The Magickal Folk of the Faraway Tree
In 2005 I got a hold of The Magickal Folk of the Faraway Tree's first release "The Mildew Leaf". The CDR was my introduction not only to the group itself, but also to the whole Deserted Village collective. Back then I wrote to Gavin Prior:
"I don't know how to say this without sounding too pompous, but it's somehow moving that these songs, maybe hundreds of years old, have been resurrected into our modern times. And given such unaffected but delicate treatment."
Now, half a decade later the music form that disc has been re-issued as a part of a double-cd set called "The Soup & The Shilling". The set contains also their second release ”The Cat's Melodeon”, a compilation track ('Being Here Has Caused My Sorrow' off from ”Gold Leaf Branches”) and a disc of previously unreleased material.
In this feature, the members (Dave Colohan, Shane Cullinane, Caroline Coffey, Gavin Prior & Seán Óg) tell the story of the group, how they came together and how they were influenced by the old folk records and Enid Blyton.
Shane Cullinane: Dave and Caroline came out to my house to hang out one sunny afternoon in September 2002 and we ended up recording Spencer the Rover in the kitchen (singing along to a tape of the Copper Family). Dave says he suggested starting a band so that he would have an excuse to spend more time with Caroline. I think we would have ended up doing something similar without that incentive as our main musical project at that time was a folk-less free-improv band called Murmansk which wasn't satisfying our folkier side at all. By that time Dave had been carrying Peter Kennedy's book of folksongs around with him for weeks and was keen to get some use out of it. As I recall it Dave suggested the band name (we are all Enid Blyton fans) and our plan was to sing jolly whimsical songs without any electronic or improvy bits. Gavin (Prior) also lived in the house and became involved when he came home from work. Other Deserted Village musicians became involved as they came within range, mainly during Murmansk recording sessions.
Dave Colohan: It began as a few friends meeting in Raheny in Dublin. I had only known the others a short while & we were playing together in Murmansk & United Bible Studies. Shane & Gavin lived together & we would record in their home studio & drink a lot of coffee. One day I mentioned that I was interested in doing songs in Irish. Caroline speaks Irish fluently and so that was the start of it. I seem to recall that in those days we tried a fair few unaccompanied vocal songs. It was both mystifying & exciting coming up with harmonies & singing so closely around one mic in the kitchen. We gradually started trying out this approach with guitars, banjos & mandolins. I had found a dusty copy of Peter Kennedy's 'Folksongs Of Britain & Ireland' & this became a Holy Grail of sorts - songs in Manx & Scots Gaelic, Cornish & Irish & reams of photographs of all the old performers. It seemed to me both utterly alien & completely familiar & I wanted to immerse myself in it. The band name came from the fact that at least two of us were obsessed with those books as children.... & as adults. It was another example of a band name that started off as an in-joke but seemed to stick. In the early days of Deserted Village, we were all in a dozen different bands & projects & so we tended to leave information off the releases. Rather than deliberately trying to cultivate a sense of mystery, we were trying to avoid having people go 'Oh, not those guys again!' By people, I mean all of the six people who seemed to be listening to us at the time!
Caroline Coffey: As the Dave and Shane have told you, it all began one surprisingly warm and sunny day in September 2002 when I called out to Shane's house to hang out in his garden. Before I knew it the lads were pestering me to sing with them, which I was very shy about as I had barely ever sung into a microphone before. Within a few hours our new band was formed and "Spencer the Rover," was recorded. The lads are great like that, they will have a vision and just insist on going for it there and then.
Dave Colohan: Having recorded the new album, we decided that it would sit well with the earlier songs and so a double album seemed like the best way to do this. What took so long? At one point most of us were living in different countries and involved in other projects. Time just passed. If we were never to record again as The Magickal Folk, then a double album would be the perfect way to tie up all the loose ends. Of course, for all of the music that ended up on the album, quite a lot was left off. It ended up being quite some time before we could all agree on the final running order. 'Sweet Thames...' was a victim of that cull. To me, it didn't seem to have the energy of the other older songs. I should mention that were was a hideous song with keyboard dog barking noises on it which I fought long & hard to have removed! That battle probably accounts for the delay!
Gavin Prior: I would add that the plan was to release the reissue and then the 'new' album. The reissue was already embarrassingly and frustratingly late so Shane suggested releasing them as a double CD which was a great idea.
I have autumn 2005 (September) firmly in my mind as the 2 weeks when we started the Jonah and broke the back of the Magickal Folk 'new' album so disc two was probably finished in 2006 so maybe we could say the material on disc 2 is getting on for 4 years old. It sounds so much better!
Shane Cullinane: We have been planning to reissue the first two EPs for years but we take an unhurried approach to these matters. We had intended to put out a new album years ago too but never got around to really finishing it off and it got pushed to the side for a few years. Then as we were about to send the reissue off to the factory we hit upon the idea of making it a double CD with the new stuff on the second disc. That knocked the release date back another year or two but allowed us to tie everything up neatly in one go. We left Sweet Thames off because we felt it went on a bit too long and got a bit boring. I slightly regret leaving it off now. The the new disc is a bit more stripped back and simple in terms of arrangements and the playing, a bit less quirky. Theres a bit less variety in the instrumentation too, its mostly guitar, banjo and flute. Also, Dave does a greater proportion of the singing and there are less harmonies. We discussed adding more harmonies and mixing up the vocals a bit more but since Dave is the best singer and had already recorded the vocals we decided to go with it as it is.
Dave Colohan: 'Spencer The Rover' came from the singing of the Copper Family & was one of the songs that really got us going in the first place. Various books we'd find in libraries were our main sources as well as collections like The Voice Of The People on Topic. As for the kinds of songs we would choose... Usually ones with vivid imagery, I suppose, or a good story.. There are no shortage of those to be found. Singing in Irish came naturally to us but I recall a French reviewer being unable to understand our songs in his tongue! I never could quite get my own tongue around Manx or Cornish either... Maybe for the best!
Shane Cullinane: A few songs (Spencer The Rover, Sweet Thames, Twa Corbies) were knew from old folk albums, a few others were found in other books. Dawn Of Day is an Armenian song. We didnt put too much thought into picking the songs, if we liked the words and had a way to use them we used them. We didnt give a lot of thought to singing in irish. None of us are native irish speakers but we all had to learn it in school. Caroline did her best to make sure Dave pronounced the words properly. There was no particular reason to sing in French, we just felt like it. Our grasp of the language is clearly quite weak.
Dave Colohan: In general we just came up with our own arrangements. Of course, as the years go by & you learn more, I can now see that we came up with new arrangements for very well known songs. Another way of looking at it is that we utterly disregarded centuries-old traditions! Not on purpose, I might add. To paraphrase Martin Carthy, if these songs can survive being plugged in then they can surely survive a few Irish eejits getting them completely wrong!
Caroline Coffey: I only sing on the albums, mostly backing vocals/ harmonies, as opposed to the others who always seemed to be playing any amount of instruments, whilst singing also. It appeared to me that their musical arrangements were decided upon so quickly and naturally... you would think they had been doing this for years.I helped a bit with the Irish pronunciation but Dave has a singing voice that is so suited to the language that he didn't need much help anyway.
Shane Cullinane: Generally what usually happened was one of us would come up with a tune on the banjo or guitar and then we would flick through the books looking for interesting lyrics that seemed to fit the music and then add extra vocals and instruments as the humour took us.
Seán Óg: I can't even remember playing this stuff!
Caroline Coffey: I love Irish folklore and drama especially and grew up being told many the folk tale, so for me "The Magickal Folk of the Faraway Tree," also helps to convey some of the everyday preoccupations and histories of the common folk in times past. There is wonderful sense of nature and rural living also and of course this applies to the other countries represented in the music too. I do believe it is important to preserve the voices of times past and for me, it felt lovely to inhabit the characters of the songs.
Dave Colohan: If we're part of a tradition, then to me, it's in the line of Sweeney's Men, C.O.B., Anne Briggs & the like. By this I mean that they are the sort of musicians & singers I was trying to emulate & draw inspiration from. The others may disagree of course, having their own inspirations. I don't really remember us ever talking about things like that. By eschewing electric guitars, pedals & such we were really trying to distance ourselves from United Bible Studies, a band that probably has a lot more in common with 'wyrd folk' & whatnot. We just didn't want our different bands to sound the same, though there is obviously some crossover with UBS -Huntly Town in particular.
Shane Cullinane: We weren't really trying to revive old songs, just using elements of old songs (mostly the lyrics) to suit our own interests. I think the music that we recorded has more in common with the folk-rock of the 60s and 70s than with traditional music. Also I think there may have been an element of wanting to make music that might exist in things like the Wickerman or in Enid Blyton stories rather than music that belongs to any real folk music tradition. Those songs already have a life of their own which we know nothing about. By recording them the way we have we've probably done our own little bit to obscure the their origins a bit more.
Dave Colohan: The continuous theme is heavily drawn from my love of Neil Gaiman's 'Sandman' comics. The three characters represent three members of the group. Breaking with a long held tradition, we have included a band photograph in the booklet, although many of the other contributors weren't with us in the forest that day.
Shane Cullinane: The Soup & The Shilling was a way for us to wrap up the Magickal Folk. Most of the "new" songs were recorded in 2005 and a couple more the the year after. It seems unlikely that we'll get the time and space that we'd need together as a group to do any more recording, but you never know. If we do we'll have to be careful not to do more of the same, otherwise there would be no point.
Dave Colohan: It is probably five years now since the 'new' album was recorded & though I can't say for sure that we will never record together in that configuration again, at the moment it seems highly unlikely. However, of all the bands I've been in & of all the recordings I've been involved in, this is the the one of which I am most proud.
Caroline Coffey: I have such fond memories of those recording sessions. I remember laughing a lot.
Gavin Prior: I think your readers should listen to Peter Delaney's wonderful album Duck Egg Blue and if you live in England you might be able to see him live.
Dave Colohan: Recording & playing in The Magickal Folk really opened me up to the idea of incorporating folk songs into my Agitated Radio Pilot sets. We never played live & I really wanted to try them out. I would go to sessions in Athlone, a nearby town, where my friend Bean Dolan of Resurrection Fern was putting on various trad sessions in The Shack & Flannery's. Anyone could join in so this is where I began singing unaccompanied. Meeting Johnny Moynihan & inviting him to come play a few gigs around the country with me was also an amazing time. You'd sing a song & then he would tell you how Anne Briggs used to sing it. I learned a lot from him. I didn't really record any folk songs again until last year when I went over to England & stayed with Michael Tanner (Plinth) for a while. We recorded some songs in a remote smugglers cave on the Dorset coast, lugging a harmonium down the cliffs & singing against the waves. Nick Palmer (Directorsound) joined in on these recordings too & Aine O'Dwyer (United Bible Studies) added some harp. I guess these recordings are still in the vein of what we were doing in The Magickal Folk. I had some epiphanies on that trip. Going to visit Shirley Collins on the first of May being a moment I will treasure forever. Michael & I went to a Morris Dancing festival in Hastings, where you could feel the folk tradition alive in the pubs & ancient streets. It seems to me, from travels in England & Ireland & from touring in America with United Bible Studies, that folk music is alive & well in a host of guises. As a wise band once sang - 'Be glad for the song has no ending.'
-- Jani Hellén (19 May, 2010)