INTERVIEW: The Cornshed Sisters | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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On the banks of the Wear, a distant tapping sounds out from deep within the heart of a 1970s industrial unit. Broadcasting through long ago-repurposed spaces, the heady rhythm fluttering through charity shop curtains is not one of machined metal and glass, but instead the lilting percussion of tap shoe and soundboard, the sound of experimentation, the pulse of Honey & Tar.

“Sam Patterson’s tap dancing was amazing!” Cath Stephens enthuses, looking back warmly on her time in the unique space that saw the birth of The Cornshed Sisters’ second album. “What a woman. It was definitely a very different recording experience to the first one.”

Recorded and produced by Peter Brewis at Field Music’s studio in Sunderland – a brilliantly revamped former manufacturing space packed full with knockabout vintage musical kit – Honey & Tar is set for release on 3rd November.

Despite the period following their well-received debut, 2012’s Tell Tales, being packed with a heady brew of new jobs in education and arts, new babies and a daunting nine house moves between them (“no one is chasing us, honest” promises Marie), the foursome worked tirelessly to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle keeping them apart. “By the time the first album was released we already had new things we were playing around with. We love knocking about together too much, I can’t remember a time when we were thinking we wouldn’t do a second one.” Marie Nixon explains.

Recording in fits and starts across a series of sneaky half hours in the studio over the last few years, together as often as they could but also meeting in twos and threes when possible, they got the job resoundingly done; a delicate balance of work and maternity setting the pace for production.

“During late pregnancy there was a race to record all of my vocals before I had to grab my hospital bag,” Cath recalls. “Though we couldn’t always be together, it was exciting to come back and see what had happened in your absence.”

My personal journey always influences what I write, and femininity and feminism are a part of that too

Honey & Tar is a delight from start to finish; from the soaring We Have Said This Is Impossible, through melodic stomper Show Me and vaudevillian pop banger Jobs For The Boys, to the aching bucolic wonder of Waiting For Audreya. Far from creatively hampering the group, the temporal and physical constraints applied to the recording process resulted in an explosion of experimentation, a rich practice that sculpted an opulent wider aural landscape for the group to play in, producing a familiar yet notably more expansive and poppier sound.

“It’s freeing not worrying about how we recreate it live and instead really try to serve the song,” explains Liz Corney, expanding on the joy of very deliberately testing new ideas. “Messing about with daft synth sounds and lashing them on has been really fun. If it needs strings then let’s have them, or harp, or tap dancing. I really enjoy when we try our best to sound like a trumpet fanfare!”

“This album has certainly given us more freedom to explore,” Cath affirms. “Songs on the back burner were brought to life in a different way. Black And White started development years ago but simply didn’t work. Now I get to hear it with big drums, synths and bass!”

Honey & Tar sees the group taking on love, motherhood, friendship, family, feminism and the increasing complexities of life as you get older but no wiser.

“Waiting For Audreya began while waiting to go to hospital to help deliver a friend’s baby,” recalls Cath. “Liz’s storytelling really draws me in too. With Show Me, I am, for a moment, a little girl eating peanut butter sandwiches on my dad’s car bonnet, being shown how to look after an engine.”

“Two of my songs are about becoming a mum,” Jennie Brewis reflects. “I’d underestimated how difficult it would be to balance the desire to have creative space with the reality of not being allowed to be selfish anymore, so Small Spaces is about becoming smaller and less important than you thought you were.”

For Cath, that shrinking creative space is a challenge she faces square on. “The time we have together is very precious. There is so much less time to write so it is more important for me as a woman and mother to do it now than it ever was. My personal journey always influences what I write, and femininity and feminism are a part of that too.”

“I’d like to think I’ve always been a feminist,” agrees Marie. “Growing up a girl in the North East through the 1980s is a politicising experience so we all have a keen sense of social justice. Jennie’s songs more directly address feminist issues and she’s got a knack for expressing her point with subtlety and skill.”

“I wear my heart on my sleeve regarding feminism and femininity which hasn’t always gone in my favour,” Jennie retorts. “I’m not sure there’s much subtlety about singing ‘boohoo screw you glass ceiling!’”

Honey & Tar is an exceptional album, birthed from a unique recording situation combined with very different approaches from each individual to songwriting. For Liz, this diversity is where the strength of the group lies. “Every idea is welcome; we try absolutely everything so it soon becomes apparent what works and what doesn’t.”

“We don’t argue either,” declares Marie, weary of the oft-applied stereotype. “I love these lasses’ songs and I’m always really excited to hear it when they bring something new to rehearsal. Sometimes there’s an expectation that lasses in bands is a recipe for a catfight and nothing could be further from the truth. Rack off sexists.”

The Cornshed Sisters play The Cluny 2, Newcastle on Wednesday 1st November. Honey & Tar is released via Memphis Industries on 3rd November.

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