Post-gig at this year’s Purbeck Folk Festival, this captivating duo tells of busking, bright lights and barns…
Phillip Henry is fast-gaining a reputation as one of the UK’s finest slide guitarists as well as becoming a festival legend for his captivating beatbox harmonica playing. Hannah Martin is a singer-songwriter whose stirring melodies and story-based lyrics are powerfully delivered through the wonderful richness and depth to her voice and accomplished, vibrant energy on fiddle and banjo.
They first worked together as part of The Roots Union in 2008, playing countless gigs and festivals and gaining a loyal fan-base along the way. After that particular trio came to an end, little did they know what lay ahead when Show of Hands’ Steve Knightley heard them busking during Sidmouth Folk Week in September 2010; he describes Phillip as being “one of the most extraordinary musicians around” and, seeing the pair’s potential, immediately invited them to fill some support slots for his next tour, culminating with an appearance as part of the Show Of Hands headline act at the following Sidmouth Folk Week in 2011. And that was just the start.
Phillip and Hannah are based around Exeter. Tavistock-born Seth Lakeman is also a fan and describes their work as “authentic, haunting roots music from a first class duo”. So are they now part of a perceived Devon ‘stable’? “Show of Hands are great at supporting people and they’ve done incredible things for us”, comments Hannah. “They’re good at getting people involved in collaborative projects which, I guess, is interesting for them, too, but fantastic for us. We did the Shrewsbury Festival gig last night which was kind of a reprise of the Royal Albert Hall show we did with them at Easter. We were guests and joined them on a couple of songs but they also had a string section, the Urban Soul Orchestra, playing with them as well, so that added a whole other element to their sound.” Phillip adds, “A friend of Steve Knightley, Matt Clifford, who’s played with them over the years (as well as with the Rolling Stones), acted as the musical director for the RAH show and wanted to put on something quite special for the 20-yr Anniversary. He found the string section and wrote the string parts to some of the favourite Show Of Hands songs and pulled all that together.”
There is evidently a powerful musical connection that underpins Henry & Martin’s sound and performance. Their vocal harmonies and instrumental phases have a dovetailed, synergistic quality that’s been described as “textured and hypnotic”. So how do the two of them work together? “Hannah’s the lyricist in this duo and I act as producer, really”, says Phillip. “Often I turn up with a song and say what do you think of this, and Phil will hugely bring it together”, continues Hannah. “I’ve a loose idea, some lyrics and maybe a bit of a tune and then we usually sit down and spend quite a long time maybe trying a few different instruments, some melodies or chords; Phil’s the master arranger.”
Phil describes his spell in India in 2008 as “a classical training of a sort, but it’s training in Indian classical music rather than Western. I had an interest in Indian classical music and obviously an interest in slide guitar techniques and Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya is the best player in the world by far, a true virtuoso, who accepts Western students at certain times of the year. It was an intense three months of 15 hours a day and was amazing.” And the beatbox harmonica? “It’s essentially a circular breathing technique that you get into, similar to playing the didgeridoo. It looks like you’re breathing in and out really fast but what’s actually going on is that you’re breathing very slowly in and then very slowly out so you regulate your breath. I teach workshops that break it down a bit more for people and aim to play and teach at the National Harmonica League Festival later on in October.”
Phillip and Hannah have already had an amazing year with hardly any time for teaching. Hannah explains, “Things have certainly gathered momentum, but we’ve put years into it and have actually been working together for almost three years since being in The Roots Union. Phil was the instrumental music arranger for that, too, and there was a songwriter leading it and I was fiddle, mainly. It all grew from there and that’s where the improvising-thing comes from.” “There was a slightly more mainstream sound to that band… less rootsy, less folky”, Phil elaborates. “But we have a bit more of an interest in traditional music than that band was putting out, so we’re happier as the duo.”
Hannah goes on to say, “The Albert Hall gig was, of course, a highlight but we’ve also had a few quite amazing experiences, really, starting with a full tour of 26 days with Steve Knightley in February; that kind of kicked the year off. Then we got shortlisted for an English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) programme called Spotlight England, showcasing some up-and-coming-type things, so that was fantastic. We’re doing over 30 festivals this summer and have our autumn Arts Council and Bristol Music Trust-sponsored tour coming up, so that’s another big thing for us and really very exciting.”
The duo’s debut album, Singing the Bones (reviewed below), has been warmly received by the likes of fRoots magazine and BBC Radio Two’s Mike Harding. But plans for the release of a new CD, Mynd (pronounced mee-nd), are also well advanced and is hoped to be available next spring. Hannah gives the background: “Mynd is the old English word for memory, act of memorial and for consciousness; it means lots of things along those lines. The folklore of England is definitely inspired by a sense of place and we like to work with stories that are local or mean something to us for a reason. That tends to be where I come from with song-writing anyway. And I was interested in the idea of Englishness and what that really means – especially musically – because we draw on so many influences and often get put down as an Americana act or as Phil’s Indian stuff. But actually we have that grounding in English folk music as well, so it seemed the right word. The subject matter of a lot of the songs is also to do with remembering people or landscapes and memory. It’s an interesting title, sparking lots of different ideas. We thought it was going to be released earlier, but 30 festivals got in the way!”
And, from the big arenas of the Royal Albert Hall or Glastonbury to the smaller barns of Purbeck, they seem to thoroughly enjoy them. “It’s great fun, yeah”, says Hannah. “They’re all very different. We love performing at all venues but the small ones are special because they’re really intimate and you can see your audience and talk to them.” “It was really nice in there, you know, with all the kids dancing around”, muses Phil. “But then it’s also nice to play to a seated marquee because you have the absolute attention of everyone and there’s no drift; people really listen and they’re not going to start talking. The flipside of that is the energy doesn’t rise in the same way, but we want to do them all.”
Each Henry & Martin song is seemingly a beautifully layered journey in both time and space; a breathing of new life into the lingering fabric of lore through well-placed words and well-timed instrumental passages and pause. After the previous night’s high-energy, stellar performances by KT Tunstall and the Moulettes, Phillip and Hannah’s Sunday early-evening set was refreshing – restoring heart and mind with one song and rekindling toe-tapping energy with the next. “It’s lovely you can have both at this festival – that’s the special thing, because I think people do want that”, Hannah concludes.
Yes, I’m sure we do; and more of both. Phillip and Hannah are due to play The Lighthouse in Poole on Friday, 2nd November as part of their Routes South West tour. They’re down to appear in The Studio – which might just be a bit of a tight squeeze if their reputation continues to build and go before them as it’s presently doing. Make sure you don’t miss the chance to see them again, up close and personal, in this intimate-sounding setting which may all-too-soon become too small for their appreciative, growing audiences to fit into.
Find out more at www.philliphenryandhannahmartin.co.uk