Posted by Christopher Friedenthal on 07 April 2009
On the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth, eight artists were brought to a retreat in rural Shropshire to write songs around his life and work. At the end of the week they performed the material at the newly opened Theatre Severn in Shrewsbury. The artists involved were Chris Wood, Karine Polwart, Mark Erelli, Rachael McShane, Jez Lowe, Stu Hanna, Krista Detor and Emily Smith. We talked to Rachael McShane (Bellowhead and solo artist) and Stu Hanna (Megson and renowned producer).
Rachael McShane: "When I was initially asked to be involved I knew virtually nothing about Charles Darwin. I’ve never had much interest in science so I decided to read up on his life and his family. He was quite a character, sailing off around the world age 22! He was a family man in later life and spent a lot of time with his children, involving them in experiments and joining them in games.
"Randal Keynes, Charles Darwin’s great-great grandson joined us for dinner on our first night in the house and he had a few little anecdotes for us, my favourite being about the whole family children and adults alike, sliding down the stairs on a board... sounds like a good laugh to me."
Stu Hanna: "I feel like I learnt so much about him, about his life and family and his work and the effects that it has had on the world. Before, I knew virtually nothing, apart from that he had something to do with monkeys and sailing around the world."
How did you go about distilling subjects for songs out of such a storied life?
Rachael McShane: It just seemed to sort itself out really. We didn’t make a list of events and themes and divide them up or anything. Quite often there would be an idea which was of interest to a couple of people within the group so those people would team up. Myself and Emily Smith were both interested in writing about Charles’ wife Emma. She was a very religious woman and she struggled to come to terms with some of his work and she worried that they would not be reunited in the afterlife. So Emily and I teamed up with Karine Polwart to write on this subject. Once you start reading up on someone like Charles Darwin so many possibilities for songs present themselves. We all had more ideas than we had time for in the end!
Did you already know your collaborators?
Stu Hanna: "Not really, certainly nobody had worked together before. I had met Karine Polwart, Jez Lowe, Rachael and Chris Wood before and I went to see Emily perform at our local folk club the week before the song-house, but I’d never met Mark Erelli or Krista Detor. It didn’t take long to get to know them all pretty well though - oh and Chris brought his dog, Finzi (named after the English Choral composer Gerald Finzi) who I had not met before either."
Rachael McShane: "I didn’t really know any of the other musicians but pretty much knew of everyone. I’d met Chris a few times, I bumped into Karine last summer at a festival in Canada, I’d briefly spoken to Jez at Warwick Folk Festival and I’d had a slightly drunken chat to Stu at the folk awards earlier in the year but it was the first time meeting Emily, Mark and Krista. It was good getting to know people in the house and a brilliant opportunity to collaborate with such great musicians. Chris’s dog made himself right at home and was a good calming member of the house!"
Stu Hanna: "Karine and Emily had taken part in a similar project in Scotland called Burns House and they had a magic formula that enabled everybody to work with each other once in a groups of both two and three people. After that, the combinations that had proved fruitful got back together to finish what they had started - once the songs were polished, others were brought in to give colour to the arrangements."
Rachael McShane: "Karine had a moment of mathematical genius. I have to use my fingers to add up, so I’m easily impressed! It worked pretty well actually. There was a lot of collaboration and people drew on each others strengths and worked on ideas that were of interest to others in the group."
What did you contribute?
Stu Hanna: "I wrote a song with Jez, Karine, and Rachael called I’LL SAIL & I’LL SAIL based on the Vaughan Williams arrangement of the Gloucestershire Wassail - I was shocked to find out that in a house full of folkies I was the only one that knew that Charles Darwin was related to one of the principal collectors of English folk song! It was composed late on Tuesday night with the help of laptops and red wine. I also finished songs with Mark, Emily & Krista."
How did the gig go?
Stu Hanna: "It was a bit of a roller-coaster - two hours of new material, never before performed, with musicians who had never performed together, in a concert hall that had never been used and the soundcheck started 15 minutes before doors opened - ouch! Still, it all went to plan and musician and audience alike had a blast."
Rachael McShane: "The gig was great fun. At the start of the week the looming concert (which was recorded for a live CD) felt like a bit of a black cloud. The songs didn’t exist and we’d never played together as a group but the concert ended up lasting for about two hours and people played in different combinations which made for an interesting and varied night. The gig was at the brand new Theatre Severn and we were the first people to play in the smaller hall, so it really was an evening of firsts.
"I’m looking forward to meeting back up with the rest of the Darwin song group for our gig at the Shrewsbury Folk Festival in August. It’s nice to know that we’ll be performing the songs again and that it wasn’t just a one-off."
Photos by Alan Cole.See all of Bright Young Folk's text interviews.