Josienne Walker and Ben Clarke have been on the rise in UK folk as of recent years, with new album ‘Overnight’ seeing them expand their horizons. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with Clarke and finds out more.
It’s a busy time for the duo of Josienne Walker and Ben Clarke, a somewhat iconoclastic double-act whose current album ‘Overnight’ has been ruffling the feathers of more than a few folk purists, loaded as it is with strings and songwriting ingenue, rather than play it safe. Their own diverse musical backgrounds provide a window into this mentality, and as Walker gathers her thoughts from gigging the night before while speaking to your writer over the phone, she provides some insight. “I was a singer-songwriter, playing bad guitar, for myself. Ben was in an indie band, not a particularly great one, and a friend of mine, a sound engineer, heard their tracks back and heard him play an acoustic guitar. He said “what are you doing in this band, why don’t you have an acoustic project?”. Ben said “oh, I don’t know any singers, I don’t know anyone”. I was still looking for a guitarist to take the pressure off my sausage fingers, and he put us in touch. I guess it’s that we have a lot of musical crossover for folk stuff, both done a bit of classical playing. The bits where we meet and the bits where we differ make a quite interesting whole.”
‘Overnight’ has seen the duo tour intensively since release to promote it. The long-player has been out for a few months now, ample time for Walker to reflect on the creative process behind their first major studio production. “Ben’s an engineer and producer as well as a guitarist, so we’ve always recorded at his home studio. He had one in his bedroom initially and then upgraded to the dining room. But it’s a very small space, and we had to layer everything one on top of the other, which led us to become massive control freaks. We would work on each track for months. One string part, then another string part, then another. This time we decided to record residentially, and pretty much live, at Rockville Studio in Wales, and that was a completely different way of doing it. It forced us not to be so controlling, and to let the tracks come out and exist. It’s a completely different sound, and it’s what I like.”
Now that Walker has had some time to live with the record, was the reward of this album worth the risk of ceding control over the minutiae of studio? “It was hard to do, but absolutely worthwhile to let go a bit, so we got really good musicians in and let them play what they felt worked for the track. We had a veto on anything we didn’t like, but we allowed them into the creative process and it’s brought about some really nice results. It’s something we’re gonna take onboard for what we do next, something that we hadn’t had the luxury of before. It’s quite a big learning curve for us, in a way.”
The album has been released via Rough Trade, the stalwarts of UK independent music, still fighting the good fight to give worthwhile, contemporary music a home via its profoundly influential label and busy retail outlets & distribution network. What have they been like to work with? “They’re great. We’d listened to albums they’d been putting out for years and I guess if we had a top ten labels we would release through one day, they’d be right at the top of it, but we never thought that that would be the reality, so it’s very exciting to work with the people that put out The Smiths. Geoff is an interesting guy, and they’re all about the music, that’s their ethos. They don’t tell us what to do, creatively. They just facilitate us. ‘Cause previously, we’d been in a very specific, folk-orientated area, and they don’t quite observe these boundaries of genre, which gives us a wide space to try anything we feel like trying.”
These risks are paying off, and are grabbing the attention of some very influential new fans: Walker relates the story of Robert from Wolverhampton approaching the duo at a concert last year: “It was really strange, ’cause we were at a tribute gig, and he came up to us and went “hi, I’m Robert”, and we were all kind of giggling, like “we know who you are, Mr. Plant!”. Really strange to, one, be in the same room, and two, for him to be talking directly to us and telling us he liked us. Not sure we provided a very good conversation, either.”
The band play Cyprus Avenue on the 7th as part of their first touring swing of dates in the country, after a few spot shows in recent years. Walker is looking forward to seeing the place properly. “We’ve been to Ireland a couple of times, first time was in Drogheda, that was a lovely gig and we did a little session in a pub there afterwards, then we went to Waterford and Dublin last year. It’s really exciting to do a full Irish leg of the tour. It’s the first time we’ll have done a series of dates in Ireland, and we’re excited about it.”
Josienne and Ben play Cyprus Avenue on May 7th. Tickets from the Old Oak and cyprusavenue.ie.