Bryony Griffith & Alice Jones
by Jo Freya
Sometimes interviews on paper don’t give you the full flavour of the people you are talking to. In this instance, the accent, West Yorkshire, some dialect, and much laughter cannot be evoked here, but if you have the good fortune to see Bryony Griffith & Alice Jones perform, which I would encourage you to do, you will get all that and more. I thought I’d start off by asking them to clarify who they are, individually, and how people might know them.
Bryony: “Well, initially for me it would have been Bedlam, the ceilidh band, which started nearly 30 years ago - would you believe it? We were still at school. Then I was in The Witches Of Elswick, and my husband Will Hampson and me were in the Demon Barbers for a very long time. That came about originally because Will and I were involved in a lot of traditional dance with Dog Rose, and Newcastle Kingsmen - obviously me not dancing, just playing. Then there’s solo stuff that I’ve done and lots of education and workshop stuff, choirs and things. That’s probably me in a nutshell.”
Alice: “Most people would probably know me from working with Pete Coe and Ryburn 3 Step. I started going out with them when I was a child doing tap dancing stuff. That sometimes results in people being genuinely surprised when I get up on stage with a piano. Often there’s not much crossover between dancing people and concert people and that’s why some people don’t know I do other stuff. I’ve been in other things like Mick Ryan’s folk opera, and I did that massive gig at Hyde Park with a strange disco folk thing. We did that once - the album was called Folk Fever and the band was called The Band Of Love.” Alice was laughing at this point. “We didn’t choose any of those aspects. Many years ago I was the youngest chair of quite a big folk organisation. I was about 18 and in charge of the Ryburn 3 Step organisation, and then from there got asked to do other things as a sort of representative of the young people. A tiny bit of that was to do with Shooting Roots and then I ended up organising a load of stuff at the Cheltenham Folk Festival, doing stage management there. Then I also got involved with the Oxford Folk Festival when that first started. That team then migrated round to other festivals.”
So, let’s talk about the album now, a new CD called A Year Too Late And A Month Too Soon. How did working together come about?
Bry: “We were both doing quite a lot of solo gigs which, in my case, happened mostly because our son Jonah had started school and it was really too hard for Will and me to do duo gigs. After my solo album and that tangent I then did my fiddle solo album. Alice, you were doing solo stuff as well, weren’t you?”
Alice: “I’d just finished doing the Kidson stuff with Pete, but my solo album had only been out a year or two before we started working together.”
Bry: “We were on the same bill at a few festivals, like Sidmouth and Whitby, and we’d got chatting a couple of times, setting the world to rights, like you do. We were both drawing on the Frank Kidson collection and the Yorkshire manuscripts, both talking about trying to get gigs and, well, I don’t know what Alice thought, but I was starting to think, ‘Mmm, this could be good!’… Oh hang on, naked child arriving.” Sure enough, Bryony was sat on by her gorgeous little daughter, Mari, who punctuated a fair bit of our interview by climbing all over her mother - hilarious. Bryony continued: “Then I’d been doing a project called The Theatre Ballads which was with Kate Locksley, Ewan McLennan and John Kirkpatrick. We had puppeteers and loads of images and things to go with these big, long broadside ballads. We’d done a few gigs but then we were having a bit of a change of line-up, and I suggested Alice because she could both sing and accompany. Esther Ferry-Kennington at Todmorden had been involved in all The Theatre Ballads stuff and she was well up for getting Alice on board as she was local, female and Yorkshire…” We had a brief pause for fist pumping at the word Yorkshire… “For various reasons that line-up of the project didn’t happen, but Esther had a slot for the show at Todmorden Folk Festival in 2019. So she asked us if we would do a joint gig, and she wanted it to be ‘The Sounds Of West Yorkshire’, which could be interpreted in many different ways I guess.”
So, she planted the seed of the idea to focus on Yorkshire material - not that you needed a seed for the two of you to ‘big up’ Yorkshire, having seen you perform.
Bry: “Yes, and that did focus us. We did a bit of solo material and decided we would try to collaborate on a few things. Alice accompanied me on Cropper Lads, which I’d normally do solo, and I joined in with harmonies on Young Banker with harmonies. We didn’t have anything new together at that point… Alice you can talk now. I’ve run out.”
Alice: “The gig was sold out and went really well. Everyone was raving about it and being really supportive, saying things like, ‘I’nt it nice that there are two ladies up there doing local trad stuff’, and saying that we knew our sources and had done our research. And then I was nagging Alan to perhaps give us a slot at Sidmouth, so he gave us this 45-minute slot in the Bedford, at which point we went, ‘Oh no! We’ve got to fill 45 minutes’. It was then we started to come up with new material for both of us. We did the gig, and again it was received really, really well. At that point we had already decided we wanted to keep doing it, but it wasn’t until we hit the lockdown thing and Bry said to me, ‘Well we’ve got all these songs, why don’t we use the time to record and work on the material, which is how the CD happened. Lockdown precipitated it all.”
Bry: “We’d got some more gigs lined up too. We’d got booked to play at Shepley, to do a full headlining slot at Todmorden, and then Folk Expo. That was 2020. Just before lockdown we’d started getting more material together anyway.” (Mari, at this point, started singing the words “boing boing boing” very loudly to the tune of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Bryony was trying very hard not to be distracted, as were we all…) “We’d got a list together of songs we wanted to do. We knew what we were aiming for in terms of the tracks we had, but then the longer lockdown went on, the list changed quite a lot.”
Ah… that was one of my questions… whether you were going to have to whittle down the amount of material you had, or whittle up, if you see what I mean.
Bry: “My master plan was to record at Cawthorne, at the Rusby’s, with Joe Rusby producing. It’s about eight minutes from my house and Mari, at that point, was nine months to a year old. I thought I’d be able to drive between home and the studio, which would make life a little bit easier. We were going to do that in the November, but we’d still not even met up, despite the ideas floating around. By the time we came out of lockdown again, the studio and those premises had been sold. The master plan had gone out of the window a bit, except Joe Rusby was still keen to do it. So we had to look for other premises and that gave us more time to look at the material and think ‘…well actually, that song, I’ve gone off it now’ or ‘…I’ve found another version of that song’. We both went away and did a lot more research. I think I sent Alice about 10 different versions of the tune for Edward.”
Was this self-funded or did you have any kind of backing for this at all? They both shake their heads and Bry says, “Nobody helped at all,” and Alice adds, “and nobody’s helping now.” Well, it’s self-help these days isn’t it?
Bry: “We did start looking into some Arts Council funding but it’s not really for the right thing is it - it’s for touring grants or new works. There isn’t a nice little box we could tick that said ‘researching local folk songs’. We decided the effort of applying for the funding was more than it was worth.”
Alice: “We’d been hammering it for a while and then stopped as nobody could give us any definitive answers about gigs or anything. Almost as soon as we stopped chasing stuff, suddenly people were coming out of the woodwork and contacting us. That helped spur us on.”
Whilst you were gathering and honing your material, were there any rules you had for choosing what would or would not go on the CD? For instance, there seems to be a very clear balance between who is taking the lead. Was that deliberate?
Alice: “You know what, it happened quite naturally. That’s one of the reasons I like working with Bry, actually, as it’s all just naturally fallen into place. There was a point when I looked at the instrumentation of things and thought… ‘Oh, I need to do another one on the harmonium’ or ‘I’m not going to do that on guitar, I’m going to do this’ or ‘Let’s do another unaccompanied one’ - so there were some decisions like that, but mostly it just kind of worked.” It’s almost like you know it’s meant to be when something falls into place like that. “Yes, and that’s not to say we hadn’t been working on stuff and then going, ‘Oh why is that not right?’ There have been some frustrating points, but it felt amazing to come up with these arrangements despite the isolating situation we were both in. I live with my parents and they’re technically vulnerable, or we thought they might be at the time, so I was hardly leaving the house. The only way we could work on things was to send each other a recording. I’d send something to Bry saying, ‘I’ve thought of these chords to go with this’, and then Bry would send me something saying, ‘Oh that’s just made me think of that’. For example, on My Johnny Was A Shoe Maker, I thought it sounded really cool while I’m slapping myself…” (Alice’s description of her body percussion.) “I sent it to Bry saying, ‘Whadeya think?’ And the fiddle riff she sent back to me was amazing. We very much influenced and inspired each other when we were coming up with things. It had to be like that because we couldn't be in the same room together.”
Bry: “We didn’t actually physically get together until February of 2021 and it was so weird because neither of us had been with anybody - musically or socially. It had only been hanging out in your own back garden with five other people and, for us, because we were four anyway, it meant only two other people at any one time. It was such a weird feeling.” Alice interjects: “We were in a friend’s gym in Rippendon at the other end of the village. It’s a big open space with windows everywhere and she let us have it. I had bacterial wipes for everywhere.” And Bry continues, “We were wearing masks, we had all the windows open! We didn’t touch anything the other had touched.”
Bry: “I felt like it was the first time that I’d achieved anything that wasn't just cooking meals for my family. It was such a weird feeling. We didn’t change a lot of what we’d arranged remotely, over the phone! We’ve got zoom, internet, mobile phones all this technology, but in the end the only way we could really hear each other properly was using good old-fashioned landlines. I would just hide in our little kitchen with our landline on the floor on speaker phone, after the kids had gone to bed, playing down the phone. So instead of really altering the arrangements, we just practised them and sorted out little bits of phrasing and timing. Then we were good to go. Joe suddenly told us that he was going to book a studio in June of 2021 and that’s when panic set in. You suddenly realise, ‘Oh god, this is real, and we actually have to know this stuff.’ We had a few proper practices at Alice’s house where we just went through it and through it. When we got there, Joe said, ‘This is going to work really well because you’re so well-prepared.” And we both went… ‘Really! Well if this is what well-prepared feels like, my god!’ We recorded at Vibrations Studio in Lockwood, Huddersfield. We wanted to make sure it was all still Yorkshire.”
What other challenges you were faced with? At this point Bryony points towards a small naked child…
Alice: “That week of recording I went to stay at Bry’s house so that we were all together, and that was the week Mari learnt how to climb out of her cot, wasn’t it? We were downstairs having a glass of wine and a bit of a chat, and I thought I’d just sneak up to the loo and as I walked past her bedroom door, the door slowly opened and there was Mari looking at me! So, Bry must have had about eight hours sleep over that week of recording. We were having to do 9-5 in the studio, with Bry practically having had no sleep, and I don’t do mornings before half ten normally! It was mad, weren’t it?”
Bry: “Literally, we’d put Mari in her cot and then 10 minutes later you’d hear this thud, the door creak, and then, ‘MUMMY’. I think a couple of nights I just fell asleep lying on the carpet by her cot. Thankfully Will’s mum, Nikki, had Mari while we were in the studio.” Mari, at this point, seemed to know that we were talking about her and started mountaineering over Bry’s shoulder. “It is all completely for attention,” Bry said. “I don’t know where she gets it from!”
Alice: “We still had moments of doubting ourselves, thinking things like… is it just because I’m so close to this that I think it sounds alright? Are there loads of things missing and should we have worked on it harder? It wasn’t really lack of confidence, it was because we hadn’t done anything for such a long time. There was a point during the week when I suddenly felt like a musician again and I’m sure Bry would say the same thing! There was that feeling that we’d done some good stuff and it sounded really great. And Joe’s reaction was pretty reassuring.”
It seems a pretty natural album in terms of not being full of overdubs etc. It’s a good representation of what people actually get when they hear the album and then go and see you live.
Bry: “I think that was deliberate, and I generally do that. That’s what I have always wanted from my earliest recordings onwards, because I remember getting CDs from solo artists when I was younger, and there’d be the full band, and then I’d go and see them and they’d just be sat with a guitar and I’d think, ‘Oh, that’s a bit crap, where’s that massive band gone?’ Obviously, that’s the reality of recording and gigging, in that you can’t afford to take your full band with you, so I have always had it in the back of my mind that I want people to hear what they’re going to see. Also, I don’t think we felt like the album needed anything more. We’ve got two voices and a fiddle and guitar or body slapping or harmonium. The harmonium fills up so much space and there’s already a minimum usually of four things going on. The only one where there was a slight difference of opinion was My Johnny Was A Shoe Maker… I’ll let you talk about that Alice - about the humming!”
Alice: “I might have had a bit of a fight with Joe.” (They both fall around laughing) “…well, he kept telling us what to do and I was like, ‘I’ll do it, but I don’t want to’.” (More laughter) “I think he felt the track was very bare and he wasn’t confident that it worked. The humming thing was something I’d wanted to do from the start, but we hadn’t experimented with it. We did it and it was stark, which I think sits comfortably with some people, and when I heard it, I thought, ‘Wow that’s brilliant.’ But then I doubted the whole humming thing. So, there was this point where, on the last little bit of recording, the last bit of time in the studio, he’d asked me to sit down and play some harmonium stuff and I just didn’t think it was right. I didn’t like how it sounded and it wasn’t what was in my head…” “And,” Bry interjects, “we wouldn’t have been able to do it live.” Alice continues, “So, I didn’t have an absolute tantrum, but I was being a little bit difficult.” They both burst out laughing again… “And he went,” she says pulling a grumpy face, “‘well what do you want to do then?’ And I said, ‘I just want to do humming.’ We went in and sung some high bits and low bits and then just had to walk away from it without really hearing it because we’d run out of time. Joe had doubts about it, I wasn’t sure, but since the album has come out so many people have come up to me and said that that’s their favourite track - and now I’m annoyed that I was so on the fence about it.”
I often feel the gaps and silences in live and recorded music are as important as the notes played, which, for someone like me who comes from an often ‘drone’ based life, is a heavenly opportunity at times. To have the bravery to do that silence and have that simplicity I think then really shows what’s actually there. When you perform that song live it doesn’t sound like anything is missing - everybody hooks into it and is on board right from the start, and it’s what might be termed ‘a kick arse track’.
Bry: “It helps that people can see you as well. You can see the body percussion rather than wondering what it is on a recording.”
What would you say the duo gives you individually that you don’t get anywhere else?
Bry: “Singing with somebody where I don’t have to change my accent to be like them. I forgot to mention that the other day. We did a whole interview and somehow forgot to mention Yorkshire.” (Alice nods and falls around laughing). “I can’t overemphasise the importance of the whole Yorkshire thing. I can find a song and mention it to Alice, and she’ll go, ‘Oh yeah, that one from that book’. We can sit for an hour and half talking about one verse of a song and then, also, when we perform it together, I don’t have to pretend to do a different vowel shape. I was listening to some educational stuff I did a while ago and I sound so posh. Like I’m trying to pronounce all my vowels properly.”
Alice: “The vowel thing is the same for both of us, and then that whole folk song geekery obsession with research and manuscripts. Being able to talk about that and not have someone go, ‘Oh god I’m really bored with that now’… that never happens. Also, in the actual performance side I have never felt more comfortable. I never worry that something might go wrong, because even if it does go wrong, we’ve both got it covered, or we’ll just laugh at each other. There’s no post gig anxiety but more likely a fit of the giggles with a ‘what the hell happened there?’ Travelling together and being together, that’s ace. I hope that comes across on stage, too. Because I have had to work with people in the past who have been…”, she hesitates…were you going to say difficult?... “Ha, let’s just say, a little difficult to work with; the situation where you are not of one mind with your touring or gigging attitude, whereas Bry and I are very much in sync across all that.”
Bry: “Yes, like we’re both quite easy-going about arrangements for gigs and the way they are organised. We don’t turn up and get stressed because the venue hasn’t got exactly the right mic, the rider’s not exactly what we asked for, or whatever. We are pretty easy-going with how things are.”
It does come across that you get on very well and the banter between you is very entertaining because you’re both quick-witted. I loved a comment, in the concert I saw at Upton, where you asked a guy where he was from and when he said Lancashire, as quick as a flash Alice said, “Oh never mind.” Everybody laughed, including the Lancastrian himself.
Bry: “We’re both very open to stage heckling. I like it when the audience get involved.”
Alice: “There was a chap who came up to us at the end of the Upton gig, and he said, ‘Do you script all your stage stuff?’” Just the very idea made all of us fall about laughing… “Sometimes we say stuff we shouldn’t have said. We do not write it down… He said he enjoyed that aspect of what we did as well as the music. I think that’s part of being unguarded. Some people very much have a stage persona that they present, and then there is another way, where the audience engages with you because there’s no wall between you and them. That’s being you, and if sometimes being you means stuff comes out a little bit confused or wrong, and if you’re not bothered by that and they’re comfortable with it too, I think that’s a great thing.”
Bry: “It’s how you deal with how you are on stage that’s important. If you get panicky and worried and think, ‘Oh god I’ve said a stupid thing’, that’s when you start winding yourself up isn’t it? After lockdown, when I first stood on stage at Sidmouth last year, I was in a frock, I had me fiddle, and there was a microphone there, but there was just this proper moment when I looked out and I went all wobbly on the inside and thought…” she gasps, “Oh god, I’ve got to speak to these people! In my head I was like… I don’t know how to talk, I don’t know how to sing, I’ve got nothing to tell them about - and then my automatic gob opened and kind of did the job for me! When I came off, I felt that I had no control over what was happening on that stage, but thankfully, years of doing it came back and rescued me. Having Alice there meant I knew everything wouldn’t completely fall apart, because both of us wouldn’t let that happen - we could just laugh a bit, call me a prat, pull a face or do whatever was needed.”
Have you got an agent or do you do all that yourselves as well? They both shake their heads.
Bry: “Everything is ourselves, apart from we’ve gone with Proper Distribution to help give us a leg up, but mostly we have been in control of everything. All the financing has been entirely us. I feel incredibly proud, under the circumstances, that we came out of lockdown with anything really.”
Alice: “I must say, when I got the final thing, I did have a little cry,” (Bry nods enthusiastically), “because it was even better than I thought it would be - the music, artwork, sleeve notes, everything.”
The title, A Year Too Late A Month Too Soon, just tell us a little bit about that.
Bry: “In the end that was Alice’s brainwave. Once the kids were in bed I’d been thumbing through all my Yorkshire dialect dictionaries and we were trying to find words for things like ‘duo’ or ‘women singing’. I don’t know if it’s because we’re from Yorkshire and have this vulnerability about not just wanting to be seen as ‘ferrets and flat caps’, but everything that we found or suggested to each other seemed to sound like that, or some kind of terrible innuendo!” Alice interjects: “…Or just made us laugh too hard.” Bry continues, “…And we didn’t want anything that people wouldn’t be able to pronounce. We’d been looking through all the songs, because we knew sometimes a word just jumps out at you, or a phrase, and we couldn’t find anything. Then Alice just suddenly said, ‘Oh what about that line from the song, Willy Went To Westerdale?”
Alice: “And it said everything - about COVID, life, too much time, not enough time… And then the artwork tied into it as well, as outdoor dining had basically been our social lives for 18 months. I know it’s a lengthy title, but it says everything it needs to say. I think it was a deliberate intention to go with acknowledging the locked down pandemic; people’s reconnection with their local area, the isolation, and being shut in your house for nearly two years. The title acknowledged that for everyone, including ourselves.”
Bry: “Yes, we’d been stuck in this village. We discovered little paths coming out where you never expected, never knowing previously that that path even existed. It felt like that with our discovery of the songs. We’d go down one way then… ‘Oh, I’ve found another version of the song, right I’m going to use that verse.’”
So, what’s next?
Alice: “We’ve got a stash of ideas that we’re going to start working on that might result in more material.”
Bry: “Yes, if we do a full folk club night we’ve still got a few songs that we’re putting in from our solo repertoire - Young Banker and Cropper Lad – but we want more duo stuff instead. We’ll have had the album launch at Shepley by the time this article comes out, and we’re just trying to get as many gigs as possible.”
Is there anything else that you feel we should cover?
Alice: “One thing that’s sort of frustrating, but great at the same time is in relation to chats we’ve had about solo female artists not being able to hold a main stage on their own. Since our duo started, I’ve had so many people saying, ‘I don’t want you on your own but I’d like the duo please, as that’s an actual festival gig!’ On the one hand you think that’s really annoying, but it’s also really great to think that we might be part of righting the gender balance on festival line-ups. I’d be very happy with that. It’s irritating that teaming up as a duo is what it takes to get a certain aspect of the booking crowd interested in you. But we’ve had a lot of interest now from places who weren’t interested in us as solo artists.”
Alice: “So long as we’ve said ‘Yorkshire’ enough in this one, I’m happy.” But I’m not sure you’ve said ‘Kidson’ enough! “Oh no,” they both gasped, laughing all the while.
Bry: “I can remember getting my Kidson book, and I suddenly went, ‘Oh, is this a book of Yorkshire songs? I’m having this book.’” (She mimes hugging it to her chest.) “…I don’t want anyone else to see these songs - I want to sing them all! We have the Holme Valley stuff here, but a lot of it is hunting songs, so I’ve been surrounded by amazing singers and songs, but the repertoire’s a bit difficult. It has made me look deeper into different books. I might have dismissed a book of Yorkshire poetry before, but now I look more closely. You know like the John Hartley, Nelly O’ Bobs.”
I tell you what, we’ll just put it on the end here in case anyone didn’t catch those important words - Yorkshire, Yorkshire, Yorkshire! Kidson, Kidson, Kidson!
Photo: Joanne Crawford
Published in Issue 145 of The Living Tradition – August 2022.