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A Different Thread - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 13 / 10 / 2018

A Different Thread - Interview


John Clarkson speaks to Robert Jackson and Alicia Best from self-described 'British Americana' duo A Different Thread about their debut album 'On a Whim'.

A Different Thread is very much a transcontinental collaboration. Established in Galway in Ireland in 2016, it is a two-piece group consisting of Staffordshire-based musician Robert Jackson (vocals, acoustic guitar and harmonica) and North Carollna native Alicia Best (vocals, fiddle). The self-described “British Americana” duo has toured regularly across the UK, Ireland and the USA, and released its debut album ‘On a Whim’ on CD and vinyl in September, which follows on from two download only EPs, last year’s ‘Home from Home’ and ‘High Time’. ‘On a Whim’ pushes both members’ songwriting to the fore, and is an eclectic yet seamless hybrid of folk, country, blues and classic-influenced rock. It opens with the rambling brass and harmonica-laden title track in which Jackson, exhausted by the monotony of his routine, decides to run out on his roots (“Should I live this life day by day/Or maybe I should risk it on a whim?” Sublime acoustic ballad ‘Carolina Song’ finds Best equally crushed by the dullness of her home state and the town she grew up in's refusal to move on from its dubious past (“I hear the highway calling me/I know that I am already gone”). Other highlights include Best’s starkly melancholic ‘Potter’s Field’, which tells of a pauper’s death and burial, and, fronted this time by Jackson, a breezy cover of the traditional folk number, ‘The Prickly Bush’, which is concluded in blasts of rippling harmonica. The eerie ‘Charlotte’ is a tale with a dark twist and about a sinister encounter on the road, while the elegiac final track ‘ Not Good with Words’ is a heartbreaking country break-up anthem. Pennyblackmusic spoke to Robert Jackson and Alicia Best in the midst of a month-long North Carolina tour about 'On a Whim'. PB: You describe yourself as being British-Americana. Robert, you’re from Lichfield in Staffordshire and Alicia, you’re from the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, and you met while both busking in Ireland where you have toured and also spent a lot of time. Where do you see the band’s ultimate roots as being? Alicia Best: It's hard to say that we are rooted in any one spot considering the music we are most influenced by has crossed oceans and changed form as result of its journey. Robert Jackson: I guess you could say our original songs are rooted in the exchange between nations, the connections, the traditions and the stories that have passed down through generations from person to person. AB: It’s not just the dialogue between the UK, Ireland and the USA, but also the roots that trace back to Africa through the blues and the banjo. All of this, and more, is influencing Americana as we know it today. PB: On the subject of roots, a lot of the songs on ‘On a Whim’ seem to be about escaping them and finding something, however temporarily, beyond where you have come from. The title track and ‘Carolina Song’ are certainly about that, and ‘Charlotte’ and ‘Not Good with Words’ also touch upon it. Do you see that as being the album’s main theme? RJ: When you put it like that, yeah, I guess you could say the theme is escaping, or running away but it has a duality of returning to those roots and seeing the old familiar with a fresh, new perspective. AB: There is just as much homecoming as there is departing, and then again we are finding our “home” on the road! PB: When you first met two years ago in Galway, it seems that there was an almost instant musical chemistry and telepathy between you. Was it as fast as that? RJ: Yes, it really was. It was the spark that we wanted to build on. It helped that we were influenced by a lot of the same artists and we wanted to make the same styles of music. AB: Robert and I often say we are making the music we don’t quite hear anyone else making. We are making the music we most want to hear. PB: What are both your musical backgrounds? Had you both been in other groups beforehand? AB: I was a back-up singer in a mix of projects; Americana, reggae, Latin fusion, oh and I was the drummer in a punk band as a teen. Before meeting Robert I was travelling alone and working on a solo project, just singing with my ukulele. Delving deeper into music and collaboration with A Different Thread has been, by far, the most rewarding. RJ: I was eleven years old when I started singing in my first band. We played mainly original songs. For a couple of years we would meet up twice a week and just improvise. I had previously taken a year of piano lessons but quit when my teacher insisted I learn theory and this was the most refreshing change I could have asked for. The most recent band I was in was also mostly playing my original songs. (in fact A Different Thread has worked up a couple of those same songs for this album). I reached a point where I realised that I wanted to go full time with my music and all of my band mates had other commitments. So I quit my job and went busking solo around Europe and the US, pretty much playing every day. That's when I met Alicia. PB: A Different Thread originally consisted of Robert and classical cellist Isaac Collier. Alicia, you were the backing vocalist on the first ‘High Time’ EP. At what point and how quickly after meeting Robert did you become a full member of the band? AB: It was just over a year after meeting Robert when I did my "trial period" with him and Isaac. It's hard to say exactly when that shifted to "full member" officially, especially since I was in the Dtates for months at a time collaborating from a distance. I'd say when Isaac suddenly couldn't do this competition gig at Shrewsbury Folk Festival that we'd entered in 2017, and Robert and I were forced to enter as a duo, it was really nerve wracking, but we won! I would say that was when I knew for sure I was 100% a full bonafide member. PB: Alicia , you are still based in North Carolina much of the time and Robert, you still live in Staffordshire. How does the songwriting between the two of you work? Do you despite the classical nature of much of your music depend a lot on email? AB: When I met Robert I had a song that was almost finished, it just needed to be edited down, sweetened up, and I sent a really rough video of me playing it, along with the lyrics, to Robert. He mixed it up, played it completely differently and sent me a video back. I can't say that I exactly used his version, but it freed up my song to change in the ways it needed to. That was maybe a week after meeting him, so we learned early on the power of the internets. RJ: It's best to work in real time though, face to face. So much of music is feeling it. Song writing can be a very personal and emotional expression, and sharing that with someone takes a lot of trust. PB: The album consists of just one cover, ‘The Prickly Bush’, which is a hangman’s tale. Some of your fans have thought ‘Potter’s Field’, which tells of a pauper’s burial, was as well. It could have been written at any point during the last 500 years but it is an original number. What are you looking for when you do a cover, and was that the aim with ‘Potter’s Field’, to write something that might be interpreted that way? RJ: When I do covers I'm looking for something that moves me, or something genre defying in itself. Some songs, even from ages past, resonate with me, as if the author knew my experiences. I like to work it up a cover and make it my own. That's what I did with 'The Prickly Bush'. AB: I was first introduced to what a Potter's Field is at a museum as a kid. I was struck by the tragedy of it: to be buried without a name. I thought of the families who would know whether to mourn or not. I didn't set out to make an "old song" as such, and it is surprisingly relevant today. Potter's Fields/unmarked mass graves continue to be uncovered today, some of which aren't that old. From the revolution in Spain to the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland, from Falfurrias Texas where new mass graves of immigrants have been uncovered to the dunes in the Netherlands where teams are working to identify the bones of sailors washed ashore generations ago. After releasing the music video last week a friend of mine emailed to say that the song had helped her to mourn a woman she had known as a child; the woman had an abusive partner and she had gone missing, but her body had never been found. I know more about Potter's Fields now than ever, and I never would have been able to predict how much impact a song can have. PB: ‘On a Whim’ was recorded quickly in North Carolina in a period of ten days. Why did you settle on recording it there and what do you think Jeff Crawford, who co-produced it with you, brought to the recording? AB: I had worked with Jeff before, He recorded a project I used to work with called Bevel Summers, and I was eager to work with him again. I told him after we wrapped up the project that I thought he had brought out the best in us, not just musically, but the working together, helping us through the "sticky wickets" (as Jeff says). There is always a sticky wicket! RJ: As well as playing bass and keys on the record, Jeff was endlessly optimistic throughout the ten days and he helped us in a multitude of ways. Alicia and I wanted to keep creative control over the whole recording process and Jeff gave us the space to do that, but he wasn’t afraid to say, “I think you can do that better” or “time-out!” He has a very good ear for harmony and kept us all in check when things got stressful. PB: It features various North Carolina session players. Did you have to rely a lot on improvisation as a result or did you know exactly what you wanted before you went into the studio? RJ: There was a fair bit of improvisation on this record, but we did get to practice with most of the session players. AB: We got to perform with most of the folks live as well. It was really great. RJ: There’s a fine line between practicing too much and not enough and I think we managed to capture some of that ‘sweet spot’ during those ten days. PB: You both take turns at lead vocals. When it comes to deciding who will take main vocals, is it a case of the person who has written the lyrics taking the lead vocal or does it work in a different way? AB: So far it's been the writer, or at least the person who conceptualized the song, who takes the lead. But I'd like to write a song for Robert to sing, and I'd definitely sing a song Robert write for me! PB: The cover of ‘On a Whim’ is striking. It shows a shot of you both sitting on a bed but imposed twice. Why did you decide to use that particular photograph? AB: We got two very different photographers together; Yael Zivan and Chloe Noblit. Yael is like a magic idea machine and Chloe has a really good eye for capturing the moment. Yael brought sequins and mirrors and lace and was buzzing all over with suggestions and poses. RJ: Thanks to Yael's ideas Chloe ended up using a small mirror to bounce off of the mirror on the armoire in the bedroom and she captured the image we used. It looks superimposed, or photoshopped, but it's just mirrors. PB: You are currently touring in North Carolina. What are your plans for the future and once the tour finishes? RJ: We’re making our way down to Guatemala in Central America where we plan on spending the winter. We are entirely self managed and we are hoping to spend some time writing new material and taking some down time to further promote the album. Then we will be heading back to Ireland and the UK in the spring for another tour. AB: We'll be gigging in Guatemala as well. There are some really music rich places in Guatemala, I've lived there before and am looking forward to seeing some old familiar faces. PB: Thank you.

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A Different Thread - Interview

A Different Thread - Interview

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