INTERVIEW: Cath And Phil Tyler | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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In Tyneside duo Cath and Phil Tyler we have remarkable interpreters of songs; their beautiful new record, The Ox And The Ax released on Thread Recordings, features the pair’s most compelling interpretations and versions of traditional folk music. It’s their third album, and their first in over eight years.

What is initially striking about the record is how wonderfully curated the collection of songs are; although Phil doesn’t attribute it to any thematic agenda. “It’s just songs that we like, really. People like to retroactively impose a theme on the record but we didn’t have anything in mind, it’s all about the feel and the flow of the songs for us. The record took a long time, but that was good in the sense that you could consider things more and go back to things and alter things – leisurely and frustrating in equal measure I suppose. We didn’t have a label when we started recording, so it was still just a case of doing versions of songs that we like and that vision gradually became the record.”

In some instances, the duo will reinterpret songs, or will compose their own tunes to found sets of lyrics, a process Phil attributes to feelings rather than any sort of academic exercise. “It’s those words that you see that just catch you and really draw you in. They encapsulate how you’re feeling at a certain time – that can be a really powerful thing.”

Cath adds: “It may be a song that we’ve known for years, and then heard a different version of it, little things like that can be the trigger for wanting to reinterpret a song.”

Cath and Phil are heavily involved with Sacred Harp singing (they host a weekly night at the Bridge Hotel on a Tuesday evening). For the uninitiated: “It’s loud singing! It’s not a choir. It’s a great place to find out if you like singing. Sacred Harp singing isn’t a performance for an audience, it’s much more about communal experience. It’s different every time you go, the different people will influence the sound and the feeling of the room. Lots of people just sing by ear, but you get to find out what your voice is like. It’s all fourths and fifths which is really open, you know if you’re doing it right if it really opens up your sinuses.”

There’s a wonderful chemistry between two brilliant musicians who have together expertly curated, interpreted and performed a beautiful collection of songs

This permeates into the record. Finest Flower is taken from the Cooper Book of Sacred Harp Singing, but even through the folk tradition of the medium, different versions of the song exist. As Cath and Phil have been playing together for such a long time they seem to have a refreshingly laissez faire approach to pulling things together and they talk about song choices with an effortless astuteness. “There’s an a capella piece that I learned from Justin Hopper doing a spoken word piece, and it’s just something that we started singing together. Wellington is a song we started playing with Steve Malley in Dark Northumbria [an eight piece folk supergroup]. It features musicians from all over the country but we play songs from Northumbria. We played the song in the band but have readapted it for our album with a new tune. I think we share a direction in this music; we don’t disagree about songs or how to do them. Even if there is some disagreement it’s not an effort, we just let the song stew.”

The original tunes on the record are intricately sketched out on banjo and guitar, it’s little surprise that Richard Dawson acknowledges Phil as one of his favourite musicians.

One very deep seam that is often explored in their music centers around Cath’s American and Phil’s English backgrounds; these very different formative experiences of folk music have informed their style, and the pair often discover the capacity to meet in the middle when they find that versions of the same song have been collected on either side of the Atlantic. “A lot of the songs were collected in both countries so it’s fairly academic as to where they came from, naturally a lot of these stories will permeate into culture more widely. You hear a version from here, a version from there, hear the song in a story from Sweden! There can be lots of different versions, though when we start recording our own version I stop listening to any other versions of it. We don’t know the time period either, they are just from the past! But it is fascinating to see things pop up in different places.”

Despite how well versed they are in all kinds of folk music, Cath and Phil insist that they aren’t scholars, and Phil talks of his aspirations to research things more. Cath attests that it is important to strike a balance between “knowing and doing”. It’s this approach that makes The Ox And The Ax such a satisfying listen, from it emanates a wonderful chemistry between two brilliant musicians who have together expertly curated, interpreted and performed a beautiful collection of songs.

Cath And Phil Tyler launch The Ox And The Ax at The Cumberland Arms, Newcastle on Sunday 25th March, with support from Nev Clay.



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