Friday, August 07, 2015

Americana idols

If I didn't want to shout about The August List from the rooftops before their transcendent gig at the Unicorn, then I certainly did afterwards. And what better way to do so than to ask Martin and Kerraleigh Child - Oxfordshire's very own Devilishly Handsome Family - a few questions?

Yours is a peculiarly American strain of folk. What is it about Americana that you really connect with? And how do you think it differs from quintessentially English folk?

Martin: I think we exist artistically in an America that doesn't really exist. We take what we want to write and sing about and then filter it through influences that include films, novels, TV and music that are primarily American, but a fictitious America. Americana music also has edge to it, a lazy swagger, that's appealing to us that's sometimes lacking in the more twee English side of folk. It's also closer to a kind of alt. rock aesthetic and feel that we also love. 

Your songs are often bleak and bitter and deal with dark subject matter. To what extent are you playing a part when you're writing and performing? Or do the songs explore facets of your own characters?

Kerraleigh: The songs are honest, they do represent how we feel and see things, but it is only a part of us. We are not bleak and bitter people all the time! But that's what comes out when we write. Our world view is certainly exaggerated in the songs and the dark stuff is always more fun to sing about. 

Your backstory - a couple who got married in the Great Smoky Mountains and who live in splendid isolation in a barn in the countryside - is, for an Americana band like yourselves, pretty much perfect. Are you ever tempted to embellish the truth and create your own mythology?

Kerraleigh: Sometimes it sounds like we made it up anyway! I think if we started adding anything else that wasn't true it would start having a detrimental effect on the music. Like if we started to wear dungarees or said we rode around in boxcars, it might make the music be taken as pastiche and we're not interested in that. We don't mind stating that we got married in the Smokys or we live in a barn in the middle of nowhere, as it's true and also for us somehow interconnected with how we make music. Also we're not to fussed how people want to see us: sometimes we get classed as country, sometimes it's Americana, then it's folk, then it's acoustic and then it's all of the above with 'alt.' in front of it. It's all good. 

As is often cited, you're originally from Dorset but are now based in Oxfordshire. How (if at all) have the two different places shaped the music that you make and the band that you are?

Martin: Dorset not so much. We didn't play music when we lived there, but the nature and the landscape must stick in the psyche. Oxfordshire is similar to Dorset in that respect, a bit green and rolling! Oxford itself is an inspiring place to live near as there is a lot of great music coming out of there. 

Neither of you had ever played in a band before forming The August List. Do you think this may have been helpful, in ensuring you're not jaded by past experience and unencumbered by baggage - or has it actually made acclimatising to life in a band harder?

Martin: It's been a huge learning curve! But I'm glad we're both experiencing together and both for the first time. We had no expectations when we started, we didn't know how it all worked, and it took a while to get with it. But the path we took, and are still on, has been nothing but fun. 

As a married couple, do you think it's easier to be brutally honest when it comes to considering the merits of each other's musical ideas, or do you think it makes you more wary of hurting each other's feelings?

Kerraleigh: When it comes to the music, we are a band first. It helps that there is just two of us in the band and not four or five. If one of us adamantly doesn't like something that the other is proposing, then the idea goes no further. Brutal honesty is the only way to function. How could you play a song you don't like over and over and over again on stage? It would be horrible. 

At the Unicorn Theatre gig, Martin mentioned that a recent obsession with absenteeism has inspired some of the new material, including 'Connie Converse' and 'Old Rip'. What is it about the phenomenon that you find so fascinating?

Martin: I've always felt like I'm not really here! More of an observer than a participant. The Connie Converse story struck me as I really felt for her. She was a singer/songwriter way before it was fashionable to be one, in the late 50s/early 60s, she was based around Greenwich Village just as Dylan and the protest folk song became massive, but she wrote lovely songs about bees and stuff! She had people around her who tried to help her and she recorded an album that didn't do much and in the end she felt like she wasn't wanted and just disappeared. She vanished and to this day no one actually knows where she went or what happened to her. Because of this strange disappearance, there is now some interest in her and her songs. 

'Old Rip' references Rip Van Winkle. He was absent for 20 years and came back to find change but he himself doesn't change at all and others are jealous that he's missed all the hardship of life and war. I'm really interested in the idea of self-imposed absenteeism at the moment. We've just come back from visiting Iceland and we saw an exhibition of pictures by a photographer called Valdimar Thorlacius. He went to the remotest areas of Iceland to meet and photograph hermits living in total isolation in the harshest of conditions. Some were there because of circumstance, but a few chose to opt out, opt out of EVERYTHING! That idea really fascinates me and is invading a lot of songs as a consequence. 

You've got quite a repertoire of covers. What's your favourite, and what do you think makes for a good cover?

Kerraleigh: When we started playing in folk clubs all we played were covers, but they were so obscure that people thought they were ours! We'd do Nina Nastasia, Marissa Nadler and The Low Anthem. At the moment our favourite to play is 'Big Black Dog' by The Diamond Family Archive, we've been opening gigs with it because it really sets out our stall well, even though it's not ours! We don't play popular covers, we try and play stuff that has a kinship with our own material and can serve as a breather between our songs.

'Red Light On The Tower' imagines the possibility of an apocalyptic flood. If it ever happens, what will be the three albums you'll be keen to rescue from your house before jumping into the dinghy?

Kerraleigh: Rabbit Fur Coat by Jenny Lewis, Push The Sky Away by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and Metals by Feist.

Martin: Flying Low by Willard Grant Conspiracy, Are We There by Sharon Van Etten and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco.

What are your plans for the future in terms of gigging and recording? Can we expect a follow-up to O Hinterland any time soon?

Martin: We are looking forward to playing Towersey Festival this year as we're playing both the main stage and the Showground Bar stage which is going to be great. 

Kerraleigh: We are hopefully going to get into the studio again soon. We have a few more songs to finish and then we'll hit it!

Thanks to Martin and Kerraleigh for their time.

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