Heidi Talbot & Boo Hewerdine
23rd November, 2023 - 8pm
“Simply vocal heaven” The Sunday Times
“A voice that’s both awestruck and tender” The New York Times
Sing It For A Lifetime was forged in a pressure cooker: it was recorded in one sound-proofed room in a house that was being sold, as Heidi Talbot looked after her two daughters and negotiated the split from her husband of 11 years, the folk musician John McCusker. A planned recording stint in Louisiana, cancelled because of Covid, turned into a remote real-time session over two different time zones, 3000 miles apart. An international group of musicians including her friend Mark Knopfler somehow came together so smoothly, you can’t hear the seams. The result is a crowning achievement in her 20-year career. It shows a UK folk veteran going transatlantic, an unconscious return to her earliest years as a performer. But most importantly, it features her most raw and open-hearted work to date, as she finds a new voice away from the long-standing recording partnership with McCusker, who produced her records.
“Not to have that person there, for good and for bad, was a big jolt,” she says. “It was freeing, it was also terrifying. I had to man up – woman up – and ask myself what I really thought, stand by my choices. It really forced me to work on my own and examine my own music. I wanted to make a totally different kind of record. I can’t make the same type of record without John.”She sought out the Appalachian fiddle legend and country producer Dirk Powell for this new phase in her life: the two had played together years earlier, when Powell appeared on her very first record, 2002’s Distant Future. “If I was going to make a country record, now is the time,” laughs Talbot. “I’m divorced, I’m a single mum, I’m out of work...” With Powell she found the freedom to experiment, push her own boundaries, experiment with the thumbprints of classic country - and junk them if they didn’t feel right. She hit upon a blend of Celtic and Americana that was already in her blood stream: born in County Kildare, Ireland, Talbot was entranced by her mother’s Crystal Gayle and Patsy Cline records. She moved to the US as a teenager and began her performing career in the bars of New York, with a five-year stint as part of the American supergroup Cherish The Ladies.
Any great upheaval is a period of self-discovery. Losing the intimate, end-of-the-day discussions she’d had with McCusker in the studio, Talbot found herself having to “live and die by my decisions”. “It’s exciting and terrifying,” she reflects. “I’m not scared any more - at the start of the process, everything was so precious, it had to be perfect. Now I think, no, I’m going to make loads of records, and this is my best at this point in time.”With her new producer, she wasn’t afraid to make mistakes. She exchanged favourite songs with Powell - “tacky eighties songs that weren’t cool. He was very open to different styles” – and gently got herself back into the swing of performing. Contrary to what country music might have you think, not everyone can write when they’re heartbroken. During the pandemic Talbot put music on hold: she was home-schooling and navigating her relationship with John, both of them at home and, like most musicians, out of work. “Nothing was real, you didn’t know what was going to happen next,” she recalls. “I came out of that and realised how bad it had got – eventually I was standing in my own space again, having a look at what was left, and realising I hadn’t lost everything.”
The new songs were gathered from spring 2021 onwards. Forced to cancel a trip to Powell’s Lafayette studio to record in person, she hunkered down with her engineer Cameron Malcolm in Edinburgh, sending Dirk files each night to reach him when he woke in the morning. She found a new and exciting team of musicians in the UK and the US. Adam Holmes, with whom she recently performed as the duo Arcade, was based nearby in Edinburgh, and she called upon the Scottish violinist and orchestrator Seonaid Aitken, in Glasgow, for the album’s tender string arrangements. Guitarist Mark Knopfler and Keyboard player Guy Fletcher were in London, singer Amelia Powell and drummer Bill Smith were recording in the US. The greatest alchemy, though, was with Dirk Powell himself, who has coaxed from Talbot her most exposed and intimate work, with a combination of self-penned songs and exquisitely chosen covers reflecting the huge changes in her life.
Acclaimed Ivor Novello Award nominated English singer-songwriter Boo Hewerdine’s album “Swimming in Mercury” (Reveal Records April 28th 2017) gives us a personal insight as he takes us on that journey back in time. It’s a trip furnished with a glisten and a glint in his eye as he applies style and shapes to his autobiographical memories. Hewerdine revisits and recreates music in a manner that, put simply, a band starting out just couldn’t afford. In his own words “The new album was recorded in the spirit of the first four track recording I ever did… but instead of a chunky cassette deck we were able to use Chris Pepper’s Cambridge studio. It was an incredibly enjoyable and creative way to work. Often I would write a song in the morning and by the end of the day we would have another track done”.
There’s a compelling sense of adventure in tracks such as “My First Band”, “Satellite Town” and “A Letter to My Younger Self”. As a recording artist, Boo’s first tentative steps came with the band, The Great Divide before the formation of his much-loved eighties group “The Bible” and a career that subsequently bloomed such that he is now in constant demand as a musician, songwriter, producer, teacher and live concert performer.
Wearing his producers hat, Boo is renowned for his ideas and innovation, for new ways of recording and bringing projects to completion. To be successful, to add value, you need to stand out as a minimum but really there is a need to lead, “to be ahead of the pack”. Certainly his 2016 production project “Mobile”, for Devon based artist Peter James Millson, does just that, a complete album recorded directly to a Windows phone then professionally mastered. The result stands out as a modern-day field recording and is to be released on Hewerdine’s own Haven Label in 2017.
Brit Award winning, former Fairground Attraction singer (and Scottish national treasure) Eddi Reader (MBE) is the perhaps the artist Boo Hewerdine is most regularly associated with, as a songwriter, musician and producer. Together they enjoyed international success with the (Hewerdine written) hit single “Patience of Angels” in 1995 and Boo also produced Reader’s “Sings the Songs of Robert Burns” in 2003, an album now viewed as a folk classic.
In 2017 Hewerdine continues to enjoy playing live and writing new material with Reader and will tour Australia and the UK with her this Spring. Songwriter Findlay Napier employed Boo Hewerdine to work on his 2017 recording based on life stories of real Glasgow people and recorded completely live. Boo having collaborated with Findlay on his previous album VIP (Very Interesting Persons) which received rave reviews, including a shortlist for Best Album of the Year in The Telegraph) and the two songwriters also tour together regularly.
Another great songwriter to call upon Boo Hewerdine is Chris Difford of Squeeze. Difford and Hewerdine’s latest project, 2016’s “Fancy Pants” involved co-writing and producing more than thirty songs, initially for a theatre show and accompanying soundtrack. Soundtracks have been a feature of Boo’s songwriting and production canon, since his 1997 work for the films 24 7 and Fever Pitch.
It is expected some of the Fancy Pants songs will find their way onto a new Chris Difford studio album in the future, several of their demos surfaced early in 2017 on the Edel Records released, Chris Difford 5-disc box set “Chris To the Mill”.
State of The Union is the appropriate name given to Boo Hewerdine’s (occasional) duo with American Blues guitarist and songwriter Brooks Williams.
State of the Union create a magical, stripped back and enthralling musical atmosphere, their performances consistently brilliant, equal parts emotive and entertaining.
The original songs Hewerdine and Williams play are infused by a multitude of influences, from Willie Nelson to Johnny Cash, from the wide open Fenlands to the frenetic buzz of the city. Their recordings are made quickly, in most instances first take, live in the studio, but the sound this amazing acoustic duo capture is rich and expertly executed. Brooks Williams got his start in the clubs and bars in Boston USA and is now ranked in the Top 100 Acoustic Guitarists. Over the years Williams has picked alongside Taj Mahal, John Hammond, Paul Jones, Little Feat, Maria Muldaur, Shawn Colvin and Leo Kottke, to name but a few.
State of The Union met when Brooks interviewed Boo for a specialist guitar magazine. Something Boo refers to as “a bit like Muhammad Ali interviewing Eddie The Eagle…. He is a guitar master!”.
Boo invited Brooks to play his annual Christmas concert in Ely. Even though they had never played together before, there was real magic in the air when Brooks sat in with Boo for his closing set. Both of them knew there was something unique happening and worth exploring, a pretty big sound with just two guitars and two voices. Two distinctly different musicians from different parts of the world with two different sets of influences coming together and making music. State of the Union have appeared on BBC1 TV Andrew Marr Show and will be record and Tour their third album in 2017.
Listening to Boo talk, it’s clear he’s also incredibly passionate about his Song Writing Workshops, about empowering others to achieve. One of Boo’s most pleasing moments happened when Tanya Brittain, a singer who had never managed to finish a complete song before signing up, became confident and comfortable of her own abilities. Within two years she had formed a successful band “The Changing Room” with Sam Kelly. Tanya won the FATEA website’s Single of The Year Award in 2016 for her song “Names on The Wall” narrowly beating Hewerdine’s own “Born”, the forerunner to the concept of 2017 album “Swimming in Mercury”.
All through Boo’s career of performing, of writing material for major artists such as Sia, K.D Lang, Kris Drever (Lau), Duke Special, David McAlmont, and Eddi Reader, being produced by Steve Earle or touring with Richard Thompson to name but a few, it is perhaps going right back to his childhood that gives us the best clues as to his motivation.
Speaking in 2014 around the release of his Best Of collection, “My Name in The Brackets” Boo explained “I had a Dansette and a handful of 45s. What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For? I Remember You, Seven Little Girls. Records from that strange era between Rock & Roll and The Beatles. I would study the labels. The title, the singer, the numbers, Columbia, HMV, the stuff about rights written around the edge and most intriguing – the names in the brackets. It turned out that these people had “written” these songs. Songs could be made up. Conjured out of thin air. I decided then, at the age of seven, that’s what I would do. I couldn’t sing or play an instrument but I had an internal jukebox going on the whole time.”
“All I ever wanted was my name in the brackets. And it gave me this life”.
Boo Hewerdine is one of the greatest songwriter performers in the business and a unique talent.
Ian Cripps (March 2017)