Ed Sheeran had made a conscious decision that being a working musician was his further education. So, all options for Ciarán seem to remain on the table.

That choice, musical career or education, is a decision that has been faced by countless other musicians. Many of the older established professional folk groups are populated by people with half-finished degrees or abandoned ‘sensible’ career paths. Tony McManus dropped out of university as the guitar took over, Alistair Anderson took time out of teaching and one of Ciarán’s main musical influences, Sean Smyth, fiddle player and founder of the band Lúnasa, has to balance his time playing music with his career as a doctor. Most musicians of an older generation have had more than one job or another wage earner in the family. The current trend is to play in more than one line-up to give diverse income streams. What will be interesting to see is what difference the commercial opportunities that media attention and large festival stages will make to Greg and Ciarán’s continued ability to balance their choices.

After this summer Greg is returning to university to finish his politics degree, not because he feels that he needs the qualification, rather because he is interested in the subject. Ciarán’s decisions lie ahead of him. He has been offered a place at university but has decided to defer that for a year. This won’t result in any significant change from the position of the last three years, a time during which at least one of them has been in education. The positions might be largely reversed, but it will be very much business as usual in terms of availability for gigs.

I remember the ‘60,000 mile long term tests’ that used to be published in the car magazines in my younger days. I look forward to following Greg and Ciarán’s progress over time. The main flaw I see in that plan though is that I’m not sure if I have another 60,000 miles on my clock! Public exposure has come early for Greg and Ciarán and hopefully their success will allow us to enjoy their performances for a long time to come.

by Pete Heywood.
Published in Issue 103 of The Living Tradition