Full article Spring/Summer 2013 by Helen Pizzey
Miranda Sykes is probably best known to many as the beautiful bassist who accompanies the “couple of old blokes with guitars” (as Steve Knightley delicately puts it) in the A-List Show Of Hands we know and love today. Ahead of her appearances both with her own duo partner, mandolin-player Rex Preston, as well as SOH at the Purbeck Folk Festival later on this year, we caught up with her for a bit of a chat:
Firstly, the question on everyone’s lips: Miranda, you’ve been performing on a regular basis with Phil Beer and Steve Knightley as a seeming permanent fixture and a much-valued enhancement and complement to “the band”, Show Of Hands, for seven years now – notwithstanding pursuing alongside that your own individual careers; do you guys therefore think of yourselves as a trio rather than a duo?
Obviously when we tour and play together we see ourselves as a trio. You can’t ignore, though, that Steve and Phil have worked hard together since 1991 and have built this wonderful cottage industry with Vaughan and Gwen Pearce. I admire them immensely. It really doesn’t matter to me (that Show Of Hands often seems perceived or referred to as a duo and still performs as such at times), and I don’t think it really matters to most of the audience either.
Please tell us something about how you and Rex got together and where you’re based.
Rex and I first met in December 2009 when I guested with Rex’s band, The Scoville Units (UK Celtic / Bluegrass). A few nights later we played some songs together and he suggested we should try and get some bookings. Our first gig was in Mum’s front room and I also pulled a few other dates together. After a sell-out gig in Topsham nine months later and numerous requests for a duo album, we started considering tracks. In the summer of 2011 we booked a week in the studio and in February 2012 released our first album. Now, a year later, we’re about to release our second album, Sing A Full Song. We’re based in Bath.
What is it about your particular fusion of instruments and musicality that works for you?
With the combination of mandolin and double bass we find that we have space to breathe and express ourselves musically as we don’t get in each other’s way! It just works.
What do you mostly like to play and how do you set about your own musical composition?
I think we would both agree that we are most at home on our instruments – double bass and mandolin. But we have been working differently more recently as I have been on the road with Show Of Hands and Rex has been left without a bass player! He has found writing in a sequencer beneficial and has recently given me manuscript. This is just great as it provides me with a starting point in the music and we can then flesh-out the parts together.
In what ways would you both like to see your music grow and expand?
We would both love to be able to take the music further by the addition of a guitarist and touring as a trio. It has to be the right person though. In our dreams it would be our great friend Grant Gordy (who features on half of our new album) but that’s sadly not realistic as he lives in New York.
What’s been your most exciting news or event to date?
The most exciting event has to be the release of our new album, Sing A Full Song, and the wonderful tour we have coming up, opening for Show Of Hands. And we both can’t wait for the upcoming Sore Fingers Week, a Bluegrass and old-time music camp offering world-class tuition for all the instruments played in Bluegrass. It’s a great place where we enjoy hanging out and playing music. It’ll mark the end of a year-long project for us, writing and recording the album, and then with the start of the spring tour a week after camp.
You are touring with and supporting Show Of Hands on numerous up-coming dates; how do you balance work WITH Show Of Hands with your own work and schedules?
The great thing about SOH is that they work far enough in advance for tours to be planned. Steve, Phil and I also have the pleasure of the same agency representation (Firebrand Music) for gigs on our own, so diary management is sorted.
What aspects of your music and work as a duo most please you and differ from the sort of thing done with Show Of Hands?
I love the variation and nothing pleases me most – I love it all! Every day and every gig is different. I get an immense gush of pleasure when I go back to the wonderful, well-oiled touring party of Show Of Hands. Equally, the connection and music that Rex and I make together never fails to move me. I’m so lucky.
What next for Miranda Sykes and Rex Preston?
We release our second album, Sing A Full Song, on 15th April. This time Rex is in the production seat, showing his skill not only as a performer but as a producer and mix engineer as well; he really comes to the fore on the arrangement and presentation of each track. On it there’s a guest musician in the form of virtuoso American guitarist, Grant Gordy (David Grisman Quintet). His exquisite blend of flat-picking virtuosity, jazz and classical exploration couldn’t be a more perfect addition, transforming the duo into a trio for half the album.