Interview: The Brothers Gillespie | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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The Brothers Gillespie are sibling duo, James and Sam Gilliespie who grew up in the Northumbrian village of Wall and sing finely crafted, original and traditional folk songs. With a sound driven by the interplay of guitar and fiddle and two voices that instinctively weave beautiful harmonies, their music is ethereal, romantic and radical. We chat to the brothers ahead of their Down By The River show at Claypath Deli on Saturday 23rd November.  

Who were some of your musical inspirations growing up?
Early memories of hearing recorded music drift around our parent’s house and on car journeys were very influential; the dark compelling tones of Leonard Cohen’s voice from his 1980’s Live in Concert album, Paul Simon’s Graceland, folk music in the form of The High Level ranters, The Boys of the Lough, The Savoy-Doucet Cajun band and 50’s rock and roll. As teenagers living in Hexham, listening to the 60’s and 70s folk revival acts was a major influence on our developing music, artists such as Nick Drake, John Martyn, Bert Janch, Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, Simon and Garfunkle and Martin Simpson. However our influences are quite broad and at that time we were also listening to The Beatles, The Doors, Led Zep and other heavier rock-oriented music which still inspires us. We were also really inspired by West African and other World music and by going to concerts at the Sage Gateshead which at the time was putting on amazing bands from all over the world.

Northumberland has had a long tradition of producing some of the finest folk music. In your opinion, what’s the current Northumberland folk scene like?
Obviously, in recent years there has been a tangible buzz around the folk degree in Newcastle, though it’s not something we’ve had all that much contact with though we have several friends who did the degree. It has undoubtedly raised the profile of traditional music albeit in a very different context to its roots. Folk music still feels like an important part of the region’s identity, though it seems players are often scattered over quite large distances and in terms of traditional Northumbrian repertoire it feels people fluent in it are not very numerous. We are lucky to have a Northumbrian piper Rob Say in our home village who has helped us with traditional repertoire but we ourselves are still at the threshold of the old music, we’d love to hear it more in the pubs and have more local dances going on. Northumberland and Newcastle have a great folk spirit and it feels like a good place for musical inspiration to thrive. Art and music will always survive but lots of people, including musicians are struggling financially, and a lot of art and artists are being lost to cultural austerity. It would be great to see lower rents, higher pay and hence more free time for people to play music and go out to live shows which would undoubtedly help the music scene in Northumberland.

What do you write about? Briefly describe the songwriting process.
To draw out some themes from our music, we tend to sing about connection and reconnection, to community, to each other,  to ourselves, to Nature, and also about the shadows of disconnection and alienation. There is a political current to the music which expresses itself as a desire for freedom, an acknowledgement of the mysterious living world and defiance of dogmatic materialism. Occasionally we are drawn to writing more overtly political songs such as our anti-fracking song. We are inspired by the resonance of place and getting deep with a place and letting it inform the music. Hitherto predominantly one of us brings a song and then we work on it, but we have recently started experimenting with writing collaboratively.

You’re performing at The Claypath Deli on 23rd November. You’ve played your fair share of intimate concerts in many marvellous and hidden places. Which have been some of your favourite?
Some of our favourite intimate gigs! Well, there have been lots of lovely ones. We played at a secret circus in Paris with Tim Eriksen, it felt like a squat with lots of folks living there, we were all wearing ornate cloaks and coats from a fancy dress caravan, it felt like we had stumbled back in time, straight into a dream, backstage there was a rickety room up some stairs with a spread of fine cheese and grapes and wine, and a magical feel in the air. Time was suspended for a few hours. We played on a giant barge in Bristol dock to a room full of beautiful folk and young people and families with children. And in Hampshire recently we played at a pub where you walk through the door clean into another century, you wouldn’t believe it, but there is a depth of conviviality and silence in there that is as rare as an 800-year-old oak. We played at the Anarcho Folk Fest in Scotland in a barn near Elgin, (co-organised by Johnny Campell who we are playing with in Durham) it was the day after the Brexit vote and we played the Internationale in French to a room full of European anarchists, there were tears and joy.

What have you got planned for 2020?
We are planning to tour more than ever before, we are organising tours in Holland, Germany, Ireland and the UK. We are also planning to create space in our lives for some deep creative work on new material and are planning a Dragon day with a dance in Hexham for St George’s Day. Related to this is a project to create a Northumberland dance band with friends of ours and to continue our projects in connection with Durham University on Faery and Dragon lore in Northumberland. We are collaborating with classical string ensemble Trio Mythos and Provencal folk trio Tant Que Li Siam in a project called Hirondelle (the French word for the swallow). Sophie Renshaw of Trio Mythos has written beautiful string arrangements for some of our’s and TQLS’s music and we will be recording demos of these tracks in December then going back to Provence to work on music next Summer. We are also planning a tour on foot, wandering through the countryside and finding places to play as we go, we walked St Cuthberts Way a few years ago with guitar and fiddle and were overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers. We found great peace moving through the land at that pace.

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