INTERVIEW: Phil Tyler & Sarah Hill | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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It’d be impossible to chart every project and partnership spawned from Newcastle’s long-running folk nights; the kinds of communal events where passions are shared, connections forged and ideas and traditions alike passed among generations. It’s wholly unsurprising then, that it was at two of these nights – Sacred Harp Singing, then based at St. Oswald’s Hospice, and The Cumberland Arms’ Come All Ye – where the seeds of Phil Tyler and Sarah Hill’s friendship and eventual collaboration were first sewn.

“I think we met around 2008, when I started coming to Sacred Harp Singing,” Sarah recalls. “I wasn’t really learning folk songs at all back then, but after a while when we all started going to Come All Ye, Phil began suggesting things we could do together.” Now based in Brighton, it’s a period she evidently regards with a tinge of nostalgia. “I miss it so much!” She bemoans. “I was at Come All Ye just last week!” Phil interjects. As one of the local circuit’s most prolific and recognisable stalwarts, this particular quip almost went without saying.

Now, almost a decade and a half on, the duo’s perfectly pitched harmonies are finally documented on their first joint full-length, What We Thought Was A Lake Was A Field Of Flax. Was its sudden release the result of a creative boom, or a pandemic-inspired urge to reconnect? Not exactly…

S: “The whole record was done in two sessions at the end of 2016…”
P: “I thought it was all done before you left?”
S: “I left 10 years ago! I know it was 2016 as I was pregnant with my daughter at the time!”
P: “I don’t think I’m the most reliable recounter of any of this!”

there’s always that thread connecting back to their origins, yet every time you perform them it’s about the here and now

“We’d originally wanted to do more, but it all ended up being swept under the carpet,” Phil admits, having regained his bearings. “It was a very slow process. I’d almost forgotten about it – but heard it again after a long break and thought: ‘Actually, this isn’t bad. Maybe we don’t need new songs’.”

Three of the album’s 11 tracks are originals: banjo instrumental Tarwater; Sweet Lemney, whose traditional words are set to a novel tune; and Golden Lads, whose lyric was borrowed from friend and Come All Ye organiser Jo Ellis. Otherwise, Sarah’s crystal-clear delivery and Phil’s earthy tones coalesce in an ode to those formative folk nights, and some of the gems they took away with them.

“It’s like standing outside with a big net, and catching some of the tunes which fly by,” Phil says of the pair’s selection process. “There are some traditional songs I’ve never thought of doing myself – but then I’ll hear another version which completely changes my mind. It can be more about the singer than the song itself.”

“For me it’s a lot more about the histories of these pieces and honouring them,” Sarah offers. “That’s what I enjoy the most about singing traditional songs – there’s always that thread connecting back to their origins, yet every time you perform them it’s about the here and now.”

With the record finally out in the wild, and vague plans to reunite live somewhere, sometime in the future, these numbers – previously popularised by the likes of Shirley Collins, Martin Carthy and Peggy Seeger – feel poised to draw their latest clutch of admirers.

Phil Tyler and Sarah Hill’s What We Thought Was A Lake Was A Field Of Flax is released on 7th October via Ferric Mordant.


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